Friday, August 23, 2013

It's Never As Dark As It Seems

The news just keeps going from bad to worse.  A day after watching Jason Heyward stagger off the field after fracturing his jaw on a pitch to the face, the Atlanta Braves sent Brandon Beachy to go see the Harbinger of Death, Dr. James Andrews.  Today...locusts?

Braves fans, as they have been ingrained to do, panic at the first sign of bad news.  Two bad things and a loss?  The crisis hot lines in the Atlanta area simply can't deal with the call overload.

And make no mistake - it's bad.  Heyward was as hot as anyone in baseball since his overdue move to the top of the lineup.  He was no longer an okay offensive player with tremendous defense.  He was now a true offensive threat that other teams had to work around.  With tremendous defense.  Nevertheless, the Braves seem unsure if Heyward will play again this year.  For a guy who has had lengthy DL trips in two-of-the-last three seasons, that's worrisome.  Hopefully, he will be back for the playoffs, but he will have to deal with the psychological issues of getting back into the box compounded with zero minor league games to knock off the rust.

Beachy looked like he was finally getting his stuff back, but after an inning that saw his velocity plummet, both the pitcher and the Braves are rightfully concerned.  Losing him for another extended time is problematic in that he could be a real asset in October and it drops the Braves' depth back to five starters just as they were going to adopt a plan to rest a young arm each time through the rotation to limit innings and help keep pitchers fresh for the stretch run.  Now, just seeing Dr. Andrews doesn't mean you go under the knife.  Maybe it's not serious and Beachy will be able to get back into the rotation at some point.  Still...when your pitcher even has a friendly chat with the doctor who the Braves have on speed dial, you cross your fingers that the words "season-ending surgery" doesn't follow.

The Braves disabled list is a list of well-known and productive players who any team would miss.  Eight players currently show up with a little red-cross next to their names.  Almost all of them except for Dan Uggla and Reed Johnson are considered lost for the season, though still crossing my fingers on Heyward.

Yet...there are the Braves.  With a 77-50 record.  The best record in all of baseball.  Despite all of the injuries or the insane lack of productivity up the middle offensively, the Braves get by.  The Nationals haven't exactly threatened - mainly because they aren't as good - but that doesn't diminish what the Braves have accomplished to this point.  The depth has been tested and while not nearly as good as it was at full strength, the Braves continue to get production from unlikely sources.  Who knew the Braves would rely so heavily on Joey Terdoslavich this season?  The rotation was remarkably healthy until mid-July, but that luck ran out very quickly.  Just the same, the young guns have been very good.  Sure, they lack the star power and they often aren't great, but it's just as rare for them to be pitch poorly.  Of course, the bullpen has been outstanding from day one.

Injuries are part of the game.  Losing Heyward is a major loss and there's no way to replace him.  I don't think starting Evan Gattis makes much sense because he hasn't hit much better - if at all better - than B.J. Upton since the beginning of June and looks like a lost child in left.  But regardless, there's no way that the Braves will replace Heyward in right field or at the top of the lineup.  If Beachy goes down, it will be taxing for the rotation, but it's not as significant as the Heyward injury.  Nevertheless, it would make things more difficult.

And the parallels to this team and 2010 are starting to pile up.  You might recall the 2010 team that limped into the playoffs without Chipper Jones and Martin Prado only to see Billy Wagner get hurt facing his only batter of the playoffs.  That team held together by glue and chewing gum fell in four games to the eventual champions, the San Francisco Giants.

Hopefully, the Braves will avoid any more big injuries and with the return of an Uggla that can pass an eye exam, with any luck, the Braves will be just fine and getting Heyward back would only make a great team greater.  Regardless, even with the club that faces the decision to start either Elliot Johnson or Paul Janish right now...it's really not as awful as it seems.  This team still has an emerging first baseman and a guy having a career year at third.  Justin Upton and Brian McCann are still very good, though the latter is scuffling.  The rotation didn't suddenly forget how to pitch and the varsity club of the bullpen (everyone but Luis Ayala and Anthony Varvaro) is solid.  Yeah, they are better with Heyward than without.  But they are still very good even without him.

Getting home field advantage became quite a bit more difficult without Heyward in right.  But before you think the season is over, remember that the Braves were a decent team with the entire offense, sans Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson, not hitting for half of the season.  Now that the younger Upton is hitting, the Braves have the players to get to the end of season with the best record.  And with any luck, Heyward will be back and ready to help them the rest of the way.

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