At the All-Star break the Braves are 45-42, one game back of the division leader in a four team race for the NL East title. The Braves are 3 game back in the Wild Card standings with 5 teams ahead and 3 teams just behind. The second half is going to be fun. I’ll start off with a discussion of the first half then discuss the prospects for the second half.
The first half of the season actually went pretty well, considering the injuries the team suffered. Marcus Giles, Rafael Furcal, Eli Marrero, and Chipper Jones all missed significant time due to injury. If you had told me all of this would happen at the beginning of the season I would have been content knowing that the Braves would likely be out of it. The Braves have not only been lucky in playing in a week division, but they have played quite well. The Braves have also been victims of bad luck. According to the Pythagorean standings the Braves ought to be very respectable 48-39. I want to look at what went wrong and what went right, to put the Braves in the position they are in.
What went wrong?
1) Injuries, duh! The injuries have not just been time missed, but the accompanying adjustment period from guys playing hurt. We still don’t know the impact of the Giles injury. He might come back, like last year, and prove he is the mirror image of his big brother. But, the biggest damage from the injuries to Chipper and Furcal is that they have been playing hurt. I thought Furcal was off to a great start. The batting average was a little lower than usual, but I was sure the hits would start falling. But then came that day Furcal tried to steal third. Why!? One thing I know from watching Furcal is that he is fast, but not a particularly good base stealer. For whatever reason, he gets terrible jumps. Anyway, the end result of the play was that he was out and an on on-track Furcal missed nearly a month of everyday duty (he did pinch hit some). Only now is he returning to form. Chipper has played hurt, switched positions, and is now fighting the Mendoza line. His inure has cost way more than his games missed. Chipper is hitting with power right now (an Iso-Power of .200) and he is walking. I suspect that a healthy Chipper would be putting up a +900 OPS year.
2)The Roster. Mark DeRosa couldn’t handle third base. I thought he could and I don’t blame Schuerholz for trying. Jesse Garcia has been himself at the plate, and I think his defense has not been good enough to keep him in the big-leagues as a defensive replacement/pinch runner. DeWanyne Wise has had some moments, but his overall stats suggest he just can’t hit big league pitching. If he would just learn to walk I think he could stick with a big league club. To be fair to Wise, he has played better than I thought he would and his defense has been good. I probably ought to put Eddie Perez in here, but he’s doing exactly what he was expected to do: catch every fifth day and play good defense. LaRoche cannot handle the job at first yet. His platooned .250 BA is not much better than DeRosa. Wilson Betemit should never have been called up as his minor league numbers were not very good anyway. Mike Hessman can’t hit at the major league level.
3) Managing. Cox’s first half managing job has been subpar. I am a Bobby Cox fan, and I would never suggest replacing him, but a few of his in-game moves have been suspect. First, If not for the emergence of Nick Green, the Braves would have had a sub-.300 OBP guy in the top three of the line-up for much of the season. This makes no sense. It just gives out-producers such as LaRoche, Wise, DeRosa, Betemit, etc. more at-bats. I don’t know that it has cost the Braves any games, but it hasn’t helped. Second, bullpen use has not been good. Kevin Gryboski is the WORST pitcher to bring in with men on base in a close game. He strikes out no one and walks many. The one good thing the Grybo is good for is keeping the ball in the park. He is the perfect pitcher for games when the Braves have big leads. He may give up a run or two, but the other team won’t get it back with one swing of the bat. Smoltz, Reitsma, and the invisible Juan Cruz can get the strikeouts needed in tight spots. They should be used instead of hoping Grybo can luck into a double-play.
What went right?
1) Richmond. Nick Green has saved the Braves. I don’t know whether it is a fluke nor do I care, but finding a league average OPS second basemen in the minor league system saved the team. Imagine what would the season look like with Jesse Garcia batting and playing second. It would be a three-team race in the NL East or the Braves would have had to trade a prospect to find a replacement. Nick Green saved the Braves a lot, and when Giles comes back I suspect he will become the number one utility guy off the bench. DeRosa and Garcia will slide one step back. Green might also be traded, but I suspect with Marcus’s injury so uncertain it is worth it to hold on to Green through the end of the season. I would look for him to be moved after the season is over or if the Braves fall out contention. The other help from Richmond has been Charles Thomas. Though he has had only about 50 PAs, he looks to be a replacement for Wise. An OPS of over one is always welcome, especially when you can play defense. He will struggle before the season is over, but with a healthy Marrero and two lefty outfielders doing well in Richmond, I suspect the club will gamble on Thomas and release Wise when he comes off the DL. I would like to mention that Jurries is playing quite well in Richmond, and probably ought to come up if either Adam or Julio go on the DL. His impact may have yet to be felt.
2) John Schuerholz’s moves. Johnny Estrada, JD Drew, Jaret Wright, and John Thomson. Wow! Who would have thunk it. JS, You traded Kevin Milwood for a backup catcher and we all laughed. You sign Jaret Wright off waivers. You sign 40-something first baseman from the Mexican League who hits with a tree trunk. I worship at your feet. Forget Billy Bean, John Schuerholz was doing it first. If these guys play like their past major league seasons, the Braves are done. JD is healthy and Johnny can hit, though I wish he had more power… but am I really in position to complain? JD’s All-Star snub was embarrassing. He is the team MVP, and JS ought to make a run at resigning him. I suspect the Braves are in a good position since Drew is from the area and his brother is on the team. The pitchers have been outstanding.
3) The walking wounded. Chipper Jones is hitting .214, but he’s putting up a .740 OPS. He’s been brave to fight through an annoying injury and his father’s health problems. He walks and hits for power. This is a perfect example of why batting averages can be misleading. His play at third has been great. Watch out for Chipper in the second half. If his Iso-Power stays the same as his average rises, it could be glorious. Furcal has also played well through his injury. His walk and HR rates are up from his career average. I think that if he had not suffered some injuries he would be in the All-Star game. Raffy gets a lot of flack that is undeserved. JS needs to think about working on a long-term deal while some of his more visible numbers are down. Andruw has also been playing hurt and going through an AJ funk. Remember the Jones plays a defensive position very well and has a +800 OPS while in a funk. Andruw is a good player who can just look bad. As Obi-Wan Kanobi said to Luke Skywalker, “Your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them.” An at bat by Jones can look ugly, but I am glad he is on the team. I’m pretty sure JS understands Andruw’s value and would not trade him for a quick fix or salary dump.
What is going to happen in the second half?
I think the Braves are in a very good position. They survived some early problems and the team appears to be on a real upswing going into the break. I suspect that Giles will be back to full strength by the beginning of August. I see Chipper and Furcal continuing to improve as they heal, and Andruw may get a little better himself. If JD and Estrada continue at their current pace, and the pitching remains adequate, I think the Braves will win the division. But, the margin for error on this team is thin. A few injuries clustered together could bury the team, so the Braves need to win when they can. This means, if LaRoche can’t hack it the Braves can’t waste time waiting for him to come around. Go ahead an bring up Jurries just to see if he can do it, or put Green at first to give Julio a break. No more pinch hitting with Garcia or Hessman. If a starter goes down, don’t be afraid to bring up Capellan for a spot start if needed. Use Cruz before Gryboski out of the pen.
In summary, I’m quite optimistic. I had some more stuff to add, but as it is I’ve written way more than planned. I may post some more numbers in the next few days, but I’ll leave it at this for now. Go Braves!