August 23, 2008

TomaHawk Down

With college football season right around the corner, I just wanted to revisit the sad state of affairs in Braves Nation one more time before I turn my attention to the pigskin. Where did it all go wrong? One year ago the Braves were experiencing a rejuvenation under Mark Teixeira and were chasing down the Mets and Phillies in what was shaping up to be an unbelievable run to the postseason under a dynamic offense. Well, that fizzled out, Teixeira is long gone, and most of the Braves have taken a HUGE step back, leaving doubts as to the long-term direction of America's Team. Last night's embarrassing 18-3 loss to the Cardinals just affirmed what I've been seeing all along. The Braves are about to undergo a massive but overdue rebuilding process.

So where did it go wrong? A few thoughts...

1. Injuries - How many teams can lose their ace (Smoltz), closer (Soriano), setup man (Moylan), co-ace (Hudson) and 3rd starter (Glavine) and still remain competitive? Not many. So obviously this hasn't helped, but apparently the Braves were a flawed team even before the injuries set in.

2. Underperformance - 'The Natural', Jeff Francoeur has been an embarrassment. There, I said it. I like the guy, but his either failed development or sheer stubbornness to not lay off the outside breaking ball is threatening to end his career. And I'm not overexaggerating. The guy is totally clueless at the plate and can be pitched to by a high school pitcher at this point. He's hitting .228 with 10 homers and a .280 OBP. Atrocious. At this point the Braves have to seriously question if he can just be penciled in as the starting RF for 2009. They would not be doing due diligence if they didn't ask that. Consider this - the Braves have 23 homers TOTAL from their outfielders. 23!! Many major league teams have a guy with that many by himself. The next lowest team total is San Fran with 33. The major league average is just below 50. Throw in the failed progression of Yunel Escobar and the regression of Kelly Johnson and that is a huge chunk of the lineup that is not performing up to par.

3. Pitching - When Dr. James Andrews keeps moving his way up the office speed dial, you know you are in for some trouble. It was a risky strategy to go into the season with a rotation featuring Smoltz and Glavine and featuring Hampton (sounds like the name of a blues band or something) and it obviously backfired big time. Now Frank Wren has a tough decision whether to go down that road again (BTW I would feel a hell of a lot more confident if John Montgomery Schuerholz was still calling the shots...). Both Smoltz and Glavine will avoid TJ surgery and expressed interest in returning next year. Tim Hudson, who was doing his usual Tim Hudson thing this year, is out until next August. Jair Jurrjens has been awesome, a total fleecing of the Tigers in the Renteria offseason deal. By passing on Teixeira, the Braves seem to be sending the message that they will be big spenders for a free agent deal or two. There is no reason they shouldn't be in on the Sabathia sweepstakes, and AJ Burnett wouldn't be a bad consolation prize. JJ Reyes and Chuck Morton have been typical rookies - one good start, two horendous - but at this point they need to keep developing. The Artist Formerly Known As Chuck James should never wear the Braves uniform again. In fact, I'm willing to bet he's a Kansas City Royal next year.

4. Clubhouse Chemistry - This is something new in a Bobby Cox clubhouse, but it's something that there have been whispers about the past month or two from various Braves beat writers and even from some quotes from the players themselves. Losing Smoltz, Glavine and Hudson, 3 strong veterans, has definitely hurt. Early in the year the Braves released backup catcher Brayan Pena, who was Escobar's best friend from their childhood days in Cuba. A baseball decision, although why they kept Corky Miller's fat .093 hitting corpse instead is a mystery. But Escobar was devastated and has not seemed right this year. Also, there has been innuendo that the young players have not approached the game the right way (whatever that means in baseball speak) and some of the veterans have felt that they are not taking the losing personally.
And finally, there was the whole Jeff Francoeur demotion. Here was his take on it:
"After three years, after playing hurt, playing every day, going in every day whether I got a hit and never complaining, I just played because Bobby [Cox] kept putting me in the lineup," Francoeur told the newspaper. "But I just felt like a little three-minute thing -- 'Hey, you're going down' -- I feel like after three years, I was owed a little more of an explanation. But that's Frank's deal and that's what I guess they decided to do."
Here was Chipper's take on it: "Everybody struggles — we all do," Jones said. "But this is a game of adjustments, and pitchers have made an adjustment on Frenchy. And he has to make an adjustment back. It's got to do with pitch recognition. It's got to do with using the whole field." I'm sure everybody in the clubhouse likes Francoeur, but at some point the frustration with his lack of adjustments and poor production is going to reach a boiling level.

Looking ahead to next year, the Braves have exactly two building blocks for the future. Jair Jurrjens, who should slot nicely into the #2 starter spot for a long time. And Brian McCann, who has shown that he is the best catcher in the National League. Chipper will still be manning 3rd, but at this point in his career it is impossible to label him a building block for the future. The jury is still out on Casey Kotchman (an abysmal performance in an admittedly small sample size wearing the Tomahawk), and upgrades must at least be considered for second base and right field. Jordan Schafer, he of the steroids bust, should be in center field - which is should bring excitement but also a high degree of uncertainty. Upgrades are mandatory for left field, where the Braves could be in the Manny sweepstakes and at the very least make a run at Pat Burrell.

Behind Jurrjens are 4 question marks in the rotation. One free agent pitcher is necessary, two is preferred. I could see AJ Burnett in a Braves uniform along with a guy like Kyle Lohse. The bottom line is that it's rebuilding time at Turner Field, as the gap is bridged from the Chipper, Smoltz, Glavine Braves to the future. Now, wake me up for spring training's college football season!


Jeremy said...

I was planning on doing a post along the same lines - the last gasp of the Braves dynasty - but Matt did a fantastic job.

It should be a very interesting year or two in Atlanta - Glavine and Smoltz have to be considered just about done and the Braves shouldn't be relying on getting much, if anything, from those two guys in the future. Tim Hudson has had a nice resurgence, but he's also getting a bit creaky and has had recent injury problems. Jurrgens is a stud and a great guy to have at the top of the rotation. But where is the rest of the pitching coming from?

McCann is great, and Escobar will be a nice building block as a middle infielder, but everyone else that's made appearances with the big club and come up through the Braves system in the past few years hasn't been too impressive.

The Braves also have to decide whether their draft strategy needs to change over the long haul. Their mentality has always been focusing on area kids who they can sign relatively cheap and trust on their system to come up with a few gems every year. With more clubs focusing on the draft to make immediate improvements to the system and either their big league clubs, the Braves need to consider whether their strategy will allow them to continue to be competitive long-term.

Like Matt said, I would trust that Schuerholz could keep the Bravos trucking. But serious changes need to be made, and Wren might not be the guy for the job.

Doug said...

Interesting stuff. The Braves are sort of bad everywhere. Other than Chipper and McCann, they don't have any big threats in that lineup.

Matt, do you think the Braves will go after the abathia/Burnett/Manny types?? It seems like they have a ton of money, so I agree with you that there is no reason they wouldn't go after those guys. Then again, it seems like the Braves have been operating under a much smaller budget the last few years.

Do you think Smoltz and Glavine will both be back?? Do you want them back or do you want to build around some kids??

What about this Jorge Campillo guy?? He seems to be having a good year. Do you think he'll be in the rotation next year??

Do you think Francoeur can get it back? It seems like he is never going to turn into the superstar that we thought he would be, but there's at least room for him to return to being a solid major leaguer.

Do you think the Braves would consider trading McCann for a haul of players, or is he an untouchable?? If I was Walt Jocketty, I would give up a haul of minor league talent for McCann.

Who is down in the minor leagues for them?? Any big time bats??

My last question is a little dicier. Do you think that Bobby Cox has lost it just a bit?? Would you be opposed to some new blood?? I know the Braves are lacking players and have had a ton of injuries, so maybe Bobby has nothing to do with it.