COMMENTARY | Only in the National League East could the Atlanta Braves drop five of their last seven games but have only one game slide off of their lead in the division. The Braves finally notched a victory in Milwaukee on Sunday, June 23, after giving back the previous eight contests they played in the cheese state. Even though Atlanta was able to snap out of their slump, their recent failures highlight a growing concern among fans as to whether or not this team is built to truly contend for a World Series title in 2013.
The Braves have the biggest divisional lead of any team in baseball (6 games), yet they have been shutout 11 times already -- the Miami Marlins have only been blanked nine times. What was once an interesting statistical anomaly to start the season has now grown into an overriding trend with troubling implications. The Braves simply do not win if they are not hitting home runs. Of their 44 victories, they have hit a home run in 40 of them. The Braves' record is just 4-24 in games in which someone on the team does not go yard.
Essentially, Atlanta has become a feast or famine team which can just as easily put up ten runs on the best pitcher in baseball as they could get shutout by a rookie making his first major league start. Atlanta has trouble putting the bat on the ball, but when they do, it has a good chance to end up in the glove of a fan sitting in the bleachers. The Braves simultaneously lead the NL in home runs (96) and strikeouts (686). The question is, can a team win a World Series being constructed this why?
Opposing Team's Blueprint
As the team is currently constructed, Freddie Freeman appears to be the only player in the lineup consistently swinging a bat which doesn't resemble a foam swimming pool noodle. After Freeman's .305 average, the mediocre .247 Andrelton Simmons is hitting is the next highest mark for any everyday player (Chris Johnson does not have enough at-bats to qualify). Opposing teams are starting to take notice of the deficiencies for the Atlanta offense, and they are adjusting how they attack this lineup accordingly.
After Freeman recorded two game-winning hits in a three-game span earlier this month, teams have simply stopped letting him have the opportunity to beat them. In the three games that followed, Freeman was walked six times. Not surprisingly, the Braves dropped three games of their five-game home series with the woeful New York Mets. The word is out, and other NL teams are joining in on the campaign to start making Freeman become one of the most walked players in baseball.
In the first inning of Sunday's 7-4 victory over the Brewers, Freeman was given the "unintentional" intentional walk when he came up with runners on the corners and only one out. It may go down as a regular four-ball pass in the stat sheet, but a quartet of breaking balls nowhere close to the zone really isn't fooling anyone -- particularly since B.J. Upton followed by striking out on three straight pitches which snapped the catcher's glove perfectly.
In the game of baseball, where every stat is recorded and every infinitesimal piece of information is collated and analyzed by a team of M.I.T graduates qualified to be working for NASA, opposing teams are going to know all of Atlanta's weaknesses. If the Braves are going to protect Freeman with a player hitting under .200, why wouldn't teams give the 23-year-old first baseman a free pass and take their chances with Upton? Luckily, Brian McCann was able to go opposite field to deposit a grand slam over the left field wall to snap the Braves' two-game scoreless streak, but this blueprint is not going to change unless the other Atlanta hitters prove they can consistently take advantage when pitchers refuse to give in to Freeman.
Are Trades the Answer?
The Braves will likely win the NL East by default since no other team has decided to be a serious threat this season. However, if Atlanta has designs on doing more than just hanging another yellow banner on the inner rim of Turner Field, they may have to look at moving some of their chess pieces -- perhaps even sacrificing a few pawns in the process.
B.J. Upton and Justin Upton are not going to be moved. The Braves would have to eat a huge portion of salary to unload either of the two siblings they just signed this offseason. The most likely players that could be moved with the intent of bringing back valuable major league pieces would be Jason Heyward, McCann or Dan Uggla. Not to mention the fact that Atlanta's farm system is one of the deepest in baseball. There are deals to be made if the Braves want to make them.
Heyward is an arbitration eligible player who signed a one-year, $3.65 million contract before the season. Given his slump to start 2013, a rebuilding team could see him as a very valuable piece for their future knowing that this first round of arbitration will not break the bank. Jordan Schafer has played well enough to warrant an everyday spot in the lineup, but he is road blocked by too many big names in the outfield. Consistently getting his .406 on-base percentage into the lineup could be the answer to Atlanta's scoring troubles.
Could the Braves look to move Heyward to a team such as the Chicago Cubs who could send back Nate Schierholtz (.296/10/.347) and bullpen arms such as Kevin Gregg or James Russell? This move would allow Schafer to be the everyday leadoff hitter while also bolstering a bullpen which is still looking to replace Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters.
McCann is another veteran piece with plenty of trade potential. For one, McCann will be a free agent at the end of this season and the Braves will likely be unwilling to meet his salary demands as Evan Gattis waits in the wings. Because of this contract situation, there would be no future risk associated with the team who traded for him. An AL contender looking to bolster a lineup for the stretch run could see McCann as a very attractive DH option.
Uggla's bloated contract would likely require Atlanta to grin and bear a chuck of change, but, his long-ball power might look good swinging for the Crawford boxes in Houston. Packaging Uggla with a good minor league arm to bring Jose Alltuve to Atlanta would solve a lot of problems. The Braves would get back a top-of-the-order guy who gets on base and does not strikeout. Of course, the Braves would likely have to be willing to lose a highly touted minor league prospect to make Houston amenable to the idea, but it comes down to how bad Atlanta wants to win this season.
Should the Braves hold tight with the roster as assembled, or should they look to restructure their high-risk, high-reward lineup in favor of a more balanced attack?
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter. He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
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