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26th June 2015 - Revolving Doors

Posted by theprincipality on June 27, 2015 at 1:20 AM Comments comments (0)

When the 2015 season began, we knew the Braves would struggle. The fact they are flirting with .500 at nearly the half way point and somewhat in contention in a weak NL East has been a pleasant surprise. They haven't been all that fun to watch, but they have been able to grind out wins with enough regularity to ensure nobody refers to them as the second worst team in baseball again.

 

It is hard to pinpoint the reason the Braves have, so far, kept their heads above water.  Starting pitching has been patchy and only really Shelby Miller has stood out on a consistent basis. Offensively, nobody is on pace for 20 homers, let alone the 60 a healthy Giancarlo Stanton might accumulate. Averages are OK without being spectacular and the bullpen has been a hotch-potch of random faces, constantly moving along the conveyor belt and through the revolving doors.

 

I for one have lost track of not only how many changes have been made to the 'pen this year, but who in fact makes it up. It is indeed strange when we have been used to the familiarity of the late innings of recent years. All the stalwarts are gone: Eric O'Flaherty, Peter Moylan, Jonny Venters, David Carpenter and of course Craig Kimbrel. What remains barely constitutes a bullpen, revolving around Jason Grilli, who to be fair has done a pretty good job filling in for Kimbrel.

 

Money has been wasted this year. It irks me that Craig Kimbrel was essentially offloaded just because the Padres were willing to pay the rest of BJ Upton's toxic contract. Fine, we shifted $15m a year from the payroll that was bringing no return.  Then we go and get $15m in toxic contracts from Arizona to replace them in Trevor Cahill and Bronson Arroyo. Arroyo can't even pitch this year and is older than most players Dads.

 

Naturally, we return to the point that will be repeated ad infinitum over the next 18 months. Sacrifice now for future return and trust in Hart's long term plan. I really do trust in Hart, but wish it hadn't come at the expense of Kimbrel for the sake of a few dollars. We would be right up there right now were it not for the bullpen's continual habit of blowing games late. Grilli setting up for Kimbrel, now that would have been nice.

 

But of course I digress. This blog was looking at the surprise element of a competitive Braves team. I have tried to mention the tangible elements, but there is no reason there.  Therefore the success must be on the intangibles, namely a clubhouse full of the leaders it has lacked in recent years. Pierzynski, Gomes, Markakis. All new faces who have experience and charisma enough to buoy a flagging clubhouse through 162 games, instead of the more recent trend of 120. There have too been young guys who have stepped up. Jace Peterson looks like an excellent acquisition, Andrelton Simmons continues his masterful glovework and the revolving door to the rotation has shown that the future could indeed be bright with Wisler, Foltynewicz and Perez all impressing.

 

Look for the Braves to continue to compete this year. They won't win the division, unless the Nationals completely choke, but I think .500 and 2nd place should be the goal. Whatever happens, it has been a pleasant first half of the season and proof that no matter what, you cannot ever write off the Braves.

 

7th April 2015 - The New Era Begins...

Posted by theprincipality on April 8, 2015 at 7:15 PM Comments comments (0)

It's funny what success does to you. When you think of the Atlanta Braves you think of that amazing run of 14 consecutive division titles, of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, of Bobby Cox and Chipper Jones and yet all that is in the past, the distant past. It has been a decade since the run of 14 titles ended and the Braves have picked up just one since then. However that prolonged period of success has created expectations. Braves fans expect their team to compete every year, the front office demands it and failure to do so, as was the case in the latter part of 2014, saw axes wielded like never before.

 

It is because of these perennial expectations that it is so hard for the fans to accept the reality that their 2015 Braves will probably not finish within anywhere near touching distance of the NL East. You can hear the hesitance in my own words when talking about it, the caveats, the 'probably'. It is unheard of that the Braves under John Schuerholtz could possibly field a weak team.

 

Yet this is the reality of the situation that we face. The stars are all but gone. Heyward went first, then Justin Upton, followed by Gattis, Melvin Upton and Kimbrel. It was the latter that hurt the most. For all the others there were viable baseball reasons such as impending free agency or a long term upgrade. The Kimbrel trade was purely financial.  Indeed the payroll couldn't have coped with two white elephants eating $30m for no playing time, but was the situation that desperate that it required losing the team's most consistent, talented and indeed marketable player in order to save it? (Save! No pun intended!).

 

It is truly a strange feeling to be a part of that classic sports cliche "rebuilding", but this is genuinely where we find ourselves, in every sense of the word. Whether it be the construction of a brand new ballpark to call our home in 2017, or the reconstruction of a roster and a minor league system that will once again field annually competitive teams, the 2015 Braves are a work-in-progress. Under new GM (or whatever title he wants to go by) John Hart, the full backing of the front office has been given to the gutting of the2014 team and the preparation for bigger and better things. As fans we have no choice but to trust in Hart's plans. It is a gamble, no doubt, but he has had some success in the past with similar scenarios and will hopefully do so again.

 

It does make me question though how it got to be so bad that the need was there to completely eviscerate the organisation. The review at the end of the season identified several areas of great concern: a minor league system with no major league ready talent and none on the horizon, a number of huge, long-term contracts for players no longer either with or contributing to the team, a plate-approach that emphasised home run hitting and a clubhouse devoid of leadership.

 

The root cause of the problem was deemed to be 8-year GM Frank Wren, the man who had granted the bad contracts (and many others in his tenure), who had employed Greg Walker as hitting coach, who had traded away prospects from the minor league system and had traded or released the clubhouse leaders such as Tim Hudson, David Ross and Martin Prado. In the hiring of Hart, every malignant element of Wren's empire has been ripped apart in a six-month slash and burn. Yes there has been collateral damage on the way, but we can approach the 2015 season with something we haven't had in a long time: hope.

 

Though we have gone into each season past with the hope that the team will win the division and maybe more, the hope we have now is like the hope that comes with a newborn child, a hope for change, a hope for the future and maybe a hope that we can shed the feeling of entitlement and privilege that comes with being a Braves fan.  World Series crowns can be bought, if you have Yankees money, or they can be earned through hard work, talent and a team ethic. That is my hope. That one day we look back on the 2015 Braves and say that was the beginning of something truly great, the South's next great dynasty.

 

5th November 2014 - A New Era

Posted by theprincipality on November 5, 2014 at 5:50 AM Comments comments (0)

The Braves season has been over for a month now and a weary and jaded Tomahawk Nation has had time to take stock and mull over what proved to be one of the most disappointing seasons in nearly 25 years. During the past month I have overcome most of that disappointment and somewhat moved on with my life, content with the conclusion that life, and indeed baseball, goes on. In so much as tomorrow is another day, April is another season and with it comes a new wave of promise and optimism.

 

After the debacle of the final two months of the season, it was clear something had to be done. Changes had to be made at levels in the organisation not seen in a quarter of a century. Atlanta had not fired a manager or General Manager in all that time. Yet the season still had a week to go when the axe was first weilded. 8-year GM Frank Wren became the first casualty and really it came as a surprise to nobody. Wren's legacy will always be tainted with a number of large contracts proving to be expensive failures such as Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami, Dan Uggla and BJ Upton. His man-management skills had also been called into question in recent times as he fell out with coaches and almost lost Roger McDowell to the Phillies before John Schuerholz intervened. A less Draconian approach was needed and Wren had to go.

 

His replacement, 66-year old John Hart is a man I know little about. His track record in the game speaks for itself though as he presided over the most successful period in Cleveland Indians history and set up a model for retaining young talent that is used by many teams today. Most important though is that he is trusted by both Schuerholz and Bobby Cox, the two men charged with recruiting Wren's successor. Hart was always their first choice, even when he was only serving as interim GM, so as fans we have to be pleased that the right man for the job has been hired.

 

The second major casualty was hitting coach, Greg Walker, who resigned his post shortly after the end of the season. Ultimately Walker jumped before he was pushed as the Braves' struggles late in the season could be directly attributed to a failing offense and Walker had no answers to the downward spiral the team found itself on. It wasn't just one or two players that were struggling either. The entire lineup was having a season to forget. Even Justin Upton, a legitimate MVP candidate through August, scuffed and scratched his way through a miserable September.

 

Whilst perhaps unfair to blame Walker for a teamwide month-long slump, the major concern was over the team's approach to situational hitting. The past two seasons saw the highest strikeout totals in franchise history and the swing-for-the-fences mentality had worked in 2013, but seen roughly 60 fewer home runs in 2014, thus emphasising the lack of production and inability to put the ball in play. Walker too had to go.

 

Walker's replacement, Kevin Seitzer, is a relative newcomer to the coaching game. He has spent the pas ttwelve months coaching North of the Border with Toronto, where he has found success getting the best out of a team of good hitters. Toronto's problems extend much deeper than offense and so Seitzer's contribution in making them a dynamic, exciting team cannot be overlooked. He states his approach as a hit-to-all-fields mentality, which if he can instil into the Braves will prove to be most useful and succeed in better contact-hitting and thus fewer strikeouts.

 

Whoever filled Walker's boots was going to have a difficult job and the role was not in too high a demand.  It has been suggested that the Braves may have used as a sweetener to prospective candidates the promise that BJ Upton would not be on the roster come Spring. This seems a little harsh, but Upton has simply not lived up to any expectations in the first two years of his five year contract. The only success that seems to have come from his acquisition is the ability the Braves then had to persuade his brother Justin to agree to join the team. Justin Upton has been the exact opposite of his sibling in his two years in Atlanta.

 

Yet despite the success of Justin Upton, the Braves may well still find themselves having to use him as part of a trade. J-Up has just one year left on his contract, as does Jason Heyward, so both could be used to gain long-term returns, rather than lose both to free agency and get nothing in 12 months time. Whatever happens, it seems that the Braves outfield will look very different in 2015.

 

Though this blog has been focused on hitting, questions too arise from how the Braves rotation will look next year. Julio Teheran and Alex Wood are certain to return, as is Mike Minor. However, Ervin Santana will be lost to free agency, as will Aaron Harang, who expects to gain a multi-year deal elsewhere. This leaves a gap to be filled. Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen are not likely to return until at least June, Gavin Floyd will probably not be offered a new contract and that leaves David Hale as the only other starter with Major League experience. With the money saved on Santana and potentially BJ Upton, I expect the Braves will once again pursue an ace on the free agency market. However a long-term deal is unlikely, given the number of bad long-term contracts in the Wren era and the particular vulnerability to injury pitchers have compared to their hitting counterparts. This will rule us out of negotiations with most first-time free agents. But given the ability of Roger McDowell to get the best out of his rotation, there should be much less concern about the rotation than the lineup.

 

So in 2015 the new-look Braves embark on a new era, trying to regain their NL East crown and the respect that goes with it. They will aim to remain competitive whilst trying to build towards 2017 when they move into their new stadium, SunTrust Park. Its going to be challenging, but fun too and we, the fans, will be with them all the way.

 

16th September 2014 - Avoiding October

Posted by theprincipality on September 16, 2014 at 6:35 AM Comments comments (0)

The onset of September in baseball marks that time of year when, as a fan, you tune in not only seeking your team's score, but potentially those of a number of other teams around you. Be it chasing a division title, wild card or home field advantage, a good many teams still have something to play for at this time of year and the results of others take on as much significance as your home town team.

 

The Braves find themselves as one of those teams in with a shot, chasing the second of the two National League Wild Card spots. Realistically they are contending with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Milwaukee Brewers. However, with just 13 games to go and three back of the Pirates, the Braves are competing as much against themselves as their NL Central foes.

 

Not mincing words here, the Braves' second half of the season has been nothing short of terrible. They entered the All-Star break in a tie for first place in the East and are now eight or nine games back of the Nationals and losing ground in the Wild Card. The frustrating part of it seems to be that they don't want to take it. There has been ample opportunity to claim an October spot. The Brewers went on a huge losing streak, the Pirates have been trying to make up ground all season, yet Atlanta can't seem to put together even a two-game streak right now, and that will not keep you in contention.

 

You would think that with so little time left in the season and a potential deciding four-game series with the Pirates coming up, this would provide extra motivation to at least keep within touching distance. Yet Atlanta has lost nine of its past twelve games and been no-hit by the last-place Phillies in that time. It is just not good enough for a team with aspirations of October.

 

Lack of offensive production has been a key issue and has been so all year. Only Justin Upton stands a realistic shot at 30 home runs. Evan Gattis has had a good second season but missed too many games to have made a sustained impact. Freddie Freeman should have been the talisman of the lineup, but his numbers, whilst reasonable, need to be better. The rest (Heyward, Johnson, BJ Upton and Simmons) have just been far too inconsistent at the plate, a troubling trend. I would like to know how the team compares to last year in home runs, RBIs and strikeouts. Perhaps something for my next blog!

 

I still have faith that my team can turn it around, but time is running out. There are just 13 games to go and I would say we need to win 80% of them including nothing short of a series win when the Pirates come to town. Ironically, should the Braves manage to do that, they would then likely have the momentum to mount a serious October run, but one thing at a time!

 

Should Atlanta fail to make it, as seems increasingly likely, there needs to be serious questions asked. At the start of the season, the team locked up Freeman, Heyward, Simmons and Johnson to long-term deals. If these guys can't then produce the goods, then the Braves will find themselves like the Phillies, paying out a fortune for a last-place team and unable to rebuild because of the toxic contracts. The Braves already cut loose Dan Uggla, but continue to pay him for another year. There are just not the resources available to do that again.

 

Additionally, the contract of Ervin Santana will raise questions. His one-year $15m deal now seems like a bad decision. Santana has pitched fairly well. He leads the team with 14 wins and has an ERA of about 3.75 but he was signed with the goal of winning in October and if we can't even get there we have wasted both $15m and sacrified draft picks for nothing.

 

So who takes the blame for the team's failures? You could place blame with the General Manager, Frank Wren. Wren offered all those contracts, took the decision to offload Uggla and made the decision to sacrifice draft picks for a one-season flop. But Wren has made good decisions in the past and is paid to take some risks at times. He needs to keep the team winning and with Medlen and Beachy going down in Spring Training what else could he do?

 

Perhaps the failure is with manager, Fredi Gonzalez. Gonzalez took the reigns four years ago on the back of a pretty average resume with the Marlins. In that time the Braves went from narrowly missing the Wild Card after a late-season disaster to losing the first Wild Card playoff game, to NL East champs who lost, again, in the first round. This season has been a regression to the first. Is it time for fresh blood, in a manager who is not afraid to get in his players faces?

 

What about hitting coach, Greg Walker? The team's woes stem from the hitting, or lack of it. Walker replaced Terry Pendleton a couple of years ago and has enjoyed mixed results. For the successes of Freeman, Heyward and Johnson, there have been two very high profile failures in BJ Upton and Uggla. Even bad teams breakout of funks every now and then. Has Walker run out of ideas and out of time?

 

Finally, what about the players themselves? They are the ones who are paid to perform. They are the ones who are not getting it done. Walker, Gonzalez and Wren can only guide them and they must take responsibility for themselves.

 

Either way, something has to change in 2015 or the team faces a year of anonymity, fighting the Mets for 3rd place in the division and struggling to. 500.

 

5th August 2014 - Braves Fall In Extras

Posted by theprincipality on August 5, 2014 at 6:55 AM Comments comments (0)

You could be forgiven for thinking this was the headline to an article from a game, and quite recently it seems like every time I visit the Braves website this is what I'm reading.  There was a period a few years back where the Braves played more extra innings games than any other team, but still came out with more wins than losses. Since this year's All-Star Break though the team has found it tough to get over the line. Yesterday's extra-inning 3-2 loss to San Diego marked the team's 11th loss in 17 outings and the 4th extra inning loss in that timeframe.

 

Getting over the line has been something the Braves have been pretty good at in recent years. Craig Kimbrel has been a big reason for that, but also clutch hitting from the likes of Heyward, Freeman and Justin Upton has seen the team overcome many a tight ballgame and separate themselves from the pack. For whatever reason, that has not happened this year. April was a superb month. There was a nine game winning streak.  Apart from that though the Braves have been just awful.

 

Washington are going to be the main rivals down the stretch and are showing signs of finding some consistency. Without really producing anything spectacular, they have capitalised on the Braves' current six game losing streak and built a 2.5 game lead on top of the East. With three games fewer played than Atlanta, they could be five in front when all is said and done. Obviously divisions are not won in August, but they can certainly be lost. Hence this week marks a crucial week for the Braves. First they must overcome King Felix and their phobia of the American League to beat Seattle and then comes the key series against the Nationals. As things stand, a Braves sweep puts them back on top, a Nats sweep and you can kiss the division goodbye. If not a sweep, it is critical Atlanta wins the series and closes the gap.

 

It is hard to pinpoint just why the Braves have fallen away so drastically since the break.  The big news in recent weeks was that they finally released veteran second baseman, Dan Uggla. This shouldn't have been too disruptive though as Uggla had barely played since May and the team had been well aware that Frank Wren had been trying to move Uggla since the end of last season. Nonetheless, Uggla was well liked in the clubhouse and never complained about his situation, or disrupted his teammates. Perhaps the team is still adjusting to the absence of someone who had been a clubhouse fixture for four years?

 

Uggla's eventual departure wasn't unexpected and given his professional attitude was pretty uneventful. Of course its easy to be professional when you're going to get $20mfor doing absolutely nothing! It was something before his departure that caught my eye though. Just prior to the break, the team made a three-game stop in Chicago to face the Cubs. During this time, Uggla was late to a game. This, as far as I know, is the only blemish on his record, yet the way it was reported was like it was the culmination of a year of horrible discipline. Uggla was disciplined, and rightly, but it just seemed like the club was trying to make out it was worse than it was, perhaps trying to manufacture an excuse to cut him loose. It left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth and if this was the reason, it was pointless because his numbers alone were excuse enough. Nonetheless, Dan has found himself a new home with Huddy in San Francisco, where I sincerely hope he finds some success.

 

To continue the theme from my previous blog, the recent series against the Dodgers further emphasises my point that the Braves just cannot compete with powerhouse teams. Julio Teheran turned in one of the best performances of the year against Kershaw, but the team just couldn't get anything out of his more decorated opponent. If your ace's best cannot get you a win, what hope do you stand in a playoff series?

 

I know it must seem a bit gloom and doom right now, but we Braves fans have to hold on to hope we can turn the ship around. This is the same core team that has owned the Nationals the past 18 months and the same core team that won 14, 10 and 8 games in a row at points last year and 9 earlier this year. They just need to get going and I can think of no better time to do it than this week right now!

 

12th June 2014 - Power Shortage

Posted by theprincipality on July 1, 2014 at 6:15 AM Comments comments (0)

The Braves showed during the 2013 season that they were not wanting when it came to a powerful offense. For many, the frustrations were because it was so powerful it tended to have a feast or famine nature; a lot of home runs came at the price of a lot of strikeouts. Yet there was always something that bothered me about the offense and I didn't really work it out until October. It was quite obvious when you think about it in that the Braves could not hit quality pitching. That was where we came unstuck against LA and where we will continue to come unstuck should we reach October again.

 

This is not a new phenomenon. Braves hitters have failed to report in October since our last playoff series win - a 2001 Divisional Series against Houston. What is concerning the most is the outright gulf in class between the power teams of the American League and our beloved Braves. 2013 was a season for the ages, but one particular blemish stands out as much as the Dodgers series defeat and that was an Interleague series in Detroit where the Braves were thoroughly outplayed in every aspect and swept out of town with nothing but plane tickets and the clothes on their backs.

 

Detroit just had too much power and class all the way down the lineup. There was Cabrera, Fielder, Martinez, Jackson coupled with two Cy Young Award winners on the mound. Atlanta's problem was that its pitchers don't face these guys on a day-to-day basis and so maybe the scouting reports weren't up to scratch, but in each game they found themselves in a hole early, which they couldn't climb out of and just got worse. I realised then the battle we face should we ever get to the World Series.

 

It then came as no surprise to me at the end of last month when we opened our Interleague slate with a four-game series against the Boston Red Sox and were once again swept out of sight. Going into the series, Boston was in the midst of a nine-game losing streak and sat dead last in the AL East. A blip, no doubt, but there will seldom be a better time to play Boston. Yet still we came away empty handed.

 

We did actually compete in that series, it should be noted, but again there was just too much class in the Boston ranks. David Ortiz did what he always does, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholtz and John Lackey all showed up and for every Braves lead the Sox were just able to chip away and stay in touch to the effect that no lead was ever safe. We needed to concentrate for 27 outs each game and we didn't do that. The bullpen was unreliable, starting pitching was scratchy and we were just that little bit behind on offense. The Sox showed right there why they are Champions and proved just how hard it is to compete with the AL powerhouses.

 

Since the Red Sox series, we have also been swept by Seattle in Interleague and this weekend face an Angels team that boasts Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols.  They are another powerhouse team and we face an uphill struggle to get anything from that series too. It is however at Turner Field, which will negate some of the power advantage the Angels possess.

 

By the end of this weekend, Atlanta will have played nine interleague games this season and Julio Teheran will not have pitched in a single one. It is of course a complete fluke of the scheduling that our best pitcher has not been involved in any of the nine games so far and should we get to October, he will play a major part in any success. In that sense it is disappointing he hasn't yet sampled any of the AL flavour as the experience could prove invaluable.

 

That said though, our form since the end of April does not fill me with confidence that we will even make it to October. We have kept our noses ahead by sweeping inferior teams like the Cubs and Marlins. Yet when it comes to division challenging teams, our power outages are not confined to just the American League. The two series against the Giants were just ugly to watch.

 

Yet after all is said and done, I have faith in my team. There is easily as much quality as Washington has and we wipe the floor with the Mets, Marlins and Phillies. The offense just needs to break out of its funk and back its pitchers like it did last year and we will be just fine.

 

6th May 2014 - Time For A Blog

Posted by theprincipality on May 7, 2014 at 4:45 AM Comments comments (0)

I'm not normally a superstitious person. In most walks of life I believe in the tangible and rational and I firmly believe that good things happen because you work hard for them and vice versa. This is not discounting the opinions of religious people I know.  After all, the Lord works in mysterious ways as they say. What I'm saying is that I am not superstitious. I don't fear the number 13, I don't care if I break a mirror and I walk around ladders due to health and safety concerns, not because I believe it will bring bad luck.

 

However, when it comes to the Braves, being logical and rational goes out of the window. It is like not jinxing a pitcher when they are throwing a perfect game. When the Braves are on a winning streak, I won't discuss it. If I turn on the TV and it is mid-game with the Braves ahead, the TV goes off again. I look for signs and trends to try to justify believing streaks will continue and I definitely don't blog until the streak is over.

 

Hence when the Braves found themselves at 17-7 towards the end of April, all was right with the world and my irrational self believed that my usual month-end blog might compromise the good start. Now, one week and seven straight defeats later, I blog in the unsure and uncertain hope that somehow my one voice amongst the millions in the Braves nation might be the key to ending a horror losing sequence that has seen us throw away a 3.5 game lead and fall out of first place.

 

It's pretty ironic when you think about it. Braves bloggers across the world (Mark Bowman included) were of the same opinion after Spring Training: Get out of April with our heads above water and we will be fine. The makeshift pitching staff then recorded an April for the ages. Now we enter May and we can't buy a run, it seems.  The rotation has endured some ugly losses and Dan Uggla's time has (once again) run out.

 

Of course it is not time to panic. Over a 162 game season there will be ups and downs.  To look rationally at the losses, we can say that we faced three great starters in the Giants series (Lincecum, Vogelsong and Bumgarner) and a much-improved Marlins team in their own back yard. The Cardinals too put out quality teams year after year.  But if the Braves want to be the best, they have to beat the best and that means being able to beat top young starters like Jose Fernandez and not giving up 23 runs in a 3-game series in Miami.

 

That said, there is some real quality this year in the NL East. The Mets seem a more steely opposition than usual, in spite of Curtis Granderson's batting average and the loss of Matt Harvey for the season.  The Marlins too are a far more dangerous prospect as was shown last week. They are a talented mix of young pitchers and veteran hitters surrounding the face of the franchise, Giancarlo Stanton. The Phillies are suffering the repercussions of handing out ridiculous contracts and won't threaten this year, but they are still loaded with talent that can destroy you on their day. Finally the Nationals look set for a big year.  They have drafted well in recent years and can expect great strides from the likes of Harper and Strasburg.  They bolstered their already-potent rotation with Doug Fister in the off-season and when he is healthy you can expect to see some long winning streaks in the Nation's capital.

 

As far as the Braves are concerned, there is lots to be happy about in the long term. Julio Teheran looks like the finished article this year and could challenge for a Cy Young Award. There is great depth too in the stocks of young hurlers. David Hale handled himself impeccably during April, proving September was no flash in the pan. Alex Wood too has shown great promise, despite being 2-4 and being blitzed in Miami. A little run support and he could have been 5-1.

 

Ervin Santana has been impressive too. Its not common for the Braves to go out and acquire a true ace by trade or free agency. Tim Hudson was the last, nine years ago and before that, Greg Maddux. I've been delighted to watch Santana at work and should Atlanta reach October, he is the single most important piece of the playoff puzzle. I have my doubts about whether Aaron Harang will last the year though. His great start has been sullied by a couple of very average appearances recently. With Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd returning, someone has to give way and I think it will probably be Harang. His signing was viewed as a stopgap anyway, so it will take him really forcing his case with some more starts like he had vs the Mets recently in order to keep his place.

 

I can conclude this blog on a happy note, safe in the knowledge that the Braves today just ended their losing streak at seven. I'm pretty sure that it was to do with quality pitching from Floyd, Carpenter and Kimbrel and timely hitting from Justin Upton and Chris Johnson than because I chose to do a blog today.  Yet, just like my heroes on the field do with their own superstitions, you have to keep going with what works!

 

27th March 2014 - Nightmare Spring

Posted by theprincipality on March 27, 2014 at 3:40 AM Comments comments (0)

When the Braves signed Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel, their remaining arbitration-eligible players to multi-year contract extensions back in February, both fans and management were optimistic that all the necessary pieces were in place for the team to make a legitimate play-off run in 2014. However, that enthusiasm has now been severely tempered by a series of devastating blows to the team's pitching staff. The projected rotation of Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Julio Teheran, Mike Minor and one other of Alex Wood, Freddy Garcia or Gavin Floyd has been utterly annihilated.

 

Whilst the team knew when they signed Floyd that he would not be available until late April, nobody could foresee that Minor, Medlen and Beachy would all go down within a few days of each other. Thankfully, Minor's injury is not too serious and he is already rehabbing with the expectation of returning in Mid-April, but Medlen and Beachy may never pitch in the Major Leagues again. Both require a second Tommy John surgery on their elbows, a procedure that requires at least 12-18 months on the sidelines. With each undergoing his second procedure, more serious structural issues are feared. Even the most optimistic of Braves fans surely cannot expect either player to return to being as dominant as they have been when healthy. If they return at all, their pitching actions would need to be drastically altered to try and prevent further damage. Personally, I remember what a new action did for Tommy Hanson and I believe I referred to him as a neutered dog in a previous blog.

 

Beachy's injury was perhaps on the cards, and Frank Wren and his team would have been foolish not to have a contingency plan in place. Since returning from his first surgery, Beachy has made only a handful of starts and been continually plagued by discomfort, something which was attributed to being a normal part of the recovery process of Tommy John surgery. Yet even if this were the case, it was likely Beachy would miss time at some point in 2014. Now he's gone for good. I think the contingency plan was to use Alex Wood as required from the bullpen, or as a spot starter until at least Floyd was ready to return. Now though, Wood stands as the second most experienced starter in the opening day rotation. It is far from being an ideal siuation. Wood impressed during his time in the rotation in the latter half of 2013, but showed visible signs of fatigue towards the end of his first full professional season. Frank Wren and his team were therefore looking to use Wood sparingly through the bullpen at first with the possibility of blooding him into the rotation later on.

 

Faced with such an undesirable situation, Wren did what most GMs would do if put in that 's only option was to extend the team's budget and return to the free-agent market. Of course, had these injuries occurred sooner, there may have been more talent and experience available. Yet to his credit, Wren secured the services of veteran, Ervin Santana, who was pretty much the best free agent left unsigned at the time. The only drawback was that Santana too is rehabbing from injury and won't be available until around the same point Minor returns. So it seems that by the time May rolls around, the Braves might well have a competitive rotation consisting of Teheran, Minor, Santana, Floyd and Wood. But until that point, the team would seemingly have to rely heavily on a four-man rotation with just 47 starts between them, 34 of which belonged to Teheran. Compare that to the Dodgers for example, who can boast the likes of Kershaw, Greinke, Ryu, Beckett, Haren and Maholm as legitimate starters. It is clear here why many fear the worst. If the team gets into an early hole in April, they may not recover, particularly if the Nationals have the bounce-back year everyone expects.

 

In the last couple of days though, Wren has been busy again. You will note that I stopped mentioning Freddy Garcia's name as a rotation candidate. As a man who could have been that veteran presence to steer the club through April, he was cut from the team on Monday and replaced with another veteran, Aaron Harang, who made his name pitching for the As and Reds. Personally I like Harang and his fastball's velocity outranks Garcia's, so on the face of it, he seems a better choice. Also, Harang is ready to pitch immediately, unlike Santana so it is win-win. The only worry for me is that Harang is something of an unknown element, whereas Garcia has spent all of Spring and the back end of 2013 in a Braves uniform. As always though, time will tell! Thankfully, the injuries have only really been limited to the pitching staff and the lineup remains healthy and hopefully productive. Dan Uggla has returned to the team after his dramatic benching last September and subsequent omission from the NLDS looking a new man. He leads the team in home runs during Spring Training and has a fairly healthy average (for him). He seems to have put the unpleasantness of last season's woes and the knowledge that the team was looking to trade him in the offseason behind him and is showing all the signs a comeback year is on the cards. I wish him the very best of luck!

 

  To finish on an unrelated note, I was lucky enough to be present at the MLB opening series in Sydney last weekend between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks. Both the Sydney Cricket Ground and Major League Baseball put on a brilliant show and it was wonderful to see so many fans turn up, not just in Dodgers or D'Backs gear, but every single team was represented. It made for a real carnival atmosphere and can only be viewed as a massive success, one which will hopefully be repeated in years to come. Who knows, next time it might be the Braves making the trip?!

6th November 2013 - Getting Closer!

Posted by theprincipality on November 5, 2013 at 6:05 PM Comments comments (0)

Its been a few weeks since the season ended for the Braves. The Red Sox have once again been crowned the champions of baseball whilst the Braves players enjoyed their vacations. Since Atlanta was eliminated by Los Angeles in the NLDS, there has been very little word or activity from the players. Twitter, which is normally abuzz with Atlanta activity, went silent for a number of weeks and only now that the World Series has concluded have a few decided to come out of hibernation.

 

What this says to me is that losing in the manner in which they did hurt them badly. There were no excuses this year such as bad umpiring calls, or month-long collapses. They were just outplayed by a superior team. That is not to say that the Braves could not have emerged victorious. They won five of the seven regular season games they played against LA and 96 overall. Yet there was nowhere during that series where the Dodgers didn’t have the edge. Their starting pitching was tighter, their fielding better, each position player contributed with the bat and they could hit for power. The Braves failed in all these areas.

 

There were encouraging outings from Mike Minor and Freddy Garcia, who matched their more decorated opponents pitch-for-pitch, but in Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran’s starts the Braves found themselves down early and you just cannot afford to give up early runs in October. Some poor defensive contributed to those early runs. Evan Gattis remains a problem. His bat keeps him in the lineup, but he is a sub-par fielder at best and there were occurrences that cost his pitcher runs, whilst not necessarily being scored as errors.

 

The Braves big bats did not turn up either. Gattis, Chris Johnson and Freddie Freeman performed admirably, but Justin Upton (.143), Jason Heyward (.167), Eliot Johnson (.071) and Brian McCann (.000) struggled at the plate (even though Heyward hit the team’s only home run of the series). Conversely, the Dodgers hit 7 home runs and ate up Braves pitching. Carl Crawford hit .353, Hanley Ramirez notched .500, Adrian Gonzalez had a healthy .333, Yasiel Puig .471, Juan Uribe .375, AJ Ellis .333. Mark Ellis’ .267 was a low point, yet still better than five Braves position players. Need I say more?

 

Yet the manner of the team’s exit should not mask the fact that it was a great season. We took our first division title for 8 years and defied the odds to do so. The baseball media were all but giving the division to the Nationals before the season began, yet the Braves defied countless injuries (many bizarre) and adversities to emerge on top. We also racked up some huge winning streaks in the process. There were 14 games in August, 10 games in April and 8 in May. In my 13 years following the Braves, they had never previously passed 9. Craig Kimbrel notched 50 saves, Andrelton Simmons won his first Gold Glove and Freddie Freeman was a legitimate MVP candidate as well as a first-time All-Star.

 

There were downs too (not just Scott Downs). BJ Upton’s year was a total bust and Dan Uggla’s eye surgery actually made him worse, if such a thing were possible. Several high profile altercations did nothing for the team’s reputation (see Bryce Harper, Jose Fernandez and Carlos Gomez), whilst $6m of relievers in Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters spent the season recovering from surgery.

 

Nonetheless, the future is bright and the team is getting closer to glory each year under Fredi Gonzalez. We have gone from missing the Wild Card on the final day, to losing the Wild Card playoff, to winning the division and losing in the NLDS in three seasons. If this rate keeps up, a World Series won’t be too far away. So from here I sign off on the 2013 season and look forward to what 2014 will bring. Enjoy the football season!

 

16th September 2013 - On The Brink!

Posted by theprincipality on September 16, 2013 at 11:30 PM Comments comments (0)

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that the Braves winning the NL East was little more than a formality. For fourteen straight golden years the champagne corks popped and the Atlanta juggernaut rolled on into October, whilst the Phillies and Mets et al looked enviously on. Though the streak may not seem all that long ago, the final title in that glorious run actually came in 2005; a full eight years ago. Put into a real-life context, that is a two-term President, or three soccer World Cups ago. Julio Teheran and Alex Wood were just fourteen years old, Chipper Jones was still in his prime at 33 and Brian McCann was a rookie.

 

Now the Braves stand on the brink of a long-awaited and well-earned division title. Six months ago, all the talk was about the Washington Nationals and how nothing but World Series glory was good enough for their young team. Back-to-back division crowns was all but accepted as a given behind the likes of Harper, Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmerman. In Rafael Soriano they had added a genuine top-quality closer and, according to one Nationals announcer during Spring Training, they were a team with no perceivable weaknesses. Bearing this in mind, it makes it all the more sweet that the Braves arrive in Washington this week knowing that a series win in the ballpark of their closest rivals will bring with it a much greater prize and announce the return to glory of America’s team.

 

It has not been a season without adversity though. Injury hurdles have been overcome, struggles away from Turner Field have been compensated for by the best home record in all of baseball, fringe players have stepped up when called upon and a collection of talented rookies the likes of which have not been seen since the 2005 “Baby Braves” now have the league wondering just how far Atlanta will go.

 

However, despite the fourteen straight division titles from 1991 to 2005 and a few Wild Card appearances subsequently, the Braves have not won a playoff series since 2001, when they swept the Houston Astros in the NLDS with a team contained Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. To be successful in October, you need quality starters to give you quality starts and since that series twelve years ago, the Braves have not had that. Whilst the young Braves rotation has performed admirably during the regular season, playoff baseball is a different animal and their entire postseason experience consists of Kris Medlen’s start in the 2012 Wild Card playoff. How these youngsters cope with the added pressure that elimination baseball brings will go a long way to determining if the Braves can indeed win it all.

 

That said though, it is in October that legends are made and what makes 2013 different to years gone by is that the rotation is practically dripping with talent and potential. Previous runs to the playoffs have been fuelled by workman-like pitchers such as Derek Lowe, John Thomson and Russ Ortiz. Each was a good player in his own right, but would never be classed as an ace of the staff. Julio Teheran on the other hand has his name pencilled on future Cy Young Awards, Mike Minor looks set to anchor the rotation for years to come and Kris Medlen seems to have rediscovered the form that saw him finish 2012 with a 10-1 record and 1.57 ERA. The loss of Tim Hudson was damaging both physically and mentally, yet may prove to have been a blessing in disguise. When Hudson went down, Brandon Beachy was set to return from Tommy John surgery and all the talk was that Medlen was going to return to the bullpen. With Huddy’s injury, Meds got a stay of execution and hasn’t looked back since. The Lord works in mysterious ways, so they say!

 

Though Hudson won’t be back to pitch in October, he will prove invaluable in the clubhouse. Along with McCann, Hudson is the only other survivor from the 2005 division winners. He will be the club’s highest paid cheerleader and should be able to provide counsel and the benefit of his own postseason experience with the Braves and Oakland to help guide the young rotation in times of need. Thankfully, another highly paid cheerleader from the past few weeks will be back in time for the October festivities. Jason Heyward has been taking batting practice since last Friday and is on track to return from jaw surgery before the regular season’s close. After his appendectomy in April and two metal plates inserted into his jaw in August, Heyward must be feeling somewhat like the Six Million Dollar Man. His return will be worth much more than that to the Braves though if the outfielder can rediscover the form that saw him hit .345 with a .408 on-base percentage and .586 slugging percentage in the 23 games immediately prior to his injury.

 

I have no doubt that the Braves can win the World Series this year. They have the look of a team that means business, have a more balanced lineup than the last few years and also the power potential and bullpen to end games as a contest by the 6th inning. Assuming quality pitching continues, should the offense get on a role the team will be unstoppable. In 2013 the Braves have had winning streaks of 14 games, 10 games and 8 games. In my twelve years of watching the Braves prior to this season, I had never seen a streak higher than 9. There is no better opportunity to end the October drought, particularly if we can secure the NL’s best record and home field advantage through to the World Series.

 

But of course I get ahead of myself. We must respect our opponents. There is a job that must be completed first and the focus should be on Washington and Washington alone, once baseball returns following today’s tragic shootings. The events of today are a heartbreaking reminder that there are more important things in life than sport and that we cannot take the people we love for granted. Yet sports can provide us with an outlet for our emotions, be it grief, excitement, anger, joy or sadness. Baseball played an important role in the recovery of America after 9/11, in Boston after the marathon bombings and will too during tomorrow’s double-header. As we march into October, let us not forget those who died and keep our successes in perspective.

 


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