Braves Check: May 18, 2009

After the rain washed away yesterday’s game, the Braves finished with only five games last week, winning two of three in New York and splitting two at home against Arizona.  That raised their record to an even .500, 18-18, which is currently good enough for third place in the NL East.  That’s 2.5 games behind the Mets for first and 2 games behind the Phillies for second, probably about where most people thought the Braves would be.

Last Week’s Stats

FanGraphs: Last 7 Days Batting

Yunel Escobar was last week’s bright shining star at the plate, hitting .400 with 4 doubles and 4 walks, an OPS of 1.080.  For the season, he has a respectable .303/.372/.447 line, which is acceptable in the #2 hole, even though I would tend to put my very best hitters at the top of the lineup.

Casey Kotchman has almost duplicated Escobar’s line: .296/.362/.448.  It would be nice to have a power-hitting first baseman, but his glove does make up for some of the offensive shortcomings, and you can do fine with a player like him if everyone else pulls their weight.

Of course, not everyone else is pulling his weight.  Chipper had a good week, and he has a Chipper-like .951 OPS at the moment, but outside of him and the catching tandem, there’s not a lot of production to be found.  Jeff Francoeur has actually improved on last year’s numbers, but he’s hitting .252 with no discernable improvement in plate discipline, and he hasn’t yet seen his 2005-06 power return.  I’m all for pulling the plug on him soon if he doesn’t improve quickly.  Give Brandon Jones a shot for now, try to trade for an outfielder at midseason, and then hand things over to Jason Heyward eventually.  Let Frenchy master AAA instead of giving him chance after chance in the big leagues.

The only problem with that plan is that the other outfielders make Jeff look halfway decent.  Jordan Schafer is taking walks, so his OPS is close to .700, and he’s a solid defender, but he doesn’t look like much more than the .220 hitter he’s been so far this year.  Hopefully he’ll show some improvement, and at least he only struck out 3 times last week.

Garret Anderson had a decent-looking week on the surface (6-for-16), but his .806 OPS this week was by far the best he’s posted all year, and the Braves are giving up runs in left field because of his poor defense.  I see no reason that Jones or even Diaz can’t provide that level of production.

Tying up the other loose ends on offense, Infante and Prado kept getting hits as Kelly Johnson slipped down to a .700 OPS.  He can get his average back into the .260-.270 range, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Braves have other options at second base if he keeps struggling.  Prado is my favorite because he hits for average with some gap power, while still taking a few walks, so he’s more of a balanced hitter than the super-utility-man Infante.

McCann was 6-for-17 with a couple of doubles, and I see no reason he won’t keep up the high level of production he’s established once he’s fully used to his glasses.

On to the pitchers.  Every starter got a regular turn in the five-game week, and four of the five were decent starts.  Starting with the worst, Reyes struggled through 3 innings and got demoted to the bullpen for his efforts, a completely understandable move.  Kawakami was almost more frustrating, though, since he continued scattering runs and baserunners, giving the appearance that he is a pretty good pitcher when his results for the year suggest otherwise.  Hopefully the Braves won’t let him do this all year in favor of bringing up Tommy Hanson.

Lowe, Jurrjens, and Vazquez all took their turns and submitted good work, allowing two runs each in 6 2/3, 7 2/3, and 7 innings, respectively.  None topped 107 pitches, so their work was also relatively efficient.  It seems like it has been so long time since the Braves were this consistently strong at the top of the rotation, and with the pitching depth they have in the system, perhaps they can keep it up.

The biggest pitching news of the week is that the Braves are calling up Kris Medlen to start Thursday’s game against the Rockies.  He got a little work on his regular day Saturday, allowing a run to break a three-game scoreless streak, and he was originally scheduled to make Tuesday’s start before the rain shuffled the rotation.  Medlen has a sick 1.19 ERA this year with a strong 44/10 K/BB ratio in 37 innings.  His FIP is an equally sick 1.57, so the good start is legit, except that he’s benefited from a little luck at keeping the ball in the park.  I’m actually a little surprised that Charlie Morton didn’t get the call instead, but it’s not like Medlen hasn’t earned a chance to prove himself.

The bullpen was a little rough last week, as you recall if you watched the games.  Eric O’Flaherty continued his great work, and Pete Moylan contributed 1 2/3 scoreless innings, but everyone else allowed at least one run.  Buddy Carlyle gave up a bomb to Chris Snyder that screwed up his ERA for the next month, and Jeff Bennett seemingly walked the entire Mets lineup.  Gonzalez and Parr each gave up 2 runs in 3 innings, and Soriano gave up a run in two innings.  For the season, the Braves have Soriano and O’Flaherty with ERAs under 2.00.  Gonzalez has been mostly good, and Moylan has looked better lately, so the back end still looks solid.  Reyes may be able to help ease the load on O’Flaherty.  Bennett inexplicably has an ERA under 3, even though he’s been awful, allowing more than 2 baserunners in an average inning.

The appearance totals for the bullpen are less alarming than they have been in recent seasons, and no one looks like an injury waiting to happen at this point (unlike Boyer last year).  Gonzalez and Moylan have appeared in the most games, with 19 each, just over half the Braves’ total games played.

Tommy Hanson Watch

Now that Medlen’s getting his shot, Hanson is clearly the ace at Gwinnett.  He already had the most long-term potential, and he hasn’t let up.  This week, he had one outstanding start at Lehigh Valley, allowing no runs and just two hits over 7 innings.  He struck out seven and walked one.

Season stats: 1.70 ERA/2.50 FIP, 64 Ks and 14 BBs in 47 innings.

My two main worries with him are that he’s accumulating a bunch of early innings and will fade late (or worse, set up an arm injury) and that he’s still an extreme fly ball pitcher.  If he can’t figure out how to keep the ball down, I would expect major league hitters to make him pay a lot more often.

The Road Ahead

The schedule is full for the next 14 days, and there’s more rain in the forecast, so hopefully we can get all these games in.  11 of the 14 games are against the NL West, with an interleague interlude this weekend against Toronto.

Here are the probable pitchers for this week:

Mon vsCOL: Lowe vs. Jason Marquis
Tue vsCOL: Jurrjens vs. Jason Hammel
Wed vsCOL: Vazquez vs. Jorge de la Rosa
Thu vsCOL: Medlen vs. Aaron Cook
Fri vsTOR: Kawakami vs. Roy Halladay, your mismatch of the week
Sat vsTOR: Lowe vs. Scott Richmond
Sun vsTOR: Jurrjens vs. Brian Tallet

The Mets and Phillies both have considerably tougher weeks ahead of them: this weekend, they play at the Red Sox and Yankees, respectively.  The Braves will get their turn eventually, so it would be nice to use this cushy week at home to move up a game or two.

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