All that was missing was a Rick Camp homer

Tough to argue with that one:

Roy Halladay gave up eight runs.
The Braves bullpen allowed seven.
Durbin and Livan didn’t allow any.
Carlos Ruiz drove in 7 (two more than Albert Pujols has all year) and his team lost.
The Braves were 7-for-13 w/ RISP and almost lost.

But the future Hall of Famer wasn’t going to let that happen. Not tonight.


The Braves at 20

The ’82 team won its first 13. This year’s version dropped its first four. After 20, the ’82 Braves had just two more wins than the current squad. In the ’82 team’s 20th game, Joe Cowley pitched 7 shutout innings to secure win No. 15, aided by homers from Murph and Horner. Biff Pocoroba slugged two doubles among his three hits en route to a 3-0 victory over Fergie Jenkins and the Cubs before 8,802 at Fulco.

The 2011 Bravos were 8-12. They lost Game 20 to the Dodgers when Fredi foolishly let C. Martinez pitch to Matt Kemp. Game over. Chipper led the local nine in hitting with a .275 BA; this year’s line-up boasts four starters with a higher average. Nate McLouth struck out three times and RF Matt “I never hit a ball out of the IF” Young finished 0-for-5. Linebrink gave up a run in 2/3 of an inning.

The ’95 Braves didn’t play their 20th game until May 16th, thanks to the strike. Chipper, the Crime Dog and Justice combined for 11 hits and 8 RBI en route to a 15-3 rout of the Rockies, improving the world champion-to-be’s record to 11-9. The late Mike Sharperson drove in 2 with a double and the late Jose Oliva hit his 4th homer for Bobby’s boys. Three future Braves — Walt Weiss, the Big Cat and Vinny Castilla — started for the Rockies.

Arguably the best Braves team of them all, the ’93 version, was also 11-9 after 20. Their 20th game was played prior to the Crime Dog trade, hence the loss to Omar Oliveras.

The last team to be 13-7? The ’99 Braves, the last to reach the World Series. Their 20th game also came against the Pirates, behind two RBI by Chipper. Just like tonight.

(Actually, the ’07 Braves were also 13-7, but they finished with only 84 wins. Ending with the ’99 Braves makes for a more optimistic narrative.)

greg maddux

The last 0-3 start

In 2003 the Braves were swept at home in their opening series vs. the Expos, who outscored the local nine 17-2. They won their fourth game, 12-7, then lost 17-1 to the Fish (with Mad Dog on the mound). The Bravos lost the Hall of Famer-to-be’s next start, 16-2. Three days later Florida beat the Braves 12-5, dropping the home team’s record to 4-8.

They finished the month 17-10 en route to 101 wins.

I’m not comparing the two teams — the ’12 Braves have more talented arms, the ’03 Bravos stouter bats and, of course, a better manager. But it’s too early to freak out.

Offensive keys to the season: Heyward, Chipper

Heyward is obviously pivotal. He is one of the few real question marks in the lineup. Bourn will be solid. No way Prado doesn’t rebound. McCann will be McCann, and won’t fade late. Freeman could take a step back in year 2, ala J-Hey, but I don’t see it happening. Uggla will be Uggla.

That leaves J-Hey, Chipper and the shortstop. Ergo, your two keys to the offense. If Heyward reverts to his rookie form, this lineup is solidly six deep, at least. The last few practice games have been encouraging, as he’s launched balls into the universe like he did two years ago in Florida. Despite his struggles last season, the kid is only 22. Now, he could hit .240 with 17 homers. But something along the lines of .275-.280, 25 HR, 90 RBI, .385-.400 OBP is far more likely.

J-Hey does that, and we have just two iffy lineup spots.

One of those will be shortstop. Whatever offense we get there is fine, as long as Simmons/Pastornicky/Wilson catch the ball.

The other of those spots, on certain days, will belong to the 40-year-old Mr. L.W. Jones. The last 1990s MVP still active, Chipper was productive last year in 455 at bats in 126 games. He had the second-best OPS on the team, the third best homer-per-at bat ratio, and the best RBI per at bat ratio. RBI are dependent in part on other players, of course, but still, it’s a positiive indicator. Old No. 10 led the team in slugging percentage, and was intentionally walked 10 times, second most behind McCann. (Strangely, Uggla only drew two intentional walks.) Of his 18 homers, only 3 came when the Braves were ahead or behind by more than three runs, so most of them meant something.

The bottom line: if Chipper can come reasonably close to matching last season’s production and play, say, 115 games, it will be significant. There will be his production, obviously. That would also limit the plate appearances by the likes of Diaz, Hinske and Constanza. Jorge did some nice work last year, but those guys all represent a severe drop in ability from even the 40-year-old Chipper Jones. They are simply not players you want playing too often.

We welcome your thoughts.

Musings on a summer afternoon

Doyle now works as the greeter at the Whispering Pines retirement home cafeteria. He recommends the fatback.

You mean it’s still winter? At 7:40 p.m. it’s 81 degrees and the pollen count is higher than at any point in 2011 (channeling Doyle Harcavy …)

  • The biggest story out of camp so far has been the Oz-like glove work of Andrelton Simmons, who may well get the nod over the Rev. Pastornicky. For the Braves it would probably be the right call, as this team needs a Belliard more than a Blauser (and Pastornicky has shown no signs of being either). It’s probably not the best thing for Simmons, who could use some more seasoning with the bat. They should’ve re-signed Gonzo with the proviso Fredi could never bat him second.
  • For the first time since 2008, the Braves figure to have a southpaw start at least 20 games. Mike Minor has been fantastic this spring, showing every sign of being the stalwart middle-of-the-rotation arm that was projected. Let’s hope he does better than Jo-Jo Reyes, the last lefty to start more than 20 times for the local nine.
  • Jay Hey will be just fine. Using his 2010 numbers as an over/under, I’d bet on over.
  • Speaking of, bet on Uggla topping 40 homers for the first time in his career. It’s not much of a stretch — he’s hit 30 or better five consecutive years.
  • Will Fredi do the smart thing and hit Chipper second, or down in the order? Stupid question.
  • If Kris Medlen (barring health) doesn’t finish the year with the most innings logged by a reliever then you’ll know Fredi is an idiot. Not that you need any convincing.
  • I hope I’m wrong but I think Matty D. has been exposed and will be released before season’s end.
  • I’m still worried about JJ and Hanson.
  • More Murph, less Chip. By that I mean no Chip.
  • Has there ever been a better match of broadcaster and event than Jim Nantz and the Masters? That is not a compliment.
  • I could’ve lived happily without seeing Rick Santorum shirtless.

As Doyle would say, y’all get out and move around some. It’s good for the bowels. Especially if the fatback has you feeling pussel-gutted.

Starters must step up

JP Morosi raises some reasonable doubts about the Bravos:

So it will be harder to generate offense in divisional games — something the Braves found challenging enough in 2011, when they ranked in the bottom half of the NL in runs scored. The low output contributed to their appearance in a major-league-leading 26 extra-inning games. That, in turn, cranked up pressure on the still-young Kimbrel and Venters.

The rotation was complicit, too. Rather than ease the workload of Kimbrel, Venters and fellow stalwart Eric O’Flaherty by pitching deep into games, the starters logged only 957 1/3 innings — the fewest of any NL team that finished with a winning record.

The Braves would love to reverse that trend in 2012, but I doubt they will succeed. Hudson was their only 200-inning pitcher last year, and his lost April will make it almost impossible to hit the benchmark in 2012. Derek Lowe finished second on the staff in innings pitched, and he was dealt to Cleveland for salary relief.

So, at least until Hudson returns, the younger starters — Jurrjens, 26; Hanson, 25; Brandon Beachy, 25 — must lead the staff. And it’s unclear if they’re ready for that responsibility. …

It may take some time this year to understand the Braves’ performance last year. Perhaps those 89 wins weren’t a choke at all — but rather the best a flawed team could do.

On a positive note, Mike Minor had another strong outing today.

Ranking the NL East: Defense

None of the NL East teams will be mistaken for the early-to-mid-1980s Cardinals teams.

First, the infields:

The Phils are competent but aging. The Braves are a shade worse and have an untested shortstop who doesn’t project as a superior defenders. The Fish have a crappy SS moving to third but are more solid up the middle than Philly or the local nine. The Mets have a second sacker who makes Dan Uggla look like Roberto Alomar and a SS I know nothing about.

That leaves Washington, and even they’re shaky. But in Zimmerman, Desmond and Espinosa, the Nats have the most talented IF defenders, though their DP combo needs to cut down on the errors. Meanwhile, Wilson Ramos is a gifted backstop, potentially the best in the division defensively.

The Braves may rank near the bottom in infield defense but their OF leads the pack, thanks to Michael Bourn. Otherwise, only Philly ranks average or above.

One good thing about 2012: Boston won’t make the playoffs

Pvt. Pyle from 'Full Metal Jacket' won't be happy w/ the '12 Sox

The final two spots in Boston’s rotation are expected to be filled by converted relievers. Their projected third starter missed more than half of the 2011 season with back issues. Josh Beckett is a injury waiting to happen. And new closer Andrew Bailey has also missed significant time to arm ailments.

As for the offense, Kevin Youkilis sat out more games than Chipper the last two years. Carl Crawford, healing from wrist surgery, will probably miss the start of the season as he seeks to improve on last year’s .289 OBP. Just Disabled has retired, but the RF platoon of Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross isn’t going to make anyone forget Dwight Evans. And how long before Big Cheater’s roided-up body gives out? He hit only one homer during the season’s last month.

Oh yeah, Boston’s SS is Nick Punto, a 34-year-old journeyman with a lifetime .325 OBP. Then there’s the new manager.

No way this team passes the Yankees, who, unlike the Sox, fixed their leaky rotation. Ain’t getting by Tampa, either; the Rays add Matt Moore, my pick for the 2012 Cy Young, to what was already the division’s best staff. Even if a second wild card is approved, Boston won’t get in. Texas and the O.C. Angels are easily better teams.

Hell, Kansas City may be better than the 2012 Red Sox.

Ranking the NL East Rotations

No. 5: Easy. The Mets. Their ace has had a hell of a career. Makes a mountain of money. But he hasn’t pitched in two years. He has not made 30 starts since 2008. Chances of him doing so this year are about the same as Duane from Forest Park being the next Fed chairman. The No. 2 starter probably wouldn’t make the Braves’ rotation. One-time elite prospect Mike Pelfrey is really tall. Say that for him.  His career WHIP is worse than Rick Mahler’s. Next up is Jon Niese, the Capt. Mediocre of young southpaws. In his two full big league seasons, he’s 20-21 with a 4.31 ERA and a WHIP north of 1.4. The old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey might well be their best pitcher if Santana does not regain his health. Then bringing up the rear is yet another portrait in mediocrity, Dillon Gee. The Mets have the only truly bad rotation in the division.

No. 4: Tough call between the Natspos and Miami, but I’ll say the Dolph….um, Marlins. Josh Johnson’s health is at least as questionable as Strasburg’s. I think the Fish might have a smidge more reliable depth in their starting five, with Buehrle, Sanchez, Nolasco and the combustible Carlos Zambrano.  But Washington’s top three of Strasburg, Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez is younger, better and that staff has a higher upside than Miami’s. If Johnson is healthy, it’s a solid group. If not, it could be a struggle.  

No. 3: D.C. Their top three could be formidable. But Strasburg and Zimmerman have both had serious arm injuries recently. After those two and Gonzalez, the quality falls off with Edwin Jackson, who has shown promise but topped out at as merely adequate, and John Lannan, who’s workmanlike. C.M. Wang is in the wings. He used to be good, but the last time he pitched more than a half season, 2007, Scott Thorman was the Braves’ opening-day first baseman and a house was considered a good investment.   

No. 2: Our Boys. Huddy has been excellent the past two seasons. Beachy looks like he might be ready to pitch deeper and become a superb fourth starter. Health is obviously a question for Hanson and Jurrjens. The Braves lack a true ace the likes of Halladay or (if healthy) J. Johnson. But the quality goes deep. With bad injury luck, the Nats or even Marlins could surpass our starting staff. But If JJ and Tommy make 30 starts each and Beachy progresses, this group will be as good as any in the league except for …..

No. 1: The Phils. It’s a tired song, but it’s true. Halladay, Lee and Hamels–forgive me, Lord — are as imposing as prime Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz. Lat season, all three Phillies pitched more than 215 innings, had ERAs under 2.80 and posted WHIPs under 1.05. They have three No. 1 starters, plain and simple. Vance Worley was good last year. Joe Blanton is average. When you have a clear-cut advantage three of every five games, your fourth and fifth guys can be average.

Braves better have a good April

Sluggish starts have become the norm for the Bravos but a winning April is key in 2012. 

The Braves play the Mets in six of their first 12 games. In between they face Houston and a Brewers team likely without Fielder and Braun. They end the month with four at home against the Pirates. 

May will be significantly tougher, with 12 games against the Reds and Cards, their first series against the Phils and a road trip to Tampa.

If Fredi and Parrish don’t screw it up….

I can go optimistic or pessimistic in thinking about next season. For now I’ll focus on the promise, and I think it is considerable. That is, if Fredi and Parrish don’t screw it up.

Look at the regular eight: McCann could certainly rebound and have a better season; Freeman was great as a rookie and, assuming he doesn’t have a Heywardian sophomore slump, could be even better; Uggla figures to give you the same power production without the abysmal first half; shortstop is a question mark (Pastornicky, WIlson/Gonzo/another stopgap veteran?); Chipper will probably do about what he did this year, maybe a tad less; Prado – who knows, next year will be pivotal for him; Bourn should be solid again and we’ll have speed at the top of the lineup for a full season; J-Hey should rebound. (I’ll be shocked and bitterly disappointed if they deal him this offseason, in regards to the Olney nugget.)

So that could be a pretty good lineup. Then again, that could have been a good lineup this season on paper. We’ll be counting on some rebounds, but none is a huge stretch. Not like, say, banking on Linebrink to be a good setup man.

As for the pitching, we should see Huddy, Beachy, Minor, Hanson and JJ in the rotation. Or perhaps Delgado or Teheran or even Vizcaino is in there and one or two or three of the non-Huddy others are not. All in all, with a bit better health, we should have a good rotation. IF that happens, maybe it’ll reduce the mileage on the relievers. You’ll note I excluded Lowe. I can’t imagine he’ll be taking the hill every fifth day in 2012, even if the Braves have to eat the $15M. If Lowe’s in next year’s rotation, Fredi’s an even bigger imbecile than he appears.

In the pen, there’s no reason to think Venters, O’Flaherty and Kimbrel won’t be good again. Maybe — OK, this could be a reach — but maybe Fredi learned something and won’t grind those guys down so much next season. Medlen, Vizcaino and Varvaro could be very nice complements. Finally, Cristhian Martinez presumably will be back and we will introduce the newest Braves fan club: the Cristhian Coalition.

OK. That’s my off-the-top-of-me-head optimistic take on next season. This obviously assumes the Braves make no big trades or signings. And again — should we copyright this phrase? — IF FREDI AND PARRISH DON’T SCREW IT UP (AGAIN). Maybe they’ll reconsider and jettison Parrish. Maybe Liberty will sell the team this offseason. Any of you guys want to try to pool our money and raise $400 million?

We’ll of course have plenty more speculation, rumination and aggravation in the coming weeks and months. Meanwhile, at least we can enjoy the postseason without gnawing our nails and scaring our pets and children.

Next year could be tougher

At least in the NL East. The Phils will still be the Phils and the Nats are already talking about bolstering their rotation.

The Nationals have sent a scout to Oakland to watch Rangers left-hander C.J. Wilson pitch against the Athletics on Wednesday, according to two baseball sources.

It more than likely means that the Nationals will have interest in Wilson, who is a free agent after the World Series.

Wilson, Strasburg and Zimmerman would be a formidable trio. Jayson Stark reports scouts expect Prince Fielder to end up with the Nats, who’ve also discussed trading for B.J. Upton. Even the Marlins are making noise about spending big. I doubt they’ll exceed the Braves’ payroll but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nats do.

If the Braves are going to add, they’ll have to subtract

According to MLBTradeRumors, raises for arbitration-eligible players Jair Jurrjens, Martin Prado, Eric O’Flaherty, Michael Bourn and Peter Moylan will add up to roughly $21 million against next year’s payroll. Combine that with their other contractual agreements and you get around $88 million, not including minimum salary players. So you’re pretty much at this year’s $91 million payroll.

Those arbitration raises, which include an additional $3 mil for Bourn,  projected to make around $7 mil next season, negate shedding the contracts of McLouth (who will be bought out for $1.25 million) and Kenshin. I’m trusting MLBTR’s math, assuming, for instance, they didn’t include McLouth’s contract against next year’s payroll.

So if the Braves are going to add an innings-eater or another bat, they’ll have to do so through a trade, subtracting players like JJ and Martin. MLBTR estimates those two will make a combined $9.5 million in 2012. And they alone won’t get you a difference-maker; that would require a prospect or two.

The $15 million owed D-Lowe continues to limit FW’s options. He has only himself to blame, of course, and fans can only hope that contract remains the current administration’s biggest mistake.