When things aren’t going well for a team, everyone tries to find something or someone to blame, and right now things aren’t going too well for the Atlanta Braves. Fans are now becoming restless, and have begun pointing fingers, trying to assign some blame. The witch hunt is on, and there is a contingent of fans who are bound and determined to get rid of manager Fredi Gonzalez. They’ve even begun hashtag campaigns on Twitter to the likes of #FireFredi and #Frediot. I, myself am even guilty of trying to squarely lay the coat of blame on the shoulders of Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell.
But the truth is, the reason for the Braves recent troubles goes way beyond a manager or coach. It goes way beyond a pitcher like Mike Minor imploding on a regular basis. It goes way beyond a prospect like Jason Heyward not living up to his full potential. And it goes way beyond Chipper Jones not being in the lineup regularly. No, those things, although contributing factors, are only symptoms of the greater problem.
I’ve sat for weeks now and tried to figure out if the Braves problem lay more in lack of offense, or the inability of starters to get deeper into games, or even for what once seemed to be an untouchable bullpen getting roughed up on a regular basis. I tried to take into account the nagging injuries that constantly seemed to jump up at Atlanta’s thumpers like Chipper Jones, Freddie Freeman, and Brian McCann, but still I came to only one conclusion. And it pains me to say it.
As a whole, the way they are put together right now, this is just a mediocre to above average team.
Yes, there are some shining stars on this team, and when the starting lineup is in and healthy, they do pretty well. But herein lies the problem. Every team has it’s share of star power, and has a regular lineup that can potentially do some damage. Every team deals with injuries, and has pitchers that don’t live up to the hope of the coaching staff, it’s an unavoidable part of the game. The difference is, the teams that really excel, and pull away from the competition are the teams that don’t let those gaps in the lineup due to injury slow them down. It’s about depth…and the Braves don’t have it. They don’t have it in the batting order, and they don’t have it on the pitching staff.
I mean, look at the Braves bench. Jack Wilson? Juan Fransisco? Jose Constanza? Eric Hinske? These are simply not viable replacements for Chipper Jones, Freddie Freeman and company. Nice players, yes. In much the same way that Jerry Willard was a nice player off the bench in 1991, but he certainly wasn’t expected to fill the role of a Greg Olson. Guys like that are simply pinch-hit bats and emergency players. The lauded Braves teams of the 1990′s had depth at nearly every position, and could get through an injury without it causing a major headache for Bobby Cox.
Now, if you look at the numbers so far this year for the Braves starting rotation, outside of Mike Minor, they don’t look all that terrible. But the issues with the starting pitching aren’t transparent in the numbers. There is just too much coddling going on. The starting pitchers are being pulled when the pitch count gets too high for the comfort of McDowell and Gonzalez, and aren’t being allowed to finish what they started. Again, pointing to the Braves of the 1990′s, it was a regular occurrence for a starter to go eight-plus innings, or throw a complete game. If Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, or John Smoltz were pulled in the sixth inning, people questioned what was wrong with them that night. The early exit of starting pitchers leads to overworked bullpen arms, and begins to limit the choices that Fredi Gonzalez has on a given night as to who can pitch.
It’s all cyclical. The offense slumps when the starters are out. The starting pitchers pitch well enough to win, but get pulled because either runs need to be scored, or the pitch count is too high. The bullpen doesn’t get proper rest, and arms that would usually throw exploding breaking balls end up tossing batting practice pitches…and on, and on, and on.
The bottom line is this. Great teams don’t play streaky ball. They play consistent ball. They win series on a regular basis, even if they don’t have extended-game winning streaks. When they lose a couple, it’s never cause for concern because everyone knows it will go no further. Great teams don’t lose eight straight games. Great teams don’t lose consecutive series on multiple occasions. Average teams do. Mediocre teams do. This Braves team does. Burning Fredi Gonzalez at the stake isn’t going to change a lot.
Am I writing the Braves off and throwing this season out with last September? Absolutely not. I’m just saying that my expectations have been altered to some degree. But hope springs eternal, the trade deadline approaches, and who knows what GM Frank Wren has in store for us come August.