Like a construction worker looks over a structurally deficient bridge, we must look over the 2014 Atlanta Braves the same way.
Because there’s no chance this squad carries us over troubled water to the Promised Land.
We should have seen it coming, though there were plenty of smoke screens to shield us from harsh reality. Despite all their struggles, the Braves are still tied for first in the National League East.
The pitiful, hapless NL East.
Their pitching staff has allowed the fewest runs in the National League. So we lied to ourselves and insisted if the pitching stays strong, the Braves would still have a shot at a championship.
But we all know what’s going to happen with this ballclub in October, assuming no big changes are made to the roster. If they’re striking out 14, 15, 16 times a game in May, how will they ever be able to muster any offense whatsoever when the Dodgers or Cardinals come calling in the playoffs?
They won’t, and we already know this, because we’ve seen how the Braves play against the true contenders. They’ve lost five of six against the Giants, four of six against the Cardinals and just dropped four straight to the Boston Red Sox, who came into the series on a 10-game losing streak. The Red Sox hadn’t won three consecutive games all season, but they managed to take four in a row from the Braves.
Boston may not have looked like the champs they were a year ago, but you can rest assured the Braves gave them all the confidence they need to surge. Even in dead-last in the AL East, the Red Sox are a better club than the Braves, because they were built to succeed.
The Braves, on the other hand, were built to fail. The lineup is stacked with strikeout kings – hitters who don’t hit well in situations. How many times have the Braves stranded a runner on third with less than two outs? When they do hit home runs, why are the bases almost always empty, minimizing the blow?
[Picture me saying this in my Forrest Gump voice] Because the Braves are not a smart team.
A year ago, the Braves mostly relied on situational hitting from guys like Chris Johnson and Brian McCann. This year, McCann is gone and Johnson’s bat is missing. Chris Johnson – a guy who batted .321 a year ago, nearly winning the batting title – is batting just .258 this season. His on-base percentage is nearly 100 points lower this year than in 2013, and he has 51 strikeouts to just five walks.
These issues are evident with almost every other hitter but Freddie Freeman, and if the Braves make an unlikely run in the playoffs, he should absolutely be named MVP. But they won’t make a run, because teams that make runs know how to hit and field, even against good clubs.
Atlanta doesn’t do that. Outside of Andrelton Simmons’ wizardry at shortstop, the Braves are flawed in the field. When the bats go cold, you have to stop the other team from scoring, and the Braves struggle to do that against good teams.
Remember how the Cardinals bunt-singled the Braves to death a few weeks back? That’s not an accident. The smart teams – the ones that will be playing in October – have figured out Atlanta’s holes in the field, too, and they expose all of them.
This is all by design, so it shouldn’t be a surprise. We were warned when the Uptons were signed that they’d strike out a lot, and their gloves weren’t stellar. General manager Frank Wren built a team that can consistently win 92 games in the NL East, beating up on mediocre clubs, but are so flawed in the areas that matter that they’ll never win a World Series.
(And I know how lame it sounds for me to complain about having a team that wins 92 games every year, but at some point, getting your heart ripped out every October can get old.)
If the Braves and Dodgers are tied in the seventh inning of a playoff game and Atlanta has a runner on third with one out against Clayton Kershaw, which hitter in the Braves’ lineup would you feel safe sending up there to get that runner home? Better yet, which hitter would you trust to even make contact with the ball?
That’s why I have trouble blaming the bad times on manager Fredi Gonzalez. If the players he’s given can’t do the basics as professionals, how can he manage a ball game to his advantage? Why should he be to blame when two pro ballplayers can’t agree on who’s going to catch a fly ball, so they just let it fall between them?
The Braves, as it stands Friday morning, would be 3.5 games back of the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and 6.5 games behind the Giants in the NL West. As a matter of fact, the only division in baseball where the Braves could be 28-25 and even be within sniffing distance of first place is the NL East.
There’s still a very good chance the Braves hang another division-champion banner at the end of this season, especially if their main competition is the Miami Marlins. But it’s just more empty calories for a fan base that really needs sustenance.