Monday, April 14, 2014
Time for the Braves to cut Dan Uggla
By David Schoenfield
I've always liked Dan Uggla, a guy who has fought for respect his entire career. An 11th-round pick in 2001 out of the University of Memphis, the Arizona Diamondbacks never really considered him much of a prospect. He spent parts of three seasons at Class A Lancaster and after hitting .297 with 21 home runs at Double-A in 2005, the Diamondbacks left him unprotected on their 40-man roster. The Florida Marlins snatched him up in the Rule 5 draft and he made the All-Star team as a 26-year-old rookie second baseman, hitting .282 with 27 home runs. People said he wouldn't do that again. He hit 30-plus home runs the next five seasons. People ragged on his defense, his strikeouts and his low batting average, ignoring the walks that gave him good on-base percentages to go with the power.
He struggled last season, hitting .179, and was left off the Atlanta Braves' playoff roster for Elliot Johnson, a backup the Kansas City Royals had released earlier in the season.
It's fair to say that Uggla has gained the most out of his natural talent and played the game the way it worked for him. I think part of the hesitancy to embrace Uggla is that he has never looked the part of a second baseman, not with his bodybuilder's physique, swing-for-the-fences approach at the plate and rigid actions on defense. But he has been a productive player, even when he was hitting .233 and .220.
Those days, however, are gone. As we saw in 2013, Uggla's bat is no longer a positive. The defense, never his best trait, has slipped even more. With one walk in 11 games, even that aspect of his game may be disappearing. The Braves' offense, while showing some life in an impressive weekend sweep of the Washington Nationals, can hardly afford to carry a no-hit second baseman who can't field. The Braves are reluctant to cut bait with Uggla because he's making $13 million this season and $13 million more in 2015, but it's time to admit that Uggla is no longer a championship-caliber starter.
Yes, he has played only 11 games, so we include the "It's only two weeks into the season" hedge here, but the signs of Uggla's decline are clear. The lifeblood of any hitter is the ability to hit the fastball. Uggla's batting averages and isolated power against fastballs the past five years:
2010: .352 average, .251 ISO
2011: .255 average, .284 ISO
2012: .240 average, .184 ISO
2013: .224 average, .200 ISO
2014: .190 average, .000 ISO
Those numbers likely indicate his bat speed is diminishing. Five years ago, pitchers threw Uggla fastballs 46 percent of the time. This year, it's up to 58 percent. The fear that Uggla is going to send a heater over the fence is no longer there.
If the Braves had more weapons on offense, maybe you give Uggla more time, despite the warning signs. But the Braves don't appear to have that luxury. Freddie Freeman is great, Justin Upton is in one of his hot streaks right now and Jason Heyward will be fine. But the rest of the lineup may have serious OBP issues: Evan Gattis ended up with an OBP under .300 last year after his hot start and hasn't walked yet; B.J. Upton has 16 strikeouts and one walk; Chris Johnson hit .321 last year thanks to a high BABIP but has 14 strikeouts and one walk. The one bright spot from the non-Freeman/Heyward/Justin Upton group has been Andrelton Simmons, who hasn't struck out in 40 plate appearances and is hitting .306.
The Braves have options, starting with Tommy La Stella, who hit .343 in Double-A in 2013. He's off to a .280/.367/.320 start at Triple-A. He doesn't have any power, but he puts the ball in play and scouts praise his situational hitting and baseball intelligence. He also has been injury-prone in the minors (he battled an elbow issue last year that limited him to 88 games). They could inquire about a player such as Seattle's Nick Franklin, currently in Triple-A and taking his demotion out on PCL pitchers with a .412 average and three homers in nine games. The Diamondbacks have spare infielders and the Braves could upgrade defensively with Cliff Pennington or Didi Gregorius.
You can't dump Uggla until there's a better solution, whether that's La Stella or somebody else. No matter what the Braves end up doing, however, this much is clear: Even if they coast to another division title, you don't want to head into the postseason having to start Elliot Johnson at second base.