COMMENTARY | Although every Major League team starts the season with the same 0-0 record, any fan who majored in common sense knows that only a handful of clubs truly have a chance to contend. Thankfully, for supporters of the Atlanta Braves, their team is on a very short list of possible trophy hoisters for the 2013 World Series. Exactly what do the Braves need to do to make raising the banner for title No. 4 a reality?
If Brandon Beachy Comes Back as Brandon Beachy
The most impressive thing about the Braves first-place start to the 2013 season is that they have been able to build a big lead in the division despite their best pitcher having yet to throw a single pitch all year.
The Atlanta staff -- without Beachy -- has the No. 2 ranked ERA in all of baseball (3.22). Before Beachy went down with a season-ending elbow injury in 2012, he boasted the lowest ERA in the league (2.00).
The fast approaching June 18 is the mythical day fans keep hearing about as the unofficial beginning of unbridled prosperity for the Braves. In a league where teams often struggle to find four reliable starters, Atlanta's rotation is about to runneth over with six quality arms. If the Brave have a big lead in the division now, what happens when they add a true No. 1 ace to their starting staff?
If They Flip the Calendar to April when Justin Upton Bats
Since April showers brought May flowers, Upton has only hit two home runs and 10 RBIs. It's actually worse than that if we consider that Upton has hit zero homers and driven in just one single run since May 17 (last 20 games).
The younger of Atlanta's Upton brothers started the season off red-hot with a franchise record 12 round-trippers in the month of April, but since then, No. 8 has cooled considerably. Hitting .217 since May 1 is not what Atlanta wants to see from their three-hole hitter. Upton is the kind of player who can single-handedly carry a team, but lately, Upton has provided the Braves with another B.J. Upton-like hole in the middle of their order.
If They Acquire another Reliable Reliever
The group of Braves who get the least, but maybe deserve the most, credit for Atlanta's success this season is their patchwork bullpen. When it was learned Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters would both need season-ending Tommy John surgery, people were twisting ankles jumping off of the Braves' bandwagon as quickly as possible. But it seems those same deserters are coming back in droves as Atlanta has managed to build a sturdy bridge to the always reliable Craig Kimbrel out of little more than duct tape and the discarded arms they found on the side of the road.
Atlanta's relief corps is ranked No. 4 in baseball with an ERA of 2.87. But perhaps the most telling bullpen stat is the fact that they rank near the bottom of the league in innings pitched, meaning the 'pen is not being gassed early in the season as it has in years past. The problem is that the loss of O'Flaherty and Venters has left the Braves with no experienced southpaws to turn to late in games.
Although Luis Avilan and Alex Wood have been solid, they also have a combined one year of Major League duty between them, and neither has thrown a single postseason pitch. If Paul Maholm is the man who gets moved to the bullpen when Beachy returns, then Atlanta may be able to fill their reliever needs in-house. However, if one of the righties gets banished to the bullpen, the Braves will need to find a veteran left-hander via trade or on the waiver wire.
If They Find Regular At-Bats for Evan Gattis
It's always tough to play the "what could have been" game, but every loss the Braves sustain during which Gattis does not get to swing the lumber is another chance for fans to second guess manager Fredi Gonzalez. In any hotly contested game, I'd want to make sure I used every bullet available in my chamber… and then throw the gun itself if I run out of bullets. To my knowledge, Gattis has not yet found a way to drive in runs whilst sitting on his hands in the dugout.
The Braves have already lost eight games in which Gattis was not in the starting lineup. Despite having 64 fewer at-bats than the St. Louis Cardinals' Yadier Molina, Gattis still ranks No. 1 among NL catchers in home runs (13), No. 2 in RBIs (33) and he has the same WAR (2.0) as Molina or Buster Posey.
If the Braves Get the Uggla/Heyward/Upton Train Rolling
Sweet fancy Moses, Jason Heyward's bat has finally started sniffing rawhide. Since returning from Appendectomy surgery on May 17, Heyward has raised his batting average 65 points. Although it is still hanging listlessly at .186, the J-Hey Kid is in the midst of a five-game hitting streak which has seen him go 9-for-18 at the dish. He is still hitting out of place in the two-hole, but at this point, just getting him to consistently make contact is a dream come true.
B.J. Upton's progress is a little more cerebral than Heyward's. Upton has hit two home runs and a walk-off game-winner since the start of June, but he is still just 5-for-22. When a player has the lowest batting average of anyone in baseball (.155), fans have to read between the lines to find the silver lining. For Upton, the good sign is that he is putting together much better at-bats. He struck out 63 times through the first two months of the season, yet he has only seen the sit-down sign language from umpires five times so far in June. Couple that fact with the six walks he has already mustered and Upton is slowly changing from an unbearable albatross on the lineup, to just a weak spot. With any luck, he will be approaching average by July.
Dan Uggla's stat line is a head scratcher for sure. His .181 average is abysmal, yet he has 10 home runs, ranks No. 2 on the team in runs (30) and walks (33), and he has a higher on-base percentage than Atlanta's leadoff hitter. Uggla is a career .250 hitter, so it is not as though Atlanta is expecting a lot from him at the plate. As long as he hits his 30 home runs, walks 100 times and score 80 runs, the Braves will grin and bear a .200 hitter. Uggla has broken the franchise's strikeout record in each of the two seasons he has played in Atlanta, and he is on pace to re-re-break his own mark again this year. But, this is the same man who also had a 33-game hitting streak in 2011, so stats can be thrown far out of the window in every Uggla at-bat…anything is possible.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter based in "Braves Country." He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
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