The Braves at 40 Games
As the Braves conclude their first interleague series with the Blue Jays, let's take a look at the team as it stands after forty games. The reason to look at forty games is because this is the benchmark that Bobby Cox has always used to gauge just how good his Braves teams are. With that said let me state that these are clearly my views of the team and not those of Bobby Cox even though I think Bobby would agree on some of these. So here is how things are going for the Braves:
What has gone right for the Braves:
Clearly coming out of 2008 and going into 2009 the game plan by Frank Wren and the front office was to improve the starting rotation and get the Braves back to the blue print that gave them all of the success during their 14 year run and that is a strong and deep rotation. The Braves took some flack for giving Derek Lowe ace money. Clearly though after starting 6-2 with a 3.45 ERA in 10 starts, Lowe is definitely pitching like an ace. However, if you ask him he would say (and he did say this in New York last week) that the Braves best pitcher is Jair Jurrjens. Whats great is he has the stats (4-2, 1.96) to back that assertion up. Javy Vasquez (4-3, 3.39) has been solid and been everything that the Braves have asked for since acquiring him in the offseason. These three starters are giving the Braves innings in each start as well as throwing out quality outings each time out. This has been the achillies heal so to speak over the last three seasons and is now the strong suit of the 2009 Braves. Kenshin Kawakami has battled back after a rough start to his Major League career with three solid outings in his last four starts and outdueled in my opinion the best pitcher in baseball over the last 5 years. The jury is still out on whether he will be the next Dice K or Irabu, but as a Braves fan you have to like the way he has battled back and pitched lately. The Jo Jo Reyes experiment is clearly done at the fifth spot and Tom Glavine is expected to be back on May 30th.
Though the bullpen started off very badly the unit has pitched well over the long haul thus far and look to continue as we go forward. Soriano and Gonazalez have been very good and give Bobby a nice 1-2 punch in closing out games. Eric O'Flaherty has been this years version of Will Ohman and Peter Moylan, despite his performance against the Rockies on Monday, seems to be coming around. These four give the Braves needed depth in the bullpen and with the starters going deep into games, the unit should be sharp going into the latter part of the season. Adding Manny Acosta who was 1-3, 2.86 in Gwinnett should help as well.
What hasn't gone right for the Braves:
Clearly this conversion begins and ends with the offense or lack thereof. I know this is the biggest understatement of the season, but the offesense has been the achillies heal for the Braves. With just a little more offense to back up the steller pitching the Braves could be well in front of the NL East. Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Yunel Escobar, and Casey Kotchman are the only ones who are producing, but they cannot drive in runs if no one is on base in front of them. The lack of a leadoff hitter has hurt this team and losing Omar Infante even though he only played in a platoon mode will hurt. He is the Braves best leadoff hitter and the Braves were scoring runs with him getting on base. With the lack of power in the lineup the best way for this team to score runs is to create those opportunities with a leadoff hitter who can get on base consistently. Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar have not been able to do this and the better option was Infante.
I really hate to continue to kick that dead horse, but with only 10 steals total as a team the Braves are going to have to figure out their leadoff situation. Without enough power in the lineup, run scoring opportunities are going to have to be created from this position. The Braves also need to let Schafer use his speed at the bottom of the lineup when he gets on base. No steals for a guy who posses that skill is a huge disappointment and that lies with the coaching staff. Either the speed or power situation is going to have to improve for the offense to score the runs needed to protect the pitching.
The Jeff Francouer experiment has not gone as many had hoped it would. After getting off to a good start, Jeff has started to revert back to his old habits and is constantly getting away from everything he worked hard on in the offseason. While he has admitted this problem and has vowed to correct it, he is obviously pressing now while the Braves really need him to be his 2006-2007 form in order for them to get on a roll.
What we can expect over the next 120 games:
They Braves, as they are currently constructed, can hang with the Mets and Phillies in the division. However, if they want to get over that hump and surpass these two favorites a power hitting OF or a speedy lead off hitter will need to be acquired. Over the next couple of weeks we should start to hear some of the names of those who will be available for trade. From the way it stands now, the Braves will be buyers and though a big splash is probably out of the question, a solid move to solidfy the lineup will probably be made. Since Infante will slated to be back by or shortly after the All-Star break the move will likely be a power hitter. The pitching is very good and should continue to be so and the offense will have its good days to keep the team in it. I think we know where Frank Wren will be focusing his attention on over the next several weeks.