• Exclusives

    Keys to the Second Half: These Players Must Step Up …

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The thunder rolls on a stormy Saturday night in North Georgia, and a deluge in D.C. leaves us with no Braves baseball to enjoy with our beverages of choice on this fine midsummer’s evening. Instead, we watch the Cardinals and Cubs, stay mindful of weather alerts, and ponder once more this journey 95 games deep into this 2018 season.

    It is a campaign that finds the Atlanta Braves a mere ½ game out of first place in the National League East. The division-leading Phillies also fell victim to the rain and thunder, so an unplanned quiet night before the race begins yet again, another stop-then-start coming just one night after the All-Star break concluded and the Braves captured an 8-5 triumph against the struggling Nationals.

    (I still can’t believe Washington is one game under .500, for the record.)

    Saturday’s rainout – which resulted in the game being banged several hours before scheduled first pitch, perhaps a result of the famous non-rain rain-delay boondoggle last season – marks the fifth day off in the past six for the Braves, the first four courtesy of the All-Star break. Following Wednesday’s scheduled off day in Miami, Atlanta has just two scheduled off days before Sept. 13.

    The next 10 days leading up to the trade deadline may bolster a gap here, help prop up a deficiency there. But by and large, my gut feeling at this moment (subject to change with one Twitter notification or text message) is the group that has brought the Braves from projections of .500 or less to honest-to-goodness contenders is going to have to carry the mail across the finish line. And let’s not kid ourselves: it’s not going to be easy, even if everything is clicking.

    Looking at the current 25-man roster and considering their impact to the Braves success, there are three players who could push Atlanta into the postseason with strong finishing kicks to the season … performances that, by and large, we have not seen enough of through the first four months.

    Ender Inciarte: It pains me greatly to include him. Inciarte is a fantastic center fielder with two Gold Gloves in his pocket. He also is an ultra-passionate player and a fan favorite. The sheer joy on his face when something goes right is an expression of pride and commitment. But offensively, one season after collecting 201 hits and batting .304, Inciarte looks absolutely lost at the plate.

    His OPS is a career-worst .644. He is mired in a 1-for-25 slump. There have been far too many weak grounders to second base, far too many bats slammed to the ground in frustration, and one pop up in Cincinnati in which Inciarte did not run hard out of the box, which eventually cost his team a run and landed him on the bench for the rest of the afternoon.

    It would be foolish to move on after three rough months from a 27-year-old with his resume and his talent, as some of the lunatic fringe of social media continues suggesting. But there is no debating this: a .206 average against left-handers screams situational platoon, a drastic step for a player who despite his offensive swoon already has stolen a career-best 23 bases. Inciarte resembling something like the hitter we saw last season would be as big as almost any offensive upgrade the Braves could make at the deadline.

    Tyler Flowers: Another very popular member of the roster who is suffering through a rough offensive season. Flowers hit .276 with a .801 OPS through his first two seasons with the Braves, averaging 10 homers per campaign while helping nurture a young pitching staff. His 2018 took a turn south in his opening at-bat of the season when he injured an oblique, and the offensive production has not recovered.

    Flowers brings a .237 average and four homers through 42 games to Sunday, after hitting .281 with 12 longballs in 99 games a season ago. A 2.1 WAR according to Baseball Reference in 2017, he sits at 0.7 this season in part because of a paltry .165 average and 29 strikeouts in 97 at-bats against right-handed pitching.

    The 32-year-old teams with Kurt Suzuki to form a valuable duo behind the plate, something worth denoting given the heat and humidity present for many of Atlanta’s home games. Suzuki has posted a .775 OPS while hitting eight homers in 67 games, and it’s fair to ask at this point if Atlanta isn’t better suited with a matchup platoon moving forward. With both catchers on expiring deals, it presents the Braves with a potential offseason quandary of what to do in 2019 behind the dish, especially if Flowers can’t get going.

    Julio Teheran: There may not be a more polarizing member of this franchise than the gifted right-hander who, at age 27, continues to make us wonder which pitcher we will see every fifth day. It reminds me of the ultimate Jekyll-n-Hyde pitcher, Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, who posted a 1.73 ERA in his 329 career wins and a 5.28 ERA in his 244 career losses.

    Teheran’s recent work is an exercise in living life as a yo-yo made of cowhide and held together with 108 red stitches. Consider: four runs allowed in four innings June 4, no runs (or hits!) allowed in six innings June 17, seven runs in 4 2/3 innings June 23, no runs on two hits in six innings June 29, five runs in five innings (with 10 strikeouts, and with a nasty virus!) July 4. His final two starts before the All-Star break were really good, as his fastball velocity – also on a yo-yo throughout the season – stabilized in the low 90s.

    Consider Teheran owns a .524 win percentage, a 3.62 ERA and a 1.200 WHIP in 181 career starts, and never has missed significant time due to injury despite being an anchor of Atlanta’s rotation for six years running, and the criticism may seem misguided. The only thing that’s been consistent about Teheran this season has been his inconsistency, but he possesses the stuff to be a huge difference maker and rotation stabilizer down the stretch … if he can keep stringing together more upswings than downturns.

    In Conclusion: If you could see these three seasons back on the morning of March 29, one would think the Braves would be below .500 and not pushing for their first postseason berth since 2013. There have been many breakthrough seasons and remarkable performances to put Atlanta squarely in the race.

    The feeling here is other than in the bullpen, a difference-making acquisition isn’t walking through that door. Again, subject to change given the vibration of a cell phone.

    It’s up to the guys in that clubhouse to make it happen. Fair or not, the final destination of this team will in part be determined in how the trio of players named above performs over the final 10 weeks.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.