SweetSpot: Justin Upton

A very rough, pretty optimistic estimate suggests that Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers will produce about 90 to 95 more runs than last year's Padres outfield. That's about 10 wins worth of offense. However, that doesn't include defense, which is a potential problem if Kemp or Myers plays center field on a regular basis, or the possibility Kemp gets injured or Myers just isn't as good as everyone once believed.

Still, it's been an exciting few days for new general manager A.J. Preller and Padres fans. Besides the three outfielders, Preller acquired catcher Derek Norris and reclamation project Will Middlebrooks to play third base. We don't know what will happen. It could be an insanely genius series of moves or it could be hype that fizzles with a bunch of fly balls to the Petco Park warning track and doubles in the gap as we see the backs of Kemp and Myers chasing after baseballs.

But what did Preller have to lose? The Padres have been boring and bad for years, with just one winning season since 2007 (a flukey 90-win season in 2010) and no postseason trip since 2006. Attendance, over three million in 2004, has hovered around two million in recent seasons.

So Padres fans are buzzing. So is Twitter:

Sure, this could end up like the 2013 Blue Jays, when they added Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson. They were a trendy World Series pick. Big names! Sexy names! The Blue Jays won one more game than the previous season, finishing 74-88.

It will be interesting to see how the power plays out in Petco. Even Middlebrooks and second baseman Jedd Gyorko have 25-homer potential. The Padres were 28th in the majors in home runs in 2014, ahead of only the Cardinals and Royals. I'll go out a limb and say they won't be that low again.

I certainly can't recall a team making a series of big moves like this in such a short period of time, maybe not even one offseason (the Blue Jays got Reyes, Buehrle and Johnson in one trade with the Marlins). That Preller did it without giving up any of his core pieces from 2014 -- most notably, starters Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross or Ian Kenneedy -- or the club's top three prospects is remarkable. But it also shows how much the Dodgers wanted to clear out Kemp's contract and that elite players with one year until free agency just aren't able to bring in a top pro sects (see the Jeff Samardzija trade). It also shows, however, that Kemp and Upton are overrated; big names, yes, but not superstar players at this point in their careers and took a first-year GM like Preller to make the gamble.

Which doesn't mean the Padres haven't traded any of their prospects. Remember, Preller made his mark with the Rangers as a talent evaluator. Time will tell if he traded away the right guys and kept the ones who can play.


Braves need their lineup stars to step up

August, 9, 2014
Aug 9
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.

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.

The big stories a year ago

April, 25, 2014
Apr 25
Four weeks into the 2014 season, we’ve already had plenty to talk about. The Diamondbacks have burst out of the gate as baseball’s worst team. The Braves have had no issue moving on after losing Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to surgery, taking top billing in the NL East. Albert Pujols joined the 500 home run club and reports of his demise may have been greatly exaggerated. And who had the Brewers jumping out to a sizable lead in the NL Central?

Many of these developments, though, will change or be forgotten altogether as the season marches on. If you’re skeptical, come with me as we examine some of the newsworthy headlines from last April.

Carlos Quentin breaks Zack Greinke’s collarbone in brawl

On April 11, the Dodgers were in San Diego for a night game against the Padres with Zack Greinke on the hill. Padres outfielder Carlos Quentin led off the bottom of the sixth and was hit in the shoulder with a 3-2 fastball. He charged the mound and a bench-clearing brawl ensued. Quentin lowered his shoulder into Greinke, breaking the pitcher’s collarbone.

In the aftermath, Quentin was suspended eight games and received a $3,000 fine, and Greinke needed a one-month stint on the disabled list. There were debates about just how long Quentin should have been suspended, as many felt eight games was not enough despite the length being a record at the time. In fact, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said, “He shouldn't play a game until Greinke can pitch.” But ultimately, interest in the debates waned and the issue was forgotten shortly after Greinke’s return.

The obvious comparison this year is the bench-clearing incident between the Brewers and Pirates, when Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole barked at Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez for staring at a fly ball that eventually bounced off of the center-field wall for a triple. Gomez didn’t take kindly to it and went after Cole. The benches emptied and violence ensued. Gomez used his helmet as a weapon while Martin Maldonado punched Travis Snider in the face, leaving a hefty welt. Maldonado and Gomez got five- and three-game suspensions, respectively; the Pirates’ Snider was suspended for two games and Pittsburgh catcher Russell Martin for one. Cole was not suspended for his involvement.

As usual, there have been plenty of debates, particularly involving Cole’s lack of a suspension. Additionally, some have argued that Gomez’s emotion is part of the culture in which he was raised, and is ultimately good for the game. In a week, however, the incident will be forgotten and nothing will change, just like last April.

Justin Upton and the Braves-Diamondbacks trade

In January 2013, the Diamondbacks and Braves agreed to a headline trade. The Diamondbacks sent outfielder Justin Upton and infielder Chris Johnson to the Braves for three minor leaguers, pitcher Randall Delgado and jack-of-all-trades Martin Prado. The trade was initially hailed as a slight win for the Braves.

Upton started off his time with his new team on fire. In 112 plate appearances through the end of April, Upton hit 12 home runs with an 1.136 OPS. At the end of April, Johnson was also hitting .369 while Delgado was struggling in Triple-A for the D-backs and Prado had a meager .614 OPS. Some thought the trade could end up worse than it looked, even back in January.

But as players on hot streaks are wont to do, Upton cooled off. The 12 home runs he hit in April were followed by a grand total of four between the start of May and the end of July. He finished the season with 27 home runs, meaning that 44.4 percent of his home runs were hit in April, which encapsulated 17.4 percent of his plate appearances. Johnson wound up being the X factor in the trade, as he finished with a .321 average and matched Upton in WAR at 2.4, according to Baseball Reference. At the end of the season, the trade between the D-backs and Braves wasn’t nearly as much of a win for the Braves as it appeared at the end of April.

This past offseason’s biggest trade involved three teams. The Diamondbacks got Mark Trumbo, cash and two players to be named later; the Angels got Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago; and the White Sox got Adam Eaton. While the Diamondbacks may appear to have lost that trade in the early going -- Trumbo has minus-0.3 WAR despite an NL-leading seven home runs, and is currently on the DL -- a lot can happen in the next five months to change our evaluations.

Matt Harvey joins baseball’s elite, but leaves just as quickly

At the end of July in 2012, the Mets added Matt Harvey to their rotation and were immediately rewarded. He posted a 2.73 ERA over 10 starts, cementing his place in the Mets’ rotation. Harvey was even better over a larger sample size in 2013, and it all began in his first start. The right-hander shut out the Padres over seven innings with 10 strikeouts and held the opposition to two or fewer runs in eight out of his first nine starts.

The Mets shut Harvey down after his 26th start on August 24. He finished with a 2.27 ERA, 191 strikeouts and 31 walks in 178 1/3 innings. He led the league in FIP at 2.01 and finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting.

In September, it was revealed that Harvey needed Tommy John surgery to repair a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Harvey had tried his best to avoid surgery, but ultimately went under the knife on October 22. The operation meant that he will miss most or all of the 2014 season, a serious blow to the Mets.

Pitchers, as a group, seemingly are needing Tommy John surgery now more than they ever have. Harvey was later joined by Medlen, Beachy, Matt Moore, Patrick Corbin, Jarrod Parker, Jameson Taillon and now Ivan Nova, among others who needed the surgery.

The Red Sox really were baseball’s best

At the end of April 2013, the Red Sox had baseball’s best record at 18-8. It was matched by baseball’s best run differential at plus-38. The Sox had finished 2012 at a disappointing 69-93, but made a lot of personnel changes, including at manager, during the offseason. Still, few had them winning the AL East going into the season. Only four of the ESPN experts polled in March picked the Red Sox to make the postseason, and all four of them pegged the Sox as wild-card winners, not division winners.

The additions of Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp, Jake Peavy and Koji Uehara proved to be just what the doctor ordered even though only Napoli and Carp came out of the gates hitting. Peavy wasn’t acquired until midseason in a trade with the White Sox, and Uehara didn’t become the closer until late June.

The Red Sox were fearsome enough with their core of David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Shane Victorino and Jacoby Ellsbury. But the ebbs and flows of a season sometimes require tinkering, and GM Ben Cherington and manager John Farrell weren’t afraid to tinker when the situation called for it.

Right now, the Athletics (plus-36) and the Braves (plus-21) have the best run differentials in their respective leagues. Will they still be at the top when the end of the regular season rolls around? Will they make the appropriate adjustments to remain competitive through the dog days of summer? That is, after all, why they play the games.

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.

1. The biggest story of the first two weeks has to be the Milwaukee Brewers, winners of nine in a row and at 10-2, two wins better than any other team in the early going. The big surprise is the Brewers have allowed just 29 runs, fewest in the majors. They swept Pittsburgh over the weekend by out-Pirating the Pirates, winning 4-2, 3-2 and 4-1.

Kyle Lohse was dominant in Sunday’s win, falling one out short of a complete game when manager Ron Roenicke removed him after Andrew McCutchen singled with two outs (Roenicke was greeted with a smattering of boos from the home crowd but was vindicated when Will Smith fanned Pedro Alvarez on three pitches to end it).

The Brewers are a difficult team to analyze. They’ve drawn just 25 walks, fourth fewest in the majors, so they love to swing the bats and you wonder if this aggressive approach will be exploited as the season rolls on. They have a 1.80 ERA and it hasn’t been just smoke and mirrors -- they’re fourth in the majors in strikeout percentage and tied for sixth in lowest walk percentage. The unknown at this point is whether the staff is really shaping up as one of the best in the majors. A year ago it ranked 27th in strikeout percentage and 11th in walk percentage.

Anyway, without overanalyzing two weeks of results, what I wanted to know about Milwaukee is this: Does a long winning streak mean good things are ahead for the Brewers? There are a lot of nine-game winning streaks in a season, so searching for any nine-game winning streak might not tell us much. I thought I’d check nine-game streaks in April to see if that correlates to season-long success. For example, last season the Braves and A’s both had nine-game winning streaks in April and went on to division titles.

But you know who else had a nine-game winning streak in April? The Milwaukee Brewers. Of course, they had started 2-8 before reeling off nine a row from April 14 through April 23, so that put them at 11-8. They were 14-11 through April 30 but then went 6-22 in May and the season was over.

Another way to look at the Brewers’ hot start is to look at teams that began 10-2 or better to start the season. Here are the teams since 1996 to do that:

2013 Braves: 11-1 (96-66, division title)
2012 Rangers: 10-2 (93-69, wild card)
2011 Rockies: 10-2 (73-89, missed playoffs)
2009 Marlins: 11-1 (87-75, missed playoffs)
2006 Mets: 10-2 (97-65, division title)
2005 Dodgers: 10-2 (71-91, missed playoffs)
2003 Giants: 11-1 (100-61, division title)
2003 Royals: 11-1 (83-79, missed playoffs)
2003 Yankees: 10-2 (101-61, division title)
2002 Indians: 11-1 (74-88, missed playoffs)
1999 Indians: 10-2 (97-65, division champ)
1998 Indians: 10-2 (89-73, division champ)
1998 Padres: 10-2 (98-64, division champ)
1998 Orioles: 10-2 (79-83, missed playoffs)
1996 Orioles: 10-2 (88-74, wild card)

The tally: The 15 teams went an average of 88-74 with nine of them making the playoffs. So a hot start isn’t a guarantee of reaching the postseason. The 2005 Dodgers started 10-2 and went 15-8 in April, but that proved to be their only winning month. Still, a 10-2 stretch is a sign of something. In the tough NL Central, it means we could be seeing a four-team race this year.

2. We’ll have more Braves coverage Monday to preview the Braves-Phillies game on ESPN, so just a couple of quick thoughts on the Braves’ impressive weekend sweep of the Nationals. Justin Upton, who is 11-for-14 over his past four games with four home runs, two doubles and 8 RBIs, is in one of his patented hot streaks. But we've seen this before, most notably last April. I still don’t expect Upton to suddenly morph into anything different from what he was last year, but it's fun to watch when he gets in a groove.

The Nationals are 6-0 against the Mets and Marlins, 1-5 against the Braves ... which sounds a lot like 2013, when the Nationals went 6-13 against the Braves and 80-63 against everyone else. Until they prove they can beat the Braves, I’m going to withdraw my preseason evaluation of the Nationals as one of the three best teams in baseball.

Finally, Freddie Freeman: No hitter has looked more impressive through two weeks than Freeman, who is hitting .442/.519/.814. He hit his fourth home run Sunday -- a towering fly ball to right field (about as high as you’ll see any home run hit). Most impressive to me is he’s struck out just four times in 52 plate appearances -- a 7.7 percent strikeout rate compared to 19.2 percent in 2013. If this K-rate is a sign of a new and improved Freeman, he’s going to win the batting title.

3. Mark Buehrle is one of those players you don’t properly appreciate until you take the time to properly appreciate him. The fastest pitch he’s thrown this season is 86.0 mph and after a sterling seven-inning effort in Toronto’s 11-3 pounding of the Orioles he’s 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA.

He has as many swings and misses in his three starts (24) as Felix Hernandez got on Opening Day, but he pounds that outside corner to right-handed batters and they often pounded it into the ground. When they say velocity doesn't matter, what they really mean, "Well, no, not if you can paint the corners like Mark Buehrle." Since Buehrle debuted in 2000, the only pitchers with more than his 189 wins are CC Sabathia (206), Tim Hudson (196) and Roy Halladay (194).

4. In that game, Ubaldo Jimenez had his third shaky outing, giving up 10 hits and five runs, including two home runs. He’s 0-3 and has allowed 13 runs in 16 innings, with a 13-10 strikeout-walk ratio and four home runs. Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie tagged him Sunday, Rasmus on a 3-2, 92 mph low fastball over the middle of the plate and Lawrie on a 2-1 splitter that was pretty much down the middle. Obviously, both were pitches in bad locations.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyDon't worry about Chris Davis -- he'll still hit a bunch of home runs this year.
Compared to last year, Jimenez’s velocity on his fastball is down a bit (91.7 to 90.0) and while his overall percentage of strikes is about the same, he’s throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone (50 percent to 46 percent) and inducing about 4 percent fewer swings and misses. We don’t want to consign this to the bad signings bin after three outings, but so far Jimenez hasn’t resembled the pitcher who had a 1.82 ERA over his final 13 starts last season for Cleveland.

5. More Orioles: Chris Davis, last year’s 53-homer monster, finally hit his first of 2014, a 433-foot bash to straightaway center. The good news here is that Davis hasn’t actually been "slumping" like he's prone to do; he’s still hitting .279/.353/.419, so at least he has been contributing even without the home runs. I'm not worried about the slow power output so far and still see him as a 38-to-40 homer guy. I thought I’d check to see which players who hit 50-plus home runs had the biggest decrease the following season. Here are those who fell by 25 or more home runs:

Hack Wilson, 1930-31: -43 (56 to 13)
Mark McGwire, 1999-2000: -33 (65 to 32)
Brady Anderson, 1996-97: -32 (50 to 18)
Luis Gonzalez, 2001-02: -29 (57 to 28)
Roger Maris, 1961-62: -28 (61 to 33)
Barry Bonds, 2001-02: -27 (73 to 46)
Hank Greenberg, 1938-39: -25 (58 to 33)

Of the 42 previous players to hit 50, they dropped on average from 55.7 home runs to 43.6 the following season, which puts Davis right around 40.

6. After tearing apart the Angels in their opening series, the Mariners' offense is starting to look a lot like ... the Mariners' offense. In four of their five losses since that 3-0 start they’ve allowed three runs or fewer, so the pitching staff has done its job even with Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker on the disabled list.

The A’s beat the Mariners 3-1 Saturday and shut them out 3-0 Sunday behind Scott Kazmir (looking good early on) and some late runs. Suddenly, the Mariners are hitting .225 and rank 27th in the majors in batting average and on-base percentage. Robinson Cano is hitting .333 but hasn’t homered and some disturbing numbers have come from Kyle Seager (.121), Brad Miller (17 strikeouts, one walk), Mike Zunino (12 strikeouts, no walks) and Corey Hart (nine strikeouts, one walk).

7. Here’s a double play you rarely see: 6-2-4-3-2 as the Rays recorded two outs at home plate. It didn't matter in the end as the Reds won 12-4, but the Rays still won the series after winning 2-1 and 1-0 in the first two games behind David Price and Alex Cobb. Cesar Ramos started Sunday in place of the injured Matt Moore in what was essentially a bullpen game -- Tampa Bay used six pitchers, none for more than two innings. For all the attention given to Billy Hamilton’s slow start, shortstop Zack Cozart is hitting even worse (.114/.162/.171). The more you look at this Reds lineup, the more you wonder where the runs are going to come from.

8. Continuing on our struggling offenses theme, we bring you the Kansas City Royals, who have one home run in 11 games. They suffered a three-game sweep in Minnesota, getting outscored 21-5. Sunday’s 4-3 loss was especially dispiriting as the Royals had scored three runs in the top of the eighth to take a 3-2 lead on a 42-degree day in Minneapolis. But Aaron Crow walked the first two batters of the eighth, bringing on Wade Davis, who struck out Joe Mauer but then loaded the bases with another walk.

He induced a tapper back to the mound for what could have been a 1-2-3 inning-ending double play but instead threw wildly to catcher Salvador Perez. One major reason for the Royals’ 86-76 record last year was beating up on the hapless Twins -- they went 15-4 with a plus-47 scoring margin (exactly their scoring margin for the season). We give the two-week caveat, but this game showcased my concern with the Royals heading into the season: a lack of power and a bullpen that probably wasn’t going to repeat last year’s AL-leading 2.55 ERA.

9. Two general takeaways from the first weeks: There is a lot of parity in the American League this season. It wouldn’t surprise me to see two or even three playoff teams from the AL win fewer than 90 games. The only AL playoff teams in the past decade to win fewer than 90 were the 2012 Tigers (88), 2009 Twins (87) and 2008 White Sox (89).

Second, offense is puttering along at about the same pace as last year, when batters hit .253/.318/.396, the lowest major league average of the DH era (since 1973). This year, we’re off to a .247/.316/.393 start heading into the Sunday night Red Sox-Yankees game. And, no, offense doesn’t always pick up when the weather heats up.

Last year, the OPS per month ranged from .706 (July and September) to .722 (May). In 2012, hitters were "cold" in April with .711 OPS and increased that to .730 and .731 in May, June and July. In 2011, the OPS ranged from .708 (June) to .740 (August).

10. Adrian Gonzalez homered Sunday for the fourth straight game and Giancarlo Stanton hit another mammoth bomb Saturday, a 469-foot blast that now gives him the first- and third-longest home runs of 2014. But the biggest home run news of the week came Wednesday when David Ortiz took 32.91 seconds to round the bases after his home run -- the slowest trot yet recorded on Larry Granillo’s Tater Trot leaderboard.

Is Freddie Freeman ready for bigger things?

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2

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.
ATLANTA -- Evan Gattis slipped on a pair of jeans and buttoned his plaid shirt, turned around and faced the questions.

Gattis is the Braves rookie with the inspiring backstory, the guy who quit baseball in college and was out of the sport for several years, working odd jobs across the country before getting back into the game. He's the kind of player who fans love, an everyman who hits without batting gloves, seemingly a testament to his unconventional path to the big leagues.

The Braves won 96 games and coasted to the National League East title, but in the biggest game of their season, there was Gattis, a catcher by trade with limited experience in the outfield, playing left field and batting cleanup against the best pitcher on the planet.

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
AP Photo/David GoldmanClayton Kershaw struck out 12 in seven innings in the Dodgers' Game 1 win.
As fun as is story is, and even with all the late-inning heroics he's provided this year, it's also a sign of the Braves' weaknesses that Gattis is now playing such a vital role on this team. He was involved in two crucial plays in the Braves' 6-1 opening game loss to the Dodgers.

In the second inning, he butchered a soft liner from A.J. Ellis into a run-scoring double, running hard but missing the catch as he dove after the ball. "Just a play I didn’t make," he said. In the bottom of the inning, Gattis reached against Clayton Kershaw on a bloop single but then got caught off first when Yasiel Puig easily ran down a shallow fly in right-center. "I got deked," he said. "I didn’t think he was going to get there. Took a hard step towards second base. Just a mistake."

Manager Fredi Gonzalez has Gattis in the lineup for power, but even the bat has cooled off after a hot start. Gattis hit just .242/.272/.406 in the second half, and that included his six-homer September; his .291 OBP is decidedly a non-cleanup kind of number. In fact, Dan Uggla -- left off the playoff roster -- had a higher OBP on the season than Gattis.

Gonzalez's other gamble of sorts is Uggla’s replacement at second, Elliot Johnson, claimed on waivers from the Royals in late August after hitting .179 with Kansas City. Johnson hit a quiet .261 for the Braves in 32 games, enough to take the job away from the slumping Uggla. But he's in there for his glove not his bat and he booted Carl Crawford's grounder leading off the third -- generously ruled a hit -- setting the stage for a two-run Dodgers rally that made it 4-0.

That was the most discouraging part of this game for the Braves. There's no shame in losing to Kershaw, but the defense let starter Kris Medlen down. Jason Heyward had two good opportunities to throw out a runner at home plate but overthrew the cutoff man both times, allowing baserunners to advance. Medlen's final line looked ugly -- four innings, nine hits, five runs -- but with better defense he keeps his club in the game (although he did make one huge mistake, a changeup left out over the plate that Adrian Gonzalez crushed to center for a two-run homer following Johnson's hit/error.

As for Kershaw, the Braves hadn't faced him this year, and he's tough enough to figure out even if you have seen him before. Justin Upton, who was 3-for-29 in his career against Kershaw from his Diamondbacks days, said, "He's the best I’ve ever seen. He got into a rhythm. He got any fire we had going early on and that was it."

Kershaw appeared to struggle early on with his fastball command but even a not-his-best Kershaw can make any team look helpless, and he battled through seven innings and 124 pitches, striking out 12 of the whiff-prone Braves while walking three and allowing just three hits. As he struggled with his command, he started to throw more offspeed pitches in the middle innings, including one unfair curveball to pinch-hitter B.J. Upton that Upton simply looked and headed to the duguout.

Don't worry, B.J., you're not the only one: Batters his .097 off Kershaw's curveball this year with 80 strikeouts, no extra-base hits and no walks. That's as unhittable a weapon as pitcher can possess.

"We went out and worked him," Freddie Freeman said "I think he had 130 pitches in seven innings. We just couldn't get the runs across and in the end that's all that matters."

[+] EnlargeElliot Johnson
AP Photo/Dave MartinElliot Johnson and the rest of the Braves' hitters had no answer for what Kershaw had to offer.
The Braves, of course, have a fairly tortured playoff history, and not just those great teams of the '90s that won just one World Series (tell Cubs and Indians fans that one title wasn't enough). Including last year’s wild-card game they've lost seven series in a row since beating the Astros in the 2001 Division Series. Including Thursday's loss, the Braves are 9-21 in the playoffs since beating Houston.

The Braves are still confident heading into tomorrow. You don't win 96 games without a lot of that. Facing right-hander Zack Greinke will give Freeman, Heyward and Brian McCann -- arguably their three best hitters -- the platoon advantage. Don't be surprised if lefty-swinging Jordan Schafer is out in left field.

"That's the beauty of it," Freeman said. "Come back and go at it tomorrow. Give these fans something to cheer about."

When asked if it's a must-win game, Justin Upton smiled. "That's why they give us five games."

Unfortunately, if it does go the distance, the large shadow of Mr. Kershaw looms in the distance.

This is how you win 13 games in a row. You're tied 3-3 in the eighth inning. With two outs, Andrelton Simmons doubles. A guy named Joey Terdoslavich walks. Jason Heyward singles in one run, Justin Upton doubles in two and then the league's best bullpen does its job the final two innings. Heyward and Upton get the glory stats with the RBIs, but the key at-bat of the inning in the Braves' 6-3 win over the Nationals was Terdoslavich walking on a 3-2 pitch.

1. Thirteen in a row is pretty awesome. How often does it happen? Since 1990, here are the streaks of of 13 games or longer:

2002 A's: 20 (second-longest in history)
2001 Mariners: 15
2000 Braves: 15
1991 Twins: 15
1999 Padres: 14
1994 Royals: 14
1991 Rangers: 14
1999 Orioles: 13
1992 Braves: 13
1991 Phillies: 13

And now the 2013 Braves. That's 11 streaks in 24 seasons, so it happens on average about once every two seasons or so. Pretty impressive.

2. Kris Medlen looked pretty good on Wednesday. He's only 9-10, however. What's going on there?

Medlen, of course, had that unhittable stretch as a starter last season, going 9-0 with an 0.97 ERA in 12 starts. He's been much more hittable this season, without the same fastball command and precise location on his change. Opponents are slugging .450 off his fastball as opposed to .355 last year. But it was the changeup that was absolutely devastating a season ago: Batters hit .087 (10-for-115) with one home run; it was arguably the best pitch in the game. In 2013, they're hitting .210, although with just two home runs, so he's still keeping it down in the zone. Maybe he's not the ace some projected at the start of the season, but he's pretty solid.

3. But they don't need him to be an ace, do they?

Not with the way Mike Minor and Julio Teheran are pitching. Minor is finally starting to get some publicity, but it's the rookie Teheran who has been the big surprise. Since giving up 13 runs and five home runs in his first three starts, he's posted a 2.38 ERA and has allowed zero runs or one run 10 times in 19 starts. He's legit.

4. How about Jason Heyward hitting leadoff?

I love it. Simmons is not a leadoff guy with his sub-.300 OBP. Heyward may have the body of a cleanup hitter but he's the best leadoff option for the Braves right now, so it was a smart move by Fredi Gonzalez to move him there in late July. The Braves are 12-0 since that move, which is mostly coincidence, but partly getting a lineup into a more efficient order.
[+] EnlargeJustin Upton, Brian McCann
AP Photo/Nick Wass Is Justin Upton the Braves' key ingredient?

5. Justin Upton appears to the straw that stirs the drink, no?

He does. I can't explain what happened during that two-month funk when he hit .224 with two home runs in 54 games. After going 3-for-4 against the Nationals, Upton now has a 12-game hitting streak during which he's batting .440 with five home runs -- those Upton home runs that have that special sound. Remember when Upton started the season red-hot and carried the Braves to a 12-1 start? So two hot Upton stretches, two hot Braves stretches.

6. Is Freddie Freeman the new Chipper Jones?

He kind of is, in that he seems like the heart and soul of this team, so to speak. He's famous for hugs and he's getting famous for his bat. He's hitting .311 with 79 RBIs and some people feel he's been the team MVP. He's also starting to enter the periphery of the NL MVP discussion as well.

7. OK, the bullpen. How awesome is it? There's that word again.

Pretty hard to say it isn't the best. It has the lowest ERA in the majors (2.40), the lowest batting average allowed (.212), the lowest OPS (.589), the best winning percentage (22-8) and the fewest home runs allowed (16). Craig Kimbrel had a little blip earlier when he blew three saves but he's now converted 26 in a row and has allowed one run his past 32 innings. Considering the Braves lost Jonny Venters in spring training and Eric O'Flaherty early in the year, kudos to Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell for their work in handling Luis Avilan, Jordan Walden and the rest.

8. Chris Johnson! Dude! How could you wait to No. 8 here to mention him?

No kidding. Two more hits on Wednesday, raising his average to .339, best in the NL. It's insane. His batting average on balls in play is .419. That's not off the charts, that's impossible. Only four players since 1950 have hit .400 on balls in play according to Baseball-Reference, with Rod Carew's .408 in 1977 the "record."

9. Dan Uggla? Why does everyone hate him?

Because he's Dan Uggla.

10. OK, the schedule has something to do with this, right? The NL East is kind of a joke.

True, but the streak did start with three wins over the Cardinals. But you know? The Braves have only seven games the rest of the season against teams currently with winning records (four against St. Louis, three against Cleveland). With a 70-45 record and 47 games remaining, the Braves could be on their way to 100 wins.

11. You forgot to mention Andrelton Simmons' defense!

I did. Thanks for covering me there.

Coming into the season, the Atlanta Braves' outfield was supposed to be the team's strength. Not only did it appear Jason Heyward was coming into his own, but the club acquired both Justin Upton and B.J. Upton over the winter, giving them three high-upside outfielders with All-Star potential in their early-to-mid 20s.

As you're probably aware, things haven't worked out as planned. Although Justin Upton had a fantastic April, the entire trio has struggled for the past two-plus months, hitting a combined .211 with 14 home runs since May 1.

And insult turned to injury this week: Heyward had to leave Thursday’s game early with a hamstring strain (he’s day-to-day), and then in Friday’s 4-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, both Uptons had to leave due to injury -- B.J. with an adductor strain and Justin with a strained left calf.

It would be easy to panic and think, "Oh no, the Braves are in trouble." But here’s the thing: The outfield has been awful for most of the season, and yet the club still sits in first place in the National League East, 13 games above .500 (53-40) and six games ahead of the Washington Nationals.

Thanks to Justin Upton's hot start, Evan Gattis' heroics, the steady performance of Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson -- not to mention the resurgent Brian McCann -- the Braves' offense has been surprisingly potent (third in the NL in runs). Meanwhile, the deepest pitching staff in the league has posted a 3.25 ERA, good for second-best in the league, all of which has provided the club with that six-game cushion.

With that in mind, allow me to offer the Braves a piece of unsolicited advice: Take it slow with your outfielders. If all three need to go on the DL, so be it. This would be the time to do it. You have four days off next week, which would mean they would each only miss about 10 games, which is practically nothing. Besides, it’s not as if these guys have been helping the team much anyway.

If the Braves are going to win the World Series, they are going to need production from Heyward and the Uptons, and maybe a little bit of a physical (and mental) break will help get all three of them back on track for the stretch run. It certainly can’t hurt.

Atlanta should be thrilled it has the luxury of such a large cushion, and that affords the club a lot of leeway here. Besides, it’s not like the replacements can play much worse.

The Atlanta Braves are a team built around its star outfield trio, and a big reason the Braves are a mediocre 33-32 since soaring to a 12-1 start is that Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward haven't been producing.

The Braves hold the largest lead of any NL division leader at 6 games, but that two-month stretch of .500 baseball has Braves fans wondering what big move the club will make before the trade deadline.

I'm not sure they make a move; this is pretty much the team you're going to see the rest of the season, and the best way for the Braves to improve -- and to hold off that potential NL East run from the Nationals -- is for those outfielders to start hitting.

Justin Upton hit 12 home runs in his first 23 games, riding that hot start to a potential starting berth in the All-Star Game, but he's hit .211 with three home runs in 50 games since then. B.J. Upton continues to struggle below the Mendoza Line and Heyward is hitting .216 after missing time earlier following an appendectomy.

There was some positive news on Tuesday, as Heyward hit the go-ahead home run in the seventh inning off Royals reliever Tim Collins in a 4-3 victory, his first homer all season off a lefty. While Heyward has played much better in June -- .297/.354/.484 with four home runs -- the overall season lines for the three are obviously a big disappointment compared to preseason projections (via Dan Szymborski):

Justin Upton
Preseason ZiPS: .263/.348/.442, 3.0 WAR
Current stats: .241/.351/.455, 1.2 WAR

B.J. Upton
Preseason ZiPS: .251/.322/.455, 3.5 WAR
Current stats: .177/.273/.315, -0.9 WAR

Jason Heyward
Preseason ZiPS: .265/.341/.472, 4.0 WAR
Current stats: .216/.318/.356, 0.3 WAR

You probably noticed one thing, however: Justin Upton is actually hitting right near his projected numbers; maybe he's gotten there in a peculiar fashion, but his overall line isn't a surprise. Instead of hitting like an MVP candidate, he's hitting like a guy who misses hitting in Arizona. Upton is actually hitting .275 with a .941 OPS on the road, but just .203 with a .656 at home.

Through April 27 he was hitting .305 with 12 home runs. What's been the difference for him since his hot start?

Before April 27 he wasn't missing anything in the horizontal middle of the plate. Of those 12 home runs, three had come on pitches in the middle-outside part of the plate, four on middle, two on middle-in and two actually came on inside pitches out of the zone. At that point in the season, here were his various swing data:

Swing percentage: 44 percent
Miss percentage: 29 percent
Chase percentage: 22 percent
Percentage of pitches in zone: 51 percent

Swing data since April 28:

Swing percentage: 43 percent
Miss percentage: 35 percent
Chase percentage: 21 percent
Percentage of pitches in zone: 47 percent

Here's what his batting average zones look like since April 28:

UptonESPN Stats & InformationJustin Upton is swinging and missing more often since April 28.

So there isn't a big difference in his approach; he's just swinging and missing more often. One note there: He's seeing more pitches up in the zone -- about 5 percent more often since that hot start -- and that's the pitch he's been struggling with. Since April 28, he's hitting .160 on pitches up. On the season, he's 0-for-22 on fastballs up in the zone (with eight walks and 17 strikeouts). He's going to keep seeing hard stuff until he shows he can turn on it.

B.J. Upton's struggles have been well documented. He's worked on his mechanics, but he's struggling to connect with the fastball: He's hit .194 against them, good for 158th out 161 regulars (only Josh Hamilton, Yuniesky Betancourt and Adeiny Hechavarria have a lower average).

Heyward's struggles against left-handers have become a legitimate problem on his path to stardom. After holding his own against them as a 20-year-old rookie in 2010, he's done little damage since:

2010: .249/.356/.399
2011: .192/.270/.308
2012: .224/.280/.354
2013: .185/.264/.308

His home run off Collins was a long blast to right-center off an 0-2 curveball. Collins wanted to go low and away but left it over the middle of the plate. "I was just looking for a pitch in the zone to hit," Heyward said. "Looking for a pitch in the zone to hit right there and try not to miss it. Put a good swing on it." It was just his fourth hit in 33 at-bats with two strikes against a lefty pitcher.

Braves fans seem to have their venom directed at Dan Uggla, but this team wasn't built to win based on Uggla hitting 36 home runs like he did in 2011. This team was counting on Upton, Upton and Heyward to be the best all-around outfield in the league. That is far from the case. It could be that the big decision the Braves face isn't a deadline trade, but manager Fredi Gonzalez determining if Jordan Schafer (.317/.406/.475 in 141 plate appearances) deserves more playing time.

Until or unless that becomes closer to a reality, don't count out the Nationals eventually making a run for the division title.

So, the way I see it, there are two answers here for the Atlanta Braves, both equally defensible:

1. You signed B.J. Upton to be your center fielder for the next five years. You're paying him a lot of money to do that. You can't give up on him so easily, so quickly, even if his batting line is a horrifying .148/.236/.252 after 176 plate appearances.

2. The object is to field your best team possible. Right now, that doesn't include B.J. Upton playing center field, at least on a regular basis.

What do you do if you're Fredi Gonzalez?

Of course, it's not even as easy as either/or. The Braves could keep playing Upton out there. They could play Jordan Schafer, who is hitting .299/.419/.455 in 95 PAs after hitting his second home run in Tuesday's 7-6 win over the Blue Jays.

The most interesting scenario is finding a way to keep Evan Gattis' bat in the lineup with Brian McCann back catching. The only way to do is that is to play Gattis in left, Justin Upton in right and move Jason Heyward to center. Gonzalez tried out that trio for the first time on Saturday.

What makes this so fun to debate is that all of these scenarios have issues. Is Gattis' bat for real -- he hit his 12th home run on Tuesday -- or will the league catch up to him? And how brutal would he be defensively? Heyward is a Gold Glove right fielder but has only played three games in center in his major league career, so how well could he handle the position? Schafer's track record suggests he's playing way over his head, but what if his improved walk rate is for real? There's also the worry -- it can't be ignored -- that benching B.J. Upton could upset his brother.

But the biggest question: What's going on with B.J.?

As Lee Singer of ESPN Stats & Information reports, Upton has been working with coaches to eliminate the excessive load in his swing, which Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said has caused Upton to be late on fastballs all season. Indeed, Upton is hitting .159 against fastballs after hitting .254 against them from 2009-12. Just 16 percent of his balls in play against fastballs have been "well hit," compared to 33 percent over those previous four seasons.


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Upton said it's an easy fix, although you have to why has it taken 175 plate appearances to fix it? "Just kind of a bad habit that developed," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "That happens in the game, man. Nothing you can do but just keep going, man. It's not the first time I struggled, won't be the last time. Just keep working. My thing is, just don't give up. As long as I do that, I'll come out of it.

"There's still time left. I'll get it turned around."

But will he? I went to the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index and looked at the past 25 years and found 18 players who hit below .175 in the first half of the season while getting at least 175 plate appearances. (Obviously, Upton has time in the first half to get over that .175 mark.) Of those 18, only four ended the season above .200, the highest being .219.

Now, most of those guys weren't 28-year-olds in their supposed primes who had just signed $75 million contracts. The most interesting comparison is one Braves fans might be familiar with. In 2006, Andruw Jones hit 41 home runs and drove in 129 runs. He hit .222 the next year, and in 2008, after signing a two-year, $36.5 million deal with the Dodgers, plummeted to .158 in 238 PAs. He hurt his knee in late May but was already well under .200. He was also out of shape and three years older than B.J., but was also better than B.J. at his best.

If anything, this speaks to the Braves' depth, a key reason why they are 4.5 games up on the Nationals in the NL East. That lead means Gonzalez doesn't have to panic. But I would suggest that Upton has been so bad that I don't believe he'll find an easy fix to his problems. And money certainly shouldn't be the deciding factor. I'd keep platooning Schafer and Upton and find a way to play Gattis a few times a week in left field. The big picture says you let Upton work his out of his slump, but baseball is also a game of streaks, and right now you ride Schafer and Gattis while they're hot.

Let's be honest here, Justin Upton's first game back in Arizona wasn't exactly Alex Rodriguez heading back to Texas or Roger Clemens returning to Fenway Park. When he stepped up in the top of the first inning on Monday, it was mostly a milquetoast reaction from the scattered crowd at Chase Field: Some boos, some cheers, just enough of an uprising to elicit a small smile from Upton as he walked up to the plate.

Which wasn't really much of a surprise. Upton didn't demand a trade. He didn't call Phoenix a football city. The front office seemed to have more issues with Upton than the fans did, so there wasn't really much reason to rain boos upon him.

Upton had the right approach before the game, telling the media, "All this leading up to it is a little bit more than what the game will be. It's not Game 7 of the World Series and there's going to be a lot of games that come after this one, so I take it in stride and play three games on the road and get back home."

Of course, maybe that's why the Diamondbacks traded him in the first place. Where's the fire in that quote? Where's the spitting up blood in revenge? Just another game? Tell that to Kirk Gibson.

So maybe Upton sounded a little nonchalant before the game. I like that mindset: Don't make any one game too big. Baseball isn't a game played on emotion; you can't go up and down all season long or you'll be burned out by July. That doesn't mean emotion isn't part of the game or that effort isn't important; it means success resides in the consistency of effort, the repetition of doing the same things day after day.

[+] EnlargeAtlanta'a Justin Upton
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinJustin Upton had four hits, including this two-run home run, against his former team.
Not that it isn't sweet to step up at certain times. As Nolan Ryan once said, "One of the beautiful things about baseball is that every once in a while you come into a situation where you want to, and where you have to, reach down and prove something."

Upton didn't have to prove anything to the Diamondbacks on Monday. Still, when he belted a 2-0 changeup from Wade Miley over the center-field wall in the sixth inning -- well beyond the high center-field wall -- you know it felt good. He chomped hard on his gum as he quickly rounded the bases, no doubt suppressing a smile as he crossed home plate and received the celebratory hand slap from brother B.J., who scored on the home run.

His teammates, however, happily greeted him upon his return to the dugout, one of many big moments for the Braves in a 10-1 victory.

It was Upton's major league-leading 13th home run, but first since April 27. In the 14 games since then he had hit .205 with 16 strikeouts, drawing 12 walks as opponents started giving him less to hit after his hot start. It was also just his second that didn't come with the bases empty. If there's one thing to nitpick about Upton's season so far it's that he's hasn't hit as well with men on base -- .184 in 49 at-bats, .167 with runners in scoring position -- but that's small sample size data and nothing to draw early conclusions from yet.

The home run will only fuel the widespread belief that the Braves swindled the D-backs in their big offseason trade, especially since Martin Prado has struggled so far for Arizona, hitting .233/285/.346, and pitcher Randall Delgado has a 9.09 ERA in Triple-A.

While the trade looks bad right now for the D-backs, it's worth noting they're still playing well with a 21-18 record, just 1.5 games worse than Atlanta's. And that record has been accomplished even though second baseman Aaron Hill has played just 10 games, Opening Day cleanup hitter Miguel Montero is hitting under .200, Jason Kubel has missed half the season, Adam Eaton has missed the entire season, Ian Kennedy and Brandon McCarthy have combined for one win in 16 starts, and closer J.J. Putz struggled before landing on the DL.

In other words, a lot has gone wrong for Arizona and they're hanging in there. One of the major offseason goals for Arizona GM Kevin Towers was to improve the team's depth and that depth has allowed them to overcome the injuries and slow starts.

So let's not grade the Upton deal just yet; if the D-backs end up winning the NL West -- which they're absolutely capable of doing -- maybe both organizations end up happy with their 2012-13 offseason. It's too early to get all emotional about things.
On Tuesday night, B.J. Upton and little brother Justin Upton became just the second brother combo to hit back-to-back home runs, joining Hall of Famers Lloyd and Paul Waner, who did it on Sept. 15, 1938. Here are some notes about major league brothers ...
  • The fact that the Waners went back-to-back is pretty remarkable since Lloyd only hit five homers that year and Paul six (he actually hit two in the game). It was also that last home run of Lloyd's career (he hit 27 in his career). Lloyd is one of the weakest members of the Hall of Fame, with the old story being he only got in because the Veterans Committee must have been looking at Paul's stats. The only other family to produce two Hall of Famers are brothers Harry and George Wright, early pioneers of the professional game.
  • Gaylord Perry and Jim Perry had identical career records of 215-174 for a few days in 1976.
  • Pitcher Joe Niekro hit one home run in his long career -- it came off brother Phil.
  • In the late '50s and early '60s, the Giants came with Felipe, Matty and Jesus Alou. Felipe was easily the best, as Matty and Jesus didn't have much power. Jesus was the last to reach the majors, late in 1963, and Felipe was traded to the Braves after the season, so the brothers only played together a few weeks. With Willie Mays in center and Willie McCovey playing left that year, the three never started a game together. They did, however, play a few innings together in three separate games. In 1966, Matty and Felipe -- both no longer with the Giants -- finished 1-2 in the NL batting race, Matty at .342 and Felipe at .327.
  • Five Delahanty brothers reached the majors -- Ed was the eldest and the best, a Hall of Famer and one of the biggest stars of the 1890s. You may be familiar with his unfortunate death, when he drunkenly fell (or jumped) off a bridge over Niagara Falls after being kicked off a train.
  • Ken and Bob Forsch are the only brothers to each pitch a no-hitter (Bob threw two), but there's an asterisk of sorts here. Melido and Pascual Perez each threw a shortened no-hitter (six and five innings, respectively) and then there's Ramon and Pedro Martinez. Ramon threw one for the Dodgers and while Pedro never threw an offical no-hitter, he did throw nine perfect innings against the Padres in 1995, only to give up a hit in the 10th.
  • The only two brothers to win batting titles were Dixie (.357 with Brooklyn in 1944) and Harry Walker (.363 with the Cardinals and Phillies in 1947). Harry was only a regular for three seasons (1943, 1947 and 1949), but he didn't stick in the majors until he was 24, had his career interrupted by World War II, played poorly in 1947, got traded early in '47 and had a big year, didn't play as well in '48 and by 1950 was 33 years old and hit .207.

There have been sporting events played in cold weather through the years in Denver, but most of those involved John Elway hitting wide receivers for touchdown passes, not Justin Upton hitting baseballs through the chill of a late-April deep freeze.

The Braves and Rockies entered Tuesday's doubleheader tied with baseball's best record and left with numb fingers and toes, hot-chocolate stains on their jerseys and a new appreciation for domed stadiums. The Braves also left with two victories and the red-hot Upton left with two more home runs, one in each game, his 10th and 11th, putting him in shouting distance of the April record of 14 shared by Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez.

The amazing thing is that he could even swing a bat while wearing approximately seven layers of clothing. Game-time temperature for the afternoon portion of the freezebill was 23 degrees, the coldest temperature for a game since STATS began recording such info in 1991. Upton, wearing garb suitable for climbing Pikes Peak, hit a 3-2 changeup from Jeff Francis on a low line to center in the top of the first; it was a pretty good pitch, low and away, but Upton showed off his tremendous power and bat speed with a quick rip through the ball.

[+] EnlargeJustin Upton, B.J. Upton
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesJustin Upton gets high-fives after his Game 2 home run against Colorado -- which came after a solo shot by brother B.J., foreground.
In the nightcap, with a game-time temperature a balmy 26 degrees, Upton followed a fifth-inning home run by his brother, B.J., with a first-pitch blast off Jon Garland to right-center, a long smack off the back wall behind the bullpens. Nothing can stop Upton right now, not cold weather and certainly not 87-mph fastballs from Jon Garland. The Braves won the first game 4-3 and completed the sweep with a 10-2 win.

Players admitted it wasn't easy staying warm while on the field. (You have to question why the games were even played, but baseball's schedule -- it's the only trip Atlanta makes to Colorado -- means making up postponed games are difficult to squeeze in.)

"It's more in your hands," Justin Upton said between games. "You use your hands a lot in the game and that's the worst part -- your hands get a little cold. But if you can keep your hands warm and keep them feeling the bat and the ball, you'll be fine."

The back-to-back home runs with his brother -- how cool does "Uptons homer" sound? -- was another highlight of Upton's monster April, as the siblings joined Lloyd and Paul Waner of the 1938 Pirates as the only brothers to hit consecutive home runs (the Uptons homered in the same inning earlier in the month, but it wasn't back-to-back).

Justin Upton is now hitting .307/.391/.813 with those 11 home runs and 16 RBIs (10 of the homers have been solo shots) and considering that Jason Heyward just landed on the disabled list following an appendectomy and was hitting .121, his brother is hitting .160, Andrelton Simmons is hitting .212 and Dan Uggla is hitting .167, you can certainly make a case for Upton as April's MVP in the National League.

The obvious question: Is Upton doing something different than last season, when he hit 17 home runs for the Diamondbacks? There's nothing in the results that shows a change in an approach. His swing rate is the same (44 percent) and he's actually swinging and missing a little more often this year (31 percent to 25 percent). His chase percentage -- swings on pitches outside the strike zone -- is 24 percent both seasons. His hit distribution is similar, as his line-drive rate about the same (20 percent in 2012, 22 percent in 2013).

There are, however, a couple differences: Upton is hitting more fly balls (11 percent higher rate than last year) and more of those fly balls are landing on the other side of the fence. This suggests he's probably been a little lucky (his home run/fly ball rate is 13 percent higher than anyone from last year) or that he was injured last year.


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Oh, that's right, he was injured; he played through a thumb injury suffered on a slide in the third game of the season. He played through what the Diamondbacks called a bone bruise for six weeks before finally going on the disabled list, and it might have bothered him for a period of time even upon his return. But as this blog post from Capitol Avenue Club pointed out, by September, Upton looked more like the Upton of 2011, when he hit 31 home runs.

In that post, Andrew Sisson writes that Upton apparently stopped using a padded brace on his thumb Aug. 25 -- and hit eight of his 17 home runs over his final 36 games.

Why the Diamondbacks were so eager to trade Upton remains a little cloudy, but the insinuation that they believed he dogged it a little certainly persists. It seems like an unfair rap to me, even if intended by D-backs management; Upton was injured and when he got healthy he started hitting home runs again.

He's completely healthy in 2013 and now he's hitting a lot of home runs. He's back to the MVP-caliber talent he was in 2011 and the Braves -- and not the Diamondbacks -- are reaping the rewards. You don't win awards for being the MVP of April, but in Upton's case, I think he'll end up being in that discussion in September as well.