In the first game of the 2010 National League Division Series, the Atlanta Braves mustered two hits and lost 1-0 to Tim Lincecum. Getting starts in that first game were leadoff hitter Omar Infante, first baseman Derrek Lee, left fielder Matt Diaz, second baseman Brooks Conrad, and center fielder Rick Ankiel. Of that group, only Infante started more than 55 games during the regular season for the Braves.
Gone were Martin Prado (139 starts). Also missing was Chipper Jones (86), Melky Cabrera (115), and Troy Glaus (107). Okay, so nobody was exactly missing Cabrera, right? And Glaus had already been replaced by Lee. But Prado and Jones were the heart-and-soul of the team’s lineup and they were gone – both injured. Also missing were Jair Jurrjens and Kris Medlen. During the series against the Giants, they’d also lose Billy Wagner.
The 2010 squad led the NL East from May 31 to September 7. After briefly returning to a tie for the division lead four days later, they finished 9-10 to fall behind the Phillies by six games by season’s end. The team that met the Giants in Bobby Cox‘s final days as a manager wasn’t the team that once resembled a top contender anymore.
This year’s club seems headed down a similar fate. Nick Markakis is out. As is Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson. Last night, the Braves also lost Ender Inciarte. The Braves have been quite fortunate when it’s come to injuries this season so it’s hard to feel like they are unlucky to have lost so many people, even if it’s come in a condensed one-month period. But if they aren’t unlucky, they are damn unfortunate considering the timing. To be fair, none have been ruled out for the remainder of the season yet, though it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Inciarte makes it back.
On July 26, when this whole mess started with the Markakis injury, the Braves had a 5.5 game lead on the Nationals with the Phillies 6.5 games back and the Mets 12.5 games back. While the standings haven’t massively shifted, the Nationals have shaved off a game and the Mets have climbed to nine games out with the Phillies two ahead of them. So, it’s not exactly the time to panic, especially with a seven-game lead on the second Wild Card spot, but it’s hard not to remember what the 2010 season felt like as the injuries continue.
Atlanta has already made one move, signing Adeiny Hechavarria to give them a major-league quality shortstop, at least in the field, while Swanson nurses his foot issue. And unlike most teams, the Braves do have an acceptable option in center field with Ronald Acuna Jr. And while the losses are severe, the Braves still have Acuna, Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, and a resurgent Ozzie Albies – who is rocking a .851 OPS if you haven’t noticed. But as good as they have been, the team needs more production from the second half of the lineup. Inciarte was the only other player outside those top four with a wRC+ over 100 in the last month.
To be fair, Brian McCann sports a respectable 100 wRC+ over the last month, but he shares time with Tyler Flowers who has forgotten how to hit and catch. That pains me to say as a Flowers guy, by the way. Matt Joyce has a 33 wRC+ over the last 30 days. Johan Camargo? 41. Charlie Culberson? 76. Adam Duvall had a 99 wRC+ before getting demoted but built that up over a good streak following his return from Gwinnett before his numbers nose-dived.
Meanwhile, the pitching staff has been mostly bad over the last month. Some of that is horrendous luck (Mark Melancon has a 10.13 ERA, but a 0.78 FIP?). Some of it is just bad. The 2010 Braves, by the way, had a sparkling bullpen led by Wagner, Jonny Venters, Peter Moylan, Takashi Saito, and Eric O’Flaherty. The rotation wasn’t great, especially after losing Medlen, but the bullpen was excellent. This team doesn’t have that. They will have to pick it up majorly to mask over the decreased offense.
The good news is that Swanson should return in September and Riley looks like a good bet to do so as well, though he’ll need to return to form in a hurry if that’s to be a benefit. And again, the Braves still have a quartet of bats with a wOBA that ranges from .354 to .401. Losing the guys they did lose hurts, but the 2010 team lost two of their best hitters and replaced them with Brooks Conrad and Omar Infante. Not hating on Infante, but he was no Chipper Jones – even a 38-year-old Chipper Jones.
But it still makes you wonder just how well this team can hold up over the final month-plus. The competition in the division has picked it up and, to this point, none of the moves Alex Anthopoulos made last month have panned out. The last part has to change. Melancon, Chris Martin, and Shane Greene have to turn it around. Someone is going to have to step up. It can’t just be four guys and hope Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Dallas Keuchel, and Julio Teheran have it tonight.
In the end, something that both the 2010 roster and this year’s team have in common is their reliance on a wunderkind in the outfield. For that team, it was Jason Heyward, the 20-year-old phenom who paced the Braves with a .849 OPS. This year’s squad has an even better option. Plus, his supporting cast is remarkably better. Heyward didn’t have a Freddie Freeman. He had a washed-up Derrek Lee. Heyward didn’t have a Josh Donaldson. It was Omar Infante instead. And Heyward definitely didn’t have an Ozzie Albies. Brooks Conrad was starting games at second in the playoffs. In case you repressed that from your memory.
This year’s roster is much better than the 2010 roster that was beset by similar injuries. But if the bullpen doesn’t turn it around and guys don’t get healthy in a hurry, this year’s roster might suffer the same ending as the 2010 Braves did. While the Braves are built for the long haul, nothing is promised. The Braves should be a great club for the next several years considering the youth of their players and contract situations being what they are. But other potential dynasties puttered and failed before them. Just because you have a perfect plan doesn’t mean it will be executed perfectly. The Braves don’t want to waste an opportunity at greatness this season. They have the players to hold down the fort. Those guys need to perform and other players need to return to add on.
And if that doesn’t happen, maybe it’s time to see what else the team can pick from their bowl of minor league gems. Maybe a Drew Waters (.836 OPS in 10 games at Gwinnett)? Or maybe a Cristian Pache (elite major-league quality defense in center)? It’s all hands on deck right now. Everything should be open for discussion. The Braves are too good to not go for it.