Thursday, April 7, 2011

Braves Status Report: 7 Games (3-4)

As most Braves fans would probably agree (myself included), it’s a bit surprising to see the team sitting at 3-4 after their opening week. The series again the Nationals looked encouraging, especially considering it was at a place the team often struggles at. The beginning of the Brewers series started off right with some late game heroics, courtesy of Martin Prado and Dan Uggla, but the Braves followed that up with three straight close game losses. Turner Field looks even more welcoming than it did a few days ago.

As the Braves head to Atlanta for a big weekend series against the rival Phillies (and their supposedly 47 ace starting pitchers), here’s a look at some of the highlights and lowlights so far.

Who’s Hot:

Pitching – Not too surprising, but the Braves pitching is already standing out as a clear strength of the team. Lowe (x2), Hudson and Beachy have all put up starts with 1 ER or less while the bullpen sits with a miniscule 1.71 ERA (4 ER in 21 IP). Tommy Hanson has been roughed up in his first two starts, but seemed to settle down a bit over his final few innings on Thursday. Mike Minor’s spot start on Wednesday was tough to watch, but Jair Jurrjens looks ready to return to the rotation within the next week or two.

Defense – This listing is more of a recognition of how well the defense has performed as compared to last year than actually defining it as ‘hot.’ What looked to be the weakness of the team has actually seemed to be in control through the first week of the season. There have been a few defensive miscues so far, but nothing to the level of what we saw last year. Alex Gonzalez, Dan Uggla and Matt Young are some of the Braves that have already made some notable defensive plays.

Jason Heyward – J-Hey started the season off strong with HR in his first AB of the 2011 season and has continued to produce since that swing. He’s getting on base (.444 OBP) and is hitting the ball with authority (.550 SLG, 2 HR, 5 RBI). His walk rate continues to impress with 7 BB in 27 PAs. The big question is how long will Fredi keep him in the 6th hole? He was kept in the spot when McLouth rested on Wednesday, but moved up to the 5th spot when Chipper sat on Thursday.

Brian McCann – Proving that Spring Training means little, McCann has been on a tear so far this season. He already has 11 hits in 26 AB and has chipped in 5 RBI from the clean-up spot. Interestingly, all 11 hits have been singles and he’s not walked at all, leading to a rare slash of .423/.423/.423. Those numbers will obviously settle down a bit and the power should begin to show soon enough.

Chipper Jones – The old man is doing his best to silence those who thought he might not be able to return from his 2010 injury. Through his first 7 games of 2011, Chipper has 8 hits in 25 ABs and now sits just 2 hits away from 2500 for his career. His 3 doubles on the season put him at 496 for his career, just 4 away from becoming just the 52nd player in MLB history to knock 500 doubles.

Who’s Not:

Offense –
Through 7 games, the Braves have hit .226 and have averaged just 3.4 runs per game. Remove the 11 run outburst against the Nationals on Sunday and that average drops to just 2.2 runs per game. Take it one step further by removing only the 8th inning from Sunday’s game and that average is 2.6 runs. Last year’s team was able to get on base but not be driven in, with very little power added in. Through the first week, the Braves have had trouble getting on base, but have already hit 6 HR (Uggla 2, Heyward 2, Gonzalez 1 and Prado 1). The power increase is encouraging, but because the team has had difficulty getting on base, 5 of those 6 shots have been solo. Just 7 games is clearly too early to see a definitive trend, but for an area that’s supposed to be markedly improved over last season, it’s important for the offense to turn around sooner rather than later.

First Base – Freddie Freeman has struggled through his first 7 games as the Atlanta starting 1B. This is not as much an analysis as it is a statement of fact. Hitting out of the 8-hole, Freddie has just 3 hits in his first 23 AB, helping to lead to an uninspiring .149/.184/.255. I’m confident the hits will come, but the 14 K (correction: make that just 6 K) in just 25 PA is a bit alarming at this point. Hopefully Freddie’s just pressing a bit early in his first full season. Part time 1B/part time PH Eric Hinske isn’t helping much either. Hinske’s hitless in 7 AB, including an 0-3 performance in his start in place of Freeman on Tuesday.

Nate McLouth – Nate’s an interesting case so far. He’s actually riding a 5 game hit streak, having only gone hitless on Opening Day, but that’s about it. His .217/.280/.261 doesn’t help to deflect the couple miscues he’s made in centerfield and on the base paths. I’m still up for him to be in the starting line-up (though maybe not hitting 2nd), but Matt Young will be clipping at his heels if he doesn’t begin to perform.

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