About one-fifth of the season has passed, so I am ready to make some observations about the Braves season so far.
Theme: The theme for the first 34 games has been injuries. Chipper, JD, Franco, Giles, and Furcal have all missed several games due to injury. Assuming these injuries are not chronic I think the Braves ought to be very happy they are hovering just below the .500 mark. What do Mark DeRosa, Jesse Garcia, Adam LaRoche, and DeWayne Wise have in common? They all have more at bats than Chipper. I think if the good players can play together this is going to be a very good offense.
The Good News: Marcus Giles is going to be a star in this league for a long time. I have been very impressed with J.D. Drew. Despite his early woes he refused to start hacking at the plate and his discipline has showed. He is in the Top-10 in the MLB in walks per plate appearance, and he does almost a celebratory bat toss when he draws a walk. This is just the guy we need batting in front of Chipper and Andruw. Speaking of Andruw, he has also changed his ways at the plate. Though he is in the midst of a typical AJ funk, he is still in the Top-30 in walks per plate appearance with his walks nearly canceling his strike-outs. That is big news for a guy who normally strikes out twice for every time he walks. Chipper is solid as usual, continuing his career of quiet consistency. Chipper is one of the underrated stars of the game, and he deserves more credit than he gets. He is having a small slump as he returns from injury, but he should be back to normal soon. Also good news is the play of Johnny Estrada. He does a good job of getting on base with hitting without striking out much. He also has some power.
The Batting Order: I’m not sure what Cox has been thinking about with the batting order. I know that he has had to juggle a lot of different line-ups due to injuries, but guys who can’t get on base ought not to bat in the leadoff spot. DeWanyne Wise should never make a batting appearance in the first inning of a game like he has several times this year. The problem is this guy’s OBP and BA are nearly equal, and he can’t hit. He is fast, but that is not useful for running back to the dugout after a strikeout. But even worse, after Wise was moved down and out of the order DeRosa moved to the top. Luckily, I think something finally clicked for Bobby on Wednesday night. Hampton started the inning with a double. Then DeRo tried (unsuccessfully) to bunt him to third. Your lead-off guy is trying to bunt over your pitcher? This is so sad I think Cox must have caught the oddity of the situation. Thursday DeRo was “taking a day off” and Giles was leading off. Until Furcal comes back, Giles, Chipper, JD, or Estrada need to be in the top spot.
The Pen: Bobby’s use of the bullpen has been strange. Alfonseca and Gryboski seem to have solidified their role as the go-to middle relief, which I think is bad. Gryboski has been very bad at putting the ball in play, and he has been very lucky so far. As I stated in an ealier post, only 10 guys in the league have been luckier than him in terms of the ERAs versus the way they have pitched. This year opponents are batting .190 off the 42 balls put in play in the 14 innings he has pitched. Even if you don’t buy into DIPS Grybo has been lucky. Though Skip, Don, Joe, and Pete always tout him as a great double-play guy, even for the myth that is Kevin Gryboski he has been lucky compared to his own past. For 2002 and 2003 his BABIP has been .280 and .312. Expect some mean reversion. Reitsma and Cruz have been the second tier, though Reitsma has been getting a little more work as of late. I would like to see these guys as the first option out of the pen. And maybe Cruz ought to be starting.
Starting Pitching: Thomson and Ortiz seem to be our top-two. Though Ramirez has the lowest ERA I think he has been more lucky than good. In terms of Ks and BBs, he is almost a dead-on with Hampton who has been painfully awful. The difference? Haracio is getting better defense than any other starter. I hate to say it, but I suspect things will look worse very soon for Ramirez unless he gets his walks under control. When those balls in play start falling he is going to pay big-time. Jaret Wright has been a nice surprise. While he may not look pretty on the mound, his stats are pretty darn good. Look for Cruz to start if Haracio falters or Hampton is unable to get it together.
Other observations: We all know that JD Drew has been smoking Sheff in OBP and SLG, which are normalized for at-bats; but, also take a look at these lines for PAs/Walks/Strikeouts/Total Bases.
JD Drew: 115 / 21 / 19 / 58
Sheffield: 145 / 21 / 18 / 47
Despite JD’s absence from the lineup he has still put together better aggregate numbers than the man he replaced. Will this last? I don’t know, but Drew seems to have been a good gamble so far.
John Thomson has been great. Schuerholz deserves a lot of credit for this acquisition.
Julio Franco is having another good year with an OBP of almost .400. I think he should get the full-time job at first from LaRoche who can barely clear the Mendoza line in a platoon situation. I think LaRoche can be good, but he his really having a tough time right now.
Speaking of tough times, Mark DeRosa is having a terrible year. I think Cox and Schuerholz expected above replacement-level play at third, and they are not getting it. Though I thought DeRo was just toughing out a slump early, I think the Braves will make a move shortly for someone slightly better, possibly dipping into the farm system.
What on earth is Wilson Betemit doing in Atlanta? He is a struggling prospect at this point, nothing more. I can’t see how this is helping anybody. And like Wise, he doesn’t need to bat leadoff, which he has done twice.
Furcal’s injury proves why Cox should never attempt to steal third. Not only was he out, but he has been hurt. I think Furcal has really turned things around with his bat. He was walking more and striking out less before he went down. It really hurts when Garcia gets more ABs than Furcky. Garcia is hitting better than usual, but he is on his normal pace for walks. He has one this year…his first free pass in five years.
Overall: Though I am being a bit negative here, I feel very good for fan of a team that is 16-18. If the injuries are just a blip I foresee the Braves having a good shot at the playoffs.
UPDATE: Well, the Marcus Giles injury changes everything. Schuerholz has to make a deal now if the Braves are going to have a shot. The Braves need a quality Major League level infielder, preferably at third. Also, the DeWayne Wise experiment has to stop if Chipper and JD going to tweak their injuries while Marcus is unavailable. At this point in the season, a deal will be hard to make without giving up someone decent. I think Ramirez, Cruz, and Reitsma may be the best trade bait.