July 2008

First half review: “Missed it by that much…”

shoe phone.jpgThe first half of the 2008 season is now in the books. On the heels of the new Get Smart motion picture (a term that is grossly underutilized these days), comes the renaissance of a phrase that just seems to hit the nail on the head:

“Missed it by that much.” – Maxwell Smart (Original, pictured to the right).

You can apply this in a number of ways to the frustrations that the Atlanta Braves have gone through so far. The first, and most obvious place, would be the alarming number of 1-run defeats. The Braves have played 27 games that were decided by a single run through the season’s first three and a half months. Only five of those came out in the Braves favor, leaving 22 gut-wrenching contests in which Atlanta missed it… by that much.

A losing record at the break is hardly a thing that people have come to expect from Atlanta since 1991. This marks the second time in three years, however. If the Braves had won roughly half of those 1-run games (say 13-of-27), they would be in first place with a 53-42 record and a one and half game lead over the Phillies. Of course, Philadelphia has owned Atlanta this season, going 8-1 thus far, but that is a different story for a different time. The 1-run loss trend really seems to have gotten out of hand on the road, where the Braves have dropped 24 consecutive 1-run contests dating back to last season (0-17 in ’08).


Let’s talk pitching:

Skipper Bobby Cox has not been wearing out a Maxwell Smart shoe-phone this season. No, he has been wearing out the bullpen phone. Injuries have decimated Atlanta’s rotation, with John Smoltz and Tom Glavine both potentially having thrown their final pitch. Even with the long lost Mike Hampton toiling in the minor leagues in hopes of rejoining the club after the break, the Braves have been crippled with the loss of its veteran stalwarts.

Atlanta had every reason to believe that their veteran starting staff would provide the foundation, allowing rookie Jair Jurrjens to learn as the fifth starter. Well, maybe the questions surrounded Hampton, but Glavine had never been on the disabled list before trip number one in April. Meanwhile, Smoltz had proven that his ability to pitch through pain would likely get him through an setbacks the season would hold. Despite all that, the Braves are second in the National League with a team ERA of 3.70 this season.

Chief among the reasons that the Braves are turning in such a sparkling effort in the pitching department has been the duo of Tim Hudson and Jurrjens. Who would have guessed that the Braves would reach the break with the 22-year old Jurrjens leading the club in wins (9), ERA (3.00) and strikeouts (81)? Hudson does not trail by much, winning nine games of his own and turning a 3.13 ERA with 77 strikeouts. Both have done everything in their power to help stabilize the Braves starting staff. The season would be lost without their combined efforts.

Filling in quite nicely for Atlanta has been Jorge Campillo (4-4, 3.06 ERA). The 29-year old righty spent some time with Seattle the last two seasons but had spent much of his career in the Mexican league, In fact, when he did not make the club out of spring training, he nearly went back there. Fortunately for Atlanta, they were able to talk Campillo into sticking around at Richmond. By mid-April, Campillo was added to the Atlanta bullpen, a job that paved the way to join the rotation in late May. His command has allowed him to turn into a valued piece of the starting staff. 

There have been some other flashes of promise, in Jo-Jo Reyes and Charlie Morton. Both are still taking some lumps, as young hurlers do. Though his record does not reflect properly, Reyes has been terrific on the road (2.72 ERA in six starts), only to falter at Turner Field (6.16 ERA in eight starts. Morton is still getting his feet wet, having been pressed into service when both Smoltz and Glavine found themselves on the disabled list.

Injuries did not stop at the rotation. The Braves bullpen has suffered as well. The mysterious elbow ailment of Rafael Soriano has kept him on the sidelines virtually all season (2.00 ERA and three saves in nine games). Tragically, those three saves have him tied for the team lead… in mid-July. Recently returned Mike Gonzalez and Manny Acosta also have three.

Saves depend on winning the close games, and the Braves simply have not found themselves on the right side of those contests. The sad fact is that Atlanta has registered just 14 saves as a team, tied with the Cleveland Indians for dead last in Major League Baseball. To make matters worse, the number one candidate to replace Soriano as closer before Gonzalez would make it back, Peter Moylan, went down with season ending elbow surgery as well. When rained on Atlanta, it poured.

If you want to highlight an area that needs to improve over the final 67 games, it would definitely be the number of games that the bullpen successfully closes down. A healthy Gonzalez and Soriano would go a long way towards that end. The Braves are hopeful that Soriano will find himself back in the mix shortly after the All-Star break.

Blaine Boyer, Jeff Bennett, Will Ohman and Acosta have seen more than their fair share of innings over the first half. Boyer and Ohman finished 1-2 in appearances through the team’s first 95 games, with Boyer logging 50 and Ohman 49. Both Bennett and Acosta found themselves on the disabled list by the final home game against Houston on July 6, but not before they had gone to the 41 times each this season.

Lefty specialist Royce Ring (3.44 ERA in 34 games – 18.1 innings), newly appointed long-man Buddy Carlyle (1.55 ERA in 19 games – 29 innings) and well traveled righty Vladimir Nunez (only one appearance) make up the rest of the Atlanta bullpen going into the second half. It’s not exactly a troop of household names, but Carlyle and Ring have made solid contributions and will need to continue to do so if the Braves hope to make any kind of run at a play-off spot.

The recent signing of 35-year old Julian Tavarez may seem like a move of desperation after losing two righty relievers in less than 24 hours last week. Maybe it was. An unimpressive debut against Los Angeles on July 8 (a third of an inning and two earn runs) may spell a short stint for Tavarez with the Braves, his third team of the season.

What will the Braves do at the deadline?

The trade deadline is approaching, but unlike years past, the Braves will have to decide if they are buyers or sellers for the first time since 1990. Consider this answer to solely deal with the pitching aspect of this burning question.

If they are indeed buyers, it would seem to me that getting some reinforcements for the starting staff would give the Braves the best of both worlds. More innings by the starters means and opportunity for the relievers to enjoy a lighter workload. That would help keep Boyer and Ohman from approaching well over 80 appearances this season.

If the Braves decided to sell, then Ohman may be one of the best trade pieces they have, according to Braves.com beat writer Mark Bowman. There will be teams looking for lefty help, so the Braves will have to weigh their options with the soon-to-be free-agent.

Bowman stayed busy as the team wrapped up the San Diego series on Sunday, this time weighing in on the possibility of Atlanta going after Greg Maddux. It’s like he read my mind.  While an intriguing possibility, there doesn’t seem to be a great amount of clarity about what direction the Braves will be going at the deadline just yet. As Bowman points out, the Braves have committed some spots to younger arms at the moment. Atlanta will have to find their way up the ladder in the East standings over the next two weeks to facilitate any move like that. Never say never, but first thing’s first.

Tune in next time for a look at the offensive side of things. Yes, we will have dredge up that nasty little discussion about 1-run ballgames, but I promise it won’t be all bad.

Till then,