• Seattle Mariners

    Settling on Markakis cannot signal end of Braves moves

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It’s funny, if not downright ironic. Nick Markakis is the consummate professional, a man’s man who never shows emotion, speaks quietly to the media (when they can drag a quote out of him), and just goes out and does his job, for better or for worse. This is not the type of player who sparks divisive debate and impassioned argument among a fan base.

    But in the moments after the Atlanta Braves announced the 35-year-old right fielder would return on a one-year, $4-million deal for 2019, social media became lit, as the kids say. And there was no middle ground, with reaction falling into one of two camps:

    • Absolutely outstanding to bring back a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner who earned his first career All-Star berth.
    • Absolutely inexcusable to bring back a mid-30s outfielder who slashed .258/.332/.369 in the second half and went 1-for-12 in the NLDS.

    The stats in the second bullet were pulled from a notes file I compiled in looking back on 2018, a season that saw the Braves slam shut the rebuild and fling open the window to compete. In no way was Atlanta capable of a World Series run a season ago, but entering 2019, expectations have changed. Hence why, within that notes file buried on my hard drive, I typed the following in my Markakis section:

    “Expect him to be elsewhere in 2019.”

    Yeah, about that …

    I am among those who voiced my, shall we say, displeasure with what I feel on the surface is the Braves settling for the status quo one season later, in a division that is markedly better, with a team that cannot be satisfied with just a winning season in 2019. Markakis’ second-half swoon may be a by-product of fatigue from his insistence to play every single day – an approach that absolutely cannot be repeated – or it could be a signal of regression for a player who slashed .272/.350/.391 in his two seasons before 2018.

    And that’s not bad. Not at all. But it’s nowhere close to the .323/.389/.488 slash line Markakis put up through the first half of the season. In other words: the feeling that Markakis’ first four months were more of an anomaly than the norm isn’t just a stance to back up an opinion. It’s a fact.

    What’s also a fact is this team, like it or not, now is viewed through a different lens. Sorry folks, that what happens when you start winning. And if you’re going to have a mid-30s outfielder posting a season OPS+ of 97 (his average for 2016-17 before a 117 last season), you’re going to need big-time offensive performances from several other spots in the lineup to be a World Series contender.

    Yes, Ronald Acuna Jr. turned the baseball world upside down, Freddie Freeman was an MVP candidate until a late-season slump, Ozzie Albies was an All-Star (he also struggled in the second half), and in Josh Donaldson, Atlanta has the potential to possess the MVP-caliber thumper this lineup needs to go with Freeman in the lineup. But Acuna enters his first full big-league season, Freeman turns 30 in September, Albies begins his second full major-league campaign, and Donaldson has battled injuries the past two seasons.

    In other words, right field felt like a natural place to chase an upgrade. And let it be known, the Braves chased. Michael Brantley wasn’t coming here because he wanted to play in Houston, with no state income tax and for a team that won 103 games last season and the World Series the autumn before. Atlanta was not going to pay Andrew McCutchen the stupid money Philadelphia did (rightly so). They like A.J. Pollock but not at the years/money for a talented yet oft-injured outfielder on the other side of 30. Carlos Gonzalez’s splits away from Denver scared them (again, rightly so). Adam Jones arguably is as big of a regression candidate as Markakis.

    Don’t like the Markakis signing and want to be mad about it? Direct your anger toward Phoenix and Seattle. Arizona tore down part of its core and yet, insists on not trading David Peralta as the Diamondbacks front office holds illusions of competing. Seattle has “reimagined” its roster but refuses to deal Mitch Haniger – understandable considering the club control of the rising star.

    On the surface, Atlanta realistically never could have been in on Bryce Harper, although I’ve said all winter he would be the absolute perfect fit in right field and the cleanup spot. The Braves, even if they were awash with a $200 million payroll, could not do a 10-year deal for anybody, not with the names hitting free agency after 2021 (Freeman, Mike Foltynewicz), 2022 (Dansby Swanson), 2023 (Albies, Sean Newcomb, Johan Camargo), 2024 (Acuna, Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint), etc.

    A shorter deal with opt-outs and a high AAV always was the only realistic path, and there is no doubt in my mind Atlanta went there with Harper. Whether it was shot down immediately or considered somewhat seriously, who’s to say? Harper, of course, remains unsigned.

    Markakis truly is one of those guys you want on your team, but his presence should not preclude Atlanta from trying to bolster the offense as we approach spring training. Does that mean J.T. Realmuto and the never-ending soap opera with the dysfunctional Miami front office reaches its long-overdue finale? Does that mean another push for Peralta or Haniger? Or, using some reverse thinking here, does it mean Atlanta finally trades some of its prized prospects for a true ace (Corey Kluber)? With Markakis signed for a small price, do the Braves look to the reliever market (hey, aren’t you Craig Kimbrel)?

    There are positives in bringing back Markakis, of course. You know what you’re going to get. Hard work. Discipline. Leadership. No distractions.

    It would be folly to expect a full season of what Markakis provided in the first half of 2018. But let’s hope what we see this season is closer to that and not a continued downward trend toward the final three months of last season. Because at the end of the day, the answer to that question may turn out to be the biggest one in determining if October baseball awaits for a second consecutive season.

    There will be plenty of rightful second-guessing of Alex Anthopoulos for this signing if it doesn’t.

    —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.

    Healthy or Not, Freeman Stays Focused

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was an innocent-enough comment in an interview during the dog days of August, one in which Freddie Freeman invoked images of Jim Mora standing behind that podium nearly 16 years ago.

    To jog your memory, Mora – then the coach of the Indianapolis Colts and the father of Jim Mora Jr., who guided the Atlanta Falcons to the cusp of a Super Bowl in early 2005 – answered a reporter’s question inquiring about his team reaching the AFC playoffs during a press conference in November 2001. Mora’s memorable response, complete with his high-pitched response to the “playoffs?” question, has long been played on sports talk shows and TV ever since.

    Which brings us to Freeman, the Atlanta Braves first baseman who thusly answered a question from an Atlanta media member before Tuesday’s 4-0 victory over the Seattle Mariners about the team’s goal for the remainder of a season, a campaign that finds the rebuilding Braves buried in the races for the National League East title and a NL wild card spot:

    1B Freddie Freeman enters play Wednesday batting .327 with 22 HR in 303 at-bats

    1B Freddie Freeman enters play Wednesday batting .327 with 22 HR in 303 at-bats

    “Playoffs. Until you’re eliminated, that should be your goal.”

    Let it be known, if there was any doubt in the matter, that Freddie Freeman comes to play.

    He played at a MVP-level until a pitch hit his left wrist in late May. Projected to miss 10 weeks, Freeman missed just seven. Not only did he get back sooner than expected, he returned to the other side of the infield, after he approached management to advocate putting him at third base – mostly because of the success Matt Adams enjoyed at the other corner of the diamond after Freeman’s injury.

    Fast forward to August. The Braves regained their senses – not because of Freeman’s play at the hot corner, which was better than many of us expected – and moved their franchise cornerstone back to his normal position. The road for Atlanta has been rocky since reaching .500 right after the All-Star break, a nadir that briefly piqued dreams of a stunning playoff run long since lost as the schedule and a lack of offense and shaky pitching derailed those far-fetched hopes.

    And yet, on this fourth Tuesday of August, here was Freeman, acknowledging that wrist of his is “80-to-85 percent” in his estimation. He will need the break provided by the offseason to heal fully the wrist. In a way, it is a shame that Aaron Loup’s pitch rode up and in and plunked off his wrist in May, because he was laying the foundation for one of the best individual seasons in Atlanta Braves history.

    Even with the wrist issues, there has not been much dropoff after Freeman’s return. If he had enough at-bats to qualify, Freeman would be in the top five in the National League in hitting. He likely would be closing in on 30 homers at this point. After finishing sixth in the NL MVP voting a season ago, Freeman certainly would be in the conversation for the award were it not for the time missed.

    But the Braves’ captain presses on. That label is applied by me, for if this were a hockey team (RIP Thrashers, and may the Atlanta Spirit Group burn in hell for selling out the franchise, but I digress), there is no doubt which player would wear the “C” on his sweater.

    Freddie Freeman's 1.048 OPS would lead all NL hitters. (Lacks at-bats needed to qualify)

    Freddie Freeman’s 1.048 OPS would lead all NL hitters. (Lacks at-bats needed to qualify)

    Freeman, with the wrist aching and his team miles out of playoff content, went out Tuesday and collected two hits against a Seattle team fighting for a wild-card spot. He extended his hitting streak to 11 games, raised his average to .327 and, through his words before the game and his actions after first pitch, further cemented his standing as the centerpiece of the greatest rebuild in Atlanta since Sherman rode through town.

    For all the great young pitching bubbling at or just below the surface – Lucas Sims showing yet more promise of a brighter day with six shutout innings Tuesday – and the position players who are sparking plenty of conversation – Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson in the middle of the major-league infield; outfielder Ronald Acuna continuing his destruction of Triple-A pitching – Freeman remains the linchpin.

    News that his wrist is not 100 percent caused plenty of angst amongst Braves fans. I for one took to Twitter to express my opinion that Freeman is too important to run out there for nine innings every day the rest of the way in a season that will end with a losing record. I’m old; I remember Bob Horner, the curly-haired promising third baseman in the 1980s whose career was derailed by wrist injuries. It makes me cringe to this day what he – and his team – may have accomplished had he stayed healthy.

    But seconds after the TV broadcast crew mentioned the wrist summation given by Freeman in the first inning, he lined an opposite-field single to start his evening. Freeman continues showing up for work and putting forth the effort one would expect from a guy trying to get his team into the playoffs. The captain is in place, and his focus is on October.

    That workman-like approach, that leadership, will serve these Braves well as they continue their development from rebuilding to relevance to championship contenders.

    —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.

     

     

    What the future holds for Braves’ offense

    When the non-tender deadline passes today, teams around baseball will know exactly where their rosters stand. Like the twenty-nine other teams around the league, the Braves have been aware since the season ended what their biggest holes. For Atlanta, as Kent Covington pointed out, the most glaring problems have been with pitching. An ongoing crisis of arms that began with the fall of Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens continues today as the Braves decide which of Kris Medlen or Brandon Beachy to tender. However, the offense is not without its problems and its hole, too.

    Yesterday the Seattle Mariners signed slugger Nelson Cruz to a 4-year deal. The deal itself seems likely to blow up for Seattle somewhere between seasons two and three. Seattle had been one of the teams that seemed the most likely fit for a guy like Justin Upton. Though the Braves contend they haven’t been shopping Upton around, they have been getting plenty of calls about he and fellow slugger Evan Gattis. Prior to the Cruz signing, it would have seemed that Upton and Gattis together could answer all of the Mariners offensive woes (protection for highest-paid player Robinson Cano, backup for everyday catcher Mike Zunino) while giving the Braves what they need most: starting pitching. This didn’t work out and as of this writing the Braves still have both Upton and Gattis.

    Tommy La Stella was sent to the Chicago Cubs in November for former Brave Arodys Vizcaino.

    Tommy La Stella was sent to the Chicago Cubs in November for former Brave Arodys Vizcaino.

    With the possible trade partner of Seattle, the Braves were all but assured a starting pitcher. Whether that be Taijuan Walker or James Paxton, that would have answered the pitching need that saw the Braves trade away Jason Heyward to the Cardinals for starter Shelby Miller and Tommy La Stella to the Cubs to reacquire Arodys Vizcaino. The Mariners, unlike the Braves, have a flexible and growing budget. It was a better organizational decision to seek out a free agent. The Braves, despite the growth in their budget in the last two years, do not have this luxury.

    Where does this leave Atlanta with possible trades? They have spoken for nearly a year with the Astros about Evan Gattis. Their requirement of Houston seems a bridge too far, though. The Braves would require the Astros to pick up the remainder of the B.J. Upton deal in addition to swapping Gattis for Dexter Fowler. This, of course, wouldn’t answer the question of what to do in rightfield with the departure of Heyward. Fowler could potentially be a lead off man, but not exactly the prototypical lead off man it seems Atlanta has been looking for over the past four to five years.

    A small market for outfielders means the prices will be high for free agents. This would include aging and health-plagued bats like Torii Hunter and Nick Markakis. Other OF options out there are Alex Rios and Matt Kemp. The chances of the Braves taking on the money and potential health risks of Kemp are slim. Rios looks to be more likely to stay in the American League.

    Let’s take a step back for a moment and assume the Braves don’t make a deal to send Justin Upton elsewhere. Upton is due to make $14.5 million in 2015. He will then leave as a FA, assuming he is too expensive for the Braves to hang on to. If they make a qualifying offer after the 2015 season and he chooses to walk, they are assured a draft pick. For a guy who still hit 29 homers and posted 102 RBIs in 2014, that’s not a terrible bat to keep around despite the strikeouts. Unlike his brother, there is a still a huge upside to keeping Upton.

    As far as Evan Gattis, he is more expendable for Atlanta (yes, it breaks my heart to say that). Young and cheap for the team, he isn’t breaking the bank sticking around, but he is a semi-valuable trade chip. If they could come to terms with Houston in a deal that would bring either a hitter like Fowler or even a starting pitcher like Feldman to the club, it would be worth it to the front office to do so. Gattis has the potential to be a very good American League hitter–given the ability to DH regularly–and would still be able to catch either in a starting or backup role. Let’s face it: He’s not a great option in left field for any club.

    While on the topic of backup catchers, let’s discuss our old friend David Ross. Ross left two years ago to go win a World Series with the Boston Red Sox and now his contract is up. Because his battery mate Jon Lester is also looking for a team, the probability that they end up in the same place is good given their chemistry and Lester’s improved numbers with Ross behind the dish. But if Lester were to sign with Atlanta, a club he has talked to, or Ross were to sign away from Lester, Ross would be a great guy to have back with the club in a backup role. The front office has been looking for a veteran guy to fill the backup role behind either Gattis or Bethancourt and Ross fits that bill on top of already having amazing chemistry with the other guys on the roster. A few other options for Atlanta to consider: Retaining Gerald Laird, signing A.J. Pierzynski, approaching John Buck or continuing their offseason trade partnership with the Yankees to get Austin Romine. Of those options none add much to the offense above and beyond what Laird has the last two years. In fact, Laird, despite not having much power, is the better bet at getting on base. But if the Braves are looking for a guy who can lead the staff every few days, you can’t go wrong with John Buck.

    On a final note let’s return to the issue of who will fill the lead off hitter void that Jason Heyward leaves. Heyward was never meant to be a lead off hitter. It just so happened he was the Braves’ best option. Andrelton Simmons isn’t meant to be a lead off hitter and B.J. Upton’s lead off days went the way of the dodo when his strikeout rate went through the roof. With Ramiro Pena and Tommy La Stella gone, the options are few. If the Braves ever give Jose Constanza a true shot in the big leagues he could presumably lead off. And the latest Yankee to join the club, Zoilo Almonte, is too much of a wild card. That leaves the possibility of signing Fowler and asking him to step into that role or doing something else entirely.

    Here’s a thought: Say the Mariners are still interested in Justin Upton or Evan Gattis. They do still need a right fielder and maybe a backup catcher. They have a backlog of outfielders in Triple-A (guys like Julio Morban and Stefen Romero) and players they have been hanging onto despite talks during the trade deadline last year. What about Dustin Ackley? He, too, isn’t a prototypical lead off man. But he brings speed, good base running and exceptional baseball IQ to his game. After wanting to bring up Nick Franklin and then Chris Taylor followed by signing premiere second baseman Robinson Cano, Dustin Ackley was tried in the outfield and turned into a decent left fielder. His speed would be an asset in the large expanse of Turner Field as well as on the base paths. He’s a grinder and one any club would love to have. Are you reading this John Hart? A trade for Ackley, depending on the circumstances, could also bring with him a reliever from one of the best rated and least talked about bullpens in either league.

    Perhaps it’s merely wishful thinking on my part to see the Mariners and Braves become trade partners. Never rule out the wild card in baseball: Billy Beane. It’s said that the A’s also have interest in Gattis, Upton or both. If that’s the case, who knows what will happen.

    With the non-tender deadline today and winter meetings to begin soon, it looks like we’ll have answers soon.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

     

    Braves skid through San Diego & Seattle

    If there are two teams in baseball that can truly understand what the Atlanta Braves are going through, the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners can.

    The Padres have struggled their way through the 2014 season with terrible hitting. They are dead last in runs scored (363). As a team, they have the lowest batting average in either league (.225). At the trade deadline, the Padres traded away their most useful hitters (Headley and Denorfia) and let veteran closer Huston Street go to a division rival. However, the Padres long-term plan is much different from the plan of the Atlanta Braves. They aren’t looking to contend right now.

    The Mariners, like the Braves, have their eyes set on the postseason. Their hope is to steal the second Wild Card spot in the American League. To do that, there biggest struggle will be giving run support to their strong rotation and dominant bullpen. They are second to last in the American League in runs scored (432). If they hope to make it into October, they will have to show the consistency that both they and their recent opponent lack.

    At the trade deadline, Frank Wren made a great deal with the Chicago Cubs to bring versatile utility man Emilio Bonifacio and left handed reliever James Russell to the team. Those additions were meant to fill holes in the bullpen and on the bench. However, the Braves have a bigger issue: Consistency. After a strong first half, the usually consistent bat of Freddie Freeman has gone cold. The Uptons have been reliable only in their strikeout rate. While Johnson has shown signs of the hitter he was in his breakout 2013 season, he, Simmons and Gattis are under performing at the plate. The bright spot in the lineup has been none other than rookie Tommy La Stella. Their lack of ability to play to their potential has been no more apparent than on their recent 8-game losing skid.

    Julio Teheran struggled against the Mariners allowing 9 hits, 6 earned runs & walking 2.

    Julio Teheran struggled against the Mariners allowing 9 hits, 6 earned runs & walking 2.

    Even the Atlanta Braves at their best would have faced a formidable foe in Felix Hernandez in Seattle. Having taken their struggling offense to Seattle, with one catastrophic defensive miscue, the Braves come away with 2 more losses and a great deal of frustration. They didn’t get much reprieve Wednesday against the resurgent veteran Chris Young who has put together a Comeback Player of the Year-caliber season thus far. It was simply poor luck that Julio Teheran didn’t have his best stuff when facing a team like the Mariners who are as prone to not supporting their starters as the Braves are.

    What the 8-game skid has made clear:

    • B.J. Upton deserves to be platooned in center field. Whether that be with Emilio Bonifacio or someone else, his presence in the lineup is only damaging to a team that struggles to score runs. Moving Upton to 8th in the order simply gives opposing teams the opportunity to get back-to-back strikeouts.
    • Andrelton Simmons is the lynchpin for the Braves. As Terry Pendleton calls him–The Reason. With Simmons’ sprained ankle in Seattle, the Atlanta front office held their breath knowing that Simmons cannot be replaced. Sure, Ramiro Pena, Tommy La Stella, Emilio Bonifacio (and numerous Triple-A players) could stand in for him, but his ability to prevent runs is second to none in baseball.
    • Tommy La Stella remains shaky on defense. While the Braves no longer send someone in as a defensive replacement for La Stella in the late innings, his bat may not continue to prove valuable enough to turn a blind eye to his defense. He’s young. He will improve. But the team is going to hold him responsible for failures like that in Seattle when he dropped a pop-up and likely cost them the game.
    • Jason Heyward can be one of the hottest hitters in baseball. When on a hot streak, there is no scarier player for opposing pitchers than Heyward. In the month of July, Heyward hit .309. In the first week of August he has hit .529 with 9 hits, 2 doubles, 1 triple and 1 RBI. In a week he has only had 4 strikeouts.

    BRAVES HOPE TO SNAP SKID AGAINST RIVALS…

    Getting back home may be just the thing the Braves need. Sometimes long road trips get into the heads of the players and getting home is the reset they need. Whether this pans out or not, we’ll see. There are things that have to happen to get the boys out of this rut.

    First, this constant shuffle of the lineup to make the bats come alive isn’t working. Playing with all of the pieces in motion has proven a disaster for Fredi Gonzalez and has to stop. Not having a DH will take away one option for Fredi. B.J. Upton isn’t going to give the Braves more in the 8-hole than in the 2-hole. With the absence of Simmons, a decision will have to be made about which guys from the bench can be the most beneficial to the offense. Is Pena the best option? If not Pena, where is Bonifacio best used–CF or SS? Those two positions are the two that Fredi should rightfully shuffle. What he can’t do is expect consistency from a team that has a different lineup everyday or are expected to perform different jobs each day. Consistency may need to start with Fredi on down.

    Welcoming the Nats to Turner Field bodes well for the Braves breaking this losing streak. The Braves have dominated the Nationals in head-to-head matchups over the last 2 seasons. But if the Braves can’t get past the Nationals, this weekend could push the Braves down in the standings and give the Nats the space they need to run away with the division.

    The Nationals acquired Matt Thornton for their often chaotic bullpen. Thornton, the holder of a 2.55 ERA, came over from the Yankees and shores up the ‘pen. At the trade deadline, the Nats picked up Asdrubel Cabrera from the Indians for an infield prospect. Cabrera gives the Nats a steady hand in the infield as well as a veteran bat to the lineup. The Nats hope this helps with the shortcomings of Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa up the middle.

    Atlanta will once again face a Nationals team that is without Ryan Zimmermann who is currently on the DL with a hamstring injury.

    The Nationals will pit Strasburg (8-9, 3.39) vs. Santanta (10-6, 3.59) Friday night. Saturday’s game will feature Roark (11-7, 2.94) vs. Harang (9-6, 3.41). The finale Sunday is Gonzalez (6-8, 4.01) vs. Wood (7-9, 3.20).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves swept by M’s, meet D-backs in desert

    Hot off a sweep of the Tigers and a makeup game with the Yankees, the Mariners flew into Atlanta and swept the Braves in the 2-game interleague set. Seattle improved to 24-15 record since April 22nd. The Braves did their best to keep pace with the M’s on both sides of the ball. The difference in the series came down to runs allowed by the Braves’ ‘pen in game 1 and no run support for Mike Minor’s brilliant effort in game 2.

    As was a concern coming into the series, the Braves’ ‘pen seems to be on a bit of a slide of late, allowing runs rather than coming in and shutting down the opponent’s offense. The Mariners’ ‘pen was the opposite, now having gone 13 innings without allowing a run. One reason that might have contributed to the 2 runs given up by Alex Wood in relief of Gavin Floyd is that he had been up getting warm twice prior to actually being called on in the ‘pen. Wood has yet to truly fall into a rhythm of any kind as a reliever. Like Wood, David Hale is in an unusual situation given that he is supposedly the long man and hasn’t been called into high-pressure situations like other relievers. What the roles of Wood and Hale will be going forward is uncertain. What is certain is that Jordan Walden is nearing his return to the club. Walden, who was sent to the DL with a hamstring strain, is currently making rehab starts with Triple-A Gwinnett. We could see him in the upcoming series in Arizona.

    Because the Braves never made it into a save situation, Craig Kimbrel remains at 154 career saves and will likely earn his next save on the road. His 155th save will make him the sole record holder in franchise saves. He currently shares the top spot with John Smoltz.

    Mike Minor lead the category of things that went incredibly well for the Braves over the 2-game set. Minor went 7 innings of 1-run baseball, giving up 6 hits and striking out 10th strikeout a season-high 10 batters. It was the third double-digit strikeout of his career and his first since May of last season against the Mets. Unfortunately, Minor was bested by Iwakuma who threw 8 innings of shutout ball, striking out 7 before handing over the game to closer Fernando Rodney for the save.

    The first game of the set is much less easy to explain. While the Braves got to starter Erasmo Ramirez early, chasing him after he pitched 4 innings, the M’s bullpen was lights out and the Braves ‘pen faltered. Gavin Floyd once again missed securing his first win in a Braves uniform. He went 5 innings, game up 3 earned runs and now holds a 2.80 ERA. Floyd, for his part, has been great for the Braves. He simply seems to be the hard luck pitcher of the season for the Braves. We’ll see Floyd again in the Arizona series and hopefully he can secure that elusive first win then.

    BRAVES MEET DIAMONDBACKS IN THE DESERT…

    Entering the series in Arizona, the Braves are 31-27 and tied with the surprising Miami Marlins for first place in the National League East. The Diamondbacks who struggled mightily in the first two months of the season have won 3 games straight to improve to 26-36, still last in the National League West.

    The Braves will take the hot-hitting Justin Upton to the desert where he once played to face off the team with the newly minted Martin Prado bobblehead. Justin is hitting .294 on the season with 12 doubles, a triple, 13 homers and 33 RBIs. Thus far he is living up to his billing when he joined the Braves. The position player that headlined the trade for Upton, Martin Prado, got off to a slow start this season but has improved to a .275 batting average with 10 doubles, 3 triples, 2 homers and 26 RBIs. Prado has really kicked it into gear for the D-Backs in the last 18 games, going 22-for-63 (.349) with both of his homers coming over that period. While Prado and Upton were never meant to be a bat-for-bat trade, both are turning out to be what each team hoped they’d get when the trade was made.

    Another key piece of the Upton trade, Randall Delgado, fell out of favor and was demoted to the bullpen. He has an 0-1 record with a 7.24 ERA in 27 1/3 innings this season. The oft-called “throw in” piece of the Upton trade was Chris Johnson. After a season that marked career highs in multiple categories and nearly a batting title, Johnson has struggled this season. He has seemed lost at the plate in recent weeks. Johnson is 14-for-70 (.200) with 1 homer, 20 strikeouts, 0 walks and a disappointing .197 OBP over the last 18 games. As is always the case with a lineup, it ebbs and flows. Luckily for the Braves, Johnson’s struggles have been mostly covered up by the resurgence of Jason Heyward and the on-base percentage of B.J. Upton.

    Jason Heyward continues his streak of being Atlanta’s hottest hitter. J-Hey has a .330 (29-for-88) average with 3 homers, 9 RBIs and a .404 on-base percentage in his past 22 games. He and B.J. Upton are getting on base, the problem seems to fall with inconsistent contact rates among the 3 through 6 hole hitters. An additional improvement with Heyward and Upton is speed. They have each stolen 9 bases this season. Keeping their running game hot will help the Braves keep atop the standings.

    The Braves will send Teheran (5-3, 1.83) to the mound against McCarthy (1-7, 5.20) in the series opener. Santana (5-2, 4.10) will take the bump against Miley (3-6, 4.85) on Saturday. And pitted against one another in the series finale will be Harang (4-4, 3.24) and Anderson (4-0, 3.32).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

     

    Fresh off sweep of Marlins, Braves welcome Mariners

    While nothing seemed to be going right for the Braves in the long split-series with the Boston Red Sox, every break seemed to go their way at Marlins Park. While the defense was shaky in moments, it was unequivocally improved over the Red Sox series. While the bullpen made fans hold their breath when a game sat on the broad shoulders of new addition Shae Simmons, that moment was one of the only moments where the bullpen looked questionable–a great improvement from the Red Sox series when the ‘pen blew leads in late innings in three of the four games.

    Craig Kimbrel secured the 154th save of his young career tying John Smoltz for franchise record.

    Craig Kimbrel secured the 154th save of his young career tying John Smoltz for franchise record.

    The biggest story coming out of the Marlins’ series came in the second game when Craig Kimbrel entered the game for what turned out to be his 154th save as an Atlanta Brave. Kimbrel tied John Smoltz for the franchise record in saves at 154 and will enter the upcoming series against the Mariners with the hope of taking sole ownership of the record while at the Ted in front of Altanta’s fans.

    Kimbrel has been nothing short of dominant since his first save in 2010. Kimbrel has received numerous honors since his big league debut including NL Rookie of the Year in 2011, named to the National League all-star roster in each of his three full seasons (2011, 2012, 2013), has shown well in Cy Young balloting (9th, 5th and 4th in 2011, 2012, and 2013, respectively) and has appeared on MVP ballots in each of his three full seasons including as high as 8th in 2012. In addition to what will likely be the record for saves in the Atlanta Braves franchise, Kimbrel holds the record for rookie saves with 46.

    A bit of a comparison between Craig Kimbrel and John Smoltz on the numbers alone: Kimbrel has a career 1.42 ERA to go with his 154 saves, including 418 strikeouts and a ridiculous SO/9 ratio of 15.2. Now, bearing in mind that Smoltz was a starter both before and after his time as a closer for some amazing Braves’ teams, the numbers are still interesting. It took Smoltz a bit longer to reach the 154 saves mark–285 1/3 innings to Kimbrel’s 247 2/3 innings. Smoltz put up a 2.65 ERA with 300 strikeouts and a SO/9 ratio of 9.5. Their WHIP when compared is interesting as well. Smoltz posted a 1.106 and Kimbrel? 0.913. There are few stats where Kimbrel doesn’t come out looking better than Smoltz and this in itself is impressive. Sure, they’re different pitchers with different approaches, but when you think about the dominant arms of franchise history, Smoltz is in the top 5. Which begs the question: Just how good will Craig Kimbrel be in his Atlanta career and where will he end up on that list of dominant arms in franchise history? Lucky for Kimbrel and the Braves, we have through the 2017 season, thanks to the 4 yr./$42 million deal signed in the offseason, to find out.

    Kimbrel was not the only story of the series in Miami. Jason Heyward continues to be the best bat in the Braves’ arsenal and one that is reminding folks around baseball just how how the ceiling is on his potential. In Heyward’s past 10 games he has posted a reliable .293 average with 12 hits, 2 homers, 6 RBIs and 6 walks. His .383 on-base percentage has been very important to the Braves.

    Like Heyward, B.J. Upton has been steadily improving upon his on-base percentage. One of the stats that sticks out with the new and improved numbers is how he has struck out in 1 in every 7 plate appearances in his past 13 games. In the first 39 games of the season, B.J. put up a 2.8 PA/K rate. While his batting average in the last 10 games has been a more than respectable .282, it is his reliable on-base percentage of .341 that has proven most impressive.

    It can’t go without noting how Evan Gattis performs against the Marlins. Once again stepping up in a big situation, with the Braves and Marlins tied 2-2 in the finale, Gattis launched the 6th homer of his career in 63 career at-bats against the Fish. He now has a .333 average with those 6 homers and 20 RBI in his career (18 games) against Miami. El Oso Blanco now leads all MLB catchers with 11 homers. Strangely, Gattis has less walks (9) than homers.


    BRAVES WELCOME MARINERS TO TURNER FIELD…

    A 2-game series at home against an American League team isn’t exactly how the Braves would like to take on after the series last week with the Red Sox. However, the Braves are facing a much different team Tuesday and Wednesday. The Mariners come into the series with a 29-28 record, tied with the decimated Rangers for 3rd in the AL West.

    The Braves will luck out and miss Felix Hernandez in the 2-game set against the Mariners as well as injured hurlers Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. However, they will have to face Hisashi Iwakuma who is returning to the fine form he showed in 2013. Iwakuma missed the first month of the season after breaking a finger on his pitching hand in spring training.

    Iwakuma had 3 rough outings since rejoining the team in May, giving up 4 or more runs in each. However, he matched those 3 outings with 3 solid performances where he was able to hold opponents to 6 or fewer hits. He has been an innings eater, going 7 or more innings in 4 of his 6 starts.

    Fresh off a late-inning walloping of the Yankees in a makeup game, the Mariners finally have back perennial all-star Robinson Cano who had been held out of 5 games with a bone bruise to his hand. In the absence of Cano, the M’s have found steady offense from the surging Kyle Seager who has improved his batting average from .230 to .253 in the month of May. In his last 12 games, Seager has hit .342 with 2 doubles, 3 triples and 2 homers.

    The Mariners and Braves have been seeing reverse trends in their bullpens in recent weeks. For the Braves, David Carpenter has had a string of terrible luck. He had been one of the most reliable options for Fredi Gonzalez up until recently, but has allowed 7 hits and 4 runs while only being able to retire 2 batters in the last 10 men he has faced. Lloyd McClendon has seen the opposite from one of the arms in his ‘pen. Yoervis Medina has recorded a 1.08 ERA with 11 strikeouts in his last 9 appearances, rapidly improving his season ERA. Medina had been unreliable for McClendon and wild in high pressure situations. Both arms will be interesting to watch as the two teams square off.

    Seattle sends Erasmo Ramirez (1-4, 6.00) against Gavin Floyd (0-2, 2.37). Floyd has been outstanding since joining the club, but has been unlucky in run support. It’s time the boys get Gavin his first win as an Atlanta Brave. The second and final game of the set will pit Hisashi Iwakuma (3-2, 3.09) against Mike Minor (2-3, 3.41).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.