The Atlanta Braves came blazing out of the gate in April, starting to take a step back in the first part of May, and now have re-asserted themselves atop the NL East with a six-game win streak. With a record of 28-18, the Braves lead the Washington Nationals by 4 ½ games coming into Thursday’s action. The National League installment of this week’s MLB coverage will take a deeper look at what’s making this club tick and whether they can keep on ticking.
Here’s the story of the Atlanta Braves in Cliff’s Notes…
*Power is carrying the offense to an unhealthy degree
*The bullpen is undergoing a lot of changes, but handling them well
*Starting pitching has been fine so far, but remains a concern
Atlanta has consistently had good bullpens in recent years, but season-ending injuries to Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty have forced manager Fredi Gonzalez to revamp his relief corps and the early results are positive. Gonzalez has turned to Cory Gearrin, Luis Avilan and Anthony Varvaro to get high quality innings, and Craig Kimbrel is still holding down the ninth inning. Kimbrel does have three blown saves, after spending the better part of two seasons as absolutely unhittable. But if the setup core continues to be solid, Kimbrel will continue to get plenty of chances and the odds are he’ll get back in gear.
The relief pitching ranks 3rd in the National League, but getting to them is the bigger challenge. Atlanta’s starting pitching was a question mark when the season began, as Brandon Beachy was still on the DL and the team relied on aging Tim Hudson for too much. Beachy will start a rehab stint tomorrow, and Hudson’s 4.98 ERA in ten starts shows how much Atlanta’s staff needs reinforcements.
Kris Medlen rescued the rotation in the second half of last season when he was literally unbeatable until a loss in the wild-card game. Medlen has come down to earth—he’s pitching well, with a 3.02 ERA, but the breaks haven’t been there and his record is 1-5. Paul Maholm is at 3.38, but has slowed down after a hot start. In fact, slowing down after a hot start is the theme of the Braves’ rotation and the reason why, after running 1-2 with St. Louis in National League ERA, Atlanta is now fifth. The season-long numbers are still good, but the trend is concerning.
Gonzalez has seen young pitchers Mike Minor and Julio Teheran pitch pretty well so far. Minor is 5-2 with a 2.78 ERA, while Teheran’s 3.99 in eight starts is fine for a fifth starter. Both are pitchers whose development as major leaguers has been a long time coming. If they’re fine over the long haul, Atlanta will be too, but I’d like to hold off a few more weeks before really buying in.
A TOP-HEAVY OFFENSE
Justin Upton has been “all that”, after his acquisition from Arizona Diamondbacks. Upton has hit 14 home runs, has a .390 on-base percentage and has lifted this offense to sixth in the National League in runs scored. He’s gotten considerable help from third baseman Chris Johnson, liberated from Houston and posting a .386 on-base percentage/.500 slugging percentage.
It’s the rest of the lineup that doesn’t get on base consistently enough. B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla have been atrocious, hitting sub-.200, Jason Heyward has been a big disappointment and shortstop Andrelton Simmons has been all glove and no bat. Over the long haul, the organization can live with Simmons being a defensive standout, but the other three players all need to hit, and produce more than mediocrity—although right now, frankly, mediocrity would be a step up for all three.
Atlanta got an unlikely boost from Evan Gattis, the catcher who stepped in for an injured Brian McCann and hit 10 home runs. McCann is now back and off t a solid .383/.500 start in his first twelve games off the disabled list, but having Gattis as an insurance policy helps a lot. As does knowing that first baseman Fredi Freeman will likely hit for more power than he’s shown so far.
But more power isn’t what this offense needs, with due respect to Home Improvement’s Tim Taylor. Atlanta is in the bottom half of the National League when it comes to getting men on base. The Braves need baserunners and B.J. Upton is the most logical candidate to at least start fixing the problem.
I like the Braves. I like the way they handled their 2011 collapse—unlike Boston, the Braves didn’t throw people under the bus and turn the entire offseason and all of 2012 into a big soap opera. Atlanta calmly went back to work and got back into the playoffs. I think they got robbed in last year’s wild-card game on a hideous infield fly rule call that killed a rally in the eighth inning against St. Louis. I like that Atlanta hasn’t stuck out their chest the way Washington has in the NL East.
So it’s not with any sort of malice that I say, in spite of this team’s recent win streak, I’m not buying on them as the best team in the NL East and probably not even as a playoff team. I’m just not sold on the starting pitching, I’ve never been a believer in B.J. Upton and there are too many other good teams in the National League to beat out. I don’t think the Braves are as good as the Nats, and in the wild-card picture, I don’t think there as good as the Cardinals/Reds runner-up, nor whomever comes in second in the NL West. Atlanta’s a good team and a winning team, but I still see them as maybe the sixth or seventh best in the National League overall.
AROUND THE NATIONAL LEAGUE
St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have really separated themselves from the rest of the NL Central. Milwaukee’s slump now has them a full 11.5 games back and more in a race with Chicago than with any of the leaders. In fact, at this point, we have to ask if it’s wrong to say the Brewers are in a slump—maybe they just aren’t any good.
The National League West is really getting tight. Arizona, San Francisco and Colorado are all tied for first coming into Thursday, and don’t look now, but San Diego keeps creeping on up. The Padres are within 4 ½ games, and for all the rumors flying around Los Angeles and Don Mattingly’s job situation, the Dodgers are only six out. It’s also worth noting that it would be almost impossible for the Dodgers to end up fifth in the National League in on-base percentage, yet 14th in runs scored, for an entire season. That’s what they’ve managed to pull off so far.