Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Julio Teheran (49) pitches against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning at Wrigley Field. David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
The Atlanta Braves have demonstrated the ability to contend for a second straight Eastern Division championship. But the team’s maddening inconsistency on offense has left fans frustrated and confused.
The Braves have stretches where they simply can’t score runs, either by manufacturing them or playing long ball. First baseman Freddie Freeman, left fielder Justin Upton and catcher Evan Gattis have been steady. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons and third baseman Chris Johnson have been streaky at the plate.
Right fielder Jason Heyward and center fielder B.J. Upton have been disappointments, although Upton’s average has climbed to a season-high .218 since being moved to the leadoff spot three weeks ago.
The second-base job was taken from veteran Dan Uggla by rookie Tommy La Stella. Uggla (.162) was given multiple chances to keep his job and the Braves tried Ramiro Pena and Tyler Pastornicky before giving La Stella a chance. La Stella has been adept at hitting to all fields and avoiding the strikeout; he’s batting .282.
The offensive inconsistency has put great pressure on the starting rotation, which began the season without Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, two starters who are out for the season with Tommy John surgery.
The starting rotation has been led by right-hander Julio Teheran (9-6, 2.71), who has established himself as the staff ace in his second season and earned a spot on the All-Star team. Free agent Ervin Santana (7-6, 4.01) was hot the first month, but has since been hit-or-miss. The surprise is veteran right-hander Aaron Harang (9-6, 3.53), who was added in the final days of spring training after he was released by the Indians.
The bullpen has been excellent. Craig Kimbrel (29 saves) continues to be among the elite closers in the game. The only hiccup has been lefty setup man Luis Avilan, who has taken a step back after an impressive rookie season. Avilan’s ERA is 4.85 and opponents are batting .287 against him.
The Braves and rival Washington Nationals are lined up to go head-to-head for the division title in the second half. Each has had their time in first place during the first half, but neither was able to shake the other. The two clubs still play each other nine times, six of those in Atlanta.
Atlanta’s schedule becomes much more difficult starting in late July, which could determine the Braves’ fate. There are seven games with the Dodgers, three with Washington, three with Oakland, three with Pittsburgh and four with Cincinnati.
MLB Team Report - Atlanta Braves - NOTES, QUOTES
STREAK: Lost one
FIRST-HALF MVP: Although he’s suffered through a few dry spells, 1B Freddie Freeman continues to be the team’s most consistent regular. Freeman, an All-Star for the second season, hit .295 with 28 doubles and 13 home runs in the first half. He finished strong; he had multiple hits in five of the 10 games before the break. Freeman is an iron man, too; he started every game. Plus he’s proven to be an exceptional fielder.
FIRST-HALF-GRADE: B-plus — Inconsistency has plagued this team, which has dropped into a roller-coaster routine of highs and lows. Typical was the nine-game winning streak, followed by a four-game losing streak. Most of the problems stem from an inconsistent offense; the power comes and goes (a pre-All-Star break stretch saw them hit only three homers over 125 innings) and the team has never embraced the notion of what manager Fredi Gonzalez calls “keeping the line moving.” Gonzalez has tried a lot of different lineups, including a stretch where he hit the pitcher in the No. 8 slot and now moving strikeout-prone center fielder B.J. Upton into the leadoff hole.
PIVOTAL POST-BREAK PLAYER: The Braves have shown they can’t get along without C Evan Gattis. The powerful second-year player has missed the two weeks prior to the break with back issues; he had an epidural and is working his way back. Gattis is hitting .290 with 16 homers and 39 RBIs in 69 games. Although he swings hard and can sometimes appear fooled, his swing is compact and manageable and has enabled him to avoid extended slumps. Having his bat in the fourth or fifth spot can make a big difference.
BUY OR SELL: Because they’re a contender, the Braves will likely be a buyer. But other than a situational lefty to help struggling southpaw Luis Avilan or a bat off the bench, the team’s hands are likely tied. Of the eight regulars, all are under contract through 2015 or longer. There’s no way the Braves would move any of the infielders and there’s no way they could unload CF B.J. Upton’s $15 million albatross contract that runs through 2017. It is a possibility that Atlanta could add a top-of-the-rotation starter, but will balk at trading some of its best young players (LHP Alex Wood, RHP prospect Lucas Sims) for a short-term fix.
INJURY STATUS: Other than C Evan Gattis, there have been few issues with the team’s position players; he’s the only regular who has been on the DL. The injuries have come on the pitching staff. RHP Gavin Floyd was rounding into form when he suffered a freakish broken elbow injury that ended his season. RHP David Carpenter (strained right bicep), RHP Jordan Walden (left hamstring) and RHP Pedro Beato (strained right elbow) are relievers who have spent time on the DL.
TOP PROSPECT: The Braves have already recalled a couple of their young guns. 2B Tommy La Stella was recalled on May 26 and managed to keep struggling veteran Dan Uggla on the bench. RHP Shae Simmons made the jump from Double-A and has shown the ability to throw strikes and thrive under pressure situations. (Some have even started calling him “Little Kimbrel.”) C Christian Bethancourt was recalled when Gaddis was placed on the DL and has shown to be reliable as a hitter and a defender. Fans are clamoring for RHP Lucas Sims, but he’s not yet shown the consistency to contend for a spot in the major-league rotation. Sims could be a September call-up.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “We had a pretty good first half, better than pretty good really. We’ve got to come out of the break and keep firing.” — Manager Fredi Gonzalez.