Fredi Gonzalez Reuters

Springtime Storylines: Will standing pat get the Braves back to the playoffs?


Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Atlanta Braves.

The Big Question: Will standing pat get the Braves back to the playoffs?

The Braves didn’t get nearly as much attention as the Red Sox in the aftermath of the 2011 season, but their collapse was no less epic. They held a seemingly insurmountable 9 1/2 game lead for the National League Wild Card on August 26th (10 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals, by the way), only to flush it all down the toilet in September.

One would think that such a miserable finish would provide Liberty Media with the impetus to allow GM Frank Wren to improve an offense which was 22nd in the majors last season in runs scored and OPS and 26th in batting average and on-base percentage, but while the Marlins and Nationals made splashy additions over the winter, the Braves did absolutely nothing. Well, except for trading the overpriced and disappointing Derek Lowe to the Indians for a minor league left-hander.

The inactivity looks bad from a symbolic perspective, but the Braves appear to be banking on bounce-back seasons from key players who dealt with injuries and/or ineffectiveness last season, including Jason Heyward, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Martin Prado and Brian McCann. They are also hoping for further progression from some of their young players, especially Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor and Freddie Freeman. Getting a full season out of Michael Bourn will probably help, too.

Remember, the Braves won 89 games last season when a lot of things didn’t go according to plan. Remember Dan Uggla’s nightmare first half? If Heyward and Hanson get back on track, they have a good chance of being back in the thick of things again. And hey, at least there’s a second Wild Card this time around.

What else is going on?

  • Chipper Jones’ farewell tour is already off to a shaky start, as he’s expected to miss at least the first few games of the season following arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. It’s certainly convenient that Martin Prado can just slide over to third base, but this leaves Eric Hinske and Matt Diaz splitting time in left field. In other words, on any given day, one of their best bench bats will be in the starting lineup. Some extra depth would be helpful. We’ve heard rumors that the Braves could be interested in Cubs’ outfielder Marlon Byrd, which would actually be a decent fit on paper. The Braves clearly need a backup plan, because chances are this won’t be Jones’ only DL-stint this season.
  • The Braves attempted to cash in Jair Jurrjens for a bat during the offseason, but a deal failed to materialize, likely due to the high price tag and lingering concerns over his right knee. However, the current depth is a pretty nice luxury to have, especially with Tim Hudson expected to miss the first month of the season following November back surgery. Randall Delgado will likely fill Hudson’s rotation spot for now and it’s possible the Braves could revisit the possibility of moving Jurrjens around the deadline. With any luck, top prospect right-hander Julio Teheran could be ready to make a big impact by then.
  • Can Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty possibly replicate what they did last year? Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez went to his three-headed relief monster early and often, as they combined for an ungodly 238 2/3 innings. Whether the overuse helped contribute to the team’s collapse is up for debate — Kimbrel did fall off a little bit in September — but Kris Medlen could really help lighten the load in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.
  • The Braves let veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez walk over the winter, but the expectation was that they would sign a short-term bridge for prospect Tyler Pastornicky. That didn’t happen. And no, bringing back the injury-prone Jack Wilson doesn’t count. Even worse, Pastornicky isn’t a lock to win the starting shortstop job out of spring training. It’s now possible that the slick-fielding Andrelton Simmons will get the nod, despite never playing above High-A. Either way, the Braves will potentially have one of the weakest hitting regulars in the majors.

How are they gonna do?

The Marlins and Nationals are naturally getting more buzz this spring following their highly-active offseasons, but I still feel like the Braves have more immediate upside than either of them. Of course, my optimism hinges on the starting rotation staying healthy and Heyward returning to form, which is obviously no lock. Fredi Gonzalez’s managerial style doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence, either. I don’t think they are good enough to win the division, but I currently see them finishing second and securing a spot in the new one-game Wild Card playoff.

Jacob deGrom outduels Clayton Kershaw, Mets take 1-0 NLDS lead

Jacob de Grom
AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Jacob deGrom put together one of the best post-season starts in Mets history, outdueling three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw to pitch his team into a 1-0 NLDS lead. The right-hander fanned 13 over seven shutout innings, holding the Dodgers to five hits and a walk as the Mets won 3-1.

deGrom’s game score of 79 is the fifth-best by a Mets starter in the playoffs, behind Jon Matlack, Mike Hampton, Bobby Jones, and Tom Seaver, according to Baseball Reference. As Katie Sharp notes on Twitter, deGrom is one of three pitchers to hold the opposition scoreless on 13 or more strikeouts and one or fewer walks. The other two are Tim Lincecum and Mike Scott.

In the eighth inning, reliever Tyler Clippard allowed a one-out double to Howie Kendrick followed by an RBI single to Adrian Gonzalez as the Dodgers finally got on the board. Closer Jeurys Familia entered and recorded the final out of the eighth inning by inducing a weak line out from Justin Turner. In the ninth, Familia worked a 1-2-3 frame to wrap up the game.

Kershaw remains winless in the post-season since Game 1 of the 2013 NLDS, a span of seven starts. He gave up a solo home run to Daniel Murphy in the fourth inning, then walked the bases loaded in the seventh inning before departing with two outs. Reliever Pedro Baez entered and allowed two of his inherited runners to score when David Wright lined a single to center field. On the evening, Kershaw was on the hook for three runs on four hits and four walks with 11 strikeouts. Though he lost his command a bit towards the end of his start, the lefty pitched quite well and will be on the receiving end of some unnecessary criticism as a result of taking another post-season loss.

deGrom and Kershaw both struck out 11 batters, the first time that has happened in a major league post-season game.

Michael Cuddyer didn’t look too good out in left field for the Mets.

Game 2 of the NLDS will continue on Saturday at 9:00 PM EDT. Noah Syndergaard will start for the Mets opposite Zack Greinke of the Dodgers.

Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom create MLB first with 11 strikeouts each in the playoffs

Jacob deGrom
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

For the first time in major league history, both pitchers in a playoff game have struck out at least 11 batters, per’s Paul Casella. Mets starter Jacob deGrom has pitched just a hair better than Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw overall. deGrom has blanked the Dodgers over six frames on five hits and a walk. Kershaw made one mistake, resulting in a solo home run to Daniel Murphy in the fourth inning. He’s allowed four hits and four walks total in 6 2/3 innings.

The last time opposing starters each struck out 10 in a post-season game was back in 1944 in Game 5 of the World Series when Mort Cooper of the St. Louis Cardinals struck out 12 and Denny Galehouse of the St. Louis Browns struck out 10.

Michael Cuddyer not shining in left field early in NLDS Game 1

Michael Cuddyer
AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek

Mets outfielder Michael Cuddyer has already made a pair of mistakes in left field and he’s only four innings into the first game of the best-of-five NLDS against the Dodgers.

Leading off the second inning, Justin Turner sent a well-struck liner to Cuddyer which was quite catchable, but the ball clanked off of the veteran’s glove. Turner was credited with a double. Mets starter Jacob deGrom was able to work around the misplay, striking out Andre Ethier, A.J. Ellis, and Clayton Kershaw to close out the frame.

With two outs in the third inning, Corey Seager sent a fly ball down the left field line. Cuddyer took an inefficient route and the ball bounced about a foot inside the foul line, then into the stands, giving Seager a ground-rule double. To add insult to injury, Cuddyer ended up tumbling over the fence. deGrom, again, worked around Cuddyer’s mistake, striking out Adrian Gonzalez to end the inning.

Because he bats right-handed, Cuddyer got the start in left field over the left-handed-hitting rookie Michael Conforto against Kershaw, a southpaw. Conforto mustered only a .481 OPS against lefties this season compared to Cuddyer’s .698. Despite the batting disparity, one wonders how short a leash manager Terry Collins has on Cuddyer given his defense.