MIAMI – I was talking with a senior scout for a National League team a week before spring training ended when he asked me what I thought of the Braves’ chances for 2017. When I said about 75-77 wins and that .500 wouldn’t shock me if they stayed healthy and some things went their way, the scout looked at me as if I had two heads.
He was thinking more along the lines of 65 wins, tops. And he proceeded to explain why. The primary cause for his alarm with these Braves was defense. He went through position by position and said the Braves were average to well below average at all but two positions, shortstop and center field. I disagreed with him on Freddie Freeman, whom I consider an above-average defensive first baseman, and right fielder Nick Markakis, who might not have been as good as the Gold Glove-finalist distinction he received last season, but whom I thought returned to being a solid defensive player 1 ½ years removed from neck surgery.
So far, one would have to say the scout’s evaluation has shown why he’s a professional baseball scout and I’m a writer. The Braves haven’t been a mediocre or bad defensive team, they’ve been a terrible one.
Granted, it’s one week into a season that’s six months long. Six games (and five losses) in the books with 156 games to go. And I still believe this is not a terrible defensive team.
But I don’t have much evidence to back that claim.
And when fans and the team itself are focusing on Double-A results just one week into the season in order to find a silver lining, well....
To be clear, this is not what the Braves had in mind for the opening three-city trip that leads into their big, official SunTrust Park home opener Friday. The sun will rise, trust us. But will the Braves avoid a third consecutive 90-loss season? Not by playing this way, that’s for sure.
Speaking of that opener, it’s against the Padres, who are supposed to be terrible this season but have started out 4-4. Go figure.
Remember when the Braves wanted folks to get all excited about the send-off of Turner Field last season, the farewell season in a ballpark only 20 years old? They wanted everyone to remember all the shining moments – nevermind most of those were actually at the old stadium and not Turner Field, which became the place for other teams’ postseason celebrations – and hoped that people would turn out in big numbers throughout the summer for a warm-and-fuzzy goodbye.
Then the Braves started 0-9 … and 4-14 … and were 9-28 when Fredi Gonzalez got canned. So much for warm and fuzzy. They missed on opportunity for revamped midseason ad campaign, "Come out and watch Snit try to turn around the Titanic."
Let's be clear: This is not to say or suggest the current vibe around these Braves in any way resembles last year’s dark-cloud-overhead feel during the early season slog, when Fredi firing rumors started early and everyone knew it was just a matter of time before the ax was wielded and off with his head. Not at all.
This team is not getting pounded each night, not seeing starting pitchers leave in the third or fourth innings, not getting out-homered by four-to-one margins, nothing like that. No, its five losses in the first six games have been more about excruciating than embarrassing (though the last couple of games in Pittsburgh definitely had both excruciating and embarrassing elements).
This team is getting, for the most part, the starting pitching that it hoped to get, which was supposed to solve a lot of problems. And it eventually could and perhaps will, if the Braves get Mauricio Cabrera back to help stabilize a bullpen that’s been woeful and a huge disappointment so far, a pen that was supposed to be a strength but has been one of the two biggest weaknesses along with defense.
But getting back to the SunTrust Park opening. The Braves wanted to be on the road to start the season so they’d have time to get things in order at their impressive new ballpark, after having a “soft” opening in an exhibition against the Yankees for season-ticket holders and a college game to expoose what areas needed to be addressed at the ballpark.
They wanted to have a week or more to smooth out the rough edges before playing an official game in front of a packed house.
But they didn’t want the team to go on the road and stumble all over itself. Not that it’s going to hurt home attendance initially at SunTrust, where sellout crowds, or close, will be expected in the early part of the season, and some nights there will be close-to-sellouts announced even if some purchased tickets go unused. Still, the Braves don’t just want tickets sold and only a ballpark and surrounding bars and retail to get people excited.
They want the team to get them excited. Ultimately, that’s what will keep people coming back all summer and into next season, the team. And the team has to start playing better, which is something that scout and your correspondent, Captain Obvious, can agree on.
Where is the team that won 50 of its last 97 games in 2016 including 20 of its final 30? The Braves need to see that soon, or risk falling so far out off the division lead that their lofty goals of being relevant until September will be quashed by the Fourth of July.
They lost five of six at New York and Pittsburgh to start this eight-game opening trip, then had a day off Monday in Miami before a brief two-game series at Marlins Park that starts tonight. Losing two of three at New York was no disgrace at all, considering the Braves ran up against perhaps the best 1-2-3 starting combo in the league when healthy -- Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey.
But being swept at Pittsburgh? That was as ugly as the weather for Friday’s series opener. Yes, the Pirates have been tough to beat at home in recent years. No, that doesn’t make the Braves being swept in the series any easier to swallow, particularly given the sloppy play that led to the sweep and to two blown leads in the late innings Sunday and three unearned runs Saturday and again Sunday.
What happened to all that early morning defensive work that coach Ron Washington did with his infielders at spring training? Adonis Garcia is a below-average defensive third baseman, period. But is the once golden glove of Brandon Phillips as tarnished as it’s appeared so far? And how to explain the lapses from Freeman, whom I’ve argued along with some others has been Gold Glove-caliber in the past even when folks cited defensive metrics to say otherwise.
The Braves were off Monday, and hopefully they were able to get their minds off of baseball, or bad baseball. Because here is where they stood after the season’s first week through Sunday’s games:
They were last in the major leagues in fielding percentage (.968).
Only three teams had stranded more runners than the Braves (49) through Sunday, and only three teams had grounded into more double plays (eight).
The Braves were 23rd in average with runners in scoring position (.189, 10-for-53) and only the Marlins (five) had grounded into more double plays with runners in scoring position than have the Braves (four)
Curiously, no team has been hit by more pitches than the Braves (five) through Sunday. Not that it means anything, other than adding injury (or at least pain) to insult.
Braves pitchers had the fewest strikeouts (31) in the majors through Sunday and were tied for 10th-most walks (24). Only four teams had allowed fewer homers than the Braves (five), or else all those walks could’ve been even more damaging they they already were.
With his three passed balls in one game Saturday, veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki matched or surpassed his season total for passed balls in each of the past four entire seasons. The last time he had more than three passed balls in a season was 2012, when he had six in 117 games caught (113 starts) for Oakland and Washington.
Such can be the fate of a catcher, veteran or otherwise, when asked to catch a knuckleballer.
Those balls shooting helplessly past Suzuki to the backstop Saturday as runners advanced seemed an appropriate metaphor for the first ugly week of this Braves season.
Hey, let's remember, hard as it is to keep in perspective, this is only Year 3 of the rebuild. Like the other TP once said....
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