The Atlanta Braves finished the first half of their 2014 season on Sunday with a 10-7 victory over the Chicago Cubs, giving the team a 52-43 record before the All-Star Game. The team’s record leaves them behind the Washington Nationals at the top of the NL East by .001 percentage point, which means that if the season ended today they would face off with the San Francisco Giants in the Wild Card game.
Atlanta’s first half performance can be viewed in a variety of ways. On one hand, the team performed quite admirably considering they lost starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery before Opening Day, requiring hurlers like Aaron Harang (9-6, 3.53 ERA) and Julio Teheran (9-6, 2.71 ERA) to be relied on every fifth day. The team’s pitching has done very well up to this point, delivering to the tune of a 3.36 ERA (6th in MLB), 36 saves (1st in MLB), and ten shutouts (6th in MLB).
As impressive as the Braves have been on the mound, the team has still struggled to hit consistently. Despite great hitting from first baseman Freddie Freeman (.295 BA, 13 HRs, 52 RBIs) as well as commendable power numbers from left fielder Justin Upton (.278 BA, 17 HRs), the team is performing well below expectations at the plate. As of the end of Sunday’s series with the Cubs, Atlanta is 28th in runs scored, 19th in hits tallied, 21st in batting average, and 25th in on base percentage.
The finger can be pointed a number of ways, but the two biggest problems for the team continue to be second baseman Dan Uggla and center fielder BJ Upton.
Braves fans must have felt they were finally done dealing with Uggla once he was benched in favor of rookie Tommy La Stella, but the former Florida Marlin made headlines over the weekend. Uggla, who currently holds a .162 batting average and has not started since Jun. 27, was suspended by the Braves for one game for undisclosed reasons.
If you're wondering, it was #Braves, not MLB, who suspended Uggla. I'm hearing it was for tardiness, but not confirmed yet.
— David O'Brien (@ajcbraves) July 13, 2014
Atlanta called up infielder Phil Gosselin the day prior to Uggla’s suspension, which led many to believe that the thirty-four-year-old was on his way out the door. Manager Fredi Gonzalez reluctantly stated that Uggla would be back with the team once the All-Star break ends, but it does not take a mind reader to conclude that the Uggla/Atlanta pairing is reaching its eleventh hour.
While younger brother Justin has shown that he can be a consistent threat to go yard, BJ has still shown an unavoidable inability to do so. Although his stats are not quite as gruesome as his first season in Atlanta, the former Tampa Bay Ray has still played well below what his 5-year, $75 million contract calls for, holding a disappointing .215 average with 7 HRs and 26 RBIs. BJ has looked a bit better so far this month thanks to 13 hits in 12 games, but the team certainly needs “Bossman” to improve his batting along with his putrid defense if this team wants to stay in the playoff hunt.
As the days prior to the trade deadline tick down, Braves general manager Frank Wren has several positions he may want to target. The main concern for Atlanta is certainly the team’s bullpen, which has seen several underperforming efforts from the likes of Luis Avilan (47 games played with a 4.85 ERA), and David Carpenter (4.26 ERA in 31.2 innings). Atlanta will undoubtedly be reluctant to deal one of its rising stars like catcher Christian Bethancourt or pitcher David Hale, but acquiring a reliever with considerable MLB experience–like Boston’s Andrew Miller–for the right price needs to be Wren’s top priority.
Wren may also consider adding a veteran bench player to complement Atlanta’s current starting lineup. The team has seen good spot work from players like catcher Gerald Laird, yet the Braves definitely do not have a go-to player for pinch hitting opportunities or defensive replacements.
Gonzalez may opt to hold on to the current roster and hope that Ramiro Pena, Ryan Doumit, and Jordan Schafer shape up as the summer fades to fall; otherwise, the team may want to deal for a player like current Phillies outfielder and Marietta, Georgia native Marlon Byrd or former Braves utility player Martin Prado. Trades for players of their caliber from struggling teams should not require the kind of payout that would make the Braves front office shoot down such a move.
In order for Atlanta to survive the remaining months of the season, the team needs two things to occur: Evan Gattis to come back and play just as he did in the first half and Mike Minor to serve as another solid piece in the rotation.
Gattis has played up to the high expectations handed down for his sophomore season, hitting 16 home runs with 39 RBIs before hitting the disabled list on Jul. 1. Gattis is on pace to top the majority of his rookie marks, but the twenty-seven-year-old’s back injury should concern the Braves.
Atlanta has gotten considerable production from Laird and Bethancourt, but Gattis serves as a key piece in the team’s offensive machine. If he is unable to return to form for the race to the playoffs, the Braves will surely come out on the losing side.
Meanwhile, Minor has shown that he has a lot of room for improvement in his fifth MLB season. Once considered to be a future top-of-the-rotation starter during his time at Vanderbilt, Minor has not lived up to the hype in 2014, holding a 3-5 record with a 4.86 ERA through fourteen starts. Some may point to Minor’s injuries coming into the 2014 season as reason for his recent struggles, but the fact of the matter is that the former first round pick has been Atlanta’s weakest piece in the rotation.
Minor’s final start before the All-Stars head to Minneapolis was one to be forgotten. The twenty-six-year-old benefitted greatly from his team’s offensive output, as Minor gave up six earned runs and 11 hits in 6.0 innings but still pulled out a win in what proved to be an 11-6 victory for Atlanta. Minor appeared to have turned a corner as a starter one season ago, but unless he fixes his flaws in the coming months, he may very well prove to follow the path of Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens.