When the Braves acquired the brothers Upton this winter, they suddenly were thrust into a conversation concerning baseball’s best outfield.
Baseball, as played hypothetically by those with horn-rims, high-waisted pants and Xbox cheat codes, is a game readily dazzled by the likes of the Uptons and Jason Heyward. The game played on the field by humans who slump and have angry appendixes is a far dicier thing.
Currently playing to about one-third of its capacity, the Braves outfield, rather than being a bragging point, is a source of early concern. B.J. Upton is hitting under a buck-fifty and has turned the strikeout into his business card. And Heyward is ever so slowly adjusting to life without a vestigial body part.
So, have the Braves outfielders eliminated themselves from the best-in-baseball debate?
Speaking to an Atlanta writer this week, Dodgers left fielder Carl Crawford was generous in rating the competition: “Those boys where you are from have a pretty good outfield. You got the Cardinals, the Nationals, and we’re one of them. We’re still confident about what we have.”
Lest Braves fans feel too down about the state of their outfield, they have plenty of company in underachievement. There are ample reminders out there that baseball daily challenges such flimsy concepts as reputation and potential.
The team visiting Turner Field this weekend — Crawford’s Dodgers — is one of the chief examples.
Their problems are not isolated to any one area. Having gone on a spree that more than doubled their payroll from 2012 to this season — their current $207 million ranks behind only the Yankees — the Dodgers are bottom dwelling in the National League West. Their high-priced free-agent pitcher, Zack Greinke, is just returning from a collarbone broken in a brawl. Their high-priced shortstop and first baseman have been among a platoon of the more traditionally injured.
With such disclaimers out of the way, it is still the outfield — high-priced, of course — that is supposed to drive the Dodgers’ bus. Between Crawford, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, there are eight All-Star appearances, four Gold Glove awards, a National League home-run title and four American League stolen-base titles. And with the exception of Crawford, the Dodgers’ outfield is playing far below its standards for a team that consequently ranks next to last in the majors in runs per game (3.4).
(And if you wish to expand the theme of struggling outfields by just a few miles, ponder the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
From the town that gave you “John Carter,” “Battlefield Earth,” and “Waterworld,” comes two other cautionary tales about the sketchy relationship between spending big and success.
The Angels went out and hired right fielder Josh Hamilton for five years and $250 million. And just Tuesday that Angel in the outfield was talking about lingering sinus/equilibrium problems that he just couldn’t shake. “I’m just off, however you want to write it, however you want to describe it,” said he of the .214 batting average and the .358 slugging percentage. A year ago at this time he was hitting near .400 with a slugging percentage over .800.
This town is waiting on not one, but two outfields to kick it in. “You looked at (the Angels) offensive potential this offseason you certainly thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to be outstanding,’ Dodgers broadcaster Steve Lyons said. “The same thing with us. And both teams have completely underachieved. I think it would be harder on Dodgers fans if we were playing the way we are right now and the Angels were playing real well.”)
In each case, the populous is restless and managers’ jobs are said to be endangered. The Braves, with their $89 million payroll meager by comparison, are at least disguising their outfield issues a little better in the standings.
As for Friday night’s opponent, there remains the strong belief that past performance assures future production. What other option is there?
“There’s so much talent in that clubhouse, I know it’s all going to be put together,” Mark McGwire, the sixth Dodgers hitting coach in six years, told the L.A. media recently.
Presently, there is not much else to say about the Dodgers’ high-profile trio.
“Numbers-wise, probably not great,” said Don Mattingly, the Dodgers’ manager. “Carl has been really good for the most part. Matt and Andre haven’t really to this point performed how we feel they’re going to.”
Crawford has been playing like a man freed from prison, his general health the best it has been in year and fully shed of the bad memories of playing in Boston the previous two years. He’s hitting .311 while showing some of his trademark pop (12 extra-base hits) and speed (eight stolen bases).
“It’s a matter of being extremely comfortable, a clear head, a good working environment, all that kind of stuff,” Crawford said. “It has been wonderful for me so far.”
The rest of the outfield has been out of character. A new ownership group took over and billboards popped up all over Los Angeles proclaiming the Dodgers represented “A Whole New Blue.” For Ethier and Kemp, they more often have experienced a whole new blues.
“For me individually, for Matt, for a lot of guys who have been here for a long time to see how we’ve played, it eats you up,” Ethier told the L.A. media earlier this month. He’s in his eighth year with the Dodgers and looking at numbers that project to careers lows in batting average, runs and RBIs.
Much of the attention is centered on Kemp, L.A.’s flagship player, the Dodgers’ other $20 million-a-year star — along with Crawford — who is signed through 2019.
Kemp gradually is rehabilitating his batting average, but after offseason shoulder surgery, he has yet to regain even the hint of the power that produced an average of 29 home runs per season since 2009. He stands at one lonely home run and a .356 slugging percentage.
Mattingly is attempting to take the long-ball pressure off Kemp for the moment, stressing that he wants his guy to hit the ball in the gaps, take his doubles and wait for the home runs to organically appear.
There is a lot of tension around the Dodgers these days, and Mattingly is attempting to massage a few of his center fielder’s knots.
“We want to make sure he wasn’t putting the weight of the world on his shoulders. That’s the way Matt is,” Mattingly said. “You like that, but he feels like he’s letting us down, if he’s not hitting we’re not winning. You appreciate that he cares that much, but you got to try to take a little of his back, say hey, you can’t do it all.”
Kemp got his 1,000th career hit Sunday, and it was in keeping with the theme of the moment — nothing prodigious, a broken-bat single.
Still Kemp warns, “I’m starting to see the ball pretty good, starting to feel good.”
The title of best outfield in baseball got all jumbled when they actually started playing games. It took but a month for that debate to lose much of its steam in places such as Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Perhaps the matter will be arguable again soon. But for now it is not a question of being the best, but rather being just good enough to lend their teams a morsel of hope.
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