I meant to post this yesterday, but homework tends not to conform to the Braves’ schedule. I’d like to weigh in on a couple of early-season debates.
1. Jeff Francoeur’s struggles at the plate, which date back to the end of last season, continue. Of course, his patience problems are nothing new. David O’Brien (and commenters) tackle his patience issue over at the AJC (registration required). J.C. started a game with the same theme over at Sabernomics last season trying to get people to say whether they thought he would finish the year at .300 (he was hitting .419 at the time). I went under, which you can see if you read the comments, and of course, he finished at exactly .300. I say all that to suggest that Bobby Cox’s trademark patience with young players and his “proven” veterans is unwarranted in Francoeur’s case. People use Kelly Johnson as an example from last year, but his patience at the plate was getting him good pitches to hit, and he was still walking. Frenchy, on the other hand, hasn’t seen a good pitch this season. Until he starts taking bad pitches, he will not be a successful major leaguer for any sustained period of time. Suggestions from the AJC included taking the first two pitches of every at-bat to at least force a scouting report change. They also noted that it would be a great time to sit him for a few days, with patient veteran Chipper Jones stuck on the bench for a while. I’ll take anything at this point, and by “anything,” I mean “anything other than replacing him with Brian Jordan.”
2. Tim Hudson may be another hot topic, especially if he tanks his third straight start coming up. I thought the Braves may have given up too much for him, but I usually don’t have a big problem with packaging a couple of prospects (even good ones like Meyer) for an established player, especially when you have a track record of a deep farm system like the Braves do. That doesn’t justify the Renteria trade (which I still disagree with, unless he maintains his current level of production), but that’s another issue. Hudson, to me, seemed like something of an oversight by the Braves’ staff. His K rate was decreasing, his walk rate was increasing, and he just generally wasn’t pitching as well as he had earlier in his A’s career when the Braves traded for him. Had they used the usual Mazzone magic to right the ship last year, I might not disagree with it, but now he’s just another starter with a big contract who is simply not the pitcher he used to be. Regardless of the Braves’ recent dominance, this is a staff that is a Smoltz injury away from causing the team to sputter to a distant third or fourth in the division.
3. As bad as the starters have been so far, the bullpen is still clearly the pitching staff’s weakness. Peter Moylan, as Mac discovered, was the Babe Ruth of the Aussie league, but he doesn’t have a resume that suggests he’ll be much better than Joey Devine has been. Ken Ray leads the bullpen in WPA, but that could go up in flames with even one worse-than-average outing. I’m not a fan of the traditional closer, if you haven’t gathered that already, but a successful team does need two or three quality guys to put out there when the starters’ tanks are empty. Something tells me that Schuerholz isn’t in a position to add anyone, though. The Devine draft pick was completely out of character, as J.C. notes. The Estrada trade helped (getting Cormier and Villareal), but I’m not sure either of them is more than a league-average guy in the long run. With the Hampton contract now being paid by the Braves, I just don’t think the team is in a position to add anyone else who has any kind of money owed to him. Perhaps without Hampton, we could’ve had Billy Wagner (who might have signed for less to play in Atlanta) or someone comparable. If the starters can’t carry the team this year, trouble could be brewing.
I didn’t mean to be negative with all three of those points, but these seem bigger than the usual knee-jerk early season concerns people typically voice. The offense is clearly in sync, which is certainly worth something. Plus, I’m not incredibly impressed by the 5-1 Mets, even though Coolstandings only gives the Braves a 13.2% chance of winning the division. They’ve only played the Marlins and Natspos (to borrow Mac’s name for that team in D.C.), so they’re about where they should be.
I’m not sure I’ll have anything else for you until my weekly review Sunday night, but keep checking back. I’ve made some improvements to the stat spreadsheets, and they are always available for download.