After a solid series in Philadelphia, including the major league debut of top-prospect Julio Teheran, the Braves starting pitching regressed a bit against the Nationals (14 ER). The offense followed up a quality previous week with a slip back to mediocrity over the past 2 series. The team hit .243 and struck out an alarming 56 times. That included a 16 K performance by Cliff Lee, 9 K from Cole Hamels and an 11 K outing Thursday by Jordan Zimmerman. Braves hitters had more strikeouts than hits over the past 6 games, with nearly a third of all their outs coming by way of the K.
While the Braves’ set of starters are playing well-enough at this point, the three losses continued to expose the team’s weaknesses. Outside of Eric Hinske and David Ross, the bench options have proven themselves to be a real liability both offensively and defensively. The bullpen has some talented young arms, but the lack of confidence in two or three relievers limits Fredi Gonzalez’s options and is leading to high usage levels among some of the more effective pitchers. There are bullpen options in Gwinnett (and it looks like moves will be made soon) but the Triple A level doesn’t offer much to strengthen the bench. It’s probably a bit early now, but as May becomes June and June becomes July, I assume Frank Wren will be actively scanning the trade market for some quality back-ups.
As the Braves get ready for another weekend series against the Phillies, followed by a two short two game tilts against the Astros and D-Backs, here are the highlights of the past 6 games….
Brian McCann - The perennial All-Star is well on his way to playing himself into a sixth mid-season classic. Over the past two series, McCann went 8-24 while driving in four runs from the clean-up spot (including the walk-off game winner on Thursday). Perhaps most importantly, four of his eight hits were doubles after having hit just one through his first 33 games. So while his home run power is still missing (he's currently on pace for 8 HR this year...yes, 8), hopefully he's turned a corner on his 'singles-only' results from the plate.
Martin Prado - The Braves lead-off hitter put up another tremendous week, going 9-26 with 2 HR, 6 RBI and 6 R, capped off by the Braves’ first grand slam of the 2011 season on Thursday. Despite a slow start to the year, Prado's now hitting .281 on the season, good for second among the team's regular starters behind Brian McCann. He's walked just eleven times on the season, leading to an uninspiring .322 OBP, but that number has also slowly crept up over the past few weeks.
Eric Hinske - 'Big Damage' has been doing exactly that recently. In limited playing time, Hinske went 4-10 with a double, 2 HR and 4 RBI. One of those homers came against a lefty on Wednesday night, despite the fact the former ROY had only faced southpaws twice all season. Hinske made two starts in right field (his first there since 2009) in place of the injured Jason Heyward and while he didn't exactly look graceful, he got the job done. After starting the season 0-9, he's now hitting .326 on the year.
Venters/O'Flaherty/Sherrill - The three bullpen lefties were outstanding over the past six games (yes, even Sherrill!). The trio combined for 10.2 IP (11 G), 1 ER, 4 H, 12 K and 3 BB..good for a 0.84 ERA. O'Flaherty, especially, worked out of a number of tight jams and high leverage spots. If Kimbrel's recent struggles continue, the team has other options here to finish games (although I'm not too sure how much of a difference that would really end up making).
Honorable Mention: Jair Jurrjens (1 GS, 1-0, 6.1 IP, 1 ER, 2 K, 1 BB)
Jason Heyward - After going 1-11 with 4 K and no extra-base hits through the first three and a half games of the past two series, Heyward was pulled late through the series opener this week against the Nationals. It was revealed that the 21-year-old has been experiencing discomfort in his shoulder since Spring Training and he began to lose feeling in his arm during Tuesday's game. Considering his play over the past few weeks, the news of a nagging injury isn't too surprising, but I'm not yet convinced it's the entire reason for his performance. Mark over at Chop N Change explained the situation much better than I possibly could and I chipped-in my thoughts in the comment section. Heyward’s MRI on Thursday didn’t reveal any structural damage, just some swelling in the rotator-cuff. After a cortisone shot, he should be back in the starting line-up in 2-3 games.
Nate McLouth - After a tremendous end of April/beginning of May, McLouth has quickly cooled off. His 4-21, 4 K, 0 XBH performance over the past six games also included a critical dropped catch in Tuesday's disaster of a game. I might have some sympathy for him, as he likely had flashes of last year's collision-induced concussion with Heyward closing in on the play, but that's a catch that every major league outfielder must make.
Scott Linebrink - I was hoping by the time I wrote this section that I'd simply be able to type 'RELEASED,' but it looks like Linebrink's time with the team will last at least a little longer. In just two appearances (1.2 IP), the veteran-reliever surrendered 4 ER, 4 H, and 1 HR. I'm not sure his 11th inning melt down Wednesday night came as a surprise to many Braves fans. He's been ineffective, at best, all season and with Gwinnett’s Scott Proctor likely arriving in Atlanta on Sunday (my fingers barely let me type that), Linebrink's future in Atlanta may quickly be coming to an end.
Conrad/Mather/Hernandez - For how good the Ross/Hinske side of the team's bench is, this trifecta is just that bad. Over the past six games, the three combined to go 3-15 with one double and six strikeouts. Conrad looks to be coming up just short of last year's heroics, with his 9th inning swing on Tuesday falling just short of a game-tying home run. Mather isn't great at one thing, but unfortunately isn't really even just good at anything, either. Hernandez can't hit (though he did put down a successful bunt in his one attempt..which I guess automatically makes him one of the best bunters on the team) and has proven to be a drastic downgrade defensively (say that three times fast!) from Alex Gonzalez at short. The Braves don't really have many legitimate internal alternatives, but it's pretty clear that these three aren't working.
Dishonorable Mention: Dan Uggla (4-23, 6 K, 1 E); Chipper Jones (5-24, 7 K, 2 XBH)