The Principality

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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 (1)

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.


26th June 2015 - Revolving Doors

Posted by theprincipality on June 27, 2015 at 1:20 AM Comments comments (14)

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 (9)

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!