Some general managers would have wrapped themselves in the standings, which, as of Monday afternoon, showed the Atlanta Braves atop the National League East. Frank Wren did not. His team was in first place, he said, “but it just doesn’t feel like it.”
Wren might have taken the managerial stance of accentuating the positive — for example, his cobbled-together rotation has compiled the league’s lowest ERA — but again chose to drink from a half-empty glass. “The more lost opportunities you have, either to pick up ground or increase your lead, the more likely it will come back to bite you,” he said.
Someone mentioned that Washington, which trailed the Braves by a half-game, had been playing without three of its best hitters — Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche. Had the Braves been better over the season’s first 42 games, they might have built a working lead, same as they did a year ago. But, as Wren said, “We have not done that.”
For a GM, these were powerful (and surely painful) admissions. Their record indicates that the Braves haven’t been as bad as all that, but anyone who has watched these past three weeks knows that their offense, never awe-inspiring, has become downright awful. They entered Monday night’s game with Milwaukee last in the majors in runs, next-to-last in on-base percentage, next-to-next-to-last in batting average.
Said Wren, speaking before the game: “You have to be concerned with the way we’ve swung the bats. There’s no denying that. If you look around baseball, we’re not the Lone Ranger; we’re not the only team struggling. Right now, we’re hoping to see signs of progress. If we don’t, we’ll be taking a look at other options.”
Sounds reasonable. But the Braves have already explored some in-house options, from benching the flash-point Dan Uggla to trying both Uptons in the No. 2 spot to manager Fredi Gonzalez deciding, just for the heck of it, to bat his pitcher eighth for 10 games. None of the above moved the needle, which leads us to this:
The Braves’ everyday eight consists mostly of big-name guys on long-term contracts, the bulk of those just renegotiated. Even if the Braves were to decide to trade — just picking names — starters-turned-relievers Alex Wood or David Hale, where might they find room for a big-name bat? At second base? But could they afford to pay someone of note to play the position even as they’re paying Uggla $13 million not to play?
About Uggla: Wren said the Braves are apt to keep him. “That’s our plan right now. We’ll see if he can be productive in this role.”
And that role would be … deep bench? “A bench player or whatever it becomes. That’s really in the player’s hands. If he produces, he’ll be back in the lineup.”
As bad as the Braves’ hitting has been, it’s not yet Memorial Day. There’s time enough for the status quo — the static quo, if you will — to evolve into something more robust. As Gonzalez said Monday: “They’re big-league hitters. Things can change in a heartbeat.”
Nobody doubts that the Braves are gifted enough to score more than a run or two a game. Even without Uggla in the lineup, a slew of big names remain. But apart from Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton and lately Chris Johnson, nobody is hitting at a high level. B.J. Upton leads the majors in strikeouts. Evan Gattis has more strikeouts than hits. Andrelton Simmons has struck out only 12 times but drawn only five unintentional walks.
“We’re a talented team,” said Jason Heyward, who was hitting .215 with an OBP of .309, “but we’re also a young team. We just have to take the game as it comes. The other team isn’t going to let us hit a home run every time. Sometimes we have to take a single.”
You’d have to think these players will start to hit soon. But what if they don’t? Is there really a Plan B for systemic failure? Would promoting the singles-hitting Tommy La Stella and installing him at second base change the course of a batting order gone bad? And how long can a GM afford to wait to find out?
A bit longer, Wren suggested. (Though we should note that he isn’t known for biding his time.)”We’re trying to mix in a bit of perspective with reality,” he said. “We’re still at that patient stage right now. We’re waiting for guys to find their swings and their timing.”
And here we saw the line Wren is trying to toe. Not two minutes before espousing the virtues of patience and perspective, he’d said this: “You have to be concerned with the way we’ve started.”
You do. And the Braves are.
About the Author
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com