What Sunk the Braves
Good teams don’t fold for no apparent reason.
Though buried by the publicity piled onto the Boston Red Sox, who also slipped out of the playoff picture in September, the Atlanta Braves should have seen their slide coming.
Plagued all season by an inability to score runs, the Braves plodded through the 2011 season by playing an inordinate number of tight, low-scoring games — many of them morphing into extra-inning affairs.
That placed a burden on a young bullpen that had been infallible before it began to labor around Labor Day.
The result wasn’t pretty: like the Red Sox, the Braves were a postseason shoo-in that blew a 3-2, ninth-inning advantage in the final game of the season and finished one game behind in the wild-card standings.
Almost everyone contributed to the collapse. But these were the worst offenders:
- Derek Lowe — a year after winning 16 games and parlaying a 5-1 September mark into NL Pitcher of the Month honors, he went 0-5 in the last month and closed at 9-17
- Jair Jurrjens — the best pitcher in the National League during the first half, he failed to win a game after the break and spent the last two months on the disabled list
- Tommy Hanson — the promising fireballer won only once after the break and spent two months nursing a sore shoulder
- Jason Heyward — hitting 50 points below his 2010 rookie average, he lost his spot in right field when he forgot how to hit lefties, show his usual patience at the plate, or produce much power
- Martin Prado — asked to switch from second base to left field, he never got untracked, hitting .244 in September and finishing 50 points below his .307 average of 2010
- Dan Uggla — a bad start with his new team (.173 on July 3) resulted in a .233 year even though he reached a career peak in home runs
- Brian McCann — returning too soon from an oblique injury made him the Uggla of the second half, with an average well below .200 after August 14
- Jonny Venters — leading the big leagues with 85 appearances certainly contributed to his sudden September mortality
- Craig Kimbrel — his three blown saves in the last month might have blown his chances to be NL Rookie of the Year despite a total of 46 saves, most ever by a freshman closer
- Freddie Freeman — although he led NL rookie position players in many different departments, his 21-homer year ended on a sour note when he ended Atlanta’s season by banging into a double-play
- Alex Gonzalez — the only reliable September hitter after a mediocre season at the plate, his last-week calf injury cost the team dearly
- Larry Parrish — the hitting coach was fired a day after the season ended when general manager Frank Wren didn’t like the answers Parrish provided during a private interview session
Some baseball experts believe Wren should also be on the list of ignominy. It was the GM who signed Kenshin Kawakami, a Japanese import who went 1-10 last year, and Lowe, who had two 16-win seasons before age caught up to him in 2011. It was Wren who swapped Mark Teixeira for Casey Kotchman, a trade that will live in infamy. He also made the deal for Nate McLouth, like Kotchman a total bust in Atlanta, while failing to deal for Hunter Pence, a Houston castoff who thrived in Philadelphia after his trade-deadline arrival.
Wren did acquire Michael Bourn, a fleet singles hitter who led the majors in stolen bases, but did not address his team’s top deficit: the absence of a righthanded power hitter to help Uggla.
Had Wren been willing to part with Mike Minor, or another of Atlanta’s quintet of blue-chip arms, he could have had Pence — and maybe Bourn too. He also could have kept Pence out of Philly’s clutches.
Since Pence is not eligible for free agency until after the 2013 season, getting him would have given the Braves an extra year they did not get from Bourn. Like Mark Teixeira several seasons back, Bourn can split after just a year-and-a-half in Atlanta.
On the plus side, both Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez have done considerable public soul-searching since the curtain came crashing down on the 2011 season.
Wren said Lowe will not be a starter for the 2012 Braves and that Heyward will have to fight to win the starting spot in right field.
Gonzalez wondered aloud whether he erred in benching rookie speed merchant Jose Constanza, who got off to a sizzling start before cooling, and in removing Chipper Jones and his high on-base percentage from the unfamiliar No. 2 spot in the lineup.
With three rookies in his September rotation, Gonzalez also suggested he might have erred by relying on the struggling Lowe for so long. Sometimes, he admitted, a veteran just runs out of gas.
The good news, for Braves fans, is that Boston is an older club with an inflated payroll and a shaky minor-league system. Atlanta, on the other hand, has youth on its side — and a strong minor-league pipeline.
In 2011 alone, the Braves got positive contributions from more than a half-dozen talented rookies: Freeman in the infield, Constanza in the outfield, Kimbrel and Arodys Vizcaino in the bullpen, and Brandon Beachy, Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran, and Minor in the starting rotation.
No less an authority than Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated said the Braves have to do very little to be competitive in 2012.
Standing pat, however, would tell fans the team is standing still.
The Braves can and should make some moves: dumping Lowe’s $15 million salary if possible and making serious bids for switch-hitters Jose Reyes, the National League batting champion, and Carlos Beltran.
They probably can’t afford Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, the premier sluggers in the free agent class, but should be anxious to make fans forget 2011 as quickly as possible.
A solid signing or major trade would be a giant step in the right direction.
Former AP newsman Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author of 35 baseball books. His e.mail is email@example.com.