Reassessing The Atlanta Braves

Martin is pumped.

Turns out they’re actually really good. Who knew? All stats as of Wednesday.

Per usual, I jumped the gun on my beloved Atlanta Braves and shamefully wrote them off in the midst of a nine-game losing streak back in late April. This usually works the other way around (i.e. I claim the division after a 6-3 start). You’d think that in my roughly 19 years of baseball watching experience, I’d have learned my lesson by now – long season, can’t decide anything by May, power hitters heat up with the weather, etcetera, etcetera.

You’d be wrong, Casualtists.

So now, with the Bravos 13 games over .500, a game and a 1/2 up on the soon-to-implode Mets, and coming off series victories over the vaunted Twins and Rays and a sweep of the less-vaunted Royals, it’s prime time to recant for my myriad of hasty sins and even offer up some further analysis. Might even heap some love on GM Frank Wren. Just kidding.

But first, the season in lines:

Both lines moving rightward; Original artwork by Yours Truly.

Let’s talk pitching. With the reversion of once-studly Jair Jurrjens to a meatball-dealing, injury waiting to happen and the historically bad performance of Japanese import Kenshin Kawakami, you’d probably venture that starting rotation is the achilles heal of a team that has the best record in the league. You’d be half right. Kawakami, 35, who’s in the second year of a 3-year, $23 million contract, makes me want to have the following sit down with the aforementioned Wren…

Me: *angry stare*

Frank: *blank stare*

Me: *evil eye*

Frank: *shrugs*

Kawakami’s rocking a 4.78 ERA, a 1.46 WHIP and 10.2 H/9. I’d go ahead and impress you with some geek stat, but I think the following is pretty telling regardless of whether you think wins and losses are a valid metric: he’s 0-9. There’s something to be said for this since A) no Braves pitcher in history has posted 0-9 and B) said history goes back 140 years. Atlanta’s 4-10 in his starts, which makes them.. doing the math… a mid-90’s-like 38-19 when he doesn’t start. Apparently Bobby Cox favors the latter because he’s recently hinted that KK’s bullpen bound as soon as Jurrjens gets off the DL (hamstring, shoulder). To me this seems like trading glaucoma for skin cancer, and I suspect, instead, that he’ll be optioned or given the North Korean soccer team treatment before mid-July. One can only hope.

Far East down and bound.

Double initialed guys aside, the rotation’s been rock solid with the 1-2 front end of Tommy Hanson and a rejuvenated Tim Hudson, the predictably ho-hum play of Derek Lowe, and Kris Medlen’s occasional turn as a guy who doesn’t suck at all. Medlen, for his part, made the impressive leap from pen/long relief man to gritty workhorse who went 8 innings strong just 10 days ago. Lowe’s $15 million per reminds me of the time I bought five Super Nintendos over a fully-loaded Xbox 360 (Cliff Lee makes $6 mil less), but I can’t knock a guy with a 9-5 record too much, especially since this is suppose to be my “Hey, the Braves are great!” post.

Damn you, Frank Wren.

Hudson’s been an absolute pleasure to watch. He’s finally pitching like the guy the Braves thought they’d traded for in ’05 , and I suspect it has a lot to do with that Drew Breesian ligament transplant he underwent two off-seasons ago. He still rolls with the high-80s/low-90s two-seamer, but that devastating cutter’s developed more bite than my Aunt Celia (that woman is a biter… it’s an Italian thing).

Hanson’s consistency has been problematic – he actually went from a 7-3, 3.38 ERA guy to a 7-4, 4.17 guy over the course of this post – but he’s shown signs of being the ace phenom last year’s hype hinted at (note: Tuesday’s 3 2/3 IP, 13 H, 9 ER shelling to CHW was impeccably bad timing… Tempered enthusiasm to come). Big Red’s velocity isn’t as originally advertised, but he’s got the horsepower to crank the fastball up to 96-97 when the situation dictates. See his 3-hit performance against the Rays last week. At 23, the kid still doesn’t have that Eff You, frontline mentality to match his imposing 6’6″ frame, and his on-the-nose 100 pitches per outing tells you Cox hasn’t taken the leash off yet… But his stuff isn’t the problem. Tommy’s already got two double-digit strikeout games on his ’10 resume, and he’s looking at a 2.55 ERA should you exclude Tuesday’s meltdown and a similar May 20 shellacking to Cinci. Young man’s a stud. Or he will be at some point.

So now we’ve come to the part of the show where I eat crow and offer a formal apology to one Billy Wagner, or as he’s been known to you, the Casualtist, “The Remains of Billy Wagner.” He’s already announced his plans to retire at season’s end, which is exactly what you don’t want to do when you’re 5-0 with 14 saves, a 1.23 ERA, 43 K in 29.1 IP, and working on a 15-inning scoreless streak. The elbow is healthy, the fastball overpowering, the 9th inning hell for the opposition. I am, though, a little antsy about how he’ll perform down the stretch should he make it to September – his late season antics sunk the gagjob Mets in ’07.

On the horizon: 400 saves/SC's respect

Sticking with old dudes, Takashi Saito is still 40, which is to say, he’s quite expectedly fallen prey to a bunch of nagging injuries that’ve so far sidelined him for the entire month. This worries me for a couple reasons: 1) I know the same could happen to Wagner any second now and 2) his return to the rotation on Tuesday sent young stud Craig Kimbrel (22 y-o, 1.08 ERA in 8.1 IP) packing for Gwinnett. I’d have preferred shipping out the young, equally studly Jonny Venters (25 y-o, 1.45 ERA in 31 IP), if only because SC corners the search market on Kimbrel scouting reports (see, I told you). But I digress. Both have taken advantage of spot-8th-inning duties, and that Saito is back excites me less than an X-Treme Cuisine frozen dinner.

I’ve managed this much without mentioning Jason Heyward, probably because he’s having a worse 30 days than oil baron Tony Hayward. Fine by me. He’s 20-years-old, he’s on a winning team and, for now anyway, he’s just another one of the guys. I hope for his sake that Chipper Jones – who’s finally starting to hit again – sticks out the rest of the season to fill the de facto “face of team” role. The longer Destroyer (.195 avg., 25 K in June) can fly under the radar, the better. And since he’s on track to become the youngest all-star starter since Junior and the second youngest ever, I’m guessing the scrutiny of superstardom’s coming sooner rather than later. I can hear the pre-game Mid-Summer Classic banter now…

Joe Buck: You know Tim, Heyward’s struggled of late, but when he puts it all together… (*pauses for effect*)…  Lookout.

Tim McCarver: I think you’re right, Joe… (*pauses to watch a colorful object pass*) … But for a kid known for his uncanny plate discipline, he sure does swing at a lot of bad pitches. Then you remember… he’s only 20-years-old! And when you think of the Atlanta greats that he’s following, you think of one name. Aaron.

Look, Fictional Tim McCarver, I could go without the grandiose comparisons for a while. I’m sure Heyward could, too. Either way, I’m not worried about stunted growth, especially when he’s surrounded by head-down professionals like Chipper and Cox, and the champ pedigrees of Melky Cabrera (seriously) and Eric Hinkse. After a clutch game-winning double against the Royals over the weekend, Hinske told clubhouse reporters that the team expects to “go out and win every day.”

David Justice, is that you? Haven’t heard this in forever.

And it sounds really good. I’m also a huge fan of Troy Glaus singlehandedly salvaging Frank Wren’s reputation (14 HR, 55 RBI for a $1.75 million flyer) and Martin Prado’s turn as the second coming of Roberto Alomar (NL batting leader, .340 avg., 103 H). I’m also heartened that Atlanta’s leading the league in runs scored despite no-show years from Yunel Escobar (injuries), Matt Diaz (injuries) and Nate McLouth (death). Brian McCann hasn’t hit either, but you expect that to change eventually.

Bash brother.

I’d like to see the Braves shore up their bullpen at the deadline and go after a bat that can better handle big time lefties, but asking for anything at this stage feels like milking Santa. We’re looking down the barrel of July. Hotlanta’s thinking pennant race. This feels like déjà vu all over again. You know, 14 straight years of déjà vu.

– Robbie

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