SweetSpot: Dan Uggla

Braves end their infield Uggla-ness

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
4:15
PM ET


A few quick takeaways from the Atlanta Braves' accepting the inevitable and finally cutting Dan Uggla loose, because releasing the veteran second baseman not only means the Braves eat the money they owe him, it also means admitting that they effectively lost the trade for him in the first place.

Uggla is no loss, even with the kind of money the Braves will have to eat by cutting him, since he's owed $13 million this season and next. The job at second base already belongs to Tommy La Stella, and there’s not much use for a second-base-only reserve who can’t hit or field. At least they get the roster spot back to use on a pinch-hitter or yet another pitcher or even just to keep Christian Bethancourt around for a while after they reactivate Evan Gattis from the DL. Anything to spare us from another eight-man bullpen.

[+] EnlargeDan Uggla
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesDan Uggla long since hadn't shown much at the plate, so you can accept the Braves' willingness to cut him loose after he showed up late.
Even if you’re optimistic enough to think that Uggla might have something left despite a sub-.500 OPS this year after last year’s epic .179/.309/.362 season, there’s also the question of why you’d invest the time to find out. After he earned a one-game suspension for showing up late to a game at Wrigley Field last week, he was the veteran ballplayer in the clubhouse who wasn’t winning friends and influencing people as a reserve. The only guys older than Uggla on the Braves are journeymen Aaron Harang and Gerald Laird. Can you blame the Braves for deciding that enough was enough when they’re contending with the youngest lineup in the NL at 27 years old on average?

And don’t the Marlins look that even smarter still now? When the Fish dealt Uggla to the Braves before the 2011 season, they had one year of contractual control left before he hit free agency. By almost anybody’s standard, they made a tremendous offer to keep Uggla around: four years, $48 million. Even after four straight 30-homer seasons in Florida, he wasn’t an ideal choice to give a huge multiyear deal: He’d already turned 30 and was a slow slugger with a questionable defensive future. But he’d served the Marlins in good stead after they fished him out of the D-backs’ farm system via the Rule 5 draft. Uggla said no thanks, and the Fish decided -- as they had with so many other guys awaiting expanding paydays via arbitration and free agency -- to convert him into what value they could get, which was Mike Dunn and Omar Infante.

At the time, there was a ton of the usual shrieking about how this was yet another indication that the Marlins weren’t a serious operation, as Jeffrey Loria and his minions nickel-and-dimed their way to cheap, pointless self-perpetuation. But now that we’re four years beyond the trade, we have a better perspective on how it worked out.

The Braves granted Uggla a five-year, $62 million deal (avoiding arbitration), but he hasn’t really been a good player since 2011 (his last 30-homer season) -- the last year the Marlins could have controlled him. His power slipped in 2012, when his walk, strikeout and swinging-strike rates all started spiking, then he stopped making good contact last year as his strikeouts climbed even higher. And now he’s truly got bubkes to offer. The Braves are still on the hook for another $13 million next year, when he’ll still be done.

So who won the trade? Well, one way of looking at it is that Uggla did, because he and his agent successfully leveraged his situation into a trade that generated $16 million more than the Marlins were willing to pay him, while putting him on a contender. And another napkin-level guesstimate way of looking at it is via WAR, because against the 2.5 WAR Uggla generated for the Braves in his three and a half years, the Marlins have gotten 1.9 WAR out of Dunn (and counting) and another 4.2 out of Infante in less than two seasons before they dealt him to the Tigers for Jacob Turner, Rob Brantly and Brian Flynn. And they don’t owe Uggla a red cent.

And the Braves? They would have been better off trying to keep Infante for a lot less than they had to pay Uggla, and used that money on something else. Which is easy enough to say in retrospect, but even after trading for Uggla, they didn’t have to give him the kind of money he was asking for, and that would have worked out better for them.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
OK, my apologies: We ran out of time today before taping the Rapid Fire video, so I'll make it a written post instead.

From @JoshLumley: Bruce Harper could make better lineups than Matt Williams.

Answer: True. Hey, Harper shouldn't have essentially thrown Denard Span under the bus like he did with his comments about wanting to play center field, but isn't it time Matt Williams at least gives up on the idea of hitting his worst regular in the leadoff spot? Span isn't terrible but his .312 OBP is hardly what you want from a leadoff guy. Meanwhile, Harper hit sixth in his return to the lineup. I'm seeing a lot of grumbling from Nationals fans that Williams is in over his head.

From @neal_kendrick: Jake Arrieta is the best pitcher on the Cubs roster.

Answer: I'm going false for now, if only because one great month (Arrieta finished with a 0.92 ERA in June after taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Monday) isn't yet enough to leap Arrieta ahead of Jeff Samardzija. But I do believe Arrieta is the real deal, with improved command and a nasty cutter that dives down like a slider. After the game on Monday, he told MLB Network that a big key has been "just being confident and comfortable with my routine throughout the week." I have to think getting away from Camden Yards has probably helped that confidence -- he doesn't have to worry about every mistake leaving the ballpark. Eric Karabell says "Put Arrieta on the All-Star team!" (Here's more of Eric and Tristan Cockcroft discussing Arrieta on the Fantasy Focus podcast.)

From @Venturecaps: Raul Ibanez gets a start for the Royals this week.

Answer: True. Ned Yost said he'd use Ibanez in the outfield, at first base and DH. Plus he called him a "professional hitter." I love Ned Yost. Look, Ibanez is probably done and in the end he won't do much more than pinch-hit, but it's at least worth a look to see if he has anything left.

From @Papa_Clarke: Terry Collins and Sandy Alderson will be the manager and general manager of the Mets on Opening Day 2015.

Answer: True. Eric agrees. No need here to clean house. The Mets' problems begin with ownership, not the front office and manager.

From @Orioles_Fever: The Orioles will trade for a second baseman.

Answer: False. I think they're more likely to go for pitching and hope for offensive improvement from Chris Davis and Manny Machado in the second half. Eric has another idea: Give Dan Uggla a shot. The Orioles do love power and you can get him for an order of crab cakes. Aaron Hill would also fit nicely if Arizona picks up some of his salary.

From @TheDeliMan1: Dee Gordon will have a career as a starting second baseman.

Answer: True. He slumped in May after his hot April but rebounded with a solid June (.303/.358/.475). With his speed and average-ish defense, he's good enough to start on a championship team.

From @darinself: The current division leaders will still be there at the end of September.

Answer: False. Eric and I agree on the two most vulnerable teams: the Braves (0.5-game lead over the Nationals) and Blue Jays (one game over the Orioles, 2.5 over the Yankees). I like the Nationals in the NL East and the Orioles in the AL East.

Uggla still searching for an answer

May, 25, 2014
May 25
11:30
PM ET
ST. LOUIS -- Dan Uggla is going through his typical pregame routine just as he always has. He’s playing cards with his teammates before batting practice. He’s laughing and smiling as the team stretches on the field. You would never know he's in the midst of one of the worst slumps you'll ever see a pro athlete go through.

Uggla is nine years into his major league career -- one that featured a streak of five straight 30-homer seasons and three All-Star appearances -- and since 2013, in 654 plate appearances, the Atlanta Braves second baseman is batting just .177 and lately has been losing playing time to Ramiro Pena. It's the kind of rut we've all been through in our non-big league lives, but he has to face it every night in front of tens of thousands of people.

He says there is no particular lesson he has learned through this prolonged struggle. The lesson, whatever that may end up being, may come on the other side of this valley. Like most of us, it’s easier to look back and see what we learned when the rough patch is over than in the middle of it.

[+] EnlargeDan Uggla
AP Photo/Jason GetzDan Uggla's days as the Braves' regular second baseman appear to be over.
"It is a privilege and an honor to be able to play this game, especially at this level. You know, to be able to have success like I’ve had," Uggla said before a recent game. "But at the same time it starts getting harder and you’ve got to make adjustments."

As he faces the pressures of not performing well, he knows what he wants fans to see in his life and what is most important to him.

"I’d like for them to see me as a player who plays hard every day and loves his teammates, and always puts them before me," Uggla said. "The numbers and how people perceive me, whether they want to look at my batting average or how many runs I’ve driven in, or my home runs, that’s up to them. But for me as a person, this game doesn’t define me as a person. I just feel honored and privileged to be a part of it for as long as I have been. If they know I played the game the right way and I was a good teammate that’s all I really care about."

Of course, this doesn’t mean he’s not trying to figure out what’s wrong at the plate. Always known as having a lot of power for a second baseman, Uggla said he became a power hitter by accident. Even as a kid he didn’t have to work on his swing and mechanics to get power.

"I didn’t hit my growth spurt until after all my friends did," Uggla, now at 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, said. "Then I just started gradually getting stronger, and getting stronger, and eventually turned into a power hitter."

When someone is struggling at the plate as severely as Uggla is, plate discipline and mental approach are two important areas to look at. Then, while most guys in the majors make little tweaks to their mechanics, in cases like Uggla’s, bigger changes in mechanics may need to be looked at.

Despite his power, it's increasingly clear that pitchers are not afraid to challenge Uggla. Through Saturday, he had seen 52.6 percent of pitches in the strike zone, which ranks fifth among players with at least 100 plate appearances, yet he's making contact on such pitches 83.3 percent of the time, which ranks 130th.

"From the looks of my numbers it doesn’t really look like I’ve made many adjustments," Uggla said. "But as far as from last year to this year, I feel like I’ve made a lot of adjustments. I know the numbers haven’t shown it, but the way I feel between this year from last year is a world of difference.

"For whatever reason I haven’t squared a whole lot of balls up as of late, but that’s a combination of things. Getting my foot down too late, or maybe closing myself off too much and then the only thing that can happen after that is spinning out of it. So, my mindset wants to cover the outside pitch and drive it the other way, but in order to do that you’ve got to stand tall and keep your shoulders square and not dive in, at least for me anyways."

The good news for the Braves is that Uggla says his mental approach is as strong as ever.

"I’m going up there the same way I always think," Uggla said. "I’m thinking extension through the ball, and once I get in the box it’s me against [the pitcher] and that’s all you can do. You’ve got to try and clear your head once you get in the box."

The common thread among every great competitor is the unique ability to fight through pressure when it matters most. To survive for a long time in the majors, players must keep fine-tuning their approach, and when it comes to hitters, pitchers are going to keep playing into batters' weaknesses until they adjust. Uggla, despite his struggles, still has the confidence you'd expect from a player with his track record.

"I know what I’ve done in this game and I know I still have a lot left to offer," Uggla said. "But there’s still some adjustments to be made."
Whenever people say baseball is in trouble I point them to a game like Sunday's Yankees-Brewers contest in Milwaukee, a fun back-and-forth game played before a loud, soldout crowd of over 43,000 fans at Miller Park.

Yes, it was the Yankees and it was Mother's Day, but Milwaukee is the smallest market in the majors and all three games in the series drew 40,000-plus fans. If you put an exciting, quality product on the field you have the potential to bring in baseball-loving fans like the Brewers are doing.

The game came down to the ninth inning and Mark Teixeira tied it with a dramatic, two-out home run off Francisco Rodriguez, the first run K-Rod has allowed in 20 appearances this season. Against Adam Warren in the bottom of the ninth, however, Rickie Weeks doubled with one out. It looks like a line drive in the box score but it was actually a broken-bat chopper down the first-base line that skipped past Teixeira, who was playing off the line against the right-handed Weeks.

After a wild pitch, it appeared Warren might escape the inning when he struck out Lyle Overbay on a nice changeup, but Mark Reynolds grounded an 0-2 slider past a diving Yangervis Solarte at third base for the walk-off hit. Reynolds got the obligatory mob celebration at first base and Brewers fans went home happy.

It was the second straight one-run victory for the Brewers after Saturday's 6-5 win in which they scored off Alfredo Aceves in the seventh inning. They were two nice wins for Milwaukee, which had dropped seven of nine before the victories. If there's a baseball question off those games, it's this: Is the Yankees' middle relief a strength or a weakness?

The retirement of Mariano Rivera and promotion of David Robertson to closer left the rest of the Yankees bullpen a major unknown. So far, I'd give the pen a B-minus grade so far. It's 4-6 with a 3.91 ERA (19th in the majors), although it lost three games this week. The biggest positive is the pen ranks fourth in the majors in strikeout rate, behind only the Braves, Brewers and Diamondbacks. The Yankees have received solid work so far from Warren (0.926 WHIP), one-time prospect Dellin Betances, who has 33 strikeouts in 20 innings, and Mariners cast-off Shawn Kelley, who picked up four saves when Robertson was injured and is now the primary setup guy.

It's kind of a no-name group other than Robertson, but it has the chance to be a surprising part of the Yankees' 2014 success. The pen will be tested a little more in the next two weeks with CC Sabathia landing on the DL with inflammation in his knee. Aceves will likely move into Sabathia's spot in a rotation that is without Ivan Nova for the year, Michael Pineda for another month and now Sabathia. With the rotation suddenly thin, the bullpen has to be good.

Here are five other issues to think about as we approach the quarter pole:

1. Can the Colorado Rockies hit -- and win -- on the road?

The Rockies lost twice in Cincinnati over the weekend, including 4-1 on Sunday as Homer Bailey shut them down. They did score 11 runs on Saturday but they're now 13-5 at home, 10-12 on the road. They're hitting .355/.401/.600 at home (!) and .258/.306/.426 on the road. That's the 12th-best wOBA on the road, a big improvement from last season when the Rockies ranked 25th in road wOBA.

You'll hear people talk about the Rockies' pitchers needing to come through, but I think their key will be scoring runs on the road. Over the past 10 seasons (2004-13), the Rockies have the biggest difference between home wins and road wins in the majors (113 more wins at home). Their problem hasn't been winning at Coors Field but winning on the road, and the statistics show their offense declines more away from Coors than their pitchers improve away from Coors.

2. How is Don Mattingly going to sort out this Dodgers outfield situation?

The presumption with that question, I suppose, is that the Dodgers' outfield has been a problem. Guess what? The Dodgers' outfield ranks third in the majors with a .352 wOBA, behind only the Rockies and Blue Jays. Yasiel Puig has been great, Matt Kemp has been OK and Scott Van Slyke has been terrific in limited action. Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford, however, both have an OPS under .700 and have combined for just three home runs, leading Dodgers fans to wonder if and when prospect Joc Pederson will eventually be given a chance.

Pederson is hitting .373/.481/.679 at Triple-A Alburquerque, with 11 home runs and 10 stolen bases entering Sunday. However, that is Alburquerque, which is a hitters' haven, and Pederson has 41 strikeouts in 35 games, so more time in the minors won't hurt. The other issue is that Kemp appears to be a major liability defensively in center, both by the defensive metrics (-5 defensive runs saved entering Sunday) and the eye test. Come September, it's possible the best Dodgers outfield will be Kemp in left, Pederson in center and Puig in right, with Van Slyke possibly platooning with Pederson (moving Kemp to center). I don't know where that leaves Ethier and Crawford, but GM Ned Colletti may eventually face the difficult dilemma of sitting two veterans (good luck trading either one) for a rookie who may be the better player.

3. Is there anything positive to say about the Rays right now?

Well, let's see: The rotation is 12th in the AL in ERA, the bullpen is 11th, the offense is seventh in wOBA, the defense is at -6 DRS entering Sunday, and Wil Myers and Evan Longoria haven't teed off yet. Oh, and the team's record is 16-22. I'm searching ... OK, Desmond Jennings is playing well. There have been some injuries in the rotation, but still some stuff I can't figure out. Take Chris Archer, Sunday's starter and loser after he allowed eight hits and four walks in five innings. Last year, his slider was one of the nastiest pitches in the game, as right-handers hit .195 with one extra-base hit against. This year, they're hitting .464 against the slider and already have three doubles and three home runs off it. Without that slider, Archer is mostly a two-pitch guy and his changeup isn't good enough yet.

I guess the point in all this: I'm very concerned about the Rays. They always put together a great run at some point during the season, but you have to wonder if the pitching is good enough to do that this season.

4. Which five position players should lose playing time?

OK, let's try these guys:

1. Dan Uggla, Braves (.184/.248/.272): Of course. Over a year of bad baseball now.

2. Pablo Sandoval, Giants (.189/.262/.295): The Giants are doing fine without Pablo producing, but this a team that now relies on its offense more than its rotation.

3. Brad Miller, Mariners (.165/.223/.281): I liked his bat coming into the season but he's been terrible at the plate and made some crucial errors in the field. Nick Franklin may not have the range to play shortstop but he's pounding the ball at Tacoma (.376/.459/.677 entering Sunday), and teammate Chris Taylor, more of a legitimate shortstop, is also hitting at Tacoma (.353/.395/.579). The Mariners are a game over .500 and need some offense.

4. Carlos Santana, Indians (.148/.319/.281): Surprisingly, his defense at third base has been OK, but what's happened to his batting? He's second in the majors in walks so he's still getting on base, but maybe he's taken the whole plate discipline thing a little too far.

5. Josh Reddick, A's (.214/.279/.286): He plays a mean right field but the bat has gone south since his 32-homer season in 2012. The A's are third in the AL in runs even though they're getting nothing from Reddick, their second basemen or part-time first baseman Daric Barton. Expect Craig Gentry to continue to get more time in right field if Reddick continues to struggle.

5. OK, how about five pitchers on the hot seat?

1. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (2-3, 6.44 ERA): His average fastball velocity is down 1 mph, but does that explain why his batting average allowed is .329? Maybe, as his fastball is getting tattooed at a .413 clip and he's averaging barely five innings per start.

2. Francisco Liriano, Pirates (0-3, 4.64 ERA): He's never been known for his consistency. It all came together last year, but wild Liriano is back with 21 walks in 42⅔ innings, part of the reason the Pirates' rotation is last in the majors in WAR.

3. Homer Bailey, Reds (3-2, 4.72 ERA): I'm not that worried about him and he rebounded with a strong effort against the Rockies on Sunday. Still, added pressure comes with that big contract and he'll be expected to get that ERA into the low-to-mid 3s sooner rather than later.

4. Tim Lincecum, Giants (2-2, 5.55 ERA): Fifty hits and six home runs in 35⅔ innings. Those who questioned the two-year, $35 million contract appear to be correct so far.

5. CC Sabathia, Yankees (3-4, 5.28): As mentioned, he just landed on the DL for at least two weeks. Can he still win with diminished velocity? We'll see.


In the spring of 2009, while researching a column on MLB’s worst-hitting pitchers, I sought out Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Dunn for his take on the subject. Say what you will about Dunn’s glove work or his penchant for striking out, but he’s a 400-homer man and one of the wryest baseball observers around.


The Big Donkey instantly warmed to the topic, dissecting the swings of Daniel Cabrera, Ben Sheets and others pitchers from the “bail and flail” school of hitting. He took particular relish in critiquing the handiwork of his former teammate, Aaron Harang, a workhorse starter who is also a walking endorsement for the designated hitter.


“He swings underwater,” Dunn said of Harang. “His bat speed is below Tim Wakefield’s knuckler speed.”


Harang wasn’t exactly a prime candidate to join Don Larsen, Don Drysdale and Dontrelle Willis on the list of offensive-minded pitchers to hit somewhere other than ninth on the lineup card. But desperate times call for offbeat batting orders.

[+] EnlargeFredi Gonzalez
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsBraves manager Fredi Gonzalez doesn't like what he's seeing as the losing streak deepens.
Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez created some buzz Monday night when he made out his lineup against St. Louis with multiple changes: Justin Upton moved up from cleanup to the No. 2 spot, with his brother B.J. Upton dropping from second to fifth. On a more eye-catching note, Harang was penciled in at eighth, with second baseman Ramiro Pena behind him in the ninth spot.


In part, Gonzalez made the move because Justin Upton hit .301 with a .922 OPS in 48 starts as Atlanta’s second-place hitter last season, and appears to have a comfort level in the No. 2 hole. Gonzalez also told reporters that he wanted to give Jason Heyward, Upton and Freddie Freeman more run-producing opportunities on their second, third and fourth times through the order.


“The offense is sputtering around, so why not do it?” Gonzalez said. That’s manager-speak for, “What do you want me to do -- pick the names out of a hat?”


For the record, Harang went 0-for-1 with a sacrifice bunt and the Braves showed some late signs of life in a 4-3 loss to the Cardinals. When measured against their recent standard, that’s a virtual onslaught.


Atlanta fans have gone from upbeat to restless to cranky awfully fast. On April 27, the Braves beat Cincinnati 1-0 in 10 innings to raise their record to 17-7 and open up a 3 -game lead over the New York Mets in the National League East. Since then, they’ve dropped seven straight to Miami, San Francisco and St. Louis by scores of 9-0, 9-3, 5-4, 2-1, 3-1, 4-1 and 4-3.


With the exception of two blowout losses at Marlins Park -- when the Braves suggested something fishy was taking place and the Marlins might be stealing signs to get better hacks against the Atlanta pitching -- the focus has been almost exclusively on the offense, or lack thereof.


Should the Braves be taking more batting practice, or less? Can anybody lay off a high fastball? And they are simply too deficient at “manufacturing” runs and too reliant on the long ball to weather the inevitable down times? According to ESPN Stats & Information, 55 of Atlanta’s 102 runs this season (or 53.9 percent) have come via the home run. That’s the highest rate in the majors, ahead of San Francisco’s 48.1 percent.


The Braves have also scored one or fewer runs in a game a major league-high 12 times this season. That’s one more than St. Louis.


The Braves were OK when Freeman, Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons got off to torrid starts, but the team’s mainstays have leveled off recently. Freeman is 10-for-his-past-57, and Upton has struck out 11 times in his past 15 at-bats. He came up with the tying run on second base in the ninth inning Monday but took a Trevor Rosenthal fastball for a called third strike to end it. The Braves are hitting .118 (6-for-51) with runners in scoring position during their seven-game losing streak, and that’s only when you give them the courtesy of rounding up from .1176.


No one has been more of a lightning rod of late than second baseman Dan Uggla, who’s being pilloried on social media. He ranks 84th among 88 qualifying National League hitters with a .528 OPS, and he’s not even drawing walks anymore. This comes on top of a dreadful 2013 season that ended with the ultimate indignity of his being dropped from the Braves’ Division Series roster. You have to wonder when the Atlanta brass will have a frank discussion that things aren’t likely to get better, and it’s best for all parties to bring this arrangement to an end and find Uggla a new home.


Now that the Braves have other options at second base, it’s getting progressively harder for them to justify keeping Uggla around for reasons other than the $23 million they still owe him. Pena slugged .443 in 97 at-bats last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury and has a nice swing from both sides of the plate. Tyler Pastornicky was a .280 hitter in the minors, and Tommy La Stella, Atlanta’s No. 9 prospect, is plugging away with a .313 batting average for Triple-A Gwinnett.


Atlanta’s front-office people, who have seen the Braves go through fallow stretches like this in the past, think this group is eminently capable of turning it around and going on a tear. They point out that Heyward has picked up the pace of late, and B.J. Upton is having much better at-bats since he donned his new glasses.


But some talent evaluators are dubious. “They only have only reliable hitter -- and that’s Freeman,” said a National League scout. “He’s going to hit good pitching. When they face No. 1s and 2s, they’re not going to score any runs unless he’s involved.”


So the manager ponders hitting the pitcher in the ninth spot and says, “Why not?” According to research by J.G. Preston of SABR, Tony La Russa employed the tactic 432 times during his managerial career. Lou Boudreau is a distant second at 74, and Casey Stengel, Joe Torre and Jack McKeon were among the other managers who gave it a shot here and there. Gonzalez has now done it nine times in his managerial career.


At the very least, Gonzalez’s offbeat strategy helped change the discussion from why the Braves aren’t hitting to what the manager is trying to do to prevent a bad week from turning into a free-fall. And the more people quizzed him about Harang batting eighth, the fewer people were asking him about Uggla getting the night off and what he plans to do moving forward at second base.


What will Gonzalez do when Gavin Floyd makes his 2014 debut Tuesday night against the Cardinals? Only he knows for sure. Unless he can figure out a way to squeeze a 1999-caliber Chipper Jones onto the lineup card, it might take the Braves a while to figure this thing out.


PHILADELPHIA -- After beating up on the Washington Nationals all weekend, the Atlanta Braves reached a point Monday night where they appeared to be rolling toward a nice, methodical win over the Philadelphia Phillies. Then the momentum began whipsawing in umpteen different directions and vertigo took hold in the dugout, and it was the kind of game when bald managers make jokes about how they’re glad they don’t have any hair to turn gray.


“It was almost like two different games out there tonight,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.

[+] EnlargeDan Uggla
Brian Garfinkel/Getty ImagesDan Uggla admires his second home run of the night -- and of the season.


Atlanta’s second most reliable reliever, Luis Avilan, morphed into a human line-drive dispenser in the eighth inning to turn a 5-1 lead into a 6-5 deficit. Then Dan Uggla, a power hitter who entered Monday night with a .195 average and zero homers in his first 41 at-bats this season, lofted a grand slam into the left-field seats in the top of the ninth to give the Braves a 9-6 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.


And then, when the bullpen gates swung open and everyone expected All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel to come jogging out to nail it down, out came David Carpenter, who was pressed into service because Kimbrel has a sore right shoulder. (Nothing serious, Kimbrel insists. But he still might require a “few days” of rest and maintenance to get back on the mound.)


It’s hard to tell precisely what lesson to draw from the aforementioned sequence of events. But if you begin with the premise that resilience is paramount during a 162-game season, that’s a pretty good start.


“That’s baseball,” Uggla said. “A comfortable win turns into an uncomfortable loss sometimes -- or an uncomfortable win. It’s just the way the game is. You can never think that things are going to work out a certain way.”


If anyone can grasp that concept, it’s the Braves, who have to be feeling pretty good about themselves with their 9-4 start, given the numerous unsightly alternatives.


Think back a little more than a month ago, when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy learned they would need Tommy John surgery and the Atlanta rotation bordered on wrecked beyond repair. A pessimist might have described the projected Opening Day rotation as “Teheran and Wood, and not very good.”


Things have fallen into place quite nicely since then. Aaron Harang, picked up by Atlanta in late March after he was released by Cleveland, has been terrific, with a 0.96 ERA and a .145 batting average against in three starts. Reinforcements are on the way, with Mike Minor close to returning from a shoulder issue and Gavin Floyd (recovering from his own Tommy John surgery) not far behind. And the Braves just might have found themselves a new ace in Ervin Santana, who is giving Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales a primer on how an unemployed free agent can cut his losses and make the best of a bad situation.


Like Morales and Drew, Santana was trapped in free-agent compensation hell before downsizing his expectations and signing a one-year, $14.1 million deal with Atlanta on March 12. Two starts into his tenure with the Braves, he has a 0.64 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 14 innings, and he’s showing that a full complement of spring training innings can be highly overrated.

[+] EnlargeErvin Santana
Eric Hartline/USA TODAY SportsErvin Santana has settled in quickly as a rotation solution for the Braves.


Santana was lights-out in his National League debut with eight scoreless innings against the Mets, and was almost as formidable against the Phillies. He struck out 11 batters in six innings, with every one coming on a swing and miss. Santana complemented a mid-90s fastball with an effective slider and changeup that induced an abundance of tentative, awkward swings.


“He has three plus pitches and he attacks hitters,” said a scout who watched Santana at Citizens Bank Park on Monday. “A lot of swings and misses. We all wondered how he stayed out there on the market that long. Money, I guess. But he’s pretty good.”


Santana insists he doesn’t have any extra motivation after a winter of anxious unemployment. But it’s clear he made the right decision to take the plunge and go back on the market when he did.


“I don’t have to prove anything,” Santana said. “Just be me and pitch every time I take the mound. It was tough for me to get a job with the draft compensation being part of the deal. I don’t want anything bad for anybody. But injuries happen. That’s part of the game. When [the Braves] reached out to me I said, 'OK, let’s do it.’”


Gonzalez knew Santana would be a good fit in Atlanta when Kansas City GM Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost, two old friends, both called him and raved about Santana as a person, a professional and a competitor from his days with the Royals. If Gonzalez is surprised about anything to this point, it’s that a pitcher as slight as Santana can summon so much life from that right arm. The dreadlocks merely add to Santana's aura.


“If you took a poll of people who didn’t know baseball and said, ‘What does that guy do for a living?’ I think baseball would be the last thing they’d think,” Gonzalez said. “They’d probably say this guy is an artist or a singer.”


Santana is 1-0 through two starts, and Atlanta’s supporting cast showed enough signs of life to bode well for him and the rest of the Atlanta staff moving forward:


Evan Gattis, who hit two home runs Monday, is a career 4-for-20 at Citizens Bank Park. All four of those hits are home runs.


Andrelton Simmons, Atlanta’s all-world defensive shortstop, went 3-for-5 and is now hitting .341 this season. He has yet to strike out in 41 at-bats.


• Uggla committed a throwing error, but he made two sensational plays in the field and sent two balls into the seats. If the Braves plan on maintaining their early momentum, they need Uggla, Gattis and the rest of the lineup to give Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton some help over the coming weeks and months.


“We have a lot of guys who can change the game with one swing,” Uggla said.


For now, the Braves are just happy to be in “weathered-the-storm” mode. After hitting rock bottom in spring training, they're fully prepared for the wild emotional swings that a baseball season brings. Some nights that trait comes in handier than others.

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.

Is Freddie Freeman ready for bigger things?

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
12:40
AM ET


Sure, one game is not supposed to mean more than one win or win loss, but does anyone else think that Freddie Freeman isn’t ready to explode? After he ripped a pair of home runs against the Brewers on Tuesday night, it’s worth remembering that he is only 24 and nearing the cusp of what are supposed to be his prime seasons in the 25-to-29 range.

That might seem easy to say after a big night, but Freeman provides a great reminder that some basic sabermetric concepts like regression don’t apply to everyone equally. If you think that batting average on balls in play exerts a force like gravity, you’d expect that Freeman was going to regress toward a more normal .300 after hitting for a .371 BABIP last year. But that’s the thing, Freeman’s so young despite three full seasons in the majors that his potential to develop into something more can’t be discounted, especially after the .339 BABIP he put up in his rookie season or the .359 he put up as a 20-year-old in Triple-A.
[+] EnlargeFreddie Freeman
Jeffrey Phelps/Getty ImagesAfter Freddie Freeman's two-homer game, let's give the man a hand.

When you look at what leading projection models like Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS say about his likely 2014 production (.286/.365/.477), or Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA (.279/.350/.458), those seem fairly conservative for a guy who put up an .897 OPS last year. Indeed, PECOTA is so pessimistic about Freeman that it basically says there’s just a 10 percent chance he hits as well this year.

I guess I’m a little skeptical about the models in this instance. Freeman didn’t deliver unusual numbers in terms of homers per fly ball, although he did generate a tremendous number of line drives last season -- 30 percent, which is evidence of him executing his plan at the plate consistently, no easy thing to repeat against the best pitching on the planet, but a reflection of skill. I guess I look at the BABIP numbers and the confident assertions that there’s no way that Freeman can keep getting hits on 37 percent of his balls in play at 23 and figure people would have said much the same about Don Mattingly after he posted a .331 BABIP at 23 in 1984. And those predictions, based on the observable fact that most people regress to the mean, would have been completely wrong. Donnie Baseball didn’t regress; he was just getting started.

That’s because not every player is cut from the same mold, and not every hitter is going to wind up regressing to the same level when he doesn’t execute as well at the plate. Instead, hitters are going to perform within their ranges of possibility. And looking at Freeman, it’s easy to dream on why the orbit he travels in happens to be a bit higher than most, maybe a bit higher than the projections suggest, if maybe not quite as high as where he was hammering balls in Miller Park on Tuesday.

The question for the Braves will be how much they’ll need him to be that guy, because other than Jason Heyward, is there anyone in that lineup you expect to bust out and become something as good or better as he was last year? Maybe if Justin Upton has three hot months instead of two, or B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla return to the land of the living, sure, there’s help to be had. But as much as I’m willing to believe in Freeman (and Heyward), if he isn’t that guy right now, it’s going to be hard for the Braves to get to October and win a postseason series.
  • One of the things I’ve always loved about the Braves when you watch them talk about their own talent is who they soft-pedal versus who they play up -- and then seem willing to trade to get something they can contend with. Now sure, Alex Wood was by no means a sleeper -- going from their second-round pick out of the University of Georgia in 2012 to top 10 prospect status in the organization last year to Tuesday night’s winning pitcher -- but going into that same 2012 season the Braves pitching prospects you heard the most about were guys like Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and Randall Delgado. Delgado was dealt to the D-backs and may not hold his job as the last man in their rotation, while Vizcaino was dealt and was last seen headed for High-A for the Cubs. Lefties with low-90s heat and an effective circle change and knuckle curve don’t grow on trees, and this ready already after less than two seasons in the minors? After Teheran’s effective Opening Day start, Wood provided an easy additional reminder about why it pays to scout their own neighborhood as well as the Braves do.

    Not that one game means much, but with Mike Minor on the mend coming off a breakthrough year in 2012, if veterans Ervin Santana and later Gavin Floyd simply provide innings, regular turns and quality starts more than half the time, maybe the Braves’ starting pitching won’t turn out to be so bad after all.
  • To give the Brewers some love, watching center fielder Carlos Gomez crush his first homer of the season provided another reminder about something cyberpunk writer William Gibson wrote in Wired back in the ’90s about how the mainstream is usually five years late to a subject. That’s hopefully less true today with the accelerated news cycle, but if you didn’t already notice that Gomez was one of the best players in baseball last year, you don’t want to be any later to this particular party. I know WAR is more suggestion and sorting tool than fact, but Gomez’s 8.9 WAR last season easily outpaced Andrew McCutchen’s 7.9 and Paul Goldschmidt’s 7.3 to lead the NL. While a huge part of that was the educated guesstimates of his value on defense, I don’t think it’ll be too much of a reach to suggest that for the next couple of years he and McCutchen might become the National League’s trophy frenemies equivalent to Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout in the AL.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
There's nothing quite like Opening Day. As Pete Rose once said, "It's like Christmas except warmer." It's a reminder that for perhaps inexplicable reasons we still love this crazy game, that we're ready to devote way too many hours over the next seven months to watching games that will enthrall us and disgust us but bring us together. We'll laugh, we'll cry, we'll shout -- and that's just within one Starlin Castro at-bat. It's Opening Day. Enjoy.

Must-watch game of the day
If I could watch only one game on Opening Day -- which would pretty much qualify as cruel and unusual punishment if actually forced to such limits -- I'd go with St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN). First, we get a heated division rivalry with two playoff teams from last season. We get a great pitching matchup with Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto. We get Billy Hamilton trying to get on base and then trying to run on Yadier Molina if he does get on. We get the new Reds lineup with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce hitting third and fourth. (Oh, how we miss you, Dusty.) Plus, there are potential cameos from Eric Davis, Chris Sabo, Pete Rose or Schottzie.

Best pitching matchup of the day
Considering the depth of starting pitching in the majors, you'd think we'd have more can't-miss pitching matchups of Cy Young contender facing Cy Young contender, but that isn't really the case on this day. But James Shields versus Justin Verlander is a great one (Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers, 1:08 p.m. ET).

Here's an interesting fact: The Tigers had all that great pitching last year, right? Well, the Royals allowed the fewest runs in the American League. Shields is making his sixth career Opening Day start while Verlander makes his seventh in a row. Verlander allowed zero runs his past two openers (although he pitched just five innings last year on a cold day in Minnesota). Royals fans must deal with no Jeff Francoeur in the opening lineup for the first time in four years. Hold those tears.

Pitcher you have to watch if you've never watched him
The Marlins rarely appear on national TV, so you may not have seen Jose Fernandez pitch as a rookie unless you're actually a Marlins fan or your team faced him. If you missed him, you made a mistake, so don't miss this one. No dinner break. No excuse that this may be your third game of the day. He starts against Jorge De La Rosa as the Colorado Rockies play the Miami Marlins (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN).

This is kind of a cool random factoid from ESPN Stats & Information: This is the first Opening Day matchup in the past 100 years of pitchers born in Cuba and Mexico. Fernandez will become the fourth-youngest Opening Day starter in the past 35 seasons behind Dwight Gooden (1985 and 1986 Mets), Fernando Valenzuela (1981 Dodgers) and Felix Hernandez (2007 Mariners).

The "Wait, he's starting on Opening Day?" award
This is always a fun one. One year the Pittsburgh Pirates started Ron Villone, who had posted a 5.89 ERA the year before -- primarily as a reliever. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays started Dewon Brazelton in 2005; he'd finish the season 1-8 with a 7.61 ERA. The Twins started Vance Worley a year ago. This year's most interesting surprise starter is Tanner Scheppers of the Rangers (Philadelphia Phillies at Texas Rangers, 2:05 p.m. ET) -- interesting because he has never started a major league game.

Since 1914, only three pitchers made their major league debuts starting on Opening Day: Lefty Grove of the A's in 1925, Jim Bagby Jr. of the Red Sox in 1938 and Al Gerheauser of the 1943 Phillies. Scheppers doesn't match their feat because he's pitched in relief, but he does match Valenzuela, whose first major league start came in that 1981 Opening Day start. Of course, to match Fernando, all Scheppers has to do is throw five shutouts and six complete games in his first seven starts.

Just thought I'd mention this
The Los Angeles Dodgers will pay reliever Brandon League more this season ($8.5 million) than the Pirates will pay National League MVP Andrew McCutchen ($7.458 million), who will rank 34th among outfielders in salary in 2014. Anyway, watch McCutchen's Pirates host the Chicago Cubs (1 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN).

Another reason to love McCutchen, besides the fact that he's a talented artist, can imitate others' batting stances and helps old ladies cross the street: His WAR has increased each season of his career, 2.3 to 3.8 to 5.7 to 7.0 to 7.9.

Watch Robinson Cano in a new time zone
Cano makes his Mariners debut in a late game, Mariners at Angels (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN). As a bonus, you get Felix Hernandez and Jered Weaver, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, Abraham Almonte and Justin Smoak. The Mariners begin the season with a seven-game road trip and play 22 of their first 25 games against division opponents while trying to patch together a rotation missing Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker for a few weeks, so few teams will be under more pressure early on than Seattle. Enjoy the marine layer, Robby!

Player most likely to be booed on Opening Day
I was going to say Dan Uggla or Ryan Braun, but unfortunately the Atlanta Braves play at the Milwaukee Brewers (2:10 p.m. ET) instead of vice versa.

Player likely to get the biggest ovation
I'll go with Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox, in what will be his final Opening Day -- although he's not guaranteed to start (Twins at White Sox, 4:10 p.m. ET). OK, Konerko or Ike Davis, I'm not sure.

Braves winning Uggla up the middle?

May, 6, 2013
5/06/13
11:00
AM ET
Beyond the hoopla involving various Braves and slugging exploits, it might be easy to forget that their highest-paid position player -- Dan Uggla -- is off to a bad start this season. Hitting just .184/.304/.367 in his age-33 season after the weekend’s action, and striking out 35 percent of the time, you might reasonably worry about the back half of the Braves’ five-year investment in him now that he’s in the hump year of his $62 million deal.

That’s if you’re in the habit of weeping over other people’s expenses, but that’s not what is really interesting about Uggla at the moment. Instead, it’s more interesting that at the same time that he has started to slip at the plate, he might have begun to accrue value on defense, a reversal of fortune that serves as a reminder that players don’t always do things you expect.

Anyone else remember how Jeff Kent started his career? He may go to the Hall of Fame as a second baseman, but at the beginning of his career as a Blue Jays farmhand, there was considerable speculation he’d need to move to third base. Not that coming up in the organization that already had eventual Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar at second base helped much. After mostly playing third for the Jays in ’92, not even getting swapped to the Mets in the David Cone trade secured Kent’s future at second base. He spent three years there before spending most of ’96 back at third, and it wasn’t until he wound up with the Giants in 1997 that he was finally at second base to stay. While Baseball Info Solutions suggests Kent cost his teams almost a full win on defense per 1,200 innings afield, he still had the best part of his career as an offensive star ahead of him despite his limitations in the field.

[+] EnlargeDan Uggla
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesDan Uggla's performance in the field has improved over last season.
Thinking about Uggla’s career path can’t help but remind me of Kent. Not because I think Uggla is going to follow Kent and be a better player in his 30s than he was in his 20s -- anything but. Uggla’s declining numbers as a Brave, especially his slipping below a .400 SLG last year, indicate that isn’t likely. Instead, I’m reminded because Uggla, like Kent, was dogged from the outset of his career by speculation that he’d need to move off second base someday soon after getting initially pegged as a utility type by prospect mavens. Uggla’s three errors in the 2008 All-Star Game probably didn’t help matters, but the lack of any distinguishing gift afield certainly didn’t endear him to scouts.

Sabermetric tools haven’t been any kinder in their evaluations of his leather work. BIS’ Defensive Runs, Total Zone and Ultimate Zone Rating would generally rate his defense around a full 10 runs or a full win in the negative as a full-season regular -- just like Kent. Which means that, just like Kent, he's had to deliver at the plate to make him worth playing.

Which Uggla did. He ripped 154 home runs as a five-year regular for the Marlins, and another 36 in his first season in Atlanta. And even as he started losing value at the plate last season, he nevertheless led the NL in walks last year. You would think those sort of things would make him a sabermetric favorite, but not so much.

When the Braves traded for Uggla and gave him the extension that will keep him in Atlanta through 2015, it was easy to see how he might eventually slide over into Chipper Jones’ spot at third once the all-time great hung up his spikes. But after Jones stuck around longer than expected, there’s now little reason to question leaving Uggla at second. That’s because even as his numbers at the plate drop, his fielding performance as measured by advanced metrics switched from negative to positive. Even his UZR, better at evaluating some positions than others -- with second base being one of the spots it does best with -- crept into positive territory when grading Uggla’s defense, grading him 4.2 runs above average last year (and 3.8 per 150 games). Or, almost a win and a half better on defense over a full season. Maybe that’s a one-year blip, and maybe defensive data is reliably inconsistent enough to only suggest broadly how good a player is, not define it precisely.

But if overall the metrics are starting to grade Uggla more charitably, and you add that to a few seasons to come working with Andrelton Simmons up the middle, then you might be forgiven if you start thinking that, yeah, maybe Frank Wren & Co. made the right call in terms of getting Uggla with the intention of leaving him at the keystone. You might weep about the expense if you’re part of that crowd shrieking for optimal spending strategies, but that's true of most big-money deals. On a practical note, Uggla’s deal certainly didn’t handicap the Braves’ ability to add the Uptons this winter.

Certainly, some of the game’s defensive gambles at second base have flopped. I always think of Keith Miller and later Mark Teahen, and I’m sure there are Braves fans who remember Ron Gant’s brutal rookie season in the field at second. But sometimes the payoff in terms of what you get on offense and the hits you take on defense more than balances out, which is part of the reason Uggla became an asset making eight large annually in the first place. Because adding an extra bopper in the age of all-time-high strikeout rates and fewer balls in play than ever before gives you one more bat to help keep the ball out of the defense’s hands and put it over the fence. This goes some way toward explaining why the Cardinals are rolling the dice with Matt Carpenter as a second baseman this season. It’s why the Mets did likewise with Daniel Murphy last year, or the Pirates did so with Neil Walker in 2010.

While the world will always have room for those “true” second-base scrappers who seem to define the position in the mind’s eye of so many, these days everyone’s willing to get a little winning Uggla if there are a few extra runs -- and wins -- to net by taking an unglovely risk up the middle.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
I have the Nationals as the team to beat in the National League, but give the Braves a fighter's chance of winning the NL East. No, I don't really know what fighter's chance means either, other than "anything can happen."

SportsNation

Over or under on Dan Uggla hitting 29.5 home runs?

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    37%
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    63%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,421)

I do believe the Braves have the second-best club in the NL heading into the season, as the Reds will find life in the NL Central a little tougher this year without the Astros and improved Cubs to beat up on.

A key to Atlanta beating Washington will be second baseman Dan Uggla. Now 33, Uggla saw his streak of five straight 30-homer seasons end as he dropped from 36 to 19. There were still some positives for his offense -- he led the NL with 94 walks, so despite a .220 average he still posted a respectable .348 OBP.

While the Braves are counting on improved performances from youngsters Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, and Justin Upton playing like he did in 2011, an improved Uggla can further boost an offense that ranked seventh in the NL in runs.

Mark Smith of Capitol Avenue Club has an excellent in-depth look at Uggla's contact skills and outlook for 2013, complete with cool heat maps, writing:
Uggla’s sweet spot is middle-in, which shouldn’t be surprising, and in 2012, it saw a substantial drop in contact rates. This, however, can be explained in two ways. One, Uggla is losing his ability to make contact, or two, it’s no worse than 2008. Unfortunately, the maps don’t go back to 2008, so we remain in the dark a little bit. But seeing the other numbers react in a similar manner indicates he might have done this before, and it is more troubling now that he’s 33.

Two years ago with the Marlins, Uggla created a career-high 115 runs. That total was down to 76 last season. He's certainly capable of creating an additional 15 runs or so -- worth about 1.5 wins. The problem for Atlanta: What if he slides even further? With his subpar defense, Uggla's not of much value if his hitting declines, and the Braves don't have much on the bench behind him.

Will his power return? I suspect the days of Uggla as a 30-homer guy are behind him. What do you think?


Well, that was insane.

Fans of the new system will say this is exactly the kind of excitement baseball needs.

Critics will suggest this game sums up everything that’s wrong with a one-game playoff series. One bad throw (or three), one mental error, one ... umm, one bad umpiring call shouldn’t knock you out of the postseason.

Did I say bad call? Atrocious? Abominable? Disgraceful? How do you properly sum up what happened in the bottom of the eighth inning when umpire Sam Holbrook raised his right arm and all hell broke loose?

If you watched the game, you know what happened: The Braves trailed the Cardinals 6-3 and had runners on first and second when Andrelton Simmons popped out to shallow left field. Shortstop Pete Kozma drifted about 70 feet beyond the infield dirt ... and suddenly peeled off, the ball plunking harmlessly onto the grass in front of Matt Holliday. The Braves had the bases loaded and the Ted was rocking with noise.

Except ... say it ain’t so. Holbrook called an infield fly rule, raising his arm right about the time Kozma peeled off. That meant Simmons was out, and Jason Motte would eventually escape the inning when he blew a 98-mph fastball past Michael Bourn with the bases loaded. The Braves got two more runners on in the ninth but Motte retired Dan Uggla to finish off the 6-3 victory.

But the whole complexion of the game changes if the Braves have the bases loaded with one out and Brian McCann up. Maybe the whole complexion of the postseason changes. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez protested the game, but the infield fly rule is a judgment call, even when the judgment is terrible.

Rule 2.00 refers to a ball that "could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder." It doesn’t mean the ball has to be in the infield. The rule is in place so an infielder can’t trick baserunners by purposely dropping a pop fly to turn a double play. In this case, Kozma was so far out in the outfield, a trick double play would have been an impossible and absurd feat to attempt.

[+] EnlargeFredi Gonzalez, Sam Holbrook
AP Photo/Todd KirklandFredi Gonzalez and the Braves played under protest after the infield-fly call by Sam Holbrook, right.
So Holbrook’s name will now go down in history alongside Don Denkinger and Richie Garcia, the umps on the Jorge Orta play in the 1985 World Series and the Jeffrey Maier/Derek Jeter home run in the 1996 American League Championship Series, respectively.

That play will tarnish the result of this game. Braves fans tarnished the game by littering the field with garbage, forcing a long delay as the Cardinals had to temporarily leave the field. And the wild-card round began its history with a game that will be long remembered.

* * * *

Controversy aside, the Braves played about as bad a game of baseball as you can play: Physical errors, mental errors, terrible managerial decisions. It was typical Bad News Braves in the playoffs; the franchise is now 9-20 in the postseason going back to the 2001 National League Championship Series and losers of seven consecutive playoff series if you include this one-game affair.

Sadly, with the big “10” carved into the outfield grass and the thunderous ovations he received each time he came to bat, Chipper Jones’ final game of his career will also be remembered for his crucial throwing error in the fourth inning.

Carlos Beltran had singled to lead off the inning, the first hit off Kris Medlen (whose streak of the Braves winning 23 consecutive games he started would end). Holliday drilled a one-hopper that Chipper snared -- an easy double-play ball. Except Chipper chucked the ball into right field. Allen Craig followed with an RBI double over Martin Prado’s head in left field. After an RBI groundout and sac fly, the Cardinals had three runs and a 3-2 lead instead of zero runs and a 2-0 deficit.

After a Holliday home run made it 4-2, the Braves fell apart again in the seventh inning. Uggla bobbled and then threw away David Freese’s routine grounder, putting Freese on second base. Mike Matheny pinch-ran speedster Adron Chambers, a key maneuver that would pay dividends moments later. A sac bunt moved Chambers to third.

Now, consider the situation if you’re the Braves: You’re down 4-2, with a runner on third with one out. Your season is on the line. You can’t afford to give up any more runs. What’s the best way to escape the jam? You need a strikeout. Do the Braves have a reliever like that? Anybody you can think of? Anybody who struck out 50 percent of the batters he faced this season, the highest rate in the history of major league baseball?

Did Gonzalez call on Craig Kimbrel? Nope. He brought on Chad Durbin, a pitcher who struck out 19 percent of the batters he faced. Durbin did induce Kozma to hit a grounder to Simmons at shortstop, but the rookie bobbled the ball and rushed his throw home (with the speedy Chambers running, he didn’t really have much of a chance once he bobbled the play), throwing wildly to let Kozma reach second. If Freese had been running, maybe Simmons doesn’t hurry the throw. That made it 5-2 and Matt Carpenter's infield single scored Kozma. After committing the fewest errors in the league during the season, the Braves made three in this game.

Another head-scratching move came in the bottom of the fourth when the Braves had runners at the corners with one out and Simmons -- the No. 8 hitter -- up. Gonzalez apparently called a safety squeeze. Simmons bunted in front of the plate -- slow-footed Freddie Freeman either missed the play (which is what the TBS broadcasters said Gonzalez told them) or decided not to run since the bunt was too close to the plate. On the resulting throw to first, Simmons ran too far inside the baseline and was ruled out for interference when the throw bounced off his head (it was clearly the correct call). Medlen struck out to end the threat.

This game goes down as the Holbrook Affair. Braves fans will forever blame the umps. In truth, the Braves have nobody to blame but themselves.
Stuff ...

Rough spring, but Braves still contenders

March, 22, 2012
3/22/12
1:54
PM ET
Giants/BravesScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesDan Uggla and Brian McCann will be counted on to provide pop for the Braves in 2012.
With the way 2011 ended for the Atlanta Braves, many hoped a good start in spring training would put any thoughts about last season behind them. At the start of camp, however, Tommy Hanson crashed his car and received a concussion. That was certainly not a good omen, to say the least.

Then Tyler Pastornicky, the expected starting shortstop, started 3-for-33, sparking questions about whether he or last season’s Lynchburg Hillcat (Atlanta's high-A affiliate) shortstop Andrelton Simmons should start at shortstop. A week ago, Chipper Jones stated in jest that he was unsure if he could even finish the season, and then Thursday announced that he'll retire at the end of the season. Additionally, the team is 6-13 in the Grapefruit League, ahead of only the Mets. Spring training records do not mean much, if anything, but the Braves have most certainly not played quality baseball.

On Tuesday, the worst news of the spring hit the Braves as Arodys Vizcaino, the 14th-ranked prospect in baseball according to Keith Law, will miss the entire season with Tommy John surgery. Vizcaino was projected to pitch in the Braves’ bullpen and was expected to help ease the workload of the team’s back-end relievers.

Not much has gone right, but there are still reasons to be optimistic. With Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy ready to break out and Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado not far behind them, the Braves still have a strong core of young starting pitchers who are major league ready. With Tim Hudson already being ruled out until the start of May and Hanson and Jair Jurrjens attempting to rebound from last year’s season-ending injuries, the depth in the rotation is the team’s biggest strength and should come in handy over the course of the season.

Although Vizcaino will miss the year, swingman Kris Medlen should bolster what was already one of the game’s top bullpens. His ability to eat innings, along with fellow bullpen mate Cristhian Martinez, should lessen the workload on Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. The bullpen should again be stellar.

While the pitching should remain sturdy, the big questions in Braves camp revolve around the bats. Jason Heyward and Martin Prado had sub-standard years and will look to rebound, while Brian McCann and Dan Uggla try to stay consistent throughout the season. Heyward has altered both his swing and stance, and he has really started to swing the bat well over the past two weeks. Prado and Uggla have both looked tremendous all spring.

The basic assumption the front office has made, judging by their lack of acquisitions, is that they doubt things go as bad for the offense in 2012 as they did last year. Having Michael Bourn in center field for the entire season should stabilize the top of the lineup and result in improved production compared to what the Braves received from Nate McLouth, Jordan Schafer and Bourn during his few months with the team.

With all that went bad toward the end of last year, this team still won 89 games and would have made the playoffs if this season’s playoff format had been in place. They have a ton of pitching depth and have one of the best bullpens in the league. While they do not have a tremendous offense and will likely struggle with their infield defense, they do have the tools to score runs and prevent runs at a better than average rate. As bad as this spring has been, the Braves are still one of the better teams in the National League and should certainly be in competition for a playoff spot, which is all you can really ask for in a crowded NL East.

Ben Duronio writes regularly about the Braves at Capitol Avenue Club. You can follow him on Twitter @Ben_Duronio.
Mike Stanton/Hunter Pence/Jason HeywardGetty Images/US PresswireThe best right fielder in the NL East? Mike Stanton, Hunter Pence and Jason Heyward have their fans.
This is back-of-the-napkin stuff ... but fun back-of-the-napkin stuff. As we wait to see if Prince Fielder does land in Washington, let's check out the state of the NL East. We'll go position by position and rank the players. Then we'll come up with a final tally (five points for first, four for second, etc.)

Catcher
1. Brian McCann, Braves
2. Wilson Ramos, Nationals
3. Carlos Ruiz, Phillies
4. Josh Thole, Mets
5. John Buck, Marlins

Phillies fans will storm the bastille over this one and say I'm underestimating Ruiz's ability to call a game, but I think Wilson Ramos has a chance to be something special. He hit .267/.334/.445 as a rookie, spending most of the season at just 23 years old. The thing that bodes well is that his walk rate improved from 4 percent in Triple-A in 2010 to 8.7 percent last season. And to think they got him from the Twins for Matt Capps. Ruiz is an underrated player -- he's posted a .376 OBP the past three seasons -- but Ramos' power and potential for improvement put him at No. 2 behind McCann.

First base
1. Freddie Freeman, Braves
2. Ryan Howard/Jim Thome, Phillies
3. Ike Davis, Mets
4. Gaby Sanchez, Marlins
5. Adam LaRoche, Nationals

Yes, there's huge value for the Nationals in signing Prince Fielder. With Davis and LaRoche coming off serious injuries and Howard out for at least a couple months, I have to give the top nod to Freeman. Sure, maybe he'll succumb to the dreaded sophomore jinx, but baseball history also tells us that players often make a huge leap from age 21 to age 22. If Davis hits like he did in the 36 games he played last year (.302/.383/.543) then he's an All-Star candidate, but while he says he's "good to go" for spring training, we'll have to wait to see how his ankle responds. As for Sanchez, he's a lukewarm cup of coffee on a 32-degree day.

Second base
1. Chase Utley, Phillies
2. Danny Espinosa, Nationals
3. Dan Uggla, Braves
4. Daniel Murphy, Mets
5. Omar Infante, Marlins

I put Utley first with some hesitation: His OPS totals since 2007 read .976, .915, .905, .832 and .769. Still, that .769 figure is better than Uggla or Espinosa produced in 2011, and Utley still carries a good glove. It's defense and predicted second-season improvement that pushes Espinosa over Uggla. Murphy doesn't hit many home runs or draw many walks, so most of his offensive value resides in his batting average. If he hits .320 again, he's a good player. If he hits .290, then he's still better than Infante.

Third base
1. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals
2. David Wright, Mets
3. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
4. Chipper Jones, Braves
5. Placido Polanco, Phillies

If healthy, Zimmerman is one of the best players in the league. Ramirez and Wright were once part of that discussion, but no longer. Both players had the worst years of their careers in 2011. Will Wright rebound with the fences moved in at Citi Field? Will Ramirez bounce back and handle the transition to third base? Your guess is as good as mine. Chipper is aging gracefully, playing through injuries but still putting up respectable numbers. If this is his last season, I hope he goes out in style.

Shortstop
1. Jose Reyes, Marlins
2. Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
3. Ruben Tejada, Mets
4. Ian Desmond, Nationals
5. Tyler Pastornicky, Braves

Not much debate here. Tejada posted a .360 OBP in 2011 as a 21-year-old. He doesn't have any power, but I believe the Mets are in good hands at shortstop. The same can't be said about Desmond, who must improve his defense (23 errors) and approach at the plate (139/35 SO/BB ratio). Pastornicky hit .314 in the minors last year, including .365 in 27 games in Triple-A. He puts the ball in play and has some speed, but won't hit for much power or draw many walks, so he'll need to hit for a good average to hold the job.

Left field
1. Michael Morse, Nationals
2. Martin Prado, Braves
3. Logan Morrison, Marlins
4. Domonic Brown/John Mayberry, Phillies
5. Jason Bay, Mets

We have to consider Morse the real deal by now, don't we? Although he comes with a few caveats: That 126/36 SO/BB ratio is a concern; so is his .344 average on balls in play, which ranked 15th in the majors (can he repeat that figure?); and finally, he plays left field a bit like a fire hydrant. By the way, how bad is this group defensively? Morrison may have even less range than Morse, Brown looked terrible in right field with the Phillies last year and Bay isn't getting paid $16 million because he's adept at running down balls in the gap. Actually, I'm not sure what he's getting paid for.

Center field
1. Shane Victorino, Phillies
2. Michael Bourn, Braves
3. Emilio Bonifacio, Marlins
4. Andres Torres, Mets
5. Roger Bernadina, Nationals

This seems pretty straightforward other than the ongoing raging debate between Andres Torres fans and Roger Bernadina fans.

Right field
1. Mike Stanton, Marlins
2. Hunter Pence, Phillies
3. Jason Heyward, Braves
4. Jayson Werth, Nationals
5. Lucas Duda, Mets

Mike Stanton ... 2012 National League MVP? Too soon? I'm just saying don't be surprised if it happens.

No. 1 starter
1. Roy Halladay, Phillies
2. Josh Johnson, Marlins
3. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
4. Tim Hudson, Braves
5. Johan Santana, Mets

Is there a more important player in the majors in 2012 than Johnson? The Marlins fancy themselves contenders but they need a healthy Johnson headlining the rotation. After leading the NL with a 2.30 ERA in 2010, he had posted a 1.64 ERA through 10 starts in 2011 before shoulder tendinitis shelved him for the season. He's been throwing and long tossing and is expected to be 100 percent for spring training. Strasburg has the ability to be just as dominant as Halladay and Johnson, but the Nationals will likely monitor his innings in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.

No. 2 starter
1. Cliff Lee, Phillies
2. Gio Gonzalez, Nationals
3. Mark Buehrle, Marlins
4. Tommy Hanson, Braves
5. R.A. Dickey, Mets

This is a terrific group of No. 2 starters, as even the knuckleballer Dickey posted a 3.28 ERA in 2011 (and 3.08 ERA over the past two seasons). Hanson has Cy Young ability, but his own shoulder issues from late last season raise a red flag.

No. 3 starter
1. Cole Hamels, Phillies
2. Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
3. Anibal Sanchez, Marlins
4. Jair Jurrjens, Braves
5. Mike Pelfrey, Mets

Zimmermann is the sleeping giant in the Nationals rotation. His strikeout/walk ratio of 4.0 ranked 11th-best among starters in 2011 and another year beyond his own TJ surgery should help him develop the stamina to improve on his second-half numbers (2.66 ERA before the All-Star break, 4.47 after). I'm not a big Jurrjens fan; he's a good pitcher, but he's now battled injuries two seasons in a row and his strikeout rate took a big dip last season.

No. 4 starter
1. Brandon Beachy, Braves
2. Vance Worley, Phillies
3. John Lannan, Nationals
4. Jonathon Niese, Mets
5. Ricky Nolasco, Marlins

You could draw this list out of a hat. Beachy and Worley surprised many with their exceptional rookie seasons; I believe both are for real, as both seemed to deliver better-than-advertised fastballs. Now they just have to prove they can become seven-inning pitchers instead of five or six. Niese is an excellent breakout candidate in 2012: He throws hard enough for a lefty (90-91), gets strikeouts, doesn't walk too many, gets groundballs. In fact, his FIP (fielding independent pitching) was 3.36 compared to his actual ERA of 4.40. It wouldn't surprise me to see him win 15 games with a 3.40 ERA. It would surprise me if Nolasco does that; 2008 is starting to look further and further in the rear-view mirror.

No. 5 starter
1. Mike Minor, Braves
2. Carlos Zambrano, Marlins
3. Dillon Gee, Mets
4. Chien-Ming Wang, Nationals
5. Joe Blanton/Kyle Kendrick, Phillies

If you're talking depth, the big edge here goes to the Braves, who also have prospects Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino ready to step in. Big Z is a nice gamble by the Marlins as a No. 5 starter, you could do worse.

Closer
1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
2. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
3. Drew Storen, Nationals
4. Heath Bell, Marlins
5. Frank Francisco, Mets

As dominant as Kimbrel was in winning Rookie of the Year honors (14.8 K's per nine), he did blow eight saves. But Papelbon is just one season removed from his own season of eight blown saves. Factor in Kimbrel's K rate and slightly heavier workload, and I'll give him the slight nod. Bell will have to prove himself away from the friendly confines of Petco Park, so Storen rates the clear No. 3 here.

Bullpen
1. Braves -- Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, Kris Medlen, Cristhian Martinez, Anthony Varvaro
2. Marlins -- Steve Cishek, Edward Mujica, Mike Dunn, Ryan Webb, Randy Choate
3. Nationals -- Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, Henry Rodriguez, Ryan Perry, Tom Gorzelanny
4. Phillies -- Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, Dontrelle Willis, David Herndon, Jose Contreras
5. Mets -- Bobby Parnell, Jon Rauch, Pedro Beato, Tim Byrdak, Manny Acosta

The top four teams all project to have solid-to-excellent pens. Venters and Clippard are arguably the two best set-up guys in baseball. Cishek is the rare sidearmer who can get lefties out as well as righties and he allowed just one home run in 54 innings as a rookie. The Phillies don't need many innings from their pen and while Willis could be a terrific lefty killer (lefties hit .127 off him in 2011), Bastardo must rebound from his late-season fatigue.

Intangibles
1. Marlins
2. Phillies
3. Braves
4. Nationals
5. Mets

New stadium, new free agents, new manager, new uniforms -- I view all of that as a plus for the Marlins. The playoffs left a sour taste for the Phillies' veteran-heavy squad and those guys will want nothing more than to win a sixth straight division title. The Braves have plenty of incentive after their late-season collapse. The Nationals are young but have no chip on their shoulder. But if they sign Prince ...

The final tally
1. Phillies, 58 points
2. Braves, 56 points
3. Marlins, 49 points
4. Nationals, 48 points
5. Mets, 29 points

And the napkin says the Phillies are still the division favorite. What, you want to bet against Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels?

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