After last night’s 7-1 loss to the Phillies in Atlanta, in which the team managed only 4 hits, the Braves have relinquished their lead over the Cardinals in the NL Wild Card race. The Cardinals won last night, beating the minor league team the Houston Astros are fielding nowadays, 13-6. The teams are now tied for the Wild Card lead at 89-72.
The Braves, of course, have been doing everything in their power to give the Wild Card lead to any team willing to take it. They’ve now gone 9-17 in the month of September. They’ve lost two out of three to the Mets, Marlins, and Nationals, respectively this month—three teams well behind them in the standings.
Should they be able to close out the season with a win against the Phillies, the Braves will make the playoffs, and face the Brewers in the first round. The Braves will almost certainly be eliminated immediately, and face a long offseason full of question marks.
It’s no secret–the Braves biggest concern will be their offense. Keeping an eye on the health of young pitching stud Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson will be crucial as well, but their biggest concern will without doubt be their anemic offense.
Fixing it won’t be an easy task. Entering last night’s game the team ranked 24th in all of baseball in batting average (.244), 25th in on base percentage (.309), and have struck out the 6th most times (1238). There are issues up and down the lineup. Martin Prado, after putting together an All-Star year last season, has been average, posting a line of .261/.304/.383. Chipper Jones had another injury-plagued year, and was once again unable to be that big bat in the middle of the lineup the Braves need.
The team thought they were getting that with Dan Uggla, but that move didn’t pan out this season. Uggla’s production looks good right now—35 home runs, 80 runs batted in—but most of that came during his 33-game hit streak in which he hit 14 of those home runs and drove in 32 of those runs. The team has a lot invested in Uggla, having given him a 5yr, $62 million contract extension before the season.
An even more pressing issue for the team going forward is their right fielder Jason Heyward. Heyward was projected by many experts to have a Pujols-like impact for the Braves right out of the gate. While he didn’t put up those numbers, he did post a very respectable rookie season, hitting .277 with 18 home runs, 72 runs batted in and 91 walks. This year though, Heyward hasn’t even been able to match those numbers. His batting average has slumped to a paltry .227, and he’s hit only 14 home runs and driven in 42. It could just be a sophomore slump, and he is still just 22 (crazy), but getting him straightened out has to be one of the team’s top priorities this winter.
Outside of fixing things in house, there’s probably not much the team can do. There will only be a handful of impact bats on the free agent market—none of which the team will be able to afford. A trade could be an option, as the team has a healthy amount of young pitching to use as bait. One way or another, the Braves have to reshuffle the deck, especially considering that the division-rival Phillies will almost surely have a dominant rotation again next year.
No question, Braves fans and their front office want the team to make the playoffs. The fans want the extra baseball; the front office wants the extra ticket revenue. If I’m general manager Frank Wren though, I may pull a Billy Beane and not even watch the team’s games. Instead I’d get an early start on the offseason, working the phones to do everything possible to address the team’s offensive lineup, and secure future playoff appearances for the franchise.
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