Coming into the 2008 season the Atlanta Braves were the sexy pick for a lot of the so-called experts to win the NL East. So, nearly 1/4 of the way into the season and sitting at 19-18, what's gone wrong?
Well, first let's start with what's gone right.
Chipper Jones has been absolutely unbelievable to start the season. The biggest thing is that he has only missed 2 games thus far this season. Hitting .406 with 10 homers 30 RBIs is certainly not too shabby. Much of the Braves success this season will hinge on Chipper staying healthy. Braves fans everywhere are certainly hoping for that.
Yunel Escobar is proving that the success he had last season, which allowed the Braves to trade Edgar Renteria, was no fluke. Thus far he is hitting .315 with 15 RBIs and 25 runs scored. He has also played a near flawless SS with only 3 errors and a .983 fielding percentage.
Mark Kotsay has exceeded Braves fans expectations thus far hitting .310 with 3 homers and 18 RBIs. He has also made some brilliant plays in CF. His production this year far out does the production of the player he replaced this season, Andruw Jones (now of the Dodgers).
Tim Hudson has once again proven that he can be an ACE in this league. In 9 starts he is 6-2 with a 2.54 ERA 0.988 WHIP and a 7:2 K:BB ratio.
Perhaps the biggest and most pleasant surprise this season has been the pitching of Jair Jurrjens. The Braves acquired him in the previously mentioned Renteria traded with the Tigers. In 8 starts he is 4-3 with a 3.10 ERA and 41 Ks. He has emerged as the #2 starter on this team.
Now to what has gone wrong on this team and possible solutions I believe should be considered.
It all started in the first week as the Braves prepared to welcome back Mike Hampton. Well, he made it to the field safely that night, but that was where the good news ended. After looking good all spring and declaring himself ready to go, the oft injured southpaw strained his pectoral muscle warming up in the pen before the game. After a stint on the 15 day DL he came back and did a rehab start in the minors where he was pulled in the 4th inning for the same injury. He now has stated that he has no idea how long he will be out.
In the case of Hampton I have given up on him. I was a huge promoter of him coming into this season, but his comments after his last set back just left me to believe he is just not too concerned about when he gets back. I wish the Braves would just put him on the 60 day DL and get the insurance money for his contract.
I really wonder if maybe Bobby Cox is beginning to lose his edge. It seems to me that he is being out-managed in almost every series and that is something that we as Braves fans are certainly not used to. The Braves are having a horrible time doing the little things to win games. Stealing bases, making productive outs, even getting bunts down have all been seemingly outside of the players' abilities for much of this season. Keeping Kelly Johnson in the lead off spot has been a decision that Bobby has stuck with and it has hurt the Braves. Chipper can't keep up this pace forever and by keeping the slumping Johnson in front of him, the Braves are seeing Chipper get most of his hits with no one on or just a runner at first at best. The lack of being able to play "small ball" has really hurt this team thus far.
As far as this goes, Bobby needs to realize that his pitchers now aren't John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux in their prime. He can't depend on 2 or 3 runs holding up every night. I would love to see him start putting more runners in motion with both some steal attempts and hit and run plays. Kelly Johnson I believe is a 7 hole hitter. Move Kotsay or Gregor Blanco into the leadoff spot.
Also, the Braves are 1-10 in one run games which is absolutely laughable and speaks a lot about their manager. They say that things in baseball all even out in the end, so I guess the Braves must have a lot of one run victories coming to them. We can only hope.
This team absolutely must begin to play better on the road!!! While they have the best home record in the league at 14-4, they are also the majors worst road team at 5-14.
Corky Miller.........This guy absolutely SUCKS!!! I can't believe he was better than Javy Lopez this spring. The fact that the Braves kept this guy is ridiculous. He is an automatic out for the opposing pitcher. He is hitting .067 this season. Yep. That's 1 hit all season thus far! Embarrassing!!! Find somebody else and cut his dead weight loose!
Mark Teixeira has started off a bit slowly this year, which is normal for him. He is only hitting .261 with 5 homers and 21 RBIs thus far. But the Braves should expect better things from him in the not so distant future.
The biggest need for the Braves is pitching.
First, with the loss of John Smoltz to the pen and Hampton to his 2nd home that is the DL, they need at least one more starter. Hudson, Jurrjens, Glavine, and Jo-Jo Reyes have the top 4 spots in the rotation sewn up but after that it is frightening. Chuck James is horrible, but for some reason, he keeps getting starts. If he started every 5th day, he'd lead the league in homers surrendered.
I think the Braves will go get an arm by the trading deadline. I don't know who, but pitchers like Maddux, Aaron Harang, or Derek Lowe would certainly be an upgrade over James or anything else they have.
The biggest disappointment has been the bullpen. Manny Acosta is just not getting it done as closer. The losses of Peter Moylan and Rafael Soriano have really hurt this team. Many of those one run losses can be directly attributed to the bullpen.
The good news is that the bullpen will be getting markedly better soon. Rafael Soriano will return from his injury. Mike Gonzalez should come back from his arm surgery some time in June. And of course John Smoltz should take over the closer role where he dominated from 2002-2004. This is where the one run victories could begin to become more prevalent.
3/4 of the season still to go and many more great moments and heartbreaks undoubtedly still on the horizon. I believe there is more than enough talent on this team to contend for and win the NL East title. A few additions here and there between now and the trading deadline will help to solidify this. As Braves fans we just need to have faith in our boys and help carry them with our cheers all the way to October baseball!!