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5th October 2017 - Dodgy Dealings

Posted by theprincipality on October 6, 2017 at 6:25 AM Comments comments (1)

I was getting ready to prepare my final blog of the season, all set to talk about a deflating finish, where we barely held off the Mets to stay third in the NL East, then the team made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. An MLB investigation, which nobody in the outside world knew was happening, revealed the Braves had made some serious breaches of the rules regarding international signings. Next thing we know, GM John Coppolella resigns/jumps before he was pushed and potential sanctions await.


It was certainly a bombshell to wake up to, though the exact breaches of the rules are as yet unknown - just described as 'serious'. It's probably the case that Coppy has been made the scapegoat, but I have to back the club's decision. As GM, it was his responsibility to ensure we acted within the rules and clearly we have not. We can only hope now that any sanctions are not too serious, given the near completion of the so-called rebuilding phase.


Not to condone whatever we have done, but it seems inevitable that something like this was going to happen. A couple of years ago the club dismissed GM Frank Wren, had a firesale of all its marketable stars and embarked on a self-proclaimed journey of rebuilding where only baseball's ultimate prize would be sufficient. John Hart was brought in to oversee the process and in turn Coppolella to replace Wren. With a brand new, state of the art stadium under construction and a run of successive losing seasons ahead with the promise of brighter days to come, the pressure on the Braves management to succeed has been enormous. It would seem that the ethos was to win at all costs.


It is probably important to note that these breaches only seem to have occurred where international players are concerned. Moving into geographical areas beyond the jurisdiction of MLB and the United States has always been frought with corruption and dodgy dealings, not least in Cuba and Venezuela, which historically have been enemies of the US. Money and prestige is important here, along with an entourage of minders, agents and bureaucrats protecting young assets and all open to bribery or at least greasing the wheels. Most Major League teams covet the young talent from these countries and obtaining signatures is a competitive business. The Braves' recent success in procuring international talent was sooner or later going to attract the wrong kind of attention.


Of course, I have no doubt the Braves are not the only team to have engaged in unethical practices on the international market. It is just they are the only team to be caught for it, so far. Over the last three decades John Schuerholz has prided himself on running an organisation that meets the highest ethical and professional standards, so make no mistake, this is a serious black eye for the Atlanta Braves and as such no surprise that Coppolella had to go. It is a shame because he was otherwise doing a great job, but no one person is bigger than the organisation, so we must say farewell and look towards the future.


In brighter news, manager Brian Snitker had his contract option exercised for 2018 this morning. There had been some doubt whether he would remain in the role after a disapponting end to the season saw the team finish 3rd in the NL East, 25 games back of the Nationals and 18 games under 500. Nonetheless, Snitker was popular with the players and with the sudden upheaval created by Coppolella's departure, I expect the club decided that was enough change to cope with all at once.


I think Snitker did a reasonable job. If you take the second half of last season and the first half of this, we were one of the best teams in baseball. He was let down in many ways by a terrible bullpen (save for a couple of pitchers) and a young pitching staff experiencing growing pains. His veteran pitchers did not exactly set the world alight. Teheran, Dickey and Foltynewicz all had periods where they impressed, but also periods where they couldn't buy an out. With respective records of 11-13, 10-10 and 10-13, all with ERAs of over 4, it is easy to see that pitching inconsistencies were the main reason our season unfolded as it did.


As has become a familiar theme in these blogs, the focus now turns to the future. Atlanta has a huge crop of talent, many of which have Major League experience with the others not far away. 2018 will still be part of the rebuilding, but could see a postseason push and should almost certainly be a winning season. Expect big things from Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Sean Newcomb, Luis Gohara, Max Fried, Lucas Sims and Mike Soroka. Anchored by All-Stars Freddie Freeman, Ender Inciarte and Julio Teheran, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic. Just need to sort out the bullpen now!

29th August 2017 - Giving Up (Again!)

Posted by theprincipality on August 29, 2017 at 8:10 AM Comments comments (0)

Someone should tell the Atlanta Braves that the season doesn't end at the All-Star break, because their miserable performances in the second half of the season is becoming a habit. Sure, 2016 was a positive second half, but in that case the team didn't show up until August. Now, here we are in 2017, barely a month out from having an even record, 14 games below 500. It is like they did the hard work getting back to parity, gave themselves a pat on the back and considered it a job well done - forgetting there were two months to go!


As embarrassing as it is accounting for 25% of Philadelphia's wins or having only one starter with an ERA of under 4 (and barely that), the worst part is that they have thrown away what was turning into a really promising season. Obviously they are still trying hard, but since my last blog there are very few areas of improvement and we will end the season with that well-known feeling of disappointment.


I can pinpoint where it started to go wrong. Having been swept by the Cubs, the Braves rolled into Los Angeles for a four-game set with the red-hot Dodgers. Unworried by the Chicago series, Atlanta took the first two games, much to everyone's surprise. The team then immediately traded Jaime Garcia to Minnesota and they haven't looked the same since.


I'm not saying Garcia was the difference in winning ballgames, nor was he the life and soul of the clubhouse, but having reached that point in the season having only used six starters, his trade left a rotational hole and disrupted the rhythm of the rest of the club. Management rightly used the opportunity to give some exposure to some young prospects, but so far Blair, Wisler and Sims have experienced inevitable growing pains, added to those being suffered by Sean Newcomb. With two spots in the rotation filled by struggling rookies and one by a faltering ace in Julio Teheran, this has put pressure on Mike Foltynewicz to win every start and it would appear the pressure has got to him as well. He has gone from rotational anchor to junk in just a few starts. Only the experienced RA Dickey has excelled during this time.


The failures of the rotation have added to the workload of the bullpen, thus causing more scoreboard woe. Jim Johnson, having been demoted from the closer's role, has let his ERA balloon in recent weeks. There is simply nobody in the bullpen taking a leadership role. Vizcaino and Ramirez maintain respectable ERAs but that's about it.


Offensively, the bats have collectively cooled from their electric first half. Freddie Freeman has hit more for average than power since his return from injury, but the lack of power threat has changed how oppositions pitch to our lineup. Most surprising of all, the most power recently has come from Kurt Suzuki, who has now reached 15 home runs for the year whilst basically being confined to a backup role. Dansby Swanson has yo-yoed back from Triple-A and bats alongside Ozzie Albies at the bottom of the lineup. Albies has looked good after a slow start to his Major League career, and Swanson has hit well since his return. Hopefully this bodes well for next year.


The biggest question mark in 2018 is what to do with third base. Currently occupied by Brandon Phillips, it is probably safe to say he won't return next year. Phillips reluctantly accepted third base duties, having played his entire career at second, but the fact he had to go away and think about it shows he doesn't have the team's best interests at heart. For me that just confirms rumours I'd heard about Phillips as a teammate over the course of the last decade. It is likely Johan Camargo will get another shot at the hot corner when he returns from injury, but it remains to be seen whether he can sustain the same level over the course of an entire year.


So the question remains how the Braves can turn this second half slump around and stop it becoming an annual event. Chances of getting back to 500 this season are pretty much done, so 2018 must have a fast start and some positive trade activity around the break, as effectively all we did was this season was sell. The rotation needs a reliable anchor from the get-go and this must be the offseason priority to stand any chance in 2018.

 

14th July 2017 - First Half Report

Posted by theprincipality on July 13, 2017 at 6:35 PM Comments comments (1)

So we find ourselves at the All-Star break in the 2017 season. Though not the literal half way point of the campaign, what remains is termed as the season's second half and what happens from here defines the success or failure of the year. The first half has seen its fair share of challenges, none bigger than losing Freddie Freeman for two months with a broken hand, but through the ups and downs the team has battled and remains within touching distance of an even record. In fact, at the season's literal halfway point, the Braves were just a solitary game under .500. Mediocrity hardly seems the right place to aim for, but consider that the team hasn't had a winning record since 1st June 2015 and you can see why .500 is a big deal. You have to crawl before you can walk.


The Braves have a talented crop of youngsters and some seasoned veterans, as well as a few pleasant surprises in the roster. I would be baffled if they did not finish the season with more than 81 wins. Short of another management fire sale, this team is on the up, and on the up this year. So with half the season down it is time for the mid-year report card.


Freddie Freeman - A+


When not on the DL, Freeman has carried the team on his shoulders and earned every cent of his salary. Hitting close to .350, he leads the team with 16 home runs, having missed two months with his broken hand. Now back, ahead of schedule he continues to hit like he was never away, and showed his team-first approach by moving to third base to accommodate Matt Adams at first.


Matt Adams - A


An emergency pickup from the Cardinals when Freeman went down, Adams has exceeded all expectations and admirably filled Freeman's shoes at first base. In a Braves uniform, he is hitting close to .300 and has 13 home runs. The Braves would have taken the average alone. Adams now has great trade value, but hopefully Freeman's move to third works out and Adams continues to produce in a Braves uniform for the rest of the year.


Mike Foltynewicz - A


Folty was always tabbed as the fifth starter in the rotation for this year, until further notice. The hard-throwing righty has had major teething problems the last few seasons, as well as a couple of potentially life-threatening injuries to overcome. With that all behind him, he has emerged as the team's ace this year and leads the club with 7 wins and a 3.77 ERA. He still lacks enough consistency to be considered a true ace, but his recent near no-hitter shows he is going in the right direction and justifies the faith the Braves have shown in him.


Ender Inciarte - A


Inciarte earned his first All-Star appearance this year and but for a slow start would be in contention for the batting title. His defence remains outstanding, amongst the very best in the league and his ability to get on base has set the tone for the rest of the team's very productive offensive year.


Matt Kemp - A-


Ultimately Kemp is what the Braves ended up with from the Alex Wood trade after shipping Hector Olivera to San Diego late last year. At that point, the Braves just wanted rid of Olivera and Kemp was seen as a veteran who had seen his best days. How wrong we have been. Kemp has been superb, defying the critics and producing on a daily basis. There are a few niggly injury concerns, which come with age, and his bat has cooled the past few weeks, but had Kemp been selected as an All-Star, few could have argued against it.


Tyler Flowers - A-


Flowers has been another pleasant surprise. When the 2016 season ended, the Braves picked up Kurt Suzuki and the catcher's position was one of real worry as the team felt they lacked an everyday player. Flowers has stepped up and hit .306, adding a dependable bat in the middle of the lineup. He has coped well behind the plate and proven himself the best pitch-framer in the game. His record against would-be base stealers has improved and he was another who could have easily justified an All-Star selection.


Brandon Phillips - A-


Another veteran pickup who has surprised. Phillips approaches every game with enthusiasm and a huge personality and continues to defy his age with stellar defence and a productive bat. His two walk-off hits in consecutive nights recently was a Braves first since 1988. Phillips has trade value, but like Adams, hopefully he remains in a Braves uniform for the rest of 2017.


Nick Markakis - B


Markakis is the quiet achiever. Overshadowed in the outfield by Inciarte and Kemp, Markakis continues to produce great defence on a daily basis and a dependable bat you can put anywhere in the lineup. Like many players, he has hot and cold streaks but he is out there every day and you can never question his talent or commitment. Dependable, if not extravagant.


Julio Teheran - B-


Julio has been a classic Jekyll and Hyde character this year. On the road, he has shown he is a multiple All-Star, whilst at home he has struggled to get used to the new ballpark and his record is disappointing. There is possible trade talk in the air, but only at the right price. Teheran fits firmly in the Braves' long-term plans, just not as a true ace anymore.


R.A. Dickey - C+


The veteran has shown good durability during his tenure in Atlanta so far. When his knuckleball works, he has dazzled. When it doesn't work he has battled. Full marks for effort, but execution has not always been there. Nonetheless, justifies his spot in the rotation and worth his one-year deal.


Dansby Swanson - C


For all the hype, unfortunately Swanson has been disappointing. He still has potential to be a future MVP and has shown glimpses of his capabilities when his bat gets hot, however there have been long slumps which have put his average around the. 220 mark. Not going to keep you in the majors if that is the long-term outlook. His defence must tighten up too as he lead the team by some margin with 14 errors.


Jim Johnson - C


Johnson earned the right to get to be closer for another year, but I question whether that should continue for much longer. His 19 saves, 6-1 record seem reasonable, but his ERA of 4.23 is too high for a closer and he has 7 blown saves now. Craig Kimbrel left huge shoes to fill, and Johnson is not the long-term solution.


Jaime Garcia - D+


There was a time when I didn't think I would grade Dickey higher than Garcia, but Garcia's output has plummeted since beating San Francisco at the end of May. The team are thinking trade, but who would take him?


Bartolo Colon -F


I won't waste much time on Colon as everything that needs to be said has been said. Worst signing ever? Probably not, but the massive guy was a massive let-down!

19th May 2017 - Streakier Than Bacon

Posted by theprincipality on May 18, 2017 at 6:15 PM Comments comments (0)

It is an anniversary of sorts in the Braves Nation. This week marked one year since Fredi Gonzalez was unceremoniously dumped as manager during a trip to Pittsburgh and replaced with long-term minor league servant, Brian Snitker. Snit's first year has had its ups and downs, but the general outlook is very positive. A strong finish to 2016 and a start to 2017 that has shown a lot of promise and seen Freddie Freeman establish himself as a front-runner in the MVP race.  Of course Freeman's broken wrist will end any MVP hopes, but he has over the past 12 months become on of the game's real superstars.


The hardest thing to grasp about the season so far is how inconsistent the team has been.  In less than two months we have seen losing streaks of five, six and six games.  Normally, a team capable of that would be languishing in last place, however Atlanta finds itself in second place in the NL East only five games under 500. After leaving Houston last week, Atlanta has won five of six, added to its own winning streaks of five and four games. It is difficult to predict whether Jekyll or Hyde will win out and where the team will finish, but if they can remain within touching distance by the All-Star break, the second half of the season could be very exciting.


If the team is to challenge this year, they will need to start blooding some of the young pitching talent in the rotation. I disagreed with the strategy of signing Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia to fill the rotation. I think Garcia and a top class pitcher would have been better. Colon was a great player, but he is 43 and at $12.5m hardly a bargain. Dickey and Colon's salaries could have paid a free agent ace for a year and opened up a spot for Wisler, Newcombe, Sims, Fried, Blair or any of the other quality young arms waiting in the wings.


Whilst Dickey has battled struggles to an even record and respectable ERA, Colon has been a massive disappointment. He currently sits 2-4 with an ERA of 6.70. Even that is generous. Two of his last three starts have seen the Braves multiple runs down before he even recorded an out. It seems the Braves are keeping him around because they foolishly gave him a bobblehead night on June 9th. That would be a disaster if he were cut before his big night. It is time to eat our losses on his salary though and get rid. If that means making up an injury and moving him to the DL then so be it. His time is done.


On the plus side, the batting lineup is looking fairly good. Freddie leads the NL in home runs and has a. 340 average, whilst Kemp, Markakis and Flowers are all hitting well above. 300. Ender Inciarte has a respectable average in the leadoff spot, as well as continuing to produce highlight reel quality plays in the outfield. Dansby Swanson has shown signs he has overcome his early struggles and might be starting to live up to his potential.


I think Swanson might have been feeling the weight of expectations for the first month of the season. As first overall draft pick he has been billed as the messiah. That is a lot to put on the shoulders of someone so young. Whether he couldn't handle that, or whether he believed his own hype and didn't work hard enough is unclear, but now he is out of the running for Rookie of the Year, we might actually be starting to see the real Dansby. He just has a good hitting streak and his average is back around the Mendoza line. His fielding needs to improve though. Yesterday he picked up his 8th error of the year and we're only in May!


So this first blog of the year wouldn't be complete without talking about SunTrust Park.  It has been two long years awaiting its grand opening and I was fortunate enough to be in Atlanta during its first week and take in a game during the opening homestand. I must say that I was very impressed. I took a tour of the park the day after the game and when you hear about everything that makes the park modern, unique and hand-crafted just for baseball, you really appreciate how dated Turner Field was and realise the need for the move.


There are so many great features from free high speed broadband to refrigerated beer slots at the Chop House restaurant, but I think the thing you get most from is the sense of history and tradition everywhere you go. There are acknowledgements to the Boston and Milwaukee franchises, giant bobbleheads of Braves legends, constant reminders of pennants and championships won and a breathtaking Hall of Fame exhibit, which I covered in a bit more detail elsewhere. Player facilities are top of the line and some so secret they couldn't show us on the tour.


I could go on all day about how much I enjoyed my SunTrust Park experience, but will end it there. I do recommend everyone go and check it out though. You won't be disappointed. Now the focus for the Atlanta Braves is to produce a championship calibre team for their championship calibre home. The first step is to cut out the long losing streaks and of course get Freddie Freeman healthy again ASAP. We will see how that goes in my next blog!

5th October 2016 - The Future Begins Now

Posted by theprincipality on October 5, 2016 at 7:25 PM Comments comments (0)

So 2016 is finally over for the Atlanta Braves, although far from being put out of their misery, the Braves finished the season strongly and a September surge saw them jump back to respectability and instead of finishing dead last, leapfrogged four teams, three of them in the National League to finish 68-93 (missing one game after the untimely death of Marlins pitcher, Jose Fernandez saw their game with Miami cancelled that day).

 

In fact, the late season surge made many of the early struggles seem like a long forgotten nightmare. Freddie Freeman put up MVP numbers and won the NL player of the month in September, hitting. 385 with half a dozen home runs. He also became the proud owner of a 30 game hitting streak in the process, the longest in baseball in 2016.  Despite MVP numbers, it is unlikely he will walk away with that honour though.  Teammate Matt Kemp knows all about that. Voters value a player who plays for a winning team and even though Kemp had the best numbers a few years back for LA, he lost out to Ryan Braun who played for a more successful Brewers team. Nonetheless, Freeman's huge contract is now starting to look like a bargain.

 

When viewed as a whole, the Braves' season doesn't look as bad as it could have been.  Interestingly, the team's record against the NL East is, Washington aside, surprisingly good. They wound up with winning records against the Mets, Marlins and Phillies.  What was great to see was the team competing right down the stretch, playing spoiler to a number of teams still chasing playoff aspirations. Even the final weekend of the season saw a series win against a Detroit team that entered the weekend on the cusp of the AL wildcard. Instead, like so many teams to visit Turner Field over the past 19 seasons, all they left with was disappointment.

 

But now, Turner Field is just a memory and SunTrust Park is now the future. With the 2017 schedules recently released, it has all become a bit more real. First up, an exhibition game vs the Yankees and then San Diego to begin the regular season. I am even planning to take in a couple of games myself in its debut year. There is a weekend in June pencilled in for the Mets and Phillies to visit town and I will be making the trip from Down Under. The new stadium has been the symbol of the entire rebuilding process that has been going on the past two years. John Schuerholz wanted to put out a winning team for the new stadium and make them sustainably winning. They are clearly all very proud of the team's new Cobb County home and hope it can be the benchmark for how all future Major League venues are created, based on the idea of a total experience, with shops, restaurants and baseball. Community is the key word.  I, for one, am very excited!

 

By the time I visit in June, we will know just what kind of year the Braves are having. If the end of 2016 is anything to go by, the competitive team could be a reality as early as next season. Having Matt Kemp around has been a huge boost to both morale and the quality of the lineup. Still in his prime, Kemp has provided suitable protection for Freeman, allowing him to put up the number he did. Dansby Swanson too has been a revelation. Touted as the team's saviour for much of the year, he has more than held his own since making his debut. The rotation too is looking much improved. Julio Teheran is now a bona-fide ace, with Matt Wisler gaining in confidence and Mike Foltynewicz overcoming numerous health problems to post a winning record. Management are looking to add another quality veteran to the rotation for next season and so hopefully we can get some consistent quality starts.

 

Finally, the biggest question the Braves have going into the offseason though is who will lead the team in 2017. Brian Snitker has made an outstanding case that he be given the job on a permanent basis, but whether the powers that be are looking more long term remains to be seen. I suspect that if Snitker has not done enough, then Eddie Perez will get the chance. Personally, I think Snitker should be given the chance as he has turned around Fredi Gonzalez's miserable start and achieved a result nobody thought possible in May. Should it be Perez though there will be no complaints here. Catchers make the best managers and there are few better students of the game than Perez. I've said it before, but there is a reason he was Greg Maddux's personal catcher all those years.

 

Regardless of managerial choices, the future is now starting to look much brighter and the rebuilding plan is almost complete. The time for excuses is over and the future we have been promised and told to be patient for is now. Is it April yet? Go Braves!

 

 

22nd June 2016 - Reign of Snitker

Posted by theprincipality on June 22, 2016 at 8:10 AM Comments comments (0)

It has been a couple of months since my last blog, which is a long time in the baseball world. It has probably been an even longer time for Braves fans as we go through this self-titled rebuilding year. Since my last one, the Braves were bad, got worse, fired Fredi Gonzalez, promoted Brian Snitker and are now riding a season-high 6 game winning streak. Freddie Freeman has burst into life, becoming the first Brave to hit for the cycle in 8 years and just been crowned NL Player of the Week, with Julio Teheran throwing a one-hitter during that week as well.

 

So as I write this, things are looking up a little. Of course we must consider that half of this winning streak has been against the lowly Reds and the Marlins, whom we seem to beat regardless of how well or poorly either team is playing. The most satisfying part of the last week has been sweeping the Mets in New York though, given their relative domination of the Braves in the past two seasons. Life has been breathed into our stuttering ballclub as we try to claw our way back to respectability.

 

With July almost upon us, this means it is almost the All-Star break. Recently that has meant Fredi's teams had gone home to their families and not returned for the second half of the season. It is likely only one Brave will make it to the NL roster, as the token pick so every team is represented. That is likely to be Freddie Freeman, especially given his torrid hitting recently. There will now however be a decidedly more upbeat mood as the players take to the break, far more than there would have been even a month ago.

 

Getting rid of Fredi Gonzalez was a long overdue move. Critics have argued he was set up to fail this year and the team's failures were the result of the GM level and above. Whilst it is true Gonzalez had almost all his major assets stripped and replaced with kids and duds, he had dug his own grave years earlier. The team's collapse from a seemingly unassailable wild card lead over the Cardinals in 2012 was the most emotionally draining experience I have had as a Braves fan. That second-half collapse was typical of Gonzalez's tenure. Two years later, a further abject August and September prompted the board to embark on the rebuilding process. Fredi was spared at the time and Frank Wren was made scapegoat, but then last season's effort just served to reinforce that the Braves under Gonzalez were a first half team. From 42-42 they collapsed to 67-95, yet still Fredi survived.

 

Spring training followed as the Braves continued their miserable run. Then followed an eight game losing streak to start 2016, a record homerless streak and an eventual league-worst record of 9-28 when he was eventually let go. Had that record continued, the Braves would have been proud owners of the worst season in Major League history. Atlanta then finally fired the right man.

 

There was nothing wrong with Fredi as a person and I am sure all Braves fans wish him well, but he did not strike me as the motivational type and in the business of sport, results are all that matters.

 

Which leads us onto the appointment of Brian Snitker. Snitker has been in the Braves organisation for four decades in a multitude of roles, but never before as the Major League manager. He picked up his first win in his second game and while results have largely continued to be poor, they are a vast improvement on Fredi's with the aforementioned optimism taking us into the All-Star break. The question remains though whether Snitker (who is only in temporary charge until the end of the season), will be made the permanent boss, or whether the Braves go a different route. Much will depend on how the second half unfolds, but management have taken note of the resurgence of the Phillies this year, following the permanent appointment of last year's interim, Pete Mackanin.

 

If the Braves do go a different direction, the likely candidates are Mark deRosa, Eddie Perez and Terry Pendleton. Of those choices, I think Perez is the most appealing and probable favourite. DeRosa has no experience and though highly touted for a management role, could he handle the everyday rigours of Major League management? I don't want to find out. Pendleton is another Braves 'lifer' having coached hitting, various bases and the bench. I'm not sure about Pendleton either though. He lacks management experience and was a poor hitting coach. I could probably coach the bases, so that doesn't say much in his favour.

 

Perez though is an intriguing choice. He coached Winter ball in Venezuela and won a championship. He was Greg Maddux's personal catcher for years for a reason and seems a diligent student of the game, respected by all and ready to take charge of a team. I always think catchers make the best managers and so hopefully the Braves agree. Of course don't discount Snitker. If he turns the Braves around, continuity is important when nurturing this young team. It should be a very interesting second half - and infinitely more watchable than the first!

 

22nd April 2016 - A Nationals Embarrassment

Posted by theprincipality on April 22, 2016 at 9:05 AM Comments comments (0)

It is probably fair to say that expectations in Atlanta this year are as low as they have been since 1991.  By their own admission, the team won't be competitive this year, with the hope to return to winning ways in 2017 and put out something worth watching for their first season at SunTrust Park.  Such has the rebuild been hyped, I probably know the names of more prospects now than in any of the 16 years I have been following the Braves.  Granted, I'm excited about the future, but for the present, I'm setting myself for a very long year!

Perhaps the hardest part about the season so far has been how right everyone has been.  Despite running the first game of the season close and losing in extra innings, the first couple of weeks just went from bad to worse as we fell to 0-9.  We had set out on a losing footing and it is extremely unlikely we will ever see .500 again.  Compounding the issue is the fact that six of the nine losses came against a division rival, the Washington Nationals.  That is a third of the season's games against a rival and nothing to show for it.

As it happens, the Braves haven't won in Washington since 2014 when Aaron Harang was pitching.  Regardless of how bad you are, or how much stock you put in rebuilding, you just cannot afford to let one team keep beating you like that.  Part of the learning experience for the new Braves is learning how to win close games and win against tough opponents in their own back yard.  So far there has been nothing to suggest that an entire losing road season in Washington can be turned around when you drop the first four games so meekly.  It's embarrassing!  Whilst the team may yet compete in 2017, they are not doing much to win over fans - many of whom have grown apathetic to their team's lack of progress.

My personal concern is that when all the tradeable pieces left the team, they seemed to be replaced by pitching, pitching, pitching.  Pitching is all well and good but it is only half the game, and prior to the Shelby Miller trade, all we had were 'replacements' - the dreaded R in WAR (and they started out worse than a bunch of replacements).  The Miller trade brought over Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte from Arizona, which was an absolute steal, but Inciarte is now hurt and Swanson won't be ready for a year at least.

What is left is a team of has-beens and utility players.  Jeff Francoeur's return appeals to the hearts of the fans, but he is no long-term solution.  Kelly Johnson is back (again) and ready to be traded in July.  A.J. Pierzynski has stayed another year, but has no student to mentor now Christian Bethancourt has been let go.  Hector Oliveira has let everybody down with his alleged assault on a woman in the team hotel and quite frankly the team looks more like a series of pieces than any sort of collegiate unit.

Yet at least there has been some fight shown since the debacle of losing all four games in DC.  The Marlins look like a team with more problems than the Braves and the Dodgers series just completed has shown plenty of encouragement.  The team lost the series 2-1, but both losses were tough-luck, extra inning affairs against a richer, more experienced and title-ready opponent.  Bottom line though, we now sit last in the NL East at 4-11, with a long road back to parity.

I really hope the remainder of the season is less embarrassing than the first fortnight.  First of all the team need to dump Oliveira.  If John Rocker taught us anything it is that there is such a thing as a clubhouse cancer and that the actions of one player can reflect on the organisation as a whole.  Of course, Olveira is innocent until proven otherwise, but with damning evidence against him, it seems unlikely he will escape charges.

So for me and all you other loyal Braves fans, we must endure as best we can these bleak times, for it makes it sweeter to celebrate success and we can say we were there for the bad as well.  Braves for life!

7th October 2015 - Bright End to a Dismal Year

Posted by theprincipality on October 7, 2015 at 6:00 AM Comments comments (0)

The 2015 season came to its conclusion on Sunday, at least as far as Atlanta was concerned. It used to be something of a saying in the South that the Braves season runs through October. Unfortunately this year it only happened due to the late start to the season, meaning the last five regular season games were held in October. The Braves' season was effectively done and dusted by August.

 

Nonetheless, the horrors of an horrific August were somewhat forgotten after an encouraging conclusion to the campaign. In September we swept the Phillies, beat the NL East champion Mets, beat the Nationals and swept the 100-game-winning Cardinals to wrap things up. Sure, the seasons were over for each of those teams when we played them but we could have rolled over and played dead, tanked to finish last and taken the first draft pick, but this is a team that intends to be together for years to come and maybe, just maybe, they are starting to play like one.

 

When you break down some of the individual performances in the year there is room for encouragement. Julio Teheran had a great September and ended up with a winning record and ERA not much over 4. Matt Wisler evened his record at 8-8 on the final day of the year. Williams Perez showed promise both as a starter and a ground ball relief specialist. Nick Markakis led the team in average. Adonis Garcia and Daniel Castro showed surprising power and of course Shelby Miller led the rotation with a 3.02 ERA.

 

Miller's 6-17 record was much talked about, as he set records for starts without a win.  Yet he never gave up and was rewarded with that long awaited 'W' in his final start of the season. Miller's record shows several things. First, wins are overrated and a little arbitrary. Second, the Braves' offense sucked terribly at times this year. Third, Miller,ironically, could only set this unwanted record because he was pitching so well. Can you imagine a pitcher with an ERA of over 5 being allowed to stay in a rotation for that long? Shelby proved he is a competitor and that should bode well next season.

 

As someone who loves trends and symmetry in sports, I could hardly fail to notice that the Braves finished how they started, by sweeping a series and taking five of six overall.  Outside that though, they barely won a third of their other 150 games and that is what must change next year. The team needs to find some consistency and compete every game of every day, every week of the year. Too many games passed this year with feeble efforts and growing pains so to have everyone back next year with a year's experience under their belts might be just what the Doctor ordered. Now we turn our attention to our old friend the hot stove, and settle in for football season. Did somebody say the Falcons were 4-0?

16th September 2015 - Where Now?

Posted by theprincipality on September 16, 2015 at 6:35 AM Comments comments (0)

In my last blog about a month ago I had been bemoaning the slide that the Braves had taken since the All-Star break. One month on and we have only won another 4 games!  The slide has become a plummet. Numerous theories have been put forward as to why the Braves have fallen away so badly. Perhaps they have been "hypertanking" in order to ensure the first draft pick? Perhaps their excessively inexperienced roster is nowhere near Major League ready? Perhaps the season was surrendered when Grilli got hurt and the team traded Jim Johnson, Alex Wood, Luis Avilan, Juan Uribe and Chris Johnson for peanuts? Whatever the reason, this current team is quite simply the worst one I've seen in my 16 years as a Braves fan.

 

As I write this blog, we have just come away with a surprising victory over the Toronto Blue Jays. I say surprising because the Blue Jays are right in the middle of the AL East pennant race and have the team and the desire to win it all this year. They stand ahead of the Yankees, who in a three game series at Turner Field a couple of weeks ago simply mauled the Braves in a humiliating weekend where our pitching staff gave up 38 runs and Jonny Gomes was forced into becoming the first position player to pitch for Atlanta in something like 20 years. Going into the series I was petrified that we would be on the receiving end of another hiding, so to start with a win is pretty satisfying.

 

That said, you cannot mask how poor the team has been recently. Our sole All-Star, Shelby Miller has gone from 5-1 to 5-14. He hasn't won a game since May, setting a record in the process, yet has still managed to keep his ERA under 3. This tells you something about the offence. Yet Miller aside, the rotation has been packed with rookies of late, all with ERAs North of 5. This tells you something about the pitching.  The only starter with a winning record is Julio Teheran and he has been considered to have had a poor year.

 

Whilst the team ground out victories in the first half, they just haven' t had the option in the past month. Wisler, Perez, Foltynewicz all have ERAs of over 9 in the past month and you cannot win baseball games at the top level giving up a run per inning. The team looks lost and these promising young pitchers are potentially being damaged beyond repair.

 

Since losing Leo Mazzone all those years ago, his replacement as pitching coach, Roger McDowell, has in many ways done an even better job, consistently putting out dominating rotations and lights-out bullpens. This is what has made 2015 just so bizarre.  My personal thought on this is that McDowell is being spread too thinly to be effective.  There are too many young guys needing guidance and only one McDowell. How can he possibly give quality one-on-one coaching to so many young men? I think this has been a massive oversight in the team's slash and burn plan. You cannot blame McDowell for the spiralling ERAs. Wisler, Perez and Foltynewicz were all effective early on when it was just them in the rotation and we had an effective and experienced bullpen.

 

Mark Bowman wrote an article yesterday that said essentially that Fredi Gonzalez was safe and he was offered a new contract mid-season in the knowledge that it would be a rocky second half. What I want to know is to what extent the rockiness can be allowed to continue? Would it have been OK to go 0-81 in the second half? What too does it say to the loyal fans who turn out at Turner Field night after night and have to watch such crap? You cannot just blame lack of talent. There is a distinct lack of leadership and it all starts with Fredi.

 

To labour the point about talent, I want to discuss WAR (wins above replacement, in case you've been hiding under a rock for the past decade). I have never been a fan of WAR, partly because of its subjectivity and partly because it overlooks intangibles that contribute to wins. One thing it does argue though is that a bog-standard major leaguer, in other words a replacement, will perform at a certain level. A team of replacements will also perform at a certain level. It is argued this team of replacements would win 48 games over the course of the season. I interpret that as meaning no team should ever win fewer games. Though the Braves have already passed that mark thanks to their first half, they are not likely to win 24 in the second. This second half team is worse than a team of cheap replacements, yet are supposed to have the talent to win future championships.   I don't doubt that they can, but just hope that the experiences of 2015 don't leave permanent scars that manifest during a future October run. Where the Braves go from here is anybody's guess, but I suppose the only way is up!

 

18th August 2015 - A First Half Team

Posted by theprincipality on August 18, 2015 at 7:15 PM Comments comments (0)

You know I've been looking at the NL East standings recently in absolute astonishment.  Following a promising 3 months, the Braves seem to have inexplicably given up again.  For the 3rd time in four seasons, they have fallen away during the second half. Albeit this year we were never really in contention, but the lack of results has been equally as baffling and in many ways more frustrating.

 

At the 81-game mark, the season's literal half way point, Atlanta was a respectable 40-41, a solitary game under. 500. As I write this, they are now 53-65, a full 12 games in the red and well out of contention for even a Wild Card spot. True, we have had our injuries, but at this point in a season, what team hasn't? It's as though we have become accustomed to losing.

 

Now, I'm not going to call for anyone's head, I'm just disappointed given the promising first half we had. We're building for a Championship so we need to be patient, yet seeing the continual headlines of loss take much of the joy out of games you win. Being able to play the role of spoiler is pretty dissatisfying. It's like the prize you get for turning up while the big boys play a different game. A winning streak of several games might spice things up, but the continual grind of winning one game every three just has me longing for next season and it's not even September yet.

 

Given the rebuilding going on around our young core of players, I have been equally as baffled by the trades made around the end of July non-waiver deadline. We made headlines as part of the big trade with LA and Miami, but in Alex Wood gave away what I saw to be a key piece in the team's future. And for what? Some untested 30 year old Cuban carrying an injury? I think we come off worst in that trade!

 

The other trade I couldn't understand was picking up Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn.  Swisher was a great player in pinstripes, but now offers little more than a great attitude (though maybe that will help stop the rot?). As for Bourn, don't we already have enough outfielders? At last count we had Markakis, Maybin, Gomes, Perez and now, of course, Swisher. What upside does Bourn really offer long-term? If the season is already gone, shouldn't one of the prospects be getting game time instead?

 

As I mentioned earlier, patience is key to a rebuilding process, but all I see is a team ready to discard anyone going through a slump, or growing pains. Cameron Maybin had a slump recently and despite a first half beyond expectations, all I read was about his declining trade value. Now he's hot again and we're glad we kept him. I think the team are terrified after the BJ Upton and Dan Uggla sagas. But they need to realise that players are human. I bet even Pete Rose had slumps every now and then. Upton and Uggla had bigger issues and became untradeable, but that doesn't mean every player over 25 will do the same. A bit of faith can go a long way.

 

The same is true of young players. Christian Bethancourt was once hailed as the catcher of the future. Now he's back in Triple-A undergoing an attitude adjustment. Mike Foltynewicz was just a few games into his rookie season, but a few bad outings and he was sent down as well. What might be mistaken for bad attitudes might well be just young players not knowing how to deal with the early roadbumps of a promising major league career. I believe that if we are going to rebuild, then these guys need time and encouragement, not fear of demotion after every bad outing.

 

But I suppose for the greatest part, much of this year has been about trial and error.  Williams Perez has been a pleasant surprise, as has Shelby Miller (wins notwithstanding). Cameron Maybin has stood out in an offense that doesn't strike much fear into the opposing rotations. Hopefully by the end of September, the shape of the roster for 2016 will be largely known and the offseason will be less about surprises and more about the optimism this young team will generate in a city used to perennial success.

 


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