(Stats Accurate Entering Thursday Night…)
The Braves need offensive production. Over the last 30 days, only the Twins (85 RS) and the injury-ravaged Reds (82 RS) have scored fewer runs than the Braves at 86. Most concerning is the sudden lack of power. Atlanta’s bread-and-butter of walks and homers was already lacking in the former this season, but over the last 30 days, they have only sent 22 balls to the bleachers and their .129 ISO is good for 19th in the majors. It’s hard to score runs when over 70% of your plate appearances end in outs, though. The ugly fact is that the Braves, both recently and over this season, have made an abundance of outs. Only three teams are worse than the Braves at turning trips to the plate into non-outs. Right now, as a team, the Braves are essentially Jeff Francoeur. That’s not a particularly lovely idea.
I fully respect the idea that you give your team roughly 60 days to figure it out. Even when I play in Out of the Park, I typically won’t mess with my roster until June. With the Braves failing to run away with the East despite the struggles of the Nationals, the Braves are being forced to make moves and it looks like they are on board with the idea. On Wednesday, they demoted Tyler Pastornicky to the minors in favor of Tommy La Stella, who started his first game later that night. Pastornicky is a fine 25th guy on a team with no clearly defined holes who can use his flexibility, speed, and decent bat to help out a team. On a team with one of the worst offenses in baseball, Pastornicky was a bad use of a spot. Though I am not sure just how good La Stella will be at this level, he’s worth the roster spot as Braves 2B’s are slashing .172/.257/.256.
But is La Stella enough? And what more can the Braves do?
Well, the big problem with Atlanta is that they lack much flexibility here. The only position that lacks someone signed beyond this year is catcher, where Evan Gattis is second on the team with 13 homers despite a .294 OBP. However, what was supposed to be a strength (the bench) has been a failure this season and can be tweaked. Here are the slash lines of the bench with the exception of the already shipped out Pastornicky.
Ramiro Pena, 79 PA, .183/.256/.310, 3 2B, 2 HR, 7 BB, 20 K
Gerald Laird, 67 PA, .217/.299/.267, 3 2B, 7 BB, 16 K
Ryan Doumit, 57 PA, .214/.228/.304, 2 2B, 1 HR, 1 BB, 15 K
Jordan Schafer, 34 PA, .103/.188/.172, 2 2B, 3 SB, 3 BB, 7 K
Looking at baseball-reference’s page, for Schafer, there is something I rarely see for an offensive player. A -0 adjusted OPS. That’s awful.
However, there aren’t easy answers here. Pena is the only Brave on the team now capable of playing shortstop if Andrelton Simmons misses a game, as he did on Wednesday. Laird is the primary backup catcher as it seems Fredi Gonzalez has seen enough of Doumit behind the plate. And Doumit has been more productive of late and gives the bench some element of power.
But there is Schafer and the Braves do have a few options they could look at, both of which are already on the 40-man roster. Todd Cunningham is hitting .296/.341/.388 with Gwinnett. While not the base stealer Schafer is, Cunningham provides another switch-hit bat, is plenty quick in his own right, and a career .278/.349/.364 line. He’s a capable defender in center, though not a world-beater, and would likely play the position better at this level than Schafer. Old Brave stand-by and notorious bat-licker Jose Constanza is around, though the 30 year-old has been hurt this season. With nearly 300 games at Gwinnett since 2011, including 100 games in Atlanta, the Braves know what they have with Constanza. He’s powerless, doesn’t walk, and is dependent on making contact. The Braves have a third option, utility guy Joey Terdoslavich. While Terdo has not hit for much power this season and has slashed .261/.337/.733, he posted a .926 OPS with Gwinnett last year while making his way to the majors.
Any of those three, especially the younger options, could replace Schafer. The former prospect is playing on borrowed time after slashing .309/.397/.463 through the first three months last year. He would spend some time hurt, but also batted just .176/.252/.213 down the stretch. This season, he has struggled to find playing time behind the starters and lost some at-bats to Doumit. Still, with nearly 1200 PA in his major league career, Schafer has slashed just .224/.308/.307. What more do you need to see?
There is also the conundrum of Dan Uggla. With almost $9M remaining of his contract this year and another $13M due to him next season, the Braves naturally are not excited by the prospect of releasing Uggla and taking an entire loss. After a decent start to this season, Uggla’s slash sits at .177/.254/.257 with just two homeruns. Over the last few years, Uggla hasn’t had a lot of pluses to his game, but he at least walked (including a league-leading 94 in 2012) and hit homers (79 of them in his first 3 years in ATL). Now, he’s doing neither and worse, Fredi has felt there was no other solution but to indefinitely bench Uggla. Since April 27th, Uggla has played in just 11 games, getting 8 starts, and left on the bench for the entirety of 15 games. He has had a few nice moments during this run, but like the line goes from Little Big League, if you get excited over a seeing eye single (or more walks in Uggla’s case), don’t you think something’s wrong?
Theoretically, the Braves could cut Uggla and bring up one of the three previously mentioned as possible Schafer replacements. Unfortunately, there aren’t many more options beyond them. Ernesto Mejia‘s seven homers still paces Gwinnett and he now plays overseas. Guys like Cedric Hunter, Mark Hamilton, and Sean Kazmar are long-shots to ever make an impact in the bigs. Philip Gosselin has hit .333 and could probably provide some utility infield work.
To me, if they don’t believe in Uggla and are convinced his career is over, it’s time to move on. Cut Schafer and Uggla, bring up Cunningham and Terdo, and see what you have. At the very worst, you open a spot or two for possible trade acquisitions or waiver pickups. At best, the two switch-hitters give the Braves a wealth of options late in games against relievers to go with Doumit and Pena, also switch-hitters.
At the end of the day, barring a really surprising trade, the Braves will live and die with this lineup. Either B.J. Upton continues to improve or the Braves production in center will suffer. Jason Heyward will either have a strong summer or he won’t. Chris Johnson will get some luck back on his side or he won’t. There isn’t much beyond inserting La Stella into the lineup lately that the Braves can do. But, every little bit might help. Re-working the bench might not do enough, but it’s something that could improve the team and the best teams maximize every roster spot.