This just in: the Atlanta Braves are going to win the 2011 NL Wild Card.
After taking care of business in a double-header against the Mets making up for the hurricane postponements, the Braves travel to St. Louis for the weekend. Barring a sweep at the hands of Albert Pujols and the Cardinals (who are 7.5 back in the wild card chase), the Braves will all but wrap up their formal invitation to the post-season dance this year.
That’s not really news. The bigger headline to me is the juxtaposition from the Braves team that built up this seemingly insurmountable wild card lead and the Braves team currently on the field. When taking a closer look, it should be more than a little worrisome to Braves fans.
THEN: Brian McCann was a legitimate NL MVP candidate.
NOW: After an oblique injury forced Big Mac to the DL, he lost some time - and some of his timing. McCann is finally rounding back into form, evidenced by a mini power surge, but he’s come back to the pack in terms of his productivity. He’s still invaluable to this Braves team both as a leader and a force behind and at the plate. It would be nice to get this wild card wrapped up sooner rather than later to get McCann and his ailing knees as much rest as possible going into October.
THEN: Martin Prado was a hit machine.
NOW: Reminiscent of when Chipper Jones moved to left field to make room for Vinny Castilla years ago, Martin’s transition from the infield to the outfield allowed Dan Uggla to come aboard. Ironically, adding Uggla’s bat has yielded a much lower batting average. While Prado started the year like the Prado of old, a bout with an ugly staph infection in his knee in June and July slowed him down significantly. After the Michael Bourn trade, Prado moved from the leadoff spot back to his natural #2 spot in the batting order.
We always talk about what a luxury it is having a multi-positional talent like Martin on the team, but I wonder if all this role-changing has finally caught up to him. Something is affecting his productivity at the plate as his average is down to .260. If not all the shifting and missed time then what and they’d better figure it out soon! Atlanta will need Prado and Bourne on base and scoring runs in the playoffs in order to make a deep run, especially with the fall-off of sophmore Jason Heyward and inexplicable ineptitude of Alex Gonzalez at the plate this year.
THEN: Jair Jurrjens was a NL Cy Young award contender and Tommy Hanson was among the league leaders in strikeouts.
NOW: Both promising young righties have been much less effective since the All-Star break and are on the shelf - JJ with a sore knee and Tommy with a small tear in his throwing shoulder. The timetable on Jair’s return is unknown, while there has been some promising talk recently about Tommy’s recovery in time for the end of September and the playoffs. The health and experience (or lack thereof) of the starting rotation is probably the biggest concern for the Braves heading into the postseason. If neither of these guys can make it back, you’re going to be asking possibly two or three rookie starters to battle experienced offenses like the Brewers, D-Backs, and Phillies. That’s a tall task for guys like Beachy, Minor and Delgado or Teheran.
THEN: O’Flenbrel (O’Flaherty, Venters, and Kimbrel) were lights out in the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings.
NOW: Well, we’re really picking nits here – Kimbrel was the NL Rookie of the Month in August, is up to 43 saves, and has the longest scoreless streak of the season - passing Cliff Lee and approaching 40 innings. But O’Flaherty and Venters have looked mortal in the last few outings. Venters gave up the tying run in the last Phillies game (which the Braves would go on to lose in the bottom of the ninth) and surrendered another run in his last outing. He hadn’t given up a run in back-to-back outings all season.
While “O’Flenbrel” is still plenty dominant and trustworthy, they could benefit from some extra rest down the stretch. In October, the onus will really be on the Braves starters and offense to get to these guys with a lead. When John Smoltz was the closer, there was nothing more frustrating than having a 55 save stud in the bullpen and not being able to use him in the playoffs. Atlanta does not want to be in that situation.
Now don’t get me wrong, everything is not worse off than it was earlier in the season. Since the Braves pulled away with this wild card lead they have added Michael Bourn. The Braves needed speed, an upgrade in center field and a true leadoff man – and they addressed all those shortcomings in the form of one player by trading for Bourn.
Jose “Georgie” Constanza has also provided a spark since coming up from the minors and displacing the struggling Jason Heyward in right field. Constanza has come back down to Earth in the last couple weeks. Besides, despite his baffling sophomore slump, I think most Braves fans would rather take their chances with the upside of Heyward in the starting lineup in the postseason, even if he’s in the 7 or 8 hole. Chipper Jones is back healthy and mashing hoping for one more postseason run. The well-documented 33 game hit streak of Dan Uggla got his average to a somewhat respectable number (over .230) while leading the team and 2nd in the league with 33 HR.
Because Hurricane Irene forced them out of New York, the Braves are in the middle of a rough 15 games in 14 days stretch. There will be no rest for the weary Bravos this month, so ideally their best bet is to take care of business in St. Louis this weekend and head back home. If we can lock down the wildcard it would provide a chance to rest Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman and the bullpen. Get back one or two of the injured starters would be Priority Two and getting Heyward and the bench guys some extra swings would come next.
Don’t let that sweep in Philly this week fool you, we’ve played those guys tough all season long and the overall record head-to-head is about even. Plus, there will be a little extra October magic in the Atlanta air this Fall on the 20th year anniversary of that resilient ’91 World Series team. Four of the heroes from that memorable squad: Terry Pendleton, Tom Glavine, Mark Lemke, and Ron Gant are still around working with the team. That can’t hurt, right?
About the Author
Written by Marcus Young
"A lotta room in right-center, if he hits one there we can dance in the streets. The 2-1. Swung, line drive left field! One run is in! Here comes Bream! Here's the throw to the plate! He is...SAFE! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win!...Braves win!" The late great Skip Caray with my favorite sports call of all time as a lumbering Sid Bream was able to beat Barry Bonds' three-hopper to the plate by an eyelash in the old Atlanta Fulton County Stadium to secure the Atlanta Braves' miraculous back-to-back World Series trips in 1991 and 1992. I grew up in Atlanta, I am still a die hard Braves, Falcons, and Hawks fan and am hungry for another championship to put alongside that lonely 1995 World Series trophy! I graduated from Wake Forest University in 2002 and am back living in Hot-lanta now. Go Deacs and Go Dawgs! My favorite athletes are John Smoltz, Magic Johnson, and Brett Favre. Braves are on a mission in 2011 in the 20th anniversary of that magical 1991 season!