Posts Tagged ‘Martin Prado

22
Feb
12

Hope springs eternal: The Braves are back to right wrongs

Pitchers and catchers are in camp and the Braves’ spring workouts have commenced.

This year in particular, players were itching to get to camp to erase the dubious end to their now infamous and tragic 2011 meltdown. What’s encouraging to note is that a majority of position players have arrived early to camp and have begun their workouts, poised and more determined than ever to start fresh in 2012.

Unlike the Boston Red Sox, who also suffered a monumental collapse to their season in 2011, the Braves chose to not play the blame game — for that, they should be applauded.

Whether you agree with General Manager Frank Wren’s decision to keep his roster almost entirely intact, you have to respect that a knee-jerk reaction did not take place in Atlanta.

Sure, the Braves embarrassed themselves to a lowly 8-18 record after September 1 and squandered a seemingly insurmountable 10 1/2 game lead in the NL Wild Card to the eventual World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.

What’s unfair to the Braves is that they are being judged and evaluated solely on how they finished their season in shame. While it’s without question, inexcusable — they’ve been punished enough.

Let’s not forget that this same team that Frank Wren is returning in 2012 had the fourth-best record in the majors through the first week in September.

The Braves suffered the loss of two of their best starting pitchers Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson for most of the second half. Jason Heyward’s sophomore season was a colossal disappointment and Dan Uggla didn’t find his stroke until after the All-Star break.

They watched two of their perennially clutch performers, Brian McCann and Martin Prado, rush back from injuries in the late summer months but never quite hit their stride down the stretch.

Most alarming of all, the Braves’ greatest strength — O’Ventbrel — the triple threat of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Rookie of the Year closer Craig Kimbrel at the back end of the bullpen, faltered mightily down the stretch. The threesome posted a remarkable 60-3 record when leading after 7 innings from April-August before going 7-5 in September. They also saw their ERA rise from a collective 3.34 to an inflated 4.17 in the season’s final month, according to Jayson Stark of ESPN.com.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez received a lot of criticism for the overuse of his bullpen after the Braves narrowly missed the playoffs on baseball’s final day. Jonny “Everyday” Venters earned his nickname, being called upon a Major League-high 85 times in 2011. Kimbrel’s 79 appearances were more than any other closer in baseball.

While the second-guessing is surely warranted, the Braves did partake in 55 one-run games, which was tied with the San Francisco Giants for most by any National League team with a winning record, Stark reported. They also played in 26 extra-inning games, which took an even greater toll on their relief corps.

It’s almost incredulous to reflect upon the Braves’ final month of the season — and how everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

This team didn’t have the character issues or the dissention in the locker room that the Red Sox had. In fact, it was the exact opposite. The Braves possess one of the most harmonious clubhouses in baseball. They are a tight-knit group that never pointed fingers and placed blame on each other. They took their lumps as one collective group and exuded tremendous class and dignity in defeat.

I don’t doubt Frank Wren wanted to improve his club, if the right deal came along. But I also think he was right not to panic because he has given his troops an invaluable gift — confidence.

It’s early but players have seemingly come into camp with a positive outlook and a renewed sense of hope and optimism. They also have something to prove to themselves and the rest of the league — that last year was an aberration and that they’ve learned from it.

Jason Heyward is reportedly in fantastic shape, having shed over 20 pounds this winter. He’s worked tirelessly with new hitting coach Greg Walker this offseason in an effort to revamp his swing. The early results have been lauded by his teammates, who claim Heyward has begun to regain his old form and power.

Jair Jurrjens was fitted for orthotics after a troublesome toe contributed to his knee discomfort. Now Jurrjens claims to feel better physically than he has in months and doesn’t appear to have any limitations this spring.

Tim Hudson underwent back surgery this offseason and his recovery is going smoothly. Hudson won’t be rushed back to the rotation and his projected timetable for return is May. The Braves will turn to one of their many talented young arms to pick up the slack in Hudson’s absence.

Tommy Hanson suffered a minor concussion after blowing his tires on the way to the Braves’ Spring Training facility. He shouldn’t fall behind the other pitchers, even taking a few days offs, since he began his throwing program early this offseason.

Hanson altered his delivery in an effort to take pressure off his balky shoulder and back and also to limit the number of stolen bases against him in 2012. Hanson allowed a major-league leading 30 steals in 22 starts before being shut down for the season.

The Braves attribute a lot of last season’s late struggles to an injury-depleted rotation, an overworked bullpen and atypical performances from their biggest sluggers. If their arms stay healthy, their bullpen rested and they see a resurgence from some players who had poor years, they’ll be able to contend with the rest of the very competitive National League East.

There are a lot of questions and ‘what if’s’ surrounding the Atlanta Braves this season, but there is no shortage of talent and potential.  They may be receiving criticism for not being proactive, but sometimes the answers really do lie within one’s own roster.

It’ll become apparent quite early if Wren’s decision to give this group another go together was best in the long-run. I believe the Braves deserve the chance to right their wrongs in 2012, and hopefully write a storybook ending in the process.

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02
Dec
11

Braves Winter Meetings Preview

Will Pastornicky be the Braves' starting shortstop in 2012?

When Braves’ General Manager Frank Wren arrives in Dallas on Monday for the start of Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings, the question on many excitable and anxious fans minds is if Christmas will indeed come early.

Will Wren double as Santa Claus this year and bring home a bounty of talent as well as a new look squad to Atlanta?

Or, will he leave empty-handed?

The Braves are one of the more talked about clubs heading into the Winter Meetings this year with Martin Prado and Jair Jurrjens’ names dangling like prized bait.

Both players could be had if the price is right.

With Prado set to make in the neighborhood of $4.5 million in 2012 and Jurrjens in the ballpark of $5.5 million, the Braves could decide to use their allotment of salary to boost other weak areas of their club.

Wren has said repeatedly that he is not shopping either Prado or Jurrjens but that he will listen to any and all offers. It has been widely speculated that a power hitting outfielder and shortstop would whet Wren’s palette.

The Braves are not in the financial position to sign a big name free agent, so if they are going to improve their club they are going to have to do so via the trade market.

Hence why the price for Prado and JJ has been deemed so high.

Prado, who is coming off a career worse year, has intrigued multiple clubs early this offseason who believe his second half decline was an aberration. An early rumor that’s still been circulating entering the meetings involves the Colorado Rockies and outfielder Seth Smith.

While Smith mashes right-handed pitching, he is only considered to be a platoon left fielder for the Braves, if acquired. It appears that the key to any deal with the Rockies would have to include a near ready center-field prospect. The Braves are already shopping for an insurance policy for Michael Bourn, in the event that he departs via free agency next offseason.

The Braves are also set to bid farewell to their defensive wizard shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Gonzo has wielded interest from multiple teams already this offseason including the Giants, Cardinals and Brewers. It is believed he is seeking a two-year deal, at the very least. The Braves have made it known they are not looking to sign a veteran shortstop to a contract that exceeds the 2012 season.

And it is with good reason.

The Braves have a very talented young shortstop Tyler Pastornicky in their pipeline and he appears close to being Major League ready. While the Braves would ideally like to sign a veteran shortstop to a one-year deal to help bridge the gap to 2013 or have the 22-year-old split time at the position next season, they won’t hesitate to give the youngster the starting reigns if a better fit isn’t found before Opening Day.

Pastornicky doesn’t have any Major League experience under his belt but he hit for a .314 average with a .359 on-base percentage in 2011 for both AA Mississippi and AAA Gwinnett, quelling any of management’s lingering concerns about his ability to perform at the Big League level next season.

The Braves are sure to pop up in numerous other rumors, whether true or fictional, over the course of the next week. But, will they wheel and deal?

C’mon, Frank. No one likes a Grinch.

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18
Nov
11

Braves’ offseason full of questions… what’s next?

Will Prado return to the Braves in 2012?

The Braves franchise is known as an illustrious one — rich with accolades, adornment and achievement.

Surely, adding a colossal, historic collapse to their resume of excellence wasn’t part of their master plan. Before the 2011 season, a team who had an eight-game lead for a postseason berth in early September has never missed the playoffs. Luckily for Atlanta, Boston suffered the same unfortunate fate this year and shared a good portion of the criticism and ridicule by fans and media alike.

Needless to say, the Braves’ failure to secure a playoff spot left a black mark on their legacy and a sour, bitter taste in the mouths of management, players, coaches and fans.

So, what’s next for Atlanta?

How does this team respond after such a traumatic, abrupt end to their 2011 season?

They fire their hitting coach, of course.

But all joking aside, that was 100% the right move — the only move — for the Braves to make whether the team made the playoffs or not.

Larry Parrish was not the right voice for these Braves hitters. While widely respected around the league for being a great baseball man, Parrish and his players suffered from a disconnect and lack of communication that couldn’t be bridged.

The popular sentiment around the league was that the Braves would turn to Triple-A Gwinnett hitting coach Jamie Dismuke to take over the reigns next season.

The majority of Braves sluggers, including Chipper Jones, endorsed Dismuke but the organization went an unconventional route.

Frank Wren hired not one but two men to tackle the job that Parrish had failed to master.

Wren tapped former White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker, as well as a former Colorado Rockies infield coordinator Scott Fletcher, in a newly created hybrid role of assistant hitting coach. The Braves believe this tandem will compliment each other well in an effort to improve the overall hitting philosophy within the team.

Walker comes highly recommend by slugger Paul Konerko for helping him to evolve into the hitter he is today.

Fletcher, meanwhile, will provide another set of eyes for Walker and is expected to work closely with Jason Heyward. While searching for their new hitting coach, the Braves emphasized the importance of finding a voice that could reach the struggling Heyward.

The “J-Hey Kid” is coming off a brutal sophomore slump of a season, but has surprising ties to his new assistant hitting coach. Fletcher has watched Heyward play since he was 12 years old — his son Brian, now in the Royals system, played youth ball with the Braves’ right fielder.

If Walker and Fletcher can serve as mentors to Heyward and help the fallen young star rediscover his stroke, the Braves’ offense will be substantially better in 2012.

Despite the team’s decision to fire Larry Parrish, the powers-that-be have made it clear that they are not panicking. There will be no fire sale this offseason. Management firmly believes they have the key pieces in place already to compete for a playoff spot next year.

It is important to remember that a big part of Atlanta’s struggles came down the stretch when the team’s exceptional pitching staff became unhinged. Officials are confident that Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens will return healthy next season.

The questions surrounding Jurrjens are not related to his health, however, but rather whether he will return to the Braves or not?

Speculation around the league and media fodder suggest that Jurrjens could be traded this offseason in an effort to improve Atlanta’s shoddy offense — they are seeking a power-hitting outfielder in any deal.

But, it would surely take an enticing package for the Braves to pull the trigger on a deal for Jurrjens because despite his injury-laden past, the right-hander is still young at age 25 and two years away from free agency. He would be quite valuable to many pitching hungry clubs.

While I’m sure the Braves would love to keep an arm like Jurrjens’ in the fold for the long-term, the reality of that is unlikely. Super agent Scott Boras, whose relationship with the Braves is acrimonious, represents Jurrjens and he will demand a hefty salary that the Braves will not pay.

And why should they?

Atlanta has never had a shortage of arms and this upcoming year is no different. The Braves tout a new crop of young, prized pitchers who could easily fill Jurrjens’ shoes, if the club does deem him expendable.

Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, Randall Delgado and Mike Minor have all gained experience at the Big League level due to the team’s rash of injuries last season — the lone upside during the Braves’ September slide. Kris Medlen also returned from Tommy John surgery late in the year and was effective in some high pressure situations.

The Braves felt so confident those guys will figure into the mix in 2012 that they dealt 38-year-old veteran hurler Derek Lowe to the Cleveland Indians.

This move was also a pure salary dump for Atlanta, who many believed would be stuck with Lowe’s entire contract in 2012. The Tribe absorbed $5 million of Lowe’s exorbitant $15 million dollar contract, giving the Braves some financial relief to sign a shortstop and pursue an outfielder.

For the second year in a row, Frank Wren entered the trade market early by dealing Derek Lowe. Last year, he acquired second baseman Dan Uggla from the Florida Marlins before the hot stove was even boiling.

The question that remains now is will the Braves stay relatively quiet for the duration of the offseason, like they did after trading for Uggla last year. Or, will they make a splash and deal Jurrjens and/or infielder turned left fielder Martin Prado?

Prado is the epitome of a super utility star. When the Braves gave him a chance to play everyday at second base in 2010, he thrived. But last season when the team moved him to left field to accommodate the Uggla trade, Prado and his production suffered.

At season’s end, a lot was made of Prado’s staph infection affecting his stroke and also rigorous Spring Training and early season pre-game workouts that might have burnt him out before the stretch run.

Will he get a chance to rebound in Atlanta or will it be elsewhere?

I think there’s a fairly good chance that Prado will get moved — a far greater likelihood than the team dealing Jurrjens, in my opinion.

However, I wouldn’t put too much stock into the Prado-for-Delmon Young rumors. The Braves don’t appear interested in Detroit’s Young and I don’t see Wren pulling the trigger on that deal straight-up. The Colorado Rockies are the newest team to express interest in Prado, but surely won’t be the last.

Still, Wren has expressed a willingness to listen to all offers this offseason — and who can blame him.

After last season’s heartbreaking conclusion, the Braves’ GM is exploring any and all ways he can ensure his team is never on the wrong side of history again.

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17
Nov
11

Braves face uncertain future after 2011 collapse

They say acceptance is the final stage of the grieving process. After one’s been in denial, gotten angry, spiraled into the depths of depression comes the “epiphany” — the moment when one must accept a harrowing loss so the healing process can begin.

For the most loyal of fans, the 2011 Atlanta Braves’ late season collapse very much mirrors the loss of a relationship that one holds dear. Many diehard Bravos’ supporters find themselves struggling to cope with what was such a bitter, excruciating, downright cruel end to what appeared to be such a promising season.

For the majority of the year, the Braves held one of the four best records in all of baseball. At the All-Star break, their sparkling starting rotation was led by All-Star Jair Jurrjens and All-Star snub Tommy Hanson — who helped lessen the load on an offense that struggled mightily all season and never quite found its stride.

Still, the infamous baseball adage claims that good pitching always beats good hitting. And, Atlanta’s hurlers were second to none.

The 2011 Braves started strong with Jurrjens and Hanson at the helm of a rotation that was also comprised of the ever consistent Tim Hudson, veteran Derek Lowe and one of the team’s biggest surprises — rookie Brandon Beachy. They also rolled out one of the most feared and vaunted bullpens in all of baseball. Atlanta’s relief corps were led by a three-headed monster, which was affectionately coined, “O’Ventbrel”. The talented trio of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny “Everyday” Venters and rookie baby-faced closer Craig Kimbrel set the Braves apart from the rest of the league and seemed destined to shine their brightest in October.

But, destiny and fate can often offer up cold, hard dishes of reality and that’s exactly what occurred in late-August and September for Atlanta.

The Braves held what looked to be an insurmountable lead in the NL Wild Card — a 10 1/2 game cushion over the St. Louis Cardinals on August 25. It would take a miraculous comeback by the Cardinals and an unforeseen, epic meltdown by Atlanta for these Bravos to not play postseason baseball.

The Red Birds went on to win 23 of their last 31 games and the Braves, well, you know the rest.

They returned from three idle days off following Hurricane Irene only to go 10-19 the rest of the way. But that’s only one scenario in which you’d drive yourself crazy asking, “what if”?

What if there was no hurricane?

What if Atlanta had won at least ONE game and avoided a sweep against St. Louis in early September?

What if Chipper Jones didn’t lose a ground ball in the lights at Florida?

But, alas, I digress.

The Braves could stew over all the unfortunate mishaps about the end of their 2011 season or they could use the embarrassing finish as fuel to come back better and with more heart, determination and resiliency than ever in 2012.

All excuses aside, the Braves did see their team besieged by injuries after the All-Star break.

The aforementioned Jurrjens and Hanson, who both factored so heavily into the team’s early success, were sidelined by injuries late in the season and remained out of commission for the club’s ill-fated stretch drive.

“O’Ventbrel” proved to be overworked, overused and overexposed by Fredi Gonzalez and the Braves coaching staff. The threesome showed signs of exhaustion from a heavy workload throughout the early portion of the season and faded down the stretch.

Venters led the NL with 85 appearances, Kimbrel was tied for third with 79, just ahead of his teammate O’Flaherty’s 78. To make matters worse — Kimbrel, the eventual and well-deserved 2011 NL Rookie of the Year, also surrendered the save in Game 162 — one the Braves needed to win to force a one-game playoff with St. Louis to keep postseason dreams alive.

As for the Braves bats, well, they too went deadly silent.

Martin Prado, who was given the nickname “MVP-RADO” by the Atlanta faithful due to his knack for clutch hitting, couldn’t  find his stride after a staph infection that many believed was the culprit for his career-worst slump.

Brian McCann, often one of the team’s most clutch and dependable sluggers, suffered the ill effects of an oblique injury and his numbers slid when it counted the most. B-Mac hit a mere .180 when he returned to the Braves lineup  in mid-August.

A Braves offense that was picked up all year long by superb pitching couldn’t rise to the occasion when the injury bug struck its hurlers. Instead, the Braves coiled and crumbled — along with the hearts of Braves Nation.

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08
Dec
10

Frank Wren dazzles with Dan Uggla acquisition

During my hiatus on this site, the Atlanta Braves surged to their first postseason appearance in five years — winning the 2010 National League Wild Card — and endured the subsequent retirement of venerable skipper Bobby Cox. It’s safe to say the Braves were anything but idle during my absence.

While the hot stove is now burning for most Major League teams at this year’s Winter Meetings, the Braves have already settled most of their offseason business after landing Dan Uggla from the Florida Marlins. The slugging second baseman fills Atlanta’s most pressing need — a right-handed, middle-of-the-order power bat to help balance out a predominantly left-handed lineup.

Braves General Manager Frank Wren set the tone for this offseason’s inevitable flurry of deals, pulling off one of the shrewdest moves so far this winter on Nov. 16. Wren coerced Uggla — a free agent at the end of the 2011 season — away from the division rival Marlins by only relinquishing super utilityman Omar Infante and left-handed reliever Mike Dunn in return. The Fish balked at Uggla’s demands of a five-year, $71-million dollar contract extension thus sparking the trade.

Uggla, 30, is a two-time All-Star and the 2010 National League Silver Slugger recipient at second base. He hit .287 with 33 HRs and 105 RBI last season.

To put into context what Uggla’s bat means to Atlanta’s restructured lineup: After entering the league in 2006, Uggla’s 154 home runs are second to only Albert Pujols’ 207 among National League right-handed hitters during that span.

More impressively, Wren was creative in his approach of finding the Braves’ new masher.

Seemingly entrenched at second base for Atlanta was All-Star Martin Prado, who is recovering from a hip pointer injury this offseason. With the exception of Jason Heyward, the NL’s Rookie of the Year runner-up, the 2010 Braves sported a rather inferior, patchwork outfield consisting of Matt Diaz, Eric Hinske, Nate McLouth, Melky Cabrera and Rick Ankiel. With Cabrera, Ankiel and Diaz all gone and Hinske re-signed as the team’s primary pinch-hitter, it was assumed a bat would be acquired to bolster the outfield corps.

Instead, Wren found the best available right-handed bat — in the form of Uggla — and traded for him, before announcing Prado would move to the outfield. A rather savvy move indeed, considering Prado’s past history playing left field in winter ball leagues.

Now, with Wren’s move being lauded among fellow GM’s and baseball personnel, the only question remaining is: When will the Braves begin talking contact extension with their new slugger?

According to David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, chatter emerging from the Winter Meetings yesterday suggest that the Braves anticipate opening such dialogue with Uggla and agent Terry Bross soon.

While Uggla stands to earn in the neighborhood of $10 million in arbitration in 2011 before becoming a free agent, Atlanta hopes to ink the Columbia, Tenn. native to a multi-year deal sooner rather than later.

With familiar ties to new manager Fredi Gonzalez — having played under him in Florida — and growing up a Braves fan with his family and friends now able to travel a shorter distance to watch him play, Uggla seems to have a strong desire to work out a long-term deal with Atlanta, too.

It appears to be a perfect match for both sides, but only time will tell if and when Uggla decides to sign.

In the meantime, for the Atlanta Braves and their gritty second baseman, the future is now.

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01
Jun
10

Braves surge past Phillies to overtake National League East

Oh, how the tables have turned.

The Braves extended their season-high winning streak to six games and moved into first place in the National League East with a 9-3 spanking of division rival Philadelphia at Turner Field on Memorial Day.

Chipper Jones homered for the first time this season from the left side and snapped his six-week long homerless drought with a two-run blast in the first inning, staking the Braves to an early lead that they would not relinquish.

An even more encouraging sign that Jones is finding his stroke is the single he hit in the bottom of the seventh while batting right, showing an increased comfort from both sides of the plate.

Troy Glaus capped the Atlanta onslaught with a three-run homer off Philadelphia reliever Chad Durbin to put the final nail in the Phillies coffin.

With his latest blast, Glaus tacked three more RBIs on his astounding and unexpected total of 28 for the month of May, which led the National League.

Atlanta’s good fortune comes just one month after a nine-game losing streak had them dwelling in the cellar of the NL East, staring up at these same Phillies.

Just as the Braves began to hit their stride, the Phillies fell into a slump of their own.

Since the last time these two teams played, the Braves have gone 16-4 and erased a six-game deficit in the NL East standings to overtake the sputtering Phillies, who have gone 9-10 during that stretch and have dropped out of first place for the first time since May 1st.

Ironically, the offensive woes that hampered the Braves in their last meeting with the Phillies, have seemingly been solved and now take up residence in Philadelphia.

The Phils have dropped seven of their past nine games, having been shut out five times during that span.

As a whole, they’ve hit a dismal .187 with a .264 on base percentage, a .257 slugging percentage and just one home run.

This is a serious concern for a club that supposedly boasts one of the most feared offensive units in the game. The Phillies ongoing struggles with the bat have been a far cry from the explosive power the team had come to enjoy.

For Atlanta, the timing couldn’t be more perfect.

The nine runs the Braves scored on Monday were two more than they’d scored in each of their first two series losses to the Phillies.

While Atlanta’s offense was befuddling to watch in the early going this season, the turnaround of Troy Glaus is a big reason why the Braves have been able to right the ship.

No one had been more critical of and frustrated by Glaus than me, but I will give credit where credit is due.

Glaus’ red-hot May where he has hit. 330 with three doubles, six home runs, and 28 RBI in 28 games is one of the greatest single months ever enjoyed by a player.

Since May 14 when Bobby Cox permanently moved Martin Prado to the leadoff spot and Jason Heyward into the No. 2 hole ahead of Jones, Glaus has been a run-producing machine.

As a result, he has driven in 14 runs in 17 games with four home runs.

Also interestingly to note, as I suggested in my last blog, having continuity in a lineup that had so many struggling hitters, could prove to breed successful results.

That has been the case for Atlanta. As the roles in the Braves lineup have become solidified, the proof is in the numbers.

The rest of Atlanta’s hitters have found a newfound comfort and confidence that has now transcended onto the field and in the standings.

But, there is no time for complacency.

The next two games against the Phillies loom as large as ever as the Braves look to not only stay in first place but to build upon their lead.

With a good chunk of the season left, it is awfully early to gauge how the season may end. But, the Braves may have history on their side.

The last time Atlanta was in first place on June 1 was in 2005, which just so happens to be the last year they made the playoffs.

Also, 66% of the teams that are atop their division on the first of June, have made it into postseason play.

Will the same ring true for the 2010 Atlanta Braves?

Only time will tell.

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10
May
10

Observations of the Braves from a weekend at Citizens Bank Park

My cousin Jaime (left) and I enjoy a game at Citizens Bank Park.

Being born and raised just outside the Philadelphia area, I make it a tradition to see at least one Braves-Phillies series a season.

This year, I made my first trip to see the 2010 Braves in a weekend set against the Phillies on May 7-9.

The results weren’t pretty.

On Friday night, Derek Lowe was on the mound for the Bravos. He was opposed by the 86-year old Jamie Moyer.

I kid, but from a pitcher’s standpoint, the dude is old.

However, he carved up the Braves lineup like he was Tim Lincecum, enroute to a 7-0 victory in the series opener.

At age 47, he is the oldest player in Major League history to toss a shutout.

While, Moyer steamrolled through the Braves lineup, it didn’t come as a surprise to me.

I knew the Braves were in trouble from the moment I took my seat, in the first row nonetheless, and heard the starting lineup announced.

This is how it read:

Omar Infante

Martin Prado

Chipper Jones

Troy Glaus

Matt Diaz

David Ross

Melky Cabrera

Nate McLouth

Derek Lowe

Yikes.

The first thought that ran through my head after hearing our starting nine was—”Who are these Braves?”

I didn’t mean it in a literal sense.

Of course I know who these guys are and what their different roles are with the club.

I meant it more figuratively—and, symbolically.

The Braves are unrecognizable these days.

Sure, missing on this night due to various injuries or ailments were the team’s regular cleanup hitter Brian McCann, along with their dynamic shortstop Yunel Escobar, and the phenom himself, rookie sensation Jason Heyward.

But still, these are not the Braves that fans, management and the league had all grown accustomed to over the years.

While the names on the back of their jerseys had to change and players moved on or retired, the aura of excellence and swagger that this team use to possess is gone.

The Braves, who use to be one of the elite teams in baseball, are now spitting mediocrity like any average major league club.

Although, on paper, it looks even worse.

Atlanta has performed below average as of late becoming victims of their sputtering offense and numerous injuries, which has them dwelling in the cellar of the National League East.

When I left the ballpark Friday night, I took comfort in knowing that the Braves are not this bad.

They have serious issues that go far beyond their injuries, but they are not the hopeless cause they appear to be on the field.

However, it doesn’t make them any easier to watch right now.

When it was reported that the Braves clubhouse resembled a morgue after Friday’s embarrassing defeat, I was not surprised.

The Braves are their own harshest critics.

They know how bad they are right now.

But, they also know they can and will get better.

A small beacon of hope emerged on Saturday afternoon when the Braves snatched a victory out of the jaws of defeat.

Atlanta was getting no-hit, yet again, through four innings against Phillies hurler Joe Blanton and trailed 1-0 after five.

In the sixth, the Braves bats woke up and Atlanta rallied for three runs against Blanton, and added an insurance in the ninth after Troy Glaus’ RBI single.

There were many positives to take from this game besides the “W”.

The Braves pitching was excellent, top to bottom.

Kris Medlen, who was called upon from the bullpen to make the start for the injured Jair Jurrjens, gutted through 4 1/3 innings, allowing only a single run.

Medlen pitched out of numerous big jams, one of which came in the bottom of the third, when he struck out Ryan Howard and got Jayson Werth to hit into an inning-ending double play.

Following Medlen were six relievers who combined to shutout the Phillies the rest of the way, allowing Atlanta’s offense the time to rally to secure the 4-1 victory.

The Braves bullpen has been the unsung hero for the team so far this season.

They have been nothing short of brilliant.

What is unfortunate is due to the Braves prolonged woes with the bats, Atlanta hasn’t been afforded the luxury of having a deep bullpen.

It doesn’t do a team any good to have a lights-out setup man and closer when they can’t get the ball to them with a lead.

But, what is reassuring is that when the Braves right the ship from an offensive standpoint, they have a strong bullpen to fall back on and depend on.

A reliable bullpen is an asset that many contending teams lack so Atlanta should feel so fortunate.

The Braves tapped Kenshin Kawakami to start the rubber game of the series against Phillies starter Cole Hamels.

It was an ugly beginning for the winless Kawakami.

He staked the Phillies to an early 4-0 lead before finding his groove in the later innings.

With the Braves rallying to within one, Kawakami didn’t allow another run until Shane Victorino’s solo home run in the bottom of the 7th inning sealed his and Atlanta’s fate.

For the day, Kawakami allowed five runs and seven hits in 6-2/3 innings pitched.

While it was the first time he pitched into the six inning all season long, he still suffered his sixth loss of the season.

For the Braves, they have now lost five of six road series, and dropped two of three from Washington and Philadelphia on this current nine-game road stretch that concludes with a trip to Milwaukee that begins Monday night.

Offensively, they have only mustered a .211 average over their past 17 road games.

After witnessing their performance in person, I offer you my observations of their offensive woes and some suggestions on how to fix them:

1) No game plan: It seems many of these hitters come to bat with no approach.

I am watching too many guys swinging at first pitches and I’ve come away with a general sense of a far too aggressive, almost reckless approach at the plate.

I am not seeing enough plate discipline, which is resulting in too many frequent short at-bats and quick innings for opposing pitchers.

The Braves hitters aren’t working counts and they aren’t executing the fundamentals in run producing situations.

They are also not advancing guys when their are runners on first and second with less than two outs, which is a crippling rally killer.

I’m also not seeing enough sacrifice bunts, hit-and-runs, sacrifice flies, and contact hitting with runners on base.

This team strikes out too much and runners are stranded left and right.

As a result, the team squanders far too many scoring chances and wastes the opportunities they do generate.

2) Listless at Leadoff: The Braves have no answer at the leadoff spot, that much is crystal clear.

Cox has toyed with too many different guys in the leadoff spot, and now I feel that’s creating more harm than good.

In the Phillies series alone, both Omar Infante and Nate McLouth served as the leadoff hitter. Yunel Escobar has also seen time at that spot throughout the early portion of the season before going down with an injury.

Consistency can serve a team well.

And, it might also spark one of these guys to get going.

It is hard to produce when a player isn’t comfortable at the plate and comfortable in their role.

It is important that Cox make a decision about the leadoff spot and stick with it, at least for the immediate future, or until a replacement is brought in.

This patch quilt attempt to find his answer at the top of the order hasn’t been working.

It’s time to commit to a change.

3) Lineup Roulette: To go along with my observation and suggestion for the leadoff spot, I offer a similar approach be taken with the overall lineup construction.

While a certain good can come from juggling a lineup to find a formula that works, too much maneuvering can become chaotic.

Too many of the Braves hitters are struggling to find their stroke right now that moving them up and down in the order isn’t serving much of a purpose at this time.

Case in point—If you take a look at Sunday’s starting lineup excluding the pitcher, the Braves had three players in Matt Diaz, Brooks Conrad, and Nate McLouth who were hitting below .200.

Cox might find that settling with one lineup combination over the next couple of weeks could prevent the guys from pressing any further and allow them to relax into their defined spots.

While this is a unique circumstance because the Braves are subbing many players into the starting lineup due to injuries, the message I feel remains the same.

When this team gets healthy, they still need consistency in the lineup, beginning at the leadoff spot.

From there, the Braves can see what they have to work with and what moves they need to make from the outside to fix this mess.

The end of the downward spiral begins with a baby step.

It is time for Cox and these Braves to take the first one.

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