|Posted by theprincipality on May 14, 2019 at 1:20 AM|
Six weeks into the 2019 season and I can’t help having a feeling of frustration over what my beloved Atlanta Braves have done so far. Coming off a ridiculous 20 games in 20 days, of which the final 10 were on the road we find ourselves a solitary game over .500 at 21-20. This team knows it is better than that. It also knows that extrapolated out for an entire season, 83-79 will not be enough to defend the NL East, nor will it be enough to win a Wild Card playoff spot.
However, things could have been much worse. The recent road trip concluded with the Braves winning the final three games at Arizona, garnering some much-needed momentum as they head home to play St Louis and Milwaukee. Prior to that though, they had looked woeful in being swept by the LA Dodgers and throughout the first month of the season had some really ugly losses where the starters had not gone deep into games and the bullpen had been coughing up walks and runs like they were going out of fashion.
The return of Mike Foltynewicz from injury was supposed to herald a return to stability, but rather Folty has struggled since his return, with two losses from three starts, an ERA approaching 6 and a concerning dip in velocity, which could indicate further problems yet to be discovered. I am reminded of Jair Jurrjens, who went from All-Star to nobody in the space of about 12 months after some time away with injury and was never heard of again. Folty needs to rediscover his form quickly if the Braves are to have a chance of reaching the postseason.
Nonetheless, the buzz around Atlanta is suddenly very positive. Young hurlers Max Fried and Mike Soroka have been the surprise cornerstones of the rotation so far. Fried is 5-2, whilst Soroka is 3-1 and has a miniscule 1.21 ERA from 5 starts. Soroka is yet to give up a home run this season, and hasn’t conceded any dating back to his debut last season. For all the prospects Atlanta has tried so far (the team has used 23 different pitchers already), Fried and Soroka have established themselves ahead of the rest of the pack and this, coupled with a couple of quality starts from Julio Teheran and Kevin Gausman, has meant the rotation has finally started to take its shape for the rest of the season.
Aside from the starters, the real woes (of the entire NL East, in fact) have been in relief. Quality relief pitchers are in short supply across the league it seems and it has been noted by one scout that the team that sorts its bullpen out first will win the NL East. For all the Braves’ struggles, they remain in second place and within a series of the free-spending Phillies. And guess what? The Braves bullpen has quietly been starting to get its stuff together. Sean Newcomb has come in following his demotion to the minors and been throwing nothing but strikes. Luke Jackson has been thrust into the closers role after impressing early in the season and the strugglers (Minter, Sobotka, Biddle and Carle) have all been sent down to work on their issues, allowing Winkler, Webb, Tomlin and Dayton to create some stability in the most suspect part of the organisation.
Given all the bullpen problems around the league, I find it truly astounding that Craig Kimbrel remains unsigned, and now likely will until after the draft in June. Cries of “We want Kimbrel” have rung out around SunTrust Park during the first quarter, with fans knowing full well that the Braves could both afford Kimbrel and offer him the home comforts of returning to the team that gave him his MLB start (he still remains the Braves all-time leader in saves). For all the pressure put on him, it is admirable that GM Alex Anthopoulos has not buckled and gone after Kimbrel. Now it looks like the bullpen is sorting itself out and we are not financially tied to Kimbrel for three years (and would have lost a draft pick in the process). Good for him!
The biggest worry for most, coming out of the nightmare series in LA, was not the pitching, but how quiet the bats had gone. Acuna’s average was down to around .270 and he hadn’t homered in three weeks. Josh Donaldson hasn’t looked anything more than an average player with occasional power and Ozzie Albies tends to blow hot and cold. As a result, Brian Snitker did what we all wanted him to do from day one, which was to put Acuna in the leadoff spot. For the Arizona series the lineup got an overhaul, with the much-improved Dansby Swanson batting second and Donaldson moved down to the clean-up spot. The shake-up had the desired effect. Acuna and Donaldson both homered in the series and the Braves won 3 out of 4, with 6 different players getting RBIs in Saturday’s win.
So in the end, Atlanta finished the 10-game road trip 6-4 and back in contention. The rotation is taking shape, the bullpen is righting itself and the lineup is rediscovering its form. As they return home now to face the best of the NL Central they take with them confidence and momentum and once again excitement is building in Atlanta for a red hot summer of baseball.