Monday, July 11, 2005

Mid-Terms

Time for some mid-term grades for the Braves. It's too bad that they couldn't trim the Nationals' divisional lead further, but they are in pretty good shape. T he second half has great promise with a number of key players returning, but they probably still need to trade for at least one reliever. Never mind the "they need an OF" nonsense. It may well prove to be necessary to deal for one, but the offense (as you shall soon see) has done very well.

Infield:

Giles is having a good season despite a slump early on when he was pressing too hard to make up for Chipper's absence. His BB/K is returning to historical levels, and he could be poised for a monster 2nd half. The 1B platoon was responsible for 18 homers and 81 RBIs, and both members have an OPS of .810+. The fill-ins at 3B have been decent in Chipper's absence. Chipper may have been on the way to a career numbers before injuries first hindered and then derailed his season - his return will be welcome. Estrada has been decent but is off last year's .830 OPS pace, McCann has been the best #2 not just for his bat but the fact that his presence in the lineup has Smoltz acting like a 27-year old. Furcal is now the most frustrating Brave. Great SB numbers (29/34) and a recent surge (that has contributed to the Braves' offense of late), and vastly improved defense are still hurt by the fact that he won't take walks anymore. The leadoff hitter's job is to get on base, period. He;s a big part of the problem.

Grade: B
forecast: if Chipper returns soon, and returns to form, this could be a terrific Infield.

Outfield:

He's finally doing it. Andruw is having The Season(tm). A 930+ OPS, a the ML lead in homeruns, and he's put the team on his back while Chipper has been injured. I know Derek Lee is in the triple crown hunt. So what. The Cubs are not in the playoff hunt, again, and I'm not sure the Braves would be in this position without Andruw. How is he not the MVP?

Ryan Langerhans' offensive performance is not up to par, but he's only 25 and this is his first season. His defense has been stellar, though. His bat will need to improve if he's going to be a viable every-day option. Kelly Johnson, on the other hand, looks like the real deal and he's only 23. He's struggled of late, with a major surge in his K's, but he still has 25 BBs in only 132 ABs and has shown decent power. Not bad, given his age and inexperience. Whoever sat him down and said "we're going to work on your mechanics at the plate son" deserves some sort of award, because I can see this guy being around for a very long time. His defense appears above average if nothing else. Could be a future middle of the order guy.

The Mondesi/'Jordan experiment has been a total failure. Jordan is still a fiery competitor but he just doesn't have the tools he did 5 years ago. Jeff Francouer's debut has been electric but the strikeouts are probably more telling than the homeruns. He's so young - I'm not sure how long he'll be able to contribute but he definitely has potential.

Grade: B-
forecast: Pretty good. It would be especially good if Andruw stymied Lee on the triple crown.
forecast: how will the rookies hold up in the second half? A slump by either or both wouldn't be unexpected - it's common amongst first timers. It could cause the Braves to make a move.

Overall Offense::
Runs: 428 (3)
OB: .331 (13)
Slg: .434 (3)
Hr: 100 (4)
BB: 295(6)
Avg: .263 (7)
Bean Count: 24.0 (2 - tie)

Bean count was created by Rob Neyer - it's your composite rankings in home runs hit, walks taken, home runs allowed, walks allowed.

Anemic offense? Not hardly. This is not a team in need of an OF, particularly with Chipper's return. Though with two rookies manning the corner OF positions, anything could happen, and they could both see second-half slumps as major league hitters figure out their weaknesses. Still, the Braves are scoring plenty of runs these days thanks in part to KJ, Andruw, Furcal, and Giles.

Grade: B+
forecast - pretty darn high. Imagine if Kelley Johnson adjusts and keeps drawing walks in bunches, and Chipper returns and starts hitting. We're suddenly a deadly lineup. Johnson's interesting, because he appears to be a lefty who has little trouble with lefties. He's got a decent eye for the strike zone, and power. Langerhans needs to be more productive at the plate. If Andruw keeps this pace he may be MVP.

Starting Rotation:

Smoltz has returned with a band and shown very few problems in the tough "back to the rotation" transition. He's the legitimate #1 guy now, and he came up with a number of big games during the Braves' swoon. He's a stopper. Hudson was a tad disappointing after a good start, but his return will be welcome. So will Hampton's, who doesn't really have particularly good numbers but gets grounders, keeps the ball in the park, and wins ballgames. John Thompson will be missed. Horacio Ramirez has been inconsistent and hasn't shown the form of two years ago. Jorge Sosa has been surprisingly effective as a starter. One wonders if he is better suited for starting long term, but getting him fully converted could take some time. Kyle Davies has shown promise but I fear Cox is overworking him, and he's still very young (21). He may not be fully ready for the majors - though one wonders if his current stint is as much an audition for other teams as anything else.

The Braves have used a variety of spot starters outside of Sosa with mixed results. The return of Hudson will be big but he's got to quit allowing so many baserunners.

Grade: B
forecast: good. Despite Hudson's mixed early results, he's a very good pitcher and his presence as the #2 will benefit everyone behind him. I'm always worried that one day Hampton will cease having success, but he's definitely got Guile taken care of.

Bullpen:

By far the biggest problem area. Reitsma has been decent but I'm not sure if he's well suited for closing, and you have to worry about his wearing down. Blaine Boyer has been fantastic since his call up and his future appears to be in the pen (he had struggled as a starter all year until being moved to the pen shortly before his call up). Sosa's return could really bolster the unit, but he's been more effective as a starter. Can he duplicate that in the pen? He walks too many people, and while no pitcher can live with walks relievers can live with them less. He seems to have closer makeup, though, if he can get his control down. Adam Bernero pitched well early but has been awful since. He just gives up too many hits (.315 avg against). Gryboski has decent numbers, but he's one of those "how is he doing this well?" guys - a .292 avg against and a whip of about 1.5. Keeping it in the park has been his only salvation. John Foster has been good since his callup, but is still relatively untested. He's pitched decent of late, but the first half has been an unqualified disaster for Dan Kolb. The jury is still out on Jim Brower, but he was released for a reason.

Grade: C-
forecast: without a move, this could be a problem area for the Braves. And that's with Sosa returning to the pen and throwing well. I suspect we'll see at least one move on this front, though not necessarily for a closer. Joey Devine is now at 8 innings on the season, with 3 hits versus 5 walks (one a HBP) and 11 ks. He's allowed no runs, and has had 3 outings at AA. Still, I don't think he can be counted on to contribute in Atlanta just yet. He's been dominant - 3 of those walks came in his first game pitching (after a layoff following the college season), so as long as the 2 in his next 7 innings is closer to the norm he looks like the real deal.

Overall Defense:

ERA - 3.77 (2)
SO - 488 (15)
BB allowed - 295 (7)
HR allowed - 76(4)
OB% - .333(10)
Avg - .266(11)
E - 47 (tie-2)
DP -100 (tie-3)


Mixed results. The BB allowed, Hr Allowed, and ERA are all good. That's a very low strikeout total, and not typical of a Braves staff. Having Hampton and Thompson as starters is part of the reason for that, though. The defense has been superlative despite some recent errors (chin up, Marte) - and is part of the reason guys like Thompson and Hampton can enjoy success. Furcal Giles have turned into an excellent DP combo.

Grade: B
forecast: a couple of moves, and we could be cooking. If the Bullpen stabilizes, well the sky is the limit.

Coaching:

Frank Robinson is manager of the year unless the Nationals don't win the division (or possibly just if they don't make the playoffs), which is ridiculous. Cox is doing the best job in baseball. I question his moves sometimes but he is the quintessential player's manager. If you have a problem, he'll settle it away from the public eye. He doesn't have many rules. He gets as much out of his 25 guys as they have to give, with rare exceptions. People love to play for him, and free agents often prosper in Atlanta. Mazzone is Mazzone - I'm not sure if he has a legit HoF chance but he should. One wonders if perhaps Pendleton is starting to make his mark as a hitting coach.

Grade: until Bobby and Mazzone don't get it done they get an A.

Overall: I'm pleased. If, before the season, you had told me we'd have used 10 rookies and only be 2.5 games out of the division lead - even to the surprising Nats - I wouldn't have believed you. This could be a truly electric second half. The decline in attendance of recent years saddens me because this may be one of the best products Atlanta has seen. The rookies seem to feed off on one another, and they're play & demeanor is infectious (witness Smoltz chest bumping McCann after a recent win). This squad is so much fun to root for, from all the guys struggling to grow beards to Old Man Franco, the wunderkid who is producing fantastic numbers in part time. I'm as excited about the second half as I have been in a very long time.

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