In what is quickly becoming one of the wildest off-seasons in memory, the Atlanta Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks appear to have agreed on a seven player swap. Atlanta will add their second Upton brother this offseason, Justin, while also picking up 3rd baseman Chris Johnson. In return the Diamondbacks are getting Martin Prado, Randall Delgado, and a host of minor league talent. This trade has the potential to work out beautifully for both ball clubs. Arizona has, for some odd reason, been trying to trade the hyper-talented Upton for the better part of the last two years, trying to stake out the best deal. Well it appears GM Kevin Towers has finally found his elusive match, and he may have gotten the short end of the stick. On a more positive note, he also found his starting 3rd baseman and a nice collection of young talent as well, but it’s harder to judge his return in this deal until the youngsters involved acquire more seasoning. Instead, let’s take a look at what the deal does for the Braves.
The inaugural Wild Card round (affectionately known as the Coin-Flip Round) takes place today and will feature a pair of exciting games. The first game on the docket matches up the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals with the Atlanta Braves, while game #2 has the Baltimore Orioles traveling to Arlington to take on the Texas Rangers. I suggest you cancel any plans you previously had for this afternoon/evening, because do-or-die baseball is here, which means that last year’s World Series combatants could be eliminated tonight. Let’s start by taking a look at the series over in the National League.
Truly excellent defensive baseball is highly misunderstood by most fans today for a couple of simple reasons. The statistics (UZR, defensive runs saved, errors, assists, range factor) we currently have to evaluate an individual’s defensive contributions aren’t all that informative with each one containing inherent flaws, the fact that most people don’t have the time of day or the drive to watch more than a couple of teams, and the idea that most people don’t have a great understand how Major League defense actually works. The highlight shows on ESPN don’t do much to help that perception because they can make defenders who are a step late and need to dive look like All-Stars while simultaneously ignoring players who get excellent jumps on the ball off the bat, thus rendering the aforementioned dive as unnecessary. Well, I’m here today to help with all of that by discussing a few of the best defensive teams and units in baseball, starting with the best of the best in the outfield.
The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.
The Atlanta Braves are currently sitting in the driver’s seat in the NL Wild Card chase, owning a 4 game lead over Pittsburgh and St. Louis for the higher seed. But this year’s Braves team is a little different from those in the past. For starters, Atlanta has the 2nd best offense in the National League, scoring 4.68 runs per game, 3rd only to the St. Louis Cardinals and Colorado Rockies. The inability to score runs a year ago cost Atlanta dearly down the stretch, and this year’s roster doesn’t appear to have that weakness. Instead, Atlanta is struggling to put together a solid rotation, ranking just 9th in the NL in starter’s ERA and 12th in strikeouts at the All-Star break. Braves starters have struggled on the mound for a variety of reasons this season, be it ineffectiveness (Mike Minor), injury (Brandon Beachey), or in some cases, both (Jair Jurrjens). But since the All-Star break (32 games), Atlanta’s pitching staff has really turned it around, ranking 1st in the NL in team ERA (2.98), while posting a 22-10 record overall. A big part of the Braves pitching turnaround has been the performance of a few key additions as well as one big promotion from the bullpen from Kris Medlen.
Last night in Atlanta Trevor Bauer made his major league debut, going 4 innings while allowing 2 runs (both earned), 5 hits, 3 walks, and 3 strikeouts. Bauer had been absolutely obliterating hitters at the Triple-A level this season, posting an 11-1 record, 2.23 ERA, while striking out 11.2 batters per 9 innings, prompting a call-up. While his 1st start wasn’t impressive, Bauer was able to keep Arizona in the game, allowing Chris Young to blast a game winning homer in the top of the 9th to give the Snakes a 3-2 victory. Let’s take a deeper look at some of last nights events in Atlanta.
- Mother’s Day Walk-Off Grand Slams. Both Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Votto made their mother’s happy yesterday, hitting game-winning grand slams. Stanton leveled the baseball he hit, blasting a no-doubt homer to left-center field, off the catwalk, over 430 feet away. Very few players have the power to hit a ball where Stanton hit his blast, and it caps off an impressive week for the young slugger. Stanton has 2 homers, 4 doubles, 10 RBI and is batting .381 over the last 10 games. The Marlins are going as Stanton goes, and it’s no coincidence that his hot streak has led to a 10 win-2 loss stretch for the team. Votto’s grand slam was a bit more dramatic, coming with 2 outs and 2 strikes, the Reds trailing by a lone run. He got a good pitch to handle from Henry Rodriguez and stayed on the ball to drive it to deep centerfield for a homer. Votto single-handedly won the game for Cincinnati, going 4-5 with 3 homers, a double, 4 runs scored, and 6 RBI. He bumped his batting average up to .319, and already leads the NL in walks and doubles. If Votto can keep it up he stands a good chance of winning his 2nd MVP award.
- Atlanta’s balanced attack. The most impressive series victory of the entire season in the National League occurred over the weekend when the Braves completed their sweep of the previously red-hot St. Louis Cardinals with a 7-4 victory on Sunday. Atlanta also passed St. Louis as the top-scoring team in the National League, with a total of 189 runs scored, good for 2nd in baseball. The Braves have been getting good contributions throughout the lineup, with 6 of their 9 hitters checking in with an OPS+ above the league average of 97. Freddy Freeman is really beginning to blossom into an All-Star caliber 1st baseman, showing a great ability to get on base and hit for power His OPS+ of 130 ranks 2nd on the Braves and he leads the team in homeruns, 6, and RBIs, 28. Michael Bourne has been terrific since coming over from Houston at last year’s trade deadline, and is hitting .336 with 11 steals. Jason Heyward’s back problems look like a thing of the past and he is showing a new aggressiveness on the base paths, with 9 steals already, 2 shy of his career high. With Dan Uggla and Brian McCann starting to heat up, Chipper Jones bombing the ball like he did a decade earlier as well as a deep pitching staff, the Braves have all the pieces to win the NL East title this year, even with all the depth in the division.
- Shine on you crazy Diamond. Scott Diamond posted his 2nd consecutive start of 7 innings without allowing a run for the Twins on Sunday, providing the Twins some sorely needed quality innings. Minnesota has allowed the 2nd most runs in baseball this season, and despite only making 2 starts, an argument can be made that Diamond has been the team’s most effective pitcher. It’s not terribly difficult to be the best when your competition is between Carl Pavano of the 5.02 ERA in 43 innings, or Jeff Gray, the middle reliever. In Diamond’s 14 innings he has yet to allow a run, while walking just 1 batter, allowing 9 hits, and striking out 10. Diamond primarily throws a high-80s to low-90s fastball, mixing in a solid curve and change-up. Minnesota’s offense has also been terrible as well, ranking last in the American League, but at least they have found a little magic out of the former Rule-5 draft pick from the Atlanta Braves.
- Los Angeles Dodgers Schedule. Wanna know the biggest reason for the Dodgers hot start this season? Yes Matt Kemp is amazing but the Dodger’s creampuff schedule also might have something to do with it. Jonah Keri discussed their schedule earlier in the season, and things haven’t really gotten any more difficult. The Dodgers have played 25 games against teams below .500, most in the entire league. They are 17-8 in those games, feasting on the likes of San Diego 7 times, Colorado 6 times, and NL Central weaklings Houston, Chicago, and Pittsburgh 3 times apiece. The Dodgers are a solid 6-3 in games against teams above .500, but with Matt Kemp sustaining a potential hamstring injury, and the Cardinals coming to town this week, expect the Dodgers to drop off.
- 2nd base in Detroit. This position has been comically bad for the Tigers so far this season. Detroit has tried 4 different players at the position so far, a group made up of Ryan Rayburn, Ramon Santiago, Danny Worth, and current Oakland A’s 3rd baseman Brandon Inge. The group’s combined numbers: a .155 batting average with 1 homer, 3 doubles, and 5 RBI. Rayburn has received the most playing time at the position, and has been the worst of the entire group, hitting .135 on the season with only 6 walks, 5 doubles, and no homers in 99 at-bats. Rayburn could find himself cut from the team if he continues to remain this ineffective at the plate. No team that expects to be competitive can have a black hole on their roster the size of the one currently in Detroit at 2nd. The Tigers plan of Verlander, Fielder, Cabrera, and not much else was a risky one, and they seem to be paying the price in the early going, particularly at 2nd base.
- Bryce Harper’s Hype. Yes he’s 19 and a very, very explosive ball player. But Harper is only hitting .231 right now in his first 60 plate appearances and looks to be overwhelmed at the plate. He also has a bit of temper problem, and gave himself 10 stitches after a temper tantrum in the dugout where Harper tried to hit his bat on the clubhouse wall, only to have it rebound back in his face. The kid is only 19 and doesn’t have a single homerun at the Major League level yet so maybe the hype about him being the next Mickey Mantle (MLB Network) or Ken Griffey Jr. (ESPN) needs to stop. Let’s have some perspective please people. Both of those players had long, very successful careers and put in the hard work to become Hall of Famers. Harper may get there some day, but for now he’s a .231 hitter, with great speed, who is a little unsure in the outfield, which is why he is late getting to the ball and needs to dive so much. Let’s actually make him do the work, and become even an average Major League hitter before anointing him as the greatest player in history.