Through the first quarter of the season, the Braves have alternated from the marvel you couldn’t take your eyes off of (12-1 start) to the discombobulated mess that has made you want to cover your face (10-17 since). One more branch on the personality tree, and they’ll become an entry on WebMD.
It’s early. Baseball seasons are 162-game novellas. In all likelihood, the Braves will settle on a single identity at some point. Until then, there are legitimate concerns.
They strike out too much, and the only thing more concerning is that some players don’t seem to think whiffing, particularly with men on base, is that big of a deal. The team batting average is bad (.242). The success rate with runners in scoring position is even worse (.232).
The Braves hit a lot of home runs. Do you know where San Francisco, last year’s World Series champion, ranked in the majors in total home runs? Last.
There have been hiccups at the top of the starting rotation (Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen), as well as in the bullpen (closer Craig Kimbrel blowing three leads). The assumption is there will be a market correction. Maybe we’re assuming too much.
This won’t shock anybody, but general manager Frank Wren isn’t worried. Then again, it doesn’t look good to let anybody see you sweat in the middle of May.
“I think we have a good team,” Wren said Thursday. “I don’t think anybody feels any differently. We hit a rough stretch, obviously, and we’ve had the worst travel schedule in the league and one of the most competitive schedules. But we made it through and we’re in first place, and now we’re finally going to have our projected lineup (with Jason Heyward).”
Wren concedes some hitters have underachieved: “We need more guys playing to their norms.”
He acknowledges there have been too many strikeouts: “The best teams strike out six times per game; the worst, eight. I’m pretty sure we’re above that.” (It’s 9.3, if you’re doing the math.)
If the Braves turn things around, these past few weeks can be written off as an aberration. But if the sporadic play continues, it will get uncomfortable for Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez. It should. This team has been completely made over. Who shares the most blame for the unsettled state of things can be debated. Consider:
Why the heat should be on Wren:
This is his sixth season since taking over for John Schuerholz. He has yet to win a division title or a playoff round. Some of that can be attributed to circumstances. Wren was handed a club that was rolling downhill, needed to rebuild the pitching staff and was coming off the Mark Teixeira trade, a well-intentioned endeavor by Schuerholz that nonetheless left him looking like he had been pantsed on world-wide television.
But the current roster entirely is Wren’s slab of clay. The lineup has obvious strengths, but just as obvious flaws, including the lack of a true leadoff hitter (save fourth outfielder Jordan Schafer).
Wren has made some expensive mistakes along the way (Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami, Dan Uggla). But after outlasting some contracts, he has locked the team in financially all over again with B.J. Upton’s five-year, $75.25 million deal, Justin Upton’s $38.5 million through the 2015 season and the remainder of Uggla’s deal ($39 million through 2015).
Wren rises or falls with this core. He gets credit for claiming Schafer off waivers, but Schafer’s success (.290, salary of $512,500) has made the B.J. Upton signing (.145, $12.45 million) look that much worse. Schafer is a bonus. The major investments ultimately will define the team.
Why the focus should be on manager Gonzalez:
Managers don’t strike out, melt down in starts or blow saves. So the fact that Uggla, Heyward and Upton are hitting south of Uruguay can’t be put on Gonzalez. Nor is it his fault that Hudson’s ERA appears to be on Botox (5.12), or that Medlen has slid from virtuoso to below average (1-5, 3.44), or that Kimbrel looks — well, what’s wrong with Kimbrel?
But it is Gonzalez’s job to get the most out of the talent he is given, manufacture runs during slumps and manage a pitching staff. He obviously looked a lot better at 12-1 than 10-17. So did everybody.
Bottom line: If this team falters, doesn’t reach the postseason and make some noise, they will have underachieved.
“We have some guys hitting in the 100s who are making twice as many outs as they should be,” Wren said. “When the offense settles in, you’ll see our strikeouts go down, and I think we’ll be fine.”
For now, the calendar is on their side.