Sunday, March 13, 2011

Thoughts At The Braves Halfway Point

As the snow begins to (slowly) melt here in Upstate, NY, the Braves have reached the halfway point of the 2011 Spring Training season. As I think most would agree, for the most part, the team has been pretty impressive over the past few weeks. Here are some of my thoughts so far:

The Good

Starting Pitching – While it’s only Spring Training, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy all have ERAs under 4.00, with Jurrjens the highest at 3.86. Lowe hasn’t given up an earned run during his 9 spring innings. Most believed the Braves starting rotation would be a strength heading into the 2011 season and it’s looking like that will be true.

Nate McLouth – After a horrid 2010 season, it looks like Nate might have figured out his swing again. In 28 PA, he’s hitting .429/.600/.667 with 7 BB, 1 HR and 3 RBI, often hitting out of the second spot in the order. Perhaps most importantly, he’s putting the bat on the ball, having only struck out once so far this spring. A resurgent Nate McLouth will be a big part of a successful Braves season.

Chipper Jones – Chipper returns from a torn ACL and at 38 years old, many wondered if he would still be able to play at a high level. Well, he’s done a pretty good job at addressing those concerns. Following another productive day at the plate Sunday against the Astros, Chipper’s hitting .353/.421/.647 with 2 HR, 4 2B and 8 RBI over 34 AB. It’s great to see some power returning to his swing. He hasn’t had any issues fielding 3B or running the bases. He’ll surely be given a number of days off throughout the season, but hopefully he’s able to continue with the healthy and productive play.

Jason Heyward – The power hasn’t really been there (2 XBH in 24 AB), but J-Hey continues to hit and get on base (.417 AVG, .517 OBP). It would seem that those numbers would suggest a spot towards the top of the order instead of the 6 spot that Fredi Gonzalez is suggesting, but we shall see. Jason’s been battling a few nagging small injuries over the past week or two, so starting Opening Day healthy seems to be his main priority.

Freddie Freeman – Freddie’s gotten a lot of at bats (35) and playing time at 1B this spring and he’s made sure to take advantage of it. With a .343/.410/.429 slash, Freddie’s getting on base at an impressive rate. His power has been a bit slow to come along (0 HR), but his 3 2B so far has been encouraging. He’s also played some solid first base, making some dazzling plays already with his glove. That alone should be quite the improvement over last season for the team.

Ed Lucas – The former Kansas City Royal has opened a lot of eyes this spring (does this mean Dayton Moore will want him back?!). Hitting .391/.440/.478 so far, Lucas has played himself into the discussion for one of the back-up infield spots on the team’s Opening Day roster. Despite the lack of power (1 XBH in 23 AB), the high OBP he’s shown would be encouraging for the team. While his specialty is not the SS position, if he can keep up his success with the bat, he may be able to bump Diory Hernandez and Brandon Hicks out of their assumed spot. Lucas will need to keep playing at a high level to force the Braves’ hand.

Wilkin Ramirez – The former Tigers prospect has also put on quite a show this spring. Following his lackluster time in the minors over the past few seasons, Ramirez has put up some great numbers so far. The 6’2” Ramirez has displayed some impressive speed, already beating out a number of infield hits, while showing some pop with a .684 SLG in 20 PA. He’s also struck out just once so far this spring. As Joe Mather struggles down in Florida, Ramirez may be entering the discussion for the 4th outfield spot as he adds a dimension that the team doesn’t currently have. He’s probably not the best defensive option, but he has gotten some time at CF, so he should have some level of comfort there if need be. Like Ed Lucas, if Ramirez keeps playing like he has, the Braves staff will have some serious decisions to make.

The Bad

Brian McCann – I don’t think Brian really needs to impress anyone this spring, but outside of a solid day Sunday against the Astros, he certainly hasn’t gotten off to a great start. Over 26 AB, McCann has just 1 XBH and 0 BB to go along with 4 K. Again, I’m not overly concerned, but I’d still like to see McCann put up some better numbers over the next few weeks before Opening Day.

Dan Uggla – Perhaps listing him under the ‘Bad’ category is a bit of a stretch, but this is mainly to point out his lack of power so far this spring. The ‘30 HR every season’ Uggla has yet to go deep in 33 spring AB and has just 1 2B, giving him a slugging percentage of just .273. There’s plenty of time for him to get comfortable and it’s really only the regular season that matters, but you’d like to see him start doing the thing that the Braves acquired him for.

Scott Proctor – He’s gotten 6 appearances (leading the team this spring) for 7 IP, but hasn’t been that impressive. His 1.8 K/BB ratio isn’t awful, but you don’t like seeing a 6.4 BB/9 rate to go along with a 5.14 ERA. With viable options like Stephen Marek and Christhian Martinez performing well, Proctor really needs to pick it up to earn that final bullpen spot.

Jordan Schafer – He’s been given a ton of playing time this spring, but hasn’t really taken advantage of it. Over 42 AB, he’s put up just a .190/.209/.286 line to go along with 9 K and just 1 BB. He’s shown some flashes of his former self, including the game a few days ago where he cracked a home run and followed that up with a bunt single, but it’s pretty clear that he needs some regular work at the minor league level before he becomes a viable major league option.

Joe Mather – For a guy who seemed to have the inside track on one of the Braves remaining bench spots, he’s working pretty hard at giving the team reason to think twice about the decision. Mather’s gotten time at 1B, 3B and OF to go along with 24 AB. Mather has just 3 hits (1 2B), helping lead to a .125/.222/167 line. His advantage is his defensive versatility, but if Ed Lucas, Wilkin Ramirez and others are putting up impressive numbers with the bat, Mather will need to pick it up a bit in order to keep the spot that’s seemingly been put aside for him.

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