Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Are the Braves Built to Win?

Several years ago, then-General Manager John Schuerholz published an ego-stroking book called Built to Win.  At the time, the Braves were coming off the "Baby Braves" year of 2005, a year that was supposed to jump-start the next string of playoff appearances.  Since that book was released during the spring of '06, the Braves have made one trip to October baseball and find themselves in the midst of a disturbing trend of loses.  On May 20th, Tim Hudson and the Braves shutdown David Price and the Rays 2-0.  Since that win, the Braves are 9-16.  By the way, that string includes a six-game win streak.  They have lost a game-and-a-half lead and now trail the NL East by 4.5, which is only possible because the Nationals are remembering that they are the Nationals of late.

Did the book create a curse or are the Braves just not built to win anymore?  Well, since I don't believe in curses, I am forced to look at what it holding the Braves back.  This is a team that has the fourth most valuable offensive player according to fWAR in baseball leading off.  Martin Prado follows with 2.9 WAR, good for 12th.  Dan Uggla has played some of the best baseball of his life, though you wouldn't know it by seeing the comment pages at Yahoo, MLB.com, or the AJC.  But, to their credit, those people are fucking idiots.  Jason Heyward's defense has been tremendous and his .339 wOBA has been productive, though the Braves justifiably were hoping for more.  Brandon Beachy has been great, though that looks like it has ended.  Tim Hudson's FIP of 3.08 makes his 3.90 ERA look much nicer and Craig Kimbrel has shown that, if not the best, he's among the class of his position.

That's a lot of great stuff, huh?  Well, outside the the whole Beachy injury.

Two things truly stand out quite negatively.  One, I only mentioned three pitchers.  Randall Delgado has turned it around a bit and we have seen some good things from Tommy Hanson and Kris Medlen, but that is about it.  Mike Minor has turned into a schizophrenic - sometimes good, sometimes bad, rarely just okay.  Makes a guy miss Russ Ortiz...and that gives me the shakes.  And really, outside of Minor, the rotation is the only good thing about this staff.  Jonny Venters has been a disappointment and his FIP doesn't show signs of unluckiness, though his xFIP gives some hope I guess.  Eric O'Flaherty is in the same boat.  Chad Durbin's results have been much nicer than the way he's pitched.  I guess Lispy has been decent, though.  Getting Meds back into the pen is almost a necessity because of how poorly the guys trying to get the game to Kimbrel have been. 

And let's not even go into the abysmal failure that has been the Braves bench.  There is no legitimate reason why Jack Wilson and Juan Francisco are in the major leagues.  Francisco's on-base is .243.  It would be all find and dandy if this was the Pirates, who took a chance on Brandon Wood figuring it out, but the Braves are supposed to be contenders.  You don't keep hoping Francisco gets it together while wasting at-bats and assisting the competition in beating you.  The demotion of Tyler Pastornicky means that Wilson's "job" as defensive replacement was voided.  The Braves are essentially keeping a guy whose main value now is that he bunts really nicely.  Matt Diaz has had his moments (I guess) and I give Eric Hinske a longer leash than many because, well, he's been exposed because of injuries.

Brian McCann has been in a season-long slump, though he has showed signs of turning it around.  Chipper Jones, between ugly-ass bruises and a second wife tired of his affection for Hooters (I'm guessing), has struggled since returning off the DL.  First, Freddie Freeman couldn't see and now he can't hold a bat.  Tomorrow, I imagine he will lose the sense of smell.

A lot of the above really sucks, but let's be honest, the coaching doesn't seem to be doing the Braves any favors.  There is a growing movement in social media to axe Roger McDowell.  I am not there yet, but I can see the validity in contending that McDowell isn't right for the job.  In his defense, he is dealing with a lot of young pitchers and the regression of Venters and O'Flaherty happening in the same year is a bit much to deal with.  That said, this is a results-driven business and his job is on the line during the second half.  Or at least, it should be.

But then, Fredi Gonzalez should be on the hotseat.  Gonzalez, who was at the helm during last season's epic collapse, has saw these Braves get an early start.  After a great opening to the season, with the offense no longer slugging or at least stringing together long at-bats, the Braves are no longer a front-runner and that does, in some part, fall upon Gonzalez's shoulders.  Listen, I do believe that we as fans tend to overdo the idea that the manager deserves all the blame.  I don't think it's all Fredi's fault, but some of the roster and game decisions have been so damn frustrating that it's hard not to think something needs to be changed with the leadership.  Playing short-handed rather than DL certain players, most memorably Chipper, hurts the team and with very little good reason.  I'd rather lose a guy for 15 days and have an extra spot on the roster, especially in the NL, than lose a guy for ten days and play with 24 men.  His usage of the pen has been downright mind-boggling at times.  His quick hook has hurt more times than it has helped and he doesn't seem to adjust to that.

The Braves are a mix of nice pieces and dead weight.  Beyond that, management seems incapable or unwilling to move this franchise toward bigger and better things.  The Bobby Cox-handpicked successor is a failure to this point.  Damn his winning record.  Most Braves fans feel, and I agree, that this team has just about as much talent as any contender, but the Braves seem destined to finish under .500 for the second consecutive month.  With every day that nothing is done to this roster or management, the feeling that this team is headed to yet another early offseason grows.  No, this team isn't built to win, but it's not a terrible squad either.  There is enough here to cobble together a Wild Card winning team, a team that, if hot, has the chance to go deep into the playoffs. 

But changes need to be made today, not tomorrow.  You can lose a shot at making the playoffs in June just as easily as you can September.

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