SweetSpot: Atlanta Braves

Simmons best defender of September

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
9:27
AM ET
Amazingly, we almost got through a full season without naming Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons our Defensive Player of the Month.

Alas, Simmons finally won our vote for September. He won on the strength of five Defensive Runs Saved, which trailed only Brandon Crawford of the San Francisco Giants among shortstops. Crawford had seven Defensive Runs Saved, but Simmons garnered more favor for having nine Good Fielding Plays and only two Misplays and Errors compared to Crawford’s 10 and 7 for the month.

After a slow start, Simmons finished the season with 28 Defensive Runs Saved and should be a lock to win the National League Gold Glove at shortstop.

Simmons didn't lead the league in Defensive Runs Saved. His teammate Jason Heyward did, finishing with 32. Simmons placed tied for second with New York Mets outfielder Juan Lagares, who won this award in August.

Simmons had 14 Defensive Runs Saved in his first 109 games, than had 14 in his last 37 games of the season (helped by plays like this one).

At one point in mid-August, Cincinnati Reds shortstop Zack Cozart had a seven-run advantage over Simmons for the most of any shortstop. He finished nine runs behind Simmons for the season.

So even though the Braves offense may have gone in the tank at the end of the season, at least one defender was playing pretty hard and pretty well on the defensive end.

* * * *

Alexi Amarista
Amarista
I also want to give a salute to San Diego Padres utility man Alexi Amarista, who finished as the runner-up in our voting. Amarista had only one Defensive Run Saved for the month, but was credited with 25 Good Fielding Plays by the video trackers at Baseball Info Solutions, by far the most of anyone for September.

Examples of the handiwork by the player known as "Superninja" to the Padres broadcast crew can be seen here, here and here.

Amarista played five different positions this season. Shortstop was his best, the one at which he got seven of his 10 Defensive Runs Saved.
video
If you adhere to the quaint notion that winning records and job security go hand-in-hand, Frank Wren deserved a whole lot better than he got from the Atlanta Braves.

In the first five years of Wren's tenure as general manager, the Braves won 86, 91, 89, 94 and 96 games. During that same span, the franchise ranked 11th, 15th, 15th, 16th and 18th in Opening Day payroll among the 30 Major League Baseball clubs. So under the most fundamental of accounting measures, Wren helped the team improve in the standings even as his bottom line was progressively being squeezed.

But the Braves failed to win a playoff series and ended this season with a cringe-worthy collapse, and upper management didn't hesitate to make the general manager the first of what could be several fall guys for a disappointing narrative. The new world order in Atlanta became official Monday morning with the news that Wren has been dismissed, special assistant John Hart will replace him on an interim basis and the team will immediately begin a search for a permanent general manager.

Fair? Not hardly. But there's a reason Wren isn't the only baseball general manager with silver hair. The stress of the job is enough to make a man grow old before his time.

Speculation around Wren's future had been swirling since Aug. 23, when Braves CEO Terry McGuirk told Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that "everyone is accountable" for the team's performance. If McGuirk was looking to provide stability or inspiration, the message failed to resonate. The Braves had just won seven of eight games when McGuirk gave his state of the team address. Since then, they've gone 8-18 and averaged a feeble 2.31 runs per game on the road to elimination.

Amid the Braves' sorry performance, it's hard to ignore the undercurrent of discord in the organization. When Bobby Cox gave his Hall of Fame induction speech in Cooperstown in late July and pointedly omitted Wren's name on the list of people he wanted to thank, it publicly substantiated the notion that the relationship between the two men was beyond strained.

Cox, whose personal biography appears on Page 179 of the Braves' media guide, has maintained a low profile in his capacity as special assistant to the general manager. But his presence on a three-man transition team with club president John Schuerholz and Hart lends credence to the rumors that he's bored with his current role and would like a more prominent voice moving forward.

Where do the Braves go from here? They have a ready-made internal candidate to replace Wren in assistant GM John Coppolella, a bright young executive with experience on both the scouting and analytical sides. Coppolella worked for the Yankees before coming to Atlanta, so he's eminently familiar with the rigors of life in a demanding market.

Other candidates are sure to surface in, oh, five minutes. On Sunday, Mark Bowman of MLB.com floated the name of Royals GM Dayton Moore, who grew up in the Atlanta organization before leaving for Kansas City in 2006.

As Wren relinquishes his Turner Field parking space, it's clear that his missteps in the free-agent realm paved the way for his demise. The Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami signings failed to pan out, and Dan Uggla gave the Braves two years of Uggla-caliber production before going south. He's gone now, but every painful swing and miss by B.J. Upton reminds Braves fans that the $46 million left on his contract are a sunk cost.

Amid those high-profile whiffs, Wren clicked on trades for Michael Bourn and Javier Vazquez, pilfered Justin Upton from Arizona and made a number of astute low- to moderate-level acquisitions. This year, the Atlanta rotation was decimated by spring training Tommy John surgeries for Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen and Gavin Floyd's season-ending elbow injury in June. The Braves also suffered a major body blow in February when Jim Fregosi, a charismatic presence and in many ways the glue of the front office hierarchy, died from complications after suffering multiple strokes. It left a bigger void in the Braves' leadership team than anyone can imagine.

Wren has never been one to mince words or dance around difficult decisions, and his personal style is perceived as abrupt by some people within and beyond the Atlanta organization. But he's a stand-up guy who was always "accountable," as McGuirk might put it, and he's going to make another team's front office better by joining it.

In the meantime, the Braves have a course to chart that extends well beyond Wren's replacement. How do they fix that pathetic offense in time for the 2015 season? And do they stick with manager Fredi Gonzalez, who's a bigger lightning rod for social media discontent than Wren could ever dream of being? Even if Gonzalez survives, it's a given that his coaching staff will have a markedly different composition next season.

It might give Braves fans a nice, warm feeling to see proven winners Cox, Schuerholz and Hart overseeing the bridge to a new regime. But the three wise men better make some prudent decisions moving forward, or it won't be long before the scrutiny begins to land on them. It's all about gratification in baseball. And even legends and Hall of Famers don't get a pass.

Ten questions for the stretch run

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
10:12
PM ET
Two weeks to go. Two weeks of gut-wrenching, sweat-inducing, pacing-in-front-of-the-TV baseball if you're a Kansas City Royals fan, hoping to see your team make the playoffs for the first time since 1985.

Two weeks of wondering when Robinson Cano is due up again if you're a Seattle Mariners fan, hoping to see your team in the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

Two weeks for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants to trade blows in the quest for the National League West title. Two weeks for the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals to prove the cream always rises. Two weeks for the Oakland A's to avoid a historic collapse.

Two weeks to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, because there is still time for something outrageous to happen in this 2014 season. Here are 10 questions on my mind.

1. Are the A's safe now?

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJon Lester improved his record to 4-3 with the A's.
I think so. Consider where Oakland stood early in Saturday's game, having lost to the Mariners on Friday and then trailing Felix Hernandez 1-0 in the sixth inning. If Seattle holds on to win that game, they would have passed the A's in the wild-card standings. Instead, Oakland won 3-2 in 10 innings as Sonny Gray matched up with King Felix (even going an inning deeper) and then Fernando Rodney walked four batters in the 10th. On Sunday, Jon Lester survived four walks to pitch six shutout innings and the Mariners went 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position as the A's won 4-0.

Wild-card lead: 1.5 over the Royals (who, keep in mind, are losing that suspended game in the 10th inning to Cleveland) and 2.5 over the Mariners.

Remaining schedule: The Rangers, Phillies and Angels at home and then a four-game finale in Texas. That should get them in.

2. Can the Mariners score enough runs to get in?

Look, Lloyd McClendon doesn't have a lot of great options once he gets past Cano and Kyle Seager, especially with the somewhat hot Dustin Ackley out with a sprained ankle. But why was he hitting Seager sixth Sunday? OK, Jon Lester, lefty-lefty matchup, I see that. Seager is still one of his better hitters against left-handers (not that he's great with a .255/.306/.385 line). Plus, Lester is actually a reverse platoon, so batting Chris Denorfia (.203 with the Mariners) and Corey Hart (.201 on the season) in the second and fifth spots and moving Seager down is one of worst decisions I've seen all season. There is zero logic behind it. None.

Sure enough, it came back to haunt the Mariners. In the seventh, after Lester had departed with a 2-0 lead, Seattle had runners at second and third with no outs. Austin Jackson -- he has been awful with the Mariners, by the way, hitting .239/.275/.289 with no home runs, eight walks and 45 strikeouts -- grounded out and pinch hitter Michael Saunders fanned. With Cano up, A's manager Bob Melvin put Cano on to pitch to Kendrys Morales, who predictably flew out (he has been awful as well, hitting .210 with a .272 OBP with Seattle).

Of course, Morales has been hitting cleanup ahead of Seager anyway, so maybe it didn't matter. But wouldn't it have been nice to have Seager on deck behind Cano? Does Melvin walk Cano if that's the case? Wouldn't it be nice to bat your second-best hitter in a terrible lineup higher in the order?

3. Did the Royals' season take a final wrong turn when Daniel Nava hit that grand slam?

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The Royals will definitely get their mental toughness tested after losing three of four to the struggling Boston Red Sox. The Royals led the Red Sox 4-3 on Sunday when manager Ned Yost turned to his bullpen to relieve Jason Vargas in the sixth inning with runners at second and third and one out. Did Yost turn to one of his dominant relievers here? OF COURSE NOT. Those guys pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. YOU HAVE TO STICK TO THE PLAN AT ALL COSTS. Hey, there are only 14 games left. Your franchise hasn't made the playoffs in 30 years. It's a huge, potentially game-deciding situation and you have two relievers who average more than 13 K's per nine and a third who hasn't allowed a home run all season. But don't deviate. Just another game, right? So bring in the guy who has allowed nine home runs and has 31 strikeouts in 56 innings. That's Aaron Crow. He walked Yoenis Cespedes and then Nava hit the salami. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland (who returned Friday) never got in the game. Job well done, Ned Yost.

4. Are the Atlanta Braves dead?

Probably, after an embarrassing three-game sweep to the terrible Texas Rangers, losing 2-1, 3-2 and then 10-3 on Sunday. They're four behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for the second wild card. Look, nobody should be surprised that Braves are only a game over .500. They weren't going to match last year's run prevention -- they allowed fewer runs than any Braves team that featured Greg Maddux, John Smoltz or Tom Glavine -- especially after the injuries in spring training to the starting rotation. The lineup has done pretty much what you would have expected, with no player really outperforming or underperforming expectations by all that much. The Braves were in the playoff race this long only because it's not a great playoff race.

5. Will Clayton Kershaw win 20?

Yep. After handcuffing the Giants for eight innings in a 4-2 win Sunday, he's 19-3. His next start should come Friday at Wrigley Field and then he should get one more the final week. The amazing thing is he should get to 20 wins in just 27 starts. Only one pitcher since 1901 has won 20 games in so few appearances -- Jesse Tannehill of the 1902 Pirates, who went 20-6 in 26 games.

6. Will the Orioles miss Chris Davis?

You know? Not that much. Yes, he had popped 26 home runs, but he's mostly made a lot of outs this year, with his .196 average and .300 OBP. Since Aug. 1, he had hit .189/.273/.439, so it's not as though he was doing much besides an occasional home run. After Manny Machado went down, Davis had mostly played third base. Now, Baltimore will make Steve Pearce the regular first baseman and use a Kelly Johnson/Jimmy Paredes platoon at third, it appears. That's not great but Johnson is hitting .219/.304/.373 on the season, not much worse than Davis' line, and Paredes has been hot. The defense is probably a step better without Davis as well.

7. Key injury to watch this week?

Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers, who left Friday's start and will have an MRI on his shoulder Monday. It appears rookie Carlos Frias will start in Ryu's place Wednesday in Colorado. Even minus Ryu, the Dodgers should win the NL West now that they've increased their lead to three over the Giants, but it would be a blow if he's unable to go the rest of the season or in the division series.

8. Biggest series to watch this week?

Here are three:

  • Mariners at Angels, Monday-Thursday: Mariners are 42-28 on the road, so maybe the road trip to Anaheim, Houston and Toronto is a good thing.
  • Tigers at Royals, Friday-Sunday: Right now, matchups are Kyle Lobstein-Jeremy Guthrie, Justin Verlander-Vargas, Max Scherzer-James Shields. Yeah, might want to tune into that Sunday game.
  • Brewers at Pirates, Friday-Sunday: Big week for the Brewers with a road trip to St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
9. Biggest series to watch next week?

Three more for the final week:

  • Giants at Dodgers, Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 22-24): Kershaw should start the series finale.
  • Royals at Indians, Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 22-24): The teams will finish the bottom of the 10th inning of that suspended game that Cleveland leads 4-2 and then play their three-game series. Cleveland's hopes just about ended with the sweep to the Tigers this weekend, so they probably need a sweep against the Royals to have any shot at the wild card. And the Royals will only be staring 30 years of misery in the face.
  • Yankees at Red Sox, Friday-Sunday (Sept. 26-28): Will Derek Jeter have anything to play for?
10. So ... are we supposed to get excited about this wild-card stuff?

Well, that's up to you. Three divisions are all wrapped up and you have to like where the Cardinals and Tigers are sitting right now, even if their leads are only 3.5 and 1.5 games. It's possible that the final week is really going to be about a bunch of mediocre teams fighting for the fifth playoff spot in each league. It's not exactly Dodgers-Giants 1951, is it? I don't even know how excited the fans are. Yes, Mariners fans responded with a sellout crowd Saturday with Felix pitching, but that was down to 28,925 on a beautiful Sunday in Seattle. I guess fans were more interested in sitting home and watching the Seahawks. Royals fans are so pumped up about this division race that they drew 19,191 on Friday, 26,627 on Saturday and 19,065 on Sunday. Hardly playoff-sized crowds for games everyone says are essentially playoff games.

Maybe I shouldn't be so critical. The good news is long-suffering teams such as the Royals and Mariners matter. The Pirates could be heading back to the playoffs for the second straight season, the A's for a third straight year. Meanwhile, the Red Sox are awful. The Phillies are bad. The Cubs aren't relevant. The Yankees probably won't make it again. Bud Selig will go out with this legacy: He has his parity. The small-market teams can compete, year after year.

I guess that's something to get excited about.

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
2:43
AM ET


Don't forget to check out the Hunt for October for standings, playoffs odds and upcoming schedules for all the playoff contenders.

1. Don't go burying the Oakland A's just yet.

Ahh, America: We love to jump on a bandwagon and then crush it as soon as we can. Witness the A's. Remember back on June 21? That was when they beat the Red Sox 2-1 in 10 innings. It was an exciting walk-off victory. They were 47-28 after that win, the best record in the majors, on pace for 102 wins. They had a six-game lead over the Angels and were still weeks from acquiring Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. We all loved the A's back then, praising this team that had overcome injuries to two-fifths of its projected rotation, writing our "Billy Beane has done it again" stories.

Then came the trades. Then came the losses. Then came the Angels and the loss of the division lead. Then came those two defeats on Sunday and Monday -- blowing leads in the ninth inning -- and even though the A's were still in the wild-card lead, we were ready to put them 6 feet under. Enter Jon Lester on Tuesday against the White Sox. Considering the somewhat dire straits of the bullpen, the A's needed a big game from their new ace and Lester delivered with eight innings of two-run baseball. The A's piled on seven runs over the final three innings to turn it into an 11-2 laugher, but Lester was the key guy in this one.

Lester has been as good as any pitcher in the American League this year not named Felix Hernandez or Chris Sale. And considering Hernandez has been shaky of late, Lester might be the best starter going right now on any of the playoff contenders in the AL. Meaning: The A's might have blown the division, but if they can hold on to win the wild card and have Lester ready to go, he's still a good bet to get them into the next round.

Of course, one game doesn't mean the A's have suddenly turned things around, but it has to feel good after the previous two defeats (and knowing Sale is on deck to start against them on Thursday). The A's are still in the wild-card lead with 18 games left in the regular season. You can jump back on the bandwagon if you wish. No hard feelings.

2. Drew Storen pretty much locks down the closer job for the Nationals.

A few days ago, following the recent struggles of Rafael Soriano, Matt Williams announced he'd go with a closer by committee. Well, Storen has pitched the past three games, faced nine batters, retired all of them and picked up three saves. He has a 1.29 ERA. See you in the seventh inning, Rafael. Oh, and with two straight wins over the Braves, the Nationals not only got that "unable to beat the Braves" monkey off their backs a little, but pretty much wrapped up the NL East title with a nine-game lead now.

3. Yusmeiro Petit keeps Tim Lincecum in the bullpen.

Petit threw 84 pitches in a complete-game, 5-1 win over the Diamondbacks. How efficient was he?


Oh ... the Dodgers lost, so their lead is back down to 2.5 games.

4. Not so soon, Michael Wacha.

You don't want to read too much into Wacha's rough outing -- six runs, four extra-base hits and three walks in four innings in a 9-5 loss to the Reds -- since he's barely pitched after coming back from the stress fracture in his shoulder. Still, it suggests the Cardinals' playoff rotation -- yes, I'm assuming they win the division -- isn't settled yet, with Wacha and Shelby Miller presumably battling for the fourth spot behind Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and John Lackey.

5. Brewers, Braves ... still alive!

The Brewers lost again, 6-3 to the Marlins, as closer Francisco Rodriguez served up a two-run homer and then a solo shot with two outs in the ninth. Brewers fans were not happy. They've lost 13 of 14. AND THEY'RE STILL ONLY 1.5 GAMES BEHIND THE PIRATES FOR THE SECOND WILD CARD. The Braves have lost seven of their past 10 and have hit .193 and average two runs per game during that span. AND THEY'RE STILL ONLY 1.5 GAMES BEHIND THE PIRATES FOR THE SECOND WILD CARD. I mean ... even the Marlins are only 3.5 behind the Pirates.

Yay, wild card?
Here are the National League leaders in Wins Above Replacement, via Baseball-Reference.com:

Clayton Kershaw: 7.3
Jason Heyward: 6.3
Giancarlo Stanton: 6.1
Jonathan Lucroy: 5.7
Troy Tulowitzki: 5.5

And here the NL leaders in WAR via FanGraphs:

Clayton Kershaw: 5.9
Jonathan Lucroy: 5.6
Giancarlo Stanton: 5.5
Hunter Pence: 5.4
Jason Heyward: 5.2
Andrew McCutchen: 5.2

Kershaw leads both sites in WAR so the statistical consensus is that he's been the best player in the National League, even though he missed a month of action back in April. He's 16-3 with a 1.73 ERA, so while he may not get to 200 innings he's been so dominant that he still has the highest WAR.

But ... no National League pitcher has won the MVP Award since Bob Gibson in 1968, so Kershaw still has to overcome that bias against pitchers. Plus, he could slump in September and lose a couple games (unlikely, I know, since he's allowed more than three runs in a game just once, but I guess it could happen). Stanton's Marlins aren't going to make the playoffs, and MVPs usually come from playoff teams (see Miguel Cabrera versus Mike Trout). Lucroy has certainly been terrific, although lacks the big power and RBI numbers MVP voters usually favor, plus the Brewers aren't a lock to make the playoffs.

Enter Heyward, under-the-radar MVP candidate. Based on WAR, he's been one of the best all-around players in the league. Not that he's gotten recognition as such.

Of course, he has no chance of winning; in fact, I'd be surprised if he even finishes in the top-10 in the voting. He's hitting .272/.354/.391 with 11 home runs and 54 RBIs and right fielders slugging under .400 don't get MVP support. Heyward's value comes with his defense. Baseball-Reference uses Defensive Runs Saved for its defensive component of WAR and Heyward leads the majors with 33 runs saved above average. Only Juan Lagares of the Mets is at +30, and only four other players are at +20 or higher. FanGraphs uses Ultimate Zone Rating for its defensive component and Heyward leads all fielders there as well, at +26.4 (only Alex Gordon and Lagares are at +20 in UZR).

So those defensive metrics agree that Heyward has been the best defensive player in baseball and that he's saved a lot of runs. Those runs saved are worth about three wins -- so more than half of Heyward's value has come with his glove.

Yes, it's easy to dismiss one-year defensive numbers. Or perhaps wise to use them with caution. Last year, Carlos Gomez had 38 DRS and Gerardo Parra 36, and this year those players rate at 0 and +1, respectively.

But Heyward has always rated as a top defender -- not quite at his 2014 level, but he's averaged +21 DRS per 1,200 innings in his caree, compared to his rate of +34/1,200 innings in 2014. There's no reason to write off the metrics as a one-year anomaly.

What makes him so good? He doesn't have Roberto Clemente's arm (although he does have nine assists), but he has great instincts and range. Let's use an old-school fielding stat: Range Factor, which is simply putouts + assists per nine innings. Heyward has averaged 2.55 plays per nine innings compared to the league average of 2.06 for right fielders. Based on this simple math, he's made one extra out every two games compared to an average right fielder -- 0.49 per nine innings. He's played 1,157 innings so far in right field (128.5 games worth), so that's about 64 extra outs he's made above an average right fielder, let alone a subpar one.

Imagine if we added 64 hits to Heyward's résumé: He'd be hitting .399.

Now, evaluating Heyward's defense isn't quite that simple. Maybe the Braves throw a lot of fly balls (not really; they're 12th in fly ball percentage) or have an unusual number of starts made by right-handed pitchers, thus facing more lefties who hit the ball to right field (not really; the Braves are 20th in games started by right-handers). So there doesn't appear to be any team quirk that has allowed Heyward to make a high number of plays. He just makes a high number of plays.

In digging deeper into the DRS numbers from Baseball Info Solutions, we see Heyward also makes few mistakes. He has just one error and his total of 15 Good Fielding Plays - Defensive Miscues & Errors is +15, second only to Nick Markakis' +16 among right fielders. Heyward's arm has saved two runs -- nothing special there, although not a liability. It's all about running down fly balls.

Should we believe the numbers? The metrics agree on Heyward's performance on defense in 2014. Maybe you don't think one Heyward has been one of the most valuable players in the National League but I'm inclined to believe he has been.

(Although Kershaw would get my vote right now.)video


Does anyone remember combined no-hitters? Maybe not. There have been only 11 of them. I'm a Mariners fan and they threw one a few years ago against the Dodgers and I couldn't even tell you who started that game. (It was Kevin Millwood as it turns out, and it was only two years ago -- and Millwood pitched for the Mariners?)

Anyway, a no-hitter is still a cool accomplishment and the 34,000 fans in Atlanta who saw Cole Hamels and three Phillies relievers combine for the no-hitter in the Phillies' 7-0 win on Monday can now say that they've seen one in person.

Hamels left after six innings and 108 pitches. In this day of careful handling of pitchers, if there is one reason managers will leave starters in and disregard pitch counts, it's when a no-hitter is intact. Three of the four highest pitch counts in the past five years have been no-hitters: Edwin Jackson (149 pitches), Tim Lincecum (148) and Johan Santana (134). The fourth was Brandon Morrow with 137 pitches in his 17-strikeout one-hitter against the Rays in 2010 -- the lone hit coming with two outs in the ninth.
[+] EnlargeCole Hamels
AP Photo/John BazemoreCole Hamels delivers during his six innings from the Phillies' four-man no-hitter of the Braves.

But with Hamels sitting at 108 pitches after six innings -- he'd walked five batters -- manager Ryne Sandberg could see that Hamels wasn't going the distance on an 88-degree day in Atlanta. Hamels was fine with the decision to come out. "He was pretty well spent there," Sandberg said. "The early innings had something to do with it. The stressful innings, stranding the runners at second and third a couple of times, but he wasn't going to go nine. And he ran the bases the inning before."

In another disappointing season for the Phillies, it was a rare highlight in what could be the franchise's first last-place finish since 1997.

In the midst of this bad season, Hamels is having maybe his best season. You can't tell from his 8-6 record (he's allowed one run or zero runs in 11 starts but won just six of those), but his ERA is a career-low 2.50 and he hasn't been as prone to the long ball as in the past. He's still one of the premier lefties in the game, which means we'll once again be hearing his name in trade rumors all offseason.

Trouble is, the Phillies will face the same dilemma they faced when considering whether to trade Hamels in July: It's going to be difficult to get a team to give up multiple top prospects or young players and pick up the remaining $90 million and four years of his contract (or $110 million if a final fifth year vests). The Phillies reportedly wanted a ransom of Joc Pederson, Corey Seager and Julio Urias from Los Angeles, the Dodgers' top three prospects. I'm guessing that phone conversation between Ruben Amaro and Ned Colletti didn't last long.

Unless Amaro reshapes his thinking on Hamels' value, that means Hamels likely returns to the Phillies in 2015. With Cliff Lee's season-ending injury and salary ($25 million in 2015 plus either a $12 million buyout or $27.5 vesting option for 2016), he's probably not going anywhere this offseason, either. Teams will want to see him pitch first.

Which puts the Phillies back to where they've been the past two seasons: Trying to win with an old and aging core and not enough young talent. A lot has been made of the Phillies not trading Jonathan Papelbon or not giving rookie Ken Giles a chance to close, but the truth is that Papelbon wouldn't bring much on the trade market, not with his salary ($13 million this year and next year, with a possible vesting option for 2016) and the fact that teams just don't give up much for relief pitchers, even good ones.

At least Hamels, Lee if healthy, and Papelbon have been productive. Chase Utley, 35, has also had a solid year and has played in 131 of the Phillies' 137 games. Jimmy Rollins has actually had his best season in years, with 3.5 WAR.

The biggest problems with the 2014 Phillies have been:

1. Ryan Howard. He's fourth in the NL in RBIs, which is enough of a trap that Amaro probably thinks he's even having a good year. He's not. Howard's WAR is -0.9, a reflection of his low on-base percentage (.308), low slugging percentage (.383) and terrible defense (-9 defensive runs saved). As rumored at one point this summer, the Phillies are better off just buying out Howard's contract and parting ways. He's not a replacement-level first baseman, let alone a championship-level first baseman. He's done a lot for the club in his career but you can't be sentimental in baseball.

2. Domonic Brown. He's gone from All-Star to All-Stiff. He's done nothing well this year. He hasn't hit for power, hasn't gotten on base and he's lousy in left field. Maybe you don't give up on him but you can't count on him remaining a starter in 2015.

3. Ben Revere, or at least his defense. He may win the batting title! He also has a .325 OBP and Phillies fans will attest to his poor routes in center and poor arm. Put him in left field and find a better glove for center.

4. Kyle Kendrick. OK, his defense doesn't help -- we just pointed out three big problems -- but that's exacerbated with Kendrick because he's not a big strikeout guy. But he has a 4.83 ERA the past two seasons, not good enough for this post-steroid era.

First base, center field, starting pitcher. That's where you start. That's not going to be easy considering the Phillies already have $127 million committed to just nine players next season. Is there room to go after a Max Scherzer or Pablo Sandoval or James Shields? Maybe there is, especially with a back-loaded contract, as the Phillies have $76 million in commitments for 2016 and $34 million in 2017, so there's flexibility down the road.

Trouble is that by then, Utley, Rollins, Lee and Papelbon will be gone or too old. Leaving Cole Hamels. Last man standing.

Good luck, Ruben Amaro. Or the general manager who will be taking on this team in the offseason.

Five things we learned Sunday

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
11:18
AM ET
1. The NL West race is heating up.

The Giants pounded the Brewers 15-5 to win their sixth in a row. They had two blowouts over Milwaukee but the pitching had its best week of the season, giving up 14 runs in seven games (three of those coming late on Sunday when Tim Lincecum made a relief appearance). After beginning the week five games behind L.A., now they're 2.5 games behind the Dodgers and have just nine games remaining against winning teams -- three against the Tigers and six against the Dodgers (they're 7-6 against the Dodgers). To be fair, the Dodgers are also have nine games left against winning teams (subbing the Nationals for the Tigers), so it appears this race could come down to the head-to-head showdowns later in September. If Buster Posey hits like he did in August -- .336, six home runs -- the Giants, without Matt Cain, with Lincecum banished to the bullen, can catch the Dodgers.

2. The Indians suddenly matter.

Sunday's game in Kansas City was suspended in the bottom of the 10th with the Indians up 4-2 and will be finished later in September when the Royals visit Cleveland, but the Indians are now just 3.5 behind the Royals, 2.5 if they hold on to this lead. As Christina Kahrl writes, the Indians are now stealth playoff contenders, both for the division title and the wild card. Next up: A big four-game series at home against then Tigers, kicking off with David Price facing Corey Kluber.

3. Bryce Harper finally looks healthy.

Harper crushed two long home runs on Sunday, although the Nationals lost to the Mariners (but still won the series). When Harper first came off the DL, either his timing was off or his thumb was still bothering him, but he's in a groove now and looks much better. In his past 23 games, he's hitting .307 with seven home runs.

4. Alex Wood comes up big for the Braves.

Wood's line in a 1-0 win over the Marlins: 8 IP, 5 H, 0 BB, 12 SO. His final two outs were strikeouts before he turned it over to Craig Kimbrel in the ninth. Wood is 10-10 with a 2.92 ERA and the Braves may regret those nearly two months he spent in the bullpen after beginning the season in the rotation (and pitching well). Combined with Mike Minor's resurgence -- four runs, nine hits in 21.2 innings over his past three starts -- the Braves' rotation is once again looking as formidable as it did back in April.

5. The Tigers' defense is still a problem.

The four errors on Sunday were bad enough, but the Tigers are also 29th in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved. The defense was supposed to be improved from 2013 by moving Miguel Cabrera to first base and acquiring Ian Kinsler and Kinsler has been excellent with 15 DRS. But Nick Castellanos has been just as bad as Cabrera at third base -- if not worse -- with -27 DRS and Torii Hunter's predicable lack of range in right field (-17 DRS) has hurt. Rookie Eugenio Suarez hasn't been great at shortstop. If the Tigers miss the playoffs, defense will be a major reason why.

1. A big night in the AL Central.

The Royals scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth to beat the Twins 6-1 ... which came a couple hours after David Price allowed -- not a typo -- nine consecutive hits in the third inning as the Yankees scored eight runs. Most of the hits were not cheapies, either. The inning went:

Single, double, single, double, single, single, single, infield single, single. Four of the hits were ground balls but only two of those were soft. Price became the first pitcher since Bob Forsch in 1989 to allow nine hits in a row. As our friend Jonah Keri tweeted, the Yankees scored more runs that inning than Drew Smyly has allowed in his five starts with Tampa Bay since being traded for Price.

As for the Royals, here's a stat: Before Tuesday, the Twins had lost just two games all season they led heading into the eighth inning. The Royals rallied two nights in a row in the ninth and eighth innings.

2. Speaking of Smyly ... he's good.

You don't want to overreact to five starts, but in those five starts Smyly has allowed just six runs. In beating the Orioles on Wednesday and allowing just two hits in seven innings, he became the second Rays pitcher to pitch at least seven innings and allow two hits or fewer in consecutive starts. Bottom line: For those who think the Rays didn't get enough in return for Price, think again; Smyly is more than just a back-end starter.

We all loved this trade for the Tigers because we overfocused for the Tigers, but it's fair to ask: How much is Dave Dombrowski sweating right now?



3. The Cubs are worth watching down the stretch.

I mentioned Javier Baez in non-pennant race news on Tuesday, and now we discuss Jorge Soler, the dynamic Cuban right fielder who debuted for the Cubs on Wednesday ... and promptly slammed a Mat Latos fastball for a home run in his first at-bat. Soler is the same physical presence as Baez but his minor numbers suggest a swing with a little more control: He struck out 48 times in 200 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A (hitting .340/.432/.700) compared to Baez's 130 K's in 388 at-bats. That's still a high strikeout rate, so he may face the same initial struggles as Baez. Soler's biggest issue has been staying healthy: He had a fractured tibia last year and had injuries to both hamstrings that forced him to miss most of April and May this year. But with 15 home runs in 62 minor-league games, the power potential resembles Baez's.

Now ... let's hope the Cubs call up Kris Bryant. I don't want to hear about service time and all that. He's ready for the big leagues.

4. Eric O'Flaherty, A's closer, for now.

Oakland's first save opportunity since Sean Doolittle went to the former Braves lefty, who has pitched well in limited action for the A's so far. He gave up a run to the Astros but preserved the 5-4 win. (The A's scored three off Chad Qualls in the top of the ninth, with Sam Fuld hitting a tiebreaking two-run homer.)

Also note: Drew Pomeranz, good outing. Pomeranz didn't replace Jason Hammel in the rotation, but was taking a start to give Sonny Gray an extra day of rest. But he pitched well enough if that Bob Melvin may give him another one.

5. Give these guys Gold Gloves.

1. Alex Gordon.
2. Juan Lagares.
3. Andrelton Simmons.

Maybe the three best defensive players in the game.


One of the byproducts of sabermetrics has been the change in how we view managers. For starters, general managers are now the off-the-field face of the organization. There was a time when Earl Weaver had a big role in determining his 25-man roster or Davey Johnson could tell Frank Cashen he wanted a 19-year-old Dwight Gooden on his team. Now the general manager pretty much says, "Here are the players I'm giving you." As a result, we discuss general managers and roster building and the like as much as we discuss in-game decisions. Where we used to rail against managers, we demand that GMs be fired.

Think about this also: We talk about managers in terms of, well, managing. How they manage players and their egos. How they manage the bullpen. How they manage pitch counts. How they manage a young player. How they manage the media.

Less often, we talk about them in terms of strategy and tactics. This picks up in the postseason, of course, as we scrutinize every pitching change and sacrifice bunt and realize nothing Ron Washington does seems to make sense, but the regular season is dissected and analyzed more in a big-picture mindset.

Then sabermetrics piles on and says a lot of the decisions managers make aren't really all that important: Lineup order doesn't matter all that much, one-run strategies are overrated. Even all the shifting we see these days? That's coming from the front offices and the stat nerds, not the manager on the bench.

But then we get games like Wednesday night's at Citi Field between the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, a reminder that the big picture consists of 162 little pictures, and some of those little pictures depend on a key decision from the manager. Score a big 3-2 win here for the Braves in their battle for the wild card, with a big tip of the cap to skipper Fredi Gonzalez.

Here's what happened. After Andrelton Simmons made perhaps the defensive play of the season to save a run in the bottom of the eighth, the Braves took that 3-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth.
[+] EnlargeCraig Kimbrel
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsCraig Kimbrel might be money in the ninth, but a little bit of tactical chicanery didn't hurt the Braves' chances on Wednesday night.

All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel came on and showed some of the wildness that has made him a little less dominant this season (his ERA entering the game was all the way up to 1.76, and he'd blown four saves). Eric Campbell singled sharply to right field on a 3-2 fastball. Matt den Dekker got ahead 3-0 and eventually walked on a 3-2 fastball.

Due up for the Mets: Wilmer Flores, Ruben Tejada and the pitcher, Flores hitting .224 and Tejada .228. With David Wright and Daniel Murphy both apparently unavailable with injuries, the Mets' bench was thin, so manager Terry Collins didn't really have any pinch-hitting options since he had to save a hitter for the pitcher.

Collins elected to bunt with Flores. That itself is debatable. I would have swung away, my theory being that getting the tying run to third base against Kimbrel is less valuable than against most pitchers because Kimbrel's strikeout rate is so high. Plus, he had just walked a batter and has been wild all season, so who knows what happens if you don't give him an out. I'd rather hope to go 1-for-3 than 1-for-2.

Flores got the bunt down and both runners moved up, bringing up the light-hitting Tejada, who has just 12 extra-base hits in over 300 at-bats. Gonzalez faced a tough decision: Bring the infield in to cut off the tying run but increase the probability of a grounder or line drive going through the infield and winning the game for the Mets, or keep the infield back to at least preserve a better chance of keeping the game tied and sending it into extra innings.

This is a situation in which the numbers can't provide a "right" answer. You could attempt to analyze the probability of Tejada hitting a ground ball (41 percent of the time when he puts the ball in play) against Kimbrel, who allows grounders on 43 percent of his balls in play. But then you have to factor in that Kimbrel didn't look sharp. And you'd have to factor in the odds of Tejada hitting a hard grounder or a slow grounder, let alone a line drive.

Oh, and you have about 10 seconds to make your decision. Good luck consulting the charts there.

Gonzalez had to make a snap decision. Maybe it wasn't that difficult; after all, with Kimbrel you have a good chance of a strikeout anyway, even against a solid contact hitter like Tejada. But it's one with enormous risk, no? Most managers are going to play it safe there; managers, by nature, are risk-averse. If Tejada hits a seeing-eye single through the drawn-in infield, the Braves lose and Gonzalez is vilified by the fans and the media.

I'm guessing that Gonzalez's primary consideration was that Tejada doesn't hit the ball hard. With that in mind, he brought the infield in.

It worked. Tejada hit a slow-roller to third base and the Braves got the out at home plate. Kimbrel then got pinch hitter Kirk Nieuwenhuis to fly out to shallow left and the Braves were a win closer in the wild-card standings, one game behind the Cardinals.

Sabermetricians often talk about the "process" -- stick to the right process and things will eventually go in your favor. Sometimes a right decision will backfire and a wrong decision will work. But it's the process that matters.

Well, sometimes it's the result that matters. Fredi Gonzalez went for the win and got it.
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In Game 1 of the Seattle Mariners-Boston Red Sox series at Fenway Park on Friday, Felix Hernandez allowed three runs in 5.2 innings -- the first time he'd allowed three runs in 18 starts.

In Game 2, Chris Young pitched just 3.2 innings.

In Game 3, Hisashi Iwakuma lasted just 2.1 innings, the shortest outing of his Mariners career.

What arguably has been the league's best trio of starting pitchers had a terrible weekend ... and yet the Mariners swept the Red Sox at Fenway for the first time in franchise history in a series of three games or longer.

Yes, you can credit the reeling Red Sox, now losers of eight straight, for helping out. You can credit the much-maligned Mariners offense that had a dramatic five-run ninth inning on Friday, a seven-run inning on Saturday and 13 hits on Sunday.

Mostly, you can credit the best bullpen in the league. Mariners relievers pitched 15.1 innings in the three games and allowed one run while punching out 21 Red Sox hitters as the Mariners rallied from deficits in all three games. Seattle's bullpen now owns a major league-best 2.38 ERA, which would be the lowest since the 1990 A's had a 2.35 mark. The average major league bullpen has allowed 3.86 runs per nine innings; the Mariners have allowed 2.63. Other bullpens may have better win-loss records -- Seattle's is 19-18, but you have to factor in the Mariners' lack of offensive punch -- but the pen has been a major reason the Mariners currently hold a tenuous grip on the second wild card over the Tigers.

A few keys to the pen's success: good health; expert handling by manager Lloyd McClendon and pitching coach Rick Waits; and a group that currently runs eight deep, most of whom can crank it up into the mid-90s -- the Mariners' average fastball velocity from their relievers is fourth highest in the majors. Leading the way there is converted starter Brandon Maurer, who bombed out of the rotation early in the year, but has averaged 96.1 mph with his fastball as a reliever while posting a 1.80 ERA.

I'm not a fan of having eight relievers on your roster, but these days, when complete games are few and far between (the Mariners have just one, from Roenis Elias), that depth has allowed McClendon to do some unusual things with his relievers. For starters, he's not afraid of a quick hook with his starters. Mariners starters have gone five or fewer innings in 40 games, the ninth-lowest figure in the majors -- even though Mariners starters have the third-best ERA in the majors. (The Braves have the fewest "quick hooks" with 22.) Obviously, Felix and Iwakuma usually go deep into the game, but knowing his offense doesn't score many runs, McClendon has been careful about not letting the game get away early when the other three starters are out there.

Despite the quick hooks -- which means using multiple relievers in the same game -- McClendon hasn't abused his relievers. According to Baseball-Reference.com, entering Sunday the Mariners had used the same reliever in back-to-back games just 64 times; only the Rangers, Blue Jays and Nationals had done so fewer times. And because he's rarely using his relievers in consecutive games, McClendon often lets his guys go more than one inning. Tom Wilhelmsen has 21 outings of more than one inning, fifth most among relievers, and has compiled a 2.03 ERA in those games, totaling 44.1 innings. Rookie Dominic Leone, who escaped a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the third inning on Sunday with an infield pop-out and strikeout, has 19 such appearances totaling 34.2 innings with an ERA under 2.00. With his philosophy of not using guys on back-to-back days, McClendon hasn't settled on just one eighth-inning guy, with Yoervis Medina and Danny Farquhar primarily sharing those duties.

McClendon has been conventional in his use of closer Fernando Rodney -- just two outings of more than one inning -- and lefties Charlie Furbush and Joe Beimel as LOOGYs, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Rodney gets the glory with the saves and the arrows, but maybe that's a good thing since he gets to enter without runners on base; he's only fifth among the current Mariners relievers in OPS allowed (and just barely ahead of Farquhar).

Counting blown saves from the middle relievers, the Mariners have just 10 -- tied with the Royals for second fewest in the majors behind the Padres -- an impressive figure considering how many close games the Mariners play.

SportsNation

Which playoff contender has the best bullpen?

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    5%
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    27%
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    7%
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    53%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,110)

The Mariners are one game up on Detroit and you can point directly to the two bullpens as a reason why. Here are four other dominant bullpens that have helped contenders get where they are:

2. Kansas City Royals

The Royals don't have the Mariners' depth with a 3.40 ERA, but they do have the best late-inning trio in the majors in Kelvin Herrera (1.51 ERA), Wade Davis (0.80 ERA) and Greg Holland (1.79 ERA). Jason Frasor was acquired to add a strong fourth guy. The Royals haven't needed the depth -- their bullpen has pitched the second-fewest innings in the majors -- but it will be interesting to see if manager Ned Yost tries to get more out of this group down the stretch as the Royals battle the Tigers for the division crown.

3. Atlanta Braves

No surprise that the Braves would rank high with closer Craig Kimbrel once again crushing in the ninth inning. Like the Mariners, they don't usually have any margin for error considering their lack of runs. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has had to mix and match more than McClendon as David Carpenter and Luis Avilan haven't repeated their outstanding 2013 campaigns, but Jordan Walden and Anthony Varvaro have been solid in supporting roles and James Russell recently came over from the Cubs to give the Braves a lefty presence.

4. Los Angeles Angels

For the season, the Angels are just 14th in the majors with a 3.45 bullpen ERA (before their Sunday night game), but the bullpen you see now isn't the one that was there in April. General manager Jerry Dipoto has rebuilt much of the pen, with the likes of Huston Street and Jason Grilli joining rubber-armed Joe Smith, and since June 1 it has a 2.85 ERA and since July 1 a 2.32 ERA.

5. Baltimore Orioles

You can consider the A's here, except closer Sean Doolittle just went on the DL, or the Yankees, who have a strong back-end duo with Dellin Betances and David Robertson, but I'd go with the Orioles. Buck Showalter's pen didn't have a set closer back in April, but Zach Britton has run with the role (2.04 ERA, 27 saves in 30 chances) and the pen has picked up momentum as the season has progressed. It's no coincidence that the O's began pulling away in the AL East as the bullpen started dominating -- it has the fourth-best bullpen ERA in the majors since June 1.




Writers for ESPN.com receive a voluminous amount of reader feedback, and much of it comes from fans whose passion outweighs their judgment or even their grip on reality. Readers accuse us of East Coast bias, big-market bias or other personal agendas that require lots of time and energy to decipher. Sometimes it's a challenge to keep track of which teams we ostensibly "disrespect" or enjoy slighting the most.

Unlike some of my more prudent colleagues, I'm enough of a masochist to read the comments at the end of a story, and I've found that few fan bases can discern a hidden motive in a column or a turn of phrase the way Atlanta Braves diehards do. During one particularly rugged stretch last fall, I got taken to the woodshed by Braves fans for failing to include Evan Gattis in my top 3 in the Rookie of the Year balloting, and for writing a story reflecting the industry sentiment that Atlanta's impressive 2013 regular season might not translate into an extended run in October.

Folks who feel strongly enough to defend their team's honor might not believe this, but it's nothing personal. As ball writers, we survey the landscape, weigh the numbers, sprinkle in some gut instincts and make calls based on the information at hand. A lot of times we're wrong. But sometimes the rigors of a 162-game season prove we're not as clueless as we appear.

The endless give-and-take came to mind recently when I dug up ESPN.com's preseason predictions and found that 40 of our 44 so-called "experts" picked the Washington Nationals to win the National League East this season. The consensus was less a knock on the Braves than a prevailing sense that the Nationals were a deeper, more well-rounded and balanced team, and poised for success after a 32-16 late run left them short of a playoff berth in 2013.

It's taken almost five months, but the March prognostications have developed a sense of clarity. As the Braves bounce from winning streaks to losing streaks and try to put together an extended run to escape the wild-card mosh pit, it's becoming evident the Nationals are who we thought they were.

The NL East is starting to have a "foregone conclusion" feel to it as September approaches. The Nats, who've earned a reputation as a puzzling and sometimes underachieving bunch, are putting together a season-defining run under first-year manager Matt Williams. In the bottom of the ninth inning Thursday, Arizona’s Jordan Pacheco threw a ball into a camera well to allow Denard Span to score from second base and give Washington a 1-0 victory. It was the Nationals' 10th straight win, tying them with the Kansas City Royals for the longest streak in the majors in 2014.

When Span described the Nationals' recent run of victories as "magical," he wasn't kidding. Washington is the first team since the 1986 Houston Astros to record five walk-off wins in a span of six games.

Shortly after Span received a Gatorade bucket drenching from teammate Anthony Rendon, the Braves took the field in Cincinnati and blew out the Reds 8-0. But they're left with some daunting math. With 5½ weeks left in the regular season, Coolstandings.com gives Atlanta a 1.6 percent chance to win the division and 39.1 percent odds to earn a wild-card spot. Even though the Braves have a 22-10 record against the Nationals over the past two seasons, they face Washington only six more times this year, so they're going to need some help.

The biggest reason to buy stock in Washington right now is its pitching. During the Nationals' 10-game streak, the rotation has a 1.34 ERA and the entire staff has allowed a total of 23 runs. Gio Gonzalez was lights-out with seven shutout innings against Arizona on Thursday. But if the postseason were starting today and Williams were going strictly on merit rather than pedigree, he might have a hard time starting Gonzalez over Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Tanner Roark. Fister (4-1, 0.88 ERA) and Roark (4-1, 2.30) have the best numbers of the group since the All-Star break.

Even though Rafael Soriano has had some hiccups lately, the Washington bullpen has been exceptional as well. Nationals relievers rank third in the NL with a 2.85 aggregate ERA and fourth in opponents' OPS at .628 this season.

"They might have the best pitching staff from 1 through 12 not only in the league, but in all of baseball," said a National League personnel man. "And they have power pitching. It wouldn't shock me if they go very far [in the postseason]."

In hindsight, the Braves had an awful lot to overcome losing Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery in spring training, then watching Gavin Floyd go down with a fractured right elbow in June just when he was hitting his stride. General manager Frank Wren and his group did what they could by signing Ervin Santana in March and picking up Aaron Harang after he was released by the Cleveland Indians. But Julio Teheran has been forced to carry a heavy burden at age 23, and Mike Minor's disappointing performance can be traced back to January, when he got a late start in his training because of a procedure on his urinary tract. All things considered, it's amazing that Atlanta leads the majors with 89 quality starts.

The Braves need all the pitching they can get, with an offense that's middling at best and prone to streakiness. Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman are having fine seasons, but Dan Uggla is gone and it's long past obvious that B.J. Upton will not be giving the franchise anything close to a $75.25 million return on its investment.

September still has the potential for intrigue in Atlanta, as the Braves parry with the NL Central runner-up and the loser of the Los Angeles Dodgers-San Francisco Giants competition for one of the two NL wild-card spots. It's encouraging that Minor has pitched well in his past two outings and Freeman and Justin Upton have been torrid in August. But even if the Braves make it to October, they'll have to advance the hard way, with a one-game playoff and all the minefields that entails. Do the words "infield fly rule" ring a bell?

Personally, I'm not crazy over their chances of a deep postseason run. If I'm wrong, Braves fans, please feel free to drop me a note and vent.

Braves need their lineup stars to step up

August, 9, 2014
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Maybe it’s a matter of sympathy for a team that lost much of its rotation to the surgeon before a pitch had been thrown. Maybe it’s because we all love prospects, and indulge them their shortcomings while anticipating their glorious futures. But with the Atlanta Braves, as we move into the season’s final third, it’s time to acknowledge that this isn’t much of a contender as teams go. If anything, it’s a team that should consider itself fortunate to be .500. The Braves are three games over now, with an expected record a game or two worse than that.

That might be enough to win the increasingly feeble NL East, but the question is where you might reasonably expect the Braves to improve, because it’s a club with a lot of areas for improvement -- especially in the lineup. Despite the presence of star slugger Justin Upton, the much-ballyhooed breakthrough of Evan Gattis, and the continuing development of young stars Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, the Braves rank 13th in the league in runs scored and -- adjusting for a pitcher-friendly home park -- 11th in OPS+. The only other contender trying to do as much with as little offense is Cincinnati, in fourth place in the NL Central but a direct threat to Atlanta’s chances should the Braves fail to win the NL East.

A big problem has been the team’s power outage: The Braves are tied for 10th in the National League in isolated power. The Cardinals’ slugging shortage has been a season-long talking point, but through Friday night’s action they had more extra-base hits than the Braves (293 to 290).

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
AP Photo/David GoldmanChris Johnson's impatience at the plate has hurt the Braves' offense this season.
Even swapping in Tommy La Stella for Dan Uggla (and Ramiro Pena, and Tyler Pastornicky) hasn’t been enough to compensate for the multiple empty slots in the Atlanta lineup. The teamwide OPS before that move was .681, but it’s .680 since La Stella got called up. That isn’t on La Stella but rather on the stack of guys not named Uggla who still aren’t contributing on offense.

In part, the Braves reap what they sow because they decided to rely on some fairly extreme hitters, extreme in that they’re guys who contribute entirely in some departments but not others: Andrelton Simmons, Gattis and Chris Johnson don’t walk and never have, and La Stella has no power and shouldn’t be expected to provide much. Although you can accept excuses for Simmons and Gattis because they’re at up-the-middle positions and -- at least in Simmons’ case -- provide “best in baseball”-grade defense, if you rely on too many extremes like that, you wind up with reasons why a lineup doesn’t function as a whole. Among every-day players, Upton and Simmons are in the bottom 10 in OPS among batting-title qualifiers; Johnson is just 11 points from sharing this “distinction.” The Braves are last in the league in WAR at third base and center field.

With this year’s disaster piled on top of his first season in Atlanta, B.J. Upton might represent the biggest disappointment in the history of Braves outfielders since Claudell Washington or Brad Komminsk. There is no reason for optimism. Upton’s strikeout rate is still north of 30 percent, and his walk rate is down from his career norms. Add in his mediocrity afield and he’s one of the least valuable players in the game before you even get into what the Braves are paying for the privilege of employing him. The decision to bat him leadoff most of the time in the past 40 games has helped undermine much of the value they received from adding La Stella, while giving the most at-bats to a guy who would be the worst starting player in most big league lineups.

If their worst player isn’t Upton, it’s Johnson. That might surprise you because last year he threatened to win a batting title. And when he’s hitting .320 and slugging .450, he’s an asset. But Johnson has been especially impatient at the plate this year, seeing his strikeout and swinging strike rates rise to their highest level since his rookie season while his pitches per plate appearance clip has dropped to its lowest since then, and his power production is at an all-time low (.109 ISO). This year, an even more aggressive approach has reduced a hitter whose signal virtue was that aggressiveness and plate coverage into the epitome of an empty batting average.

To make matters worse, the Braves’ bench has contributed next to nothing at the plate, and that’s as much a matter of design as accident considering the players Atlanta has. Losing Gattis for the better part of a month exposed career bench jockey Gerald Laird and an unready Christian Bethancourt behind the plate; Uggla’s implosion put Pena and Pastornicky on the spot. Ryan Doumit has struggled badly as the primary pinch hitter. This shortage of alternatives inspired the acquisition of Emilio Bonifacio from the Cubs. He doesn’t walk or bop, but he might nevertheless be a sporadic upgrade on B.J. Upton or Johnson.

Beyond their problems with their worst players, the Braves’ additional problem on offense is that most of their good players are generally just that -- good, but not great enough to compensate for some of the worst regulars in the game. Freeman and Heyward have to be called out for what they’ve been: solid regulars with plenty of upside. But despite years of hype, they’re not yet dominant players at their positions. Freeman’s WAR (2.2) lodges him among guys such as Matt Adams and Adam LaRoche, and well behind Paul Goldschmidt or Anthony Rizzo in terms of value at first base in the NL. Heyward gets rated highly in overall WAR because of his value on defense, but rank him for his offensive production (oWAR) at an offense-first position like right and he’s just sixth among NL right fielders. He ranks that high only because Ryan Braun has spent time on the DL.

It’s reasonable to hope Freeman and Heyward will break out, in the same way you want to bank on them in the long term. But although Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider projected an OPS of .839 for Freeman in the second half at the All-Star break, Freeman has been at .708. More happily, Heyward’s been cranking at a 1.024 clip since the break (projected for .757); now, just imagine if that were back at the top of the order instead of B.J. Upton. Coming back from injury, Gattis has struggled (.620 OPS, projected for .808).

Barring a waiver-trade pickup or two, the Braves have little choice but to let it ride. What hope they should really harbor for a big stretch-run improvement on offense rests with Gattis, Freeman and Heyward finally cementing themselves as top players at their positions. As Szymborski projects, you can hope that’s the case, but there’s no time like the present.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
As I write this, the Atlanta Braves are playing the Mariners in an afternoon game in Seattle. Did you see how the Braves lost their seventh game in a row on Monday? After a hit by pitch and base hit in the fourth inning, Logan Morrison singled to left field. Justin Upton airmailed an ill-advised throw home, allowing the runners to move up to second and third (and Andrelton Simmons exited the game after injuring his ankle on the play). Alex Wood then appeared to work out of the jam to keep the game tied, striking out Mike Zunino and getting Chris Taylor to pop up to second base.

Except Tommy La Stella did this. Austin Jackson added an RBI single and Felix Hernandez took it from there.

That's how things have gone the past week for the Braves.

Thing is, the Washington Nationals haven't been much better, having gone 3-6 over their past nine games. The Nationals caught the Braves on June 7 and haven't relinquished the lead -- currently at three games entering Wednesday -- but neither have they managed to pull away. The teams still have nine remaining against each other, including three this weekend in Atlanta. The Braves are 7-3 against the Nationals in 2014 after going 13-6 in 2013, which isn't to say the Braves have the Nationals' number, but at least points to the Nationals having something to prove in those nine games.

A few weeks ago, I believed pretty firmly that one of the wild cards would come from the NL East. I don't think that's the case now. The Braves are three back of the Giants for the second wild, and the Marlins and Mets are proving to at least be competitive -- tougher opponents than the Giants will face in the Padres, Diamondbacks and Rockies. It's still possible the NL Central teams beat up on each other, but the playoff odds lean strongly to two teams from the Central making it.

How does the East play out? The Braves have obviously struggled to score runs (13th in the NL), although Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez continues to confound by hitting B.J. Upton leadoff (although he didn't play Tuesday and hit eighth Wednesday, with Emilio Bonifacio batting leadoff, so maybe this experiment is finally over). La Stella has been hitting second, and while he at least has a decent on-base percentage, he also has no home runs. Sabermetric studies suggest you should hit your best hitter second, yet the Braves have been batting a low-OBP guy leadoff and a no-power guy second. Meanwhile, Jason Heyward has been hitting fifth and Evan Gattis sixth.

Of course, changing your lineup is only a minor thing; it doesn't really have much of an impact on run scoring. What the Braves really need is Freddie Freeman to heat up. He's been solid overall, with a .279/.367/.467 line, but is also hitting just .257 with a .420 slugging since April 20. They need more from their No. 3 hitter.

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What happens in the NL East?

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After a hot start, the Braves' rotation has also predictably slowed. Monthly ERAs:

April: 2.32
May: 3.48
June: 3.96
July: 3.76
August: 3.80

As for the Nationals, they had to deal with a lot of injuries early on and now Ryan Zimmerman is out again. That only puts more pressure on Bryce Harper to provide some needed power, which he hasn't done since returning from the DL, hitting .214 with two home runs and 35 strikeouts in 30 games. He's looked as bad as the numbers suggest, and you almost wonder if this is going to turn into a lost season for him. At least he still has seven weeks to turn things around.

The bullpen has had a couple rough outings of late but has generally been pretty solid. I wrote about Stephen Strasburg the other day and he then pitched one of his best games of the year. But Gio Gonzalez is the one starter who continues to be plagued with inconsistent results. With Tanner Roark's rise, Gonzalez's 4.01 ERA stands out as the weak link -- although his peripherals suggest he'll be better than that moving forward.

What happens the rest of the way? Braves fans have been on my case for sticking with the Nationals all season, but I still see Washington's rotation depth and Atlanta's issues at the top of the lineup, plus Mike Minor's struggles, and see the Nationals winning the division.

But the Braves will have those nine games to make up ground. In a sense, they control their own destiny. What do you think?

Let's look at some of the fallout from the trade deadline -- things people said -- and then make some predictions for what happens the rest of the way.

1. The acquisition of Jon Lester makes the Oakland A's the favorite in the AL West.

Prediction: The A's win the West.

The trade for Lester didn't actually upgrade the A's odds to beat the Los Angeles Angels all that much -- using player projection totals and remaining schedule, Baseball Prospectus says the trade increased Oakland's chances a mere 2 percent. The Angels won on Sunday, thanks to a five-run first inning, while the A's were shut down by James Shields in a 4-2 loss to the Royals, so Oakland's lead is one game. Still, I like Oakland's rotation depth. C.J. Wilson's return on Saturday after missing a month was a disaster as he got knocked out in the second inning, Tyler Skaggs just landed on the DL with a shoulder issue and you wonder how the Angels' rotation will hold up after Garrett Richards and Jered Weaver.

2. With John Lackey and Justin Masterson, the St. Louis Cardinals are the team to beat in the NL Central.

Prediction: The Pirates win the Central.

The Cardinals remain the favorite, according to our playoffs odds, and Lackey pitched seven strong innings on Sunday to win his Cardinals debut, but I'm going with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Here's the thing about Lackey and Masterson: The Cardinals' rotation was pretty good before the trades; Lackey and Masterson may be upgrades over what Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez would have done the rest of the season, making the trades important, but they aren't necessarily an improvement over what the Cardinals had received so far from their various starters in those slots. The Cardinals are eighth in the majors with a 3.47 rotation ERA, and I don't expect them to do much better than that moving forward.

The St. Louis offense, meanwhile, is still next to last in the NL in runs scored. In what should be a three-team race down to the wire, the Pirates are my pick. One major reason: Francisco Liriano. In four starts since coming off the DL, he has a 1.96 ERA. He's looking more like the guy who was so good last year. If they can get Gerrit Cole back from his lat strain -- he was scratched from his Saturday start and instead threw a bullpen session -- even better. Note: If the injury to Andrew McCutchen's side that forced him out of Sunday's game proves serious, all bets are off.

3. Even with David Price, Max Scherzer is still the Detroit Tigers' ace.

Prediction: Price starts Game 1 of the division series.

This may be most important decision Brad Ausmus has to make all postseason: Which guy do you line up for two potential starts in the first round? The past two years against the A's, it has been Justin Verlander, and he rewarded Jim Leyland with two dominant efforts. But it won't be Verlander this year. My bet is on Price, who has been more consistent this season than Scherzer and has a 2.03 ERA over his past two starts. The Tigers may play the Orioles and the O's have an OPS of .732 against righties and .695 against lefties, another reason to slot Price in the first game.

4. The Los Angeles Dodgers made a mistake by not getting Lester or Price.

Prediction: The Dodgers win the NL West.

Josh Beckett didn't do anything to boost the confidence of Dodgers fans with another poor effort on Sunday; he got knocked out after scuffling through 94 pitches in four-plus innings. In three starts since the All-Star break, he has gone 3.2, 4.1 and 4 innings, respectively. Dan Haren has been even worse, with a 10.03 ERA over his past five starts.

Still, I agree with the decision to hold on to Corey Seager, Joc Pederson and Julio Urias. At some point, you need to infuse some youth, and with Pederson heating up again at Triple-A, he may be in the Dodgers' outfield sooner rather than later. The Dodgers will win the West thanks to the best top three in the NL in Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

5. The Baltimore Orioles should have added a starting pitcher.

Prediction: The Orioles win the AL East.

Maybe the Orioles lack an ace in the mold of Price or Lester, but good luck getting those guys from a division rival. Plus, there's this: Since June 9, the Orioles have the third-best ERA in the majors and second-best rotation ERA in the American League (3.05). Chris Tillman outdueled Hisashi Iwakuma 1-0 on Sunday in the latest strong effort from a Baltimore starter.

The question: Is there some smoke and mirrors going on here? Since June 9, Orioles starters are 29th in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings and 28th in strikeout-to-walk ratio. That does make you wonder; on the other hand, the Orioles are a very good defensive teams (fifth in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved) so they do turn more batted balls into outs than most teams. The O's may like to have an ace for the postseason, but they can get there without one.

6. The Seattle Mariners are better after acquiring some bats.

Prediction: The Mariners still don't have enough offense to win the wild card.

Since the All-Star break they've allowed the second fewest runs per game in the majors -- 2.88. And they're 6-10. They lost 2-1 on Friday and 1-0 on Sunday. Kendrys Morales has looked terrible since coming over from the Twins, where he also looked terrible. Austin Jackson was a much-needed move for center field, but he and Chris Denorfia aren't game-changers on offense, even above and beyond what the Mariners had. And they can't count on Felix Hernandez and Iwakuma giving up just one or two runs every time out.

7. Stephen Strasburg isn't an ace yet.

Prediction: The Washington Nationals win the NL East ... and Strasburg starts Game 1 of the playoffs.

Wait, did somebody write that about Strasburg? He sure looked like one on Sunday, striking out 10 in seven scoreless innings against the Phillies. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves lost their sixth in a row, creating a 3.5-game lead for Washington, its biggest since holding a 3.5-game on June 1.


8. The San Francisco Giants should have picked up a second baseman.

Prediction: They'll get one in August.

Even with a nine-run outburst on Sunday, over the past month the Giants are hitting .231/.290/.342, the second-lowest OPS in the majors (ahead of only the Mariners). A second baseman isn't going to cure this, but Brandon Belt returned on Saturday and that should help. Buster Posey may be heating up, hitting .352 over the past two weeks and that will help. Brian Sabean has made waiver pickups before, so don't count him from getting somebody -- maybe a guy like Luis Valbuena from the Chicago Cubs. As the offense improves, the Giants should solidify their place in the wild-card standings (playing the Padres, Rockies and Diamondbacks will help a lot also).

9. The Cleveland Indians punted the season in trading Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera.

Prediction: Not necessarily ...

The Indians won their third in a row on Sunday on Michael Brantley's 12th-inning home run, and they're just three games back for the second wild card. I'm not predicting them to win it (I'll go with the Toronto Blue Jays), but I'm predicting them to hang in there.

10. The A's are now World Series favorites.

Prediction: OK, I'll go with that. Aren't the A's overdue for some October magic?

So, my post-deadline picks:

AL wild card: Angels over Blue Jays
NL wild card: Giants over Brewers

ALDS: Tigers over Orioles
ALDS: A's over Angels

NLDS: Dodgers over Giants
NLDS: Nationals over Pirates

ALCS: A's over Tigers
NLCS: Dodgers over Nationals

World Series: A's over Dodgers ... Jon Lester wins Game 7 and then signs a $175 million contract with the Dodgers in the offseason. Sam Fuld wins World Series MVP honors. Billy Beane announces retirement and says, "I was never really into this sabermetrics stuff anyway."
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield answered your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

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