There has been a dark cloud hovering over our Braves this year and it's lead to a fair amount of negativity here on Talking Chop. Fortunately, we are beginning to see the first rays of light breaking through. I thought I'd share some of my observations with you all to see if we can't get a little more positivity going in order to help clear up that stormy sky. Follow me below the fold and let's get our anti- rain dance on, people!
- Yo ho, yo ho, an ex-Pirate slugger for me: Center field (sub-.600 OPS) has quietly been our area of greatest need this year, so much so that Frank Wren felt the need to go elsewhere to find help. The trade for Nate McLouth was largely supported here and for good reason. Unfortunately he's been hurt as of late, but he should provided us with a solid all around boost when he does come back. Nate hasn't been great in Atlanta yet (.771 OPS) but he's hit better than that in two full seasons prior to this one (.840 OPS) and in his start in Pittsburgh this year (.819 OPS). He's a complete player who should provided an added spark to the line-up in all phases of the game.
- Mr. Anderson is starting to believe: So far this season, our left fielders have put up a .weak 272/.325/.409 line. Our modest free agent acquisition, the unexcitable Garret Anderson, had been largely underwhelming. That is, of course, until the month of June came along. Garrett is finally living up to his reputation as a "professional hitter" by posting .306/.333/.471 slash stats this past month. This improvement is actually an accurate reflection of his career trends, such as the nearly 150 point improvement in OPS from his mediocre pre-All-Star break numbers (.703 OPS) in the 2006-2008 time frame to his surprisingly solid post-All-Star break figures (.851 OPS) during that span. Remember, he was also injured during Spring Training this year, so his regular timetable was likely pushed back some.
- Take two at second base: Kelly Johnson, our primary second baseman this season and for some years prior, has mustered up only anemic offense in 2009. The underlying reasons for his struggles may be debatable, but the resulting .637 OPS has been an albatross around Atlanta's neck so far in this campaign. Both Omar Infante (1.046 OPS in 45 AB) and Martin Prado (1.124 OPS in 30 AB) have truly impressed in limited duty at the position, while also filling in admirably all over the field from time to time. It's a real shame to have to sacrifice the versatility that having both of them on the bench provides the team, but they've earned the full-time opportunities coming to them. Since he's the healthy and hot one now, Martin gets the first crack at holding down 2B. In 2008 and 2009, he has done nothing but hit whenever he has been called upon and I sincerely believe that he can do a fine job with even more at bats.
- Five of a kind, aces: It's not very often when a team whose strength is great starting pitching can call upon the game's top pitching prospect to round out its rotation. Despite Derek Lowe's recent slump (he's still a workhorse and got off to a hot start, so he could turn it around as he did in his last start) the Braves still boost the best starting five in the National League. After a rocky start, Kenshin Kawakami (roughly 3.15 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 6.6 K/9 in May and June) has been every bit the consummate pitcher that dominated in Japan. Despite underwhelming peripherals from time to time, Jair Jurrjens continues to put up quality start after quality start. Trade acquisition Javier Vazquez (3.04 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 10.6 K/9 on the year and improving) is becoming a dark horse for the Cy Young Award or at least a deserving All-Star. Finally, Tommy Hanson (23 consecutive scoreless innings pitched) is beginning to live up to the enormous hype. With one of those five starters taking the mound everyday, Atlanta should have every opportunity to win games day in and day out.
- The cavalry is here: the Braves bullpen is finally beginning to take a shape we can all be happy with. Rafael Soriano (an ungodly 1.23 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 12.0 K/9) and Mike Gonzalez (a still amazing 2.68 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 12.2 K/9) are being used as co-closers so as to maximize their effectiveness through match-ups and they are reaching their maximum potential. The closer's role is vastly overrated and will - hopefully - be replace by the concept of bullpen aces sooner rather than later, but this is a solid baby step in the right direction. Building a bridge to the back end of the bullpen are solid performances and arms, such as the surprising Eric OFlaherty (.222/.276/.296 against lefties and .250/.333/.268 against righties, with awesome triangle numbers overall) and the improving Peter Moylan (2.67 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 7.4 K/9 since his horrendous first two appearances when he got rocked while getting no one out); the former is proving to be more valuable than a LOOGY and the later has apparently shaken off what was left of the rust coming back from "Tommy John" surgery. The emerging Manny Acosta (2.30 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 6.9 K/9 in 15.2 IP) and quality starter-in-long-reliever's-clothing Kris Medlen (one baserunner against five strikeouts in three scoreless appearances as a reliever, with two messy ones sandwiched in between) further augment a really deep 'pen. Whomever ends up rounding out this staff is extremely unlikely to have to perform in high leverage situations, but there are plenty of decent options available to us once more pitchers get healthy again.
Well guys and gals, I'm going to leave it at that for now because it's late, I'm tired and I'm writing this on the fly. I hope you all enjoyed a look at some of the bright spots on our roster as we move forward this summer and fall. Perhaps a desperate acquisition or call for a fire-sale should be averted, seeing as we have all of this improvement to look forward to from within our own ranks.
I hate to admit it, but I'm starting to like the 2009 Atlanta Braves chances once again. Maybe I'm setting myself up for disappointment once more, but then again, this isn't all entirely irrational. Moreover, what's the point of being a fan if you can't scrounge up some hope and enjoy the games in a positive light from time to time. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to chime in below and I will happily respond. Thanks for taking the time to plow through this rather dense FanPost and, as always, go Braves!
P.S.: I apologize in advance for any typos, incoherencies and potential inaccuracies above. As I said, I produced this almost stream of conciousness not expecting it to be this long. I hope whatever mistakes I made in substance and/or style don't overshadow the point(s) that I was trying to make. Cheers!