Okay Braves fans, I am back online. I have been following the Braves all year and I am ready to pass out some grades on the Braves’ first half of the season:
Pitching: C When the season started, I was excited about our starting pitching and our bullpen. Then Jair Jurrjens imploded and Brandon Beachy blew out his elbow (Tommy John surgery, out for the year). Tim Hudson (7-4, 3.56 ERA) and Tommy Hanson (10-5, 3.71 ERA) have been okay. I worry about Hudson moving forward in the second half because he is dealing with bone spurs in his ankle and could go down at any time. Since Jurrjens has returned from his banishment to AAA Gwinnett, he has pitched pretty well and has shown some signs of returning to form. We need him to step it up and fill the number 3 spot. Then we have the two weak links: Mike Minor and Randall Delgado. They just cannot seem to pitch with any consistentcy. They struggle to work deep into games and can’t seem to avoid the one bad inning. I haven’t seen the improvement in these two as the season has progressed, instead they continue to make the same mistakes over and over. As a result, the Braves have signed former Milwaukee great Ben Sheets to try to fill the hole in our rotation. Sheets has not pitched in the big leagues for 2 years due to elbow problems. He is scheduled to pitch Sunday against the Mets. I have no idea how that is going to turn out. If he can return to form, it could be a fantastic signing and be just what our rotation needs. On the other hand, it could be a complete bust. Either way, I think the Braves are going to get rid of either Minor or Delgado. My guess is they will keep Minor because he is the only lefty on the staff.
Then you have our bullpen which was a major strength last year. Last year’s rookie of the year, Craig Kimbrel, has been awesome in his awesomeness (A++!!). He has 25 saves in 26 chances with a 1.36 ERA. Opponents are batting a paltry .116 against him. Eric O’Flaherty has taken over the 8th inning spot and has done well. Chad Durbin and Kris Medlin have been effective. Then we have Jonny Venters. As good as he was last year (and that was really good), he has been that bad this year. I cringe when I see him come into the game. In 32.1 innings, he has given up 41 hits and teams are hitting .313 against him. Now the Braves have said he has an elbow impingement and put him on the DL before the all-star break. He says that he is feeling great now after the rest and is ready to go. We will see. I hope he is better, but if not, the Braves cannot afford to keep running him out there.
Hitting: B There are alot of positives on our offense. Michael Bourn has been terrific in the lead off spot, batting .311 with 111 hits. Martin Prado is hitting .321 with 104 hits. Chipper Jones is hitting .318 at age 40. I have been most pleased with Jason Heyward though. He seems to have rebounded from his dismal season last year. Fredi Gonzalez has moved him into the number 3 spot in the lineup and Heyward is hitting .272 with 41 RBI and 14 HR. Freddie Freeman has had an up and down year. He has dealt with several injuries in his sophomore season, from dislocating his knee in spring training to eye/contact problems to hurting his finger. In spite of all those issues, he has managed to hit .264 and pick up 49 RBI and 11 HR. If he can stay healthy, I expect a big second half from him.
With so much positive on offense, why only a B grade? McCann and Uggla. Brian McCann is usually the most dependable bat in our lineup but he has struggled mightily. At the break he is batting .238. On the positive side, right before the break he seemed to pick it up and was making good contact and hitting home runs (13 HR). He has to start putting up some more McCann-like numbers or the Braves will struggle. Speaking of struggling, Dan Uggla, Dan Uggla, Dan Uggla. You are killing me Dan. Uggla is “hitting” .221. He has managed to hit 12 HR and get 45 RBI, but he has also struck out 99 times in 294 at bats. That means he strikes out once every three trips to the plate (and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every one of them). Positives? Well, he batted 3 times in the all-star game and he made good contact each time so maybe he is snapping out of it. We are going to stick with him but I have no problem with Gonzalez batting him 7th until he starts to hit.
Fielding: A I have absolutely no problems with our fielding so far this year. I think our defense has been great. We will see how much our defense will suffer as we try to get through the 4-6 weeks that our shortstop, Andrelton Simmons, will be out with a broken finger.
Bench: D Okay, I’m just going to say it-our bench has been awful. Of course David Ross has been solid as a backup for McCann, batting .276. Matt Diaz has been fair, hitting only .230 but he has picked up a few big hits. The other guys stink. I like Eric Hinske but he is batting .202. Juan Francisco was supposed to fill in for Chipper at third but he is hitting .220 with 40 strikeouts in 118 at bats. Jack Wilson is batting .174. I honestly think I would choose Tim Hudson to bat over Wilson.
Management/Gonzalez: Incomplete I just couldn’t give a grade to Gonzalez or the front office yet. I was on board with keeping the team intact from last year in spite of the late season collapse. I still think we have a good team but we have had several injuries and some players under performing. I am anxious to see what moves the front office makes moving forward. SS Andrelton Simmons is going to be out 4-6 weeks with a broken pinkie. Are they going to bring Tyler Pastornicky back up as a stop gap or look elsewhere? Are they going to stand pat with the Ben Sheets move or try to add Zach Greinke or Ryan Dempster to our rotation? I hope they pursue Dempster, he strikes me as more of a battler than Greinke. Will they try to bolster our pathetic bench with some left-handed pop? I hope so.
As far as Gonzalez goes, I have to admit that I am not completely sold on him. I am still giving him time to see if he can lead and inspire. He was unable to pull the Braves out of the nosedive that the team went into late last year. I want to see how the Braves come out of the break before I start to really judge his year. At times I find him to be too set in his ways as far as his handling of the bullpen and having guys only start an inning instead of coming in in the middle of an inning. Sometimes he will leave a pitcher in too long and let a still winnable game become a blowout. His decisions to rest certain bullpen pitchers may pay off in the long run but in the short run have cost us some games. And finally, I don’t like that Gonzalez never comes out of the dugout to argue with an umpire and show support for his players. Now granted you don’t have to come out every single time like Bobby Cox did, but you’ve got to come out occasionally. If nothing else, it keeps the umpires on their toes and might get you a call later in the game.
So that’s how I see the first half. The second half starts tonight in Atlanta as the Braves host the Mets (barring a rainout) and it is a huge series. The Braves are 4 games behind the division leading Nationals and only 1/2 game ahead of the Mets, Cardinals, and Giants for the final wildcard spot. So really every series from here on out is big, but especially those against teams in your own division that are battling for the wildcard.
Tonight’s Game: Mets RH Chris Young (2-2, 3.41 ERA) vs. Braves RH Tim Hudson (7-4, 3.56 ERA) at 7:35 pm on Peachtree TV.