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May 27, 2011

On the Beat

Can the Braves Contend?

by John Perrotto

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There has been only one downside to Fredi Gonzalez returning to managing this season. The Home Depot in Marietta, Ga., misses his business.

Gonzalez had plenty of time to kill last summer after he was fired by the Marlins as their manager on June 22. He got to see each of his son Alex's football games during his senior high school season, and otherwise filled the void by working on projects around the house.

"It seems like I was at Home Depot three times a day," Gonzalez said with a smile.

Gonzalez doesn't have much time to be a handyman these days. He made a speedy return to managing when the Braves hired him to succeed the retiring Bobby Cox last October, just two days after losing to the Giants in the National League Division Series.

The Braves felt Gonzalez, who served as Cox's third base coach for four seasons from 2003-06, would be the perfect fit. Gonzalez had also been successful with the Marlins: despite managing teams on small budgets, he went 276-279 in three-plus seasons, including winning 84 games in 2008 and 87 in 2009.

"It feels really good to be back in the game and doing what I love to do," Gonzalez said earlier this week. "You go through all kinds of emotions when you get let go. It's really roller coaster-type stuff. To get another opportunity, you feel lucky. You don't know how much you miss the game until you're out of it, even for a little while. It's been part of you forever, since you were 18 years old. To have it taken away was tough, so I really appreciate getting another opportunity, especially with a great organization."

The Braves won the National League wild card last season, ending a four-year postseason drought that came on the heels of winning a major league record 14 consecutive division titles from 1991 through 2005. The Braves feel they have the makings of a playoff team again this year, as they are 28-23 in the NL East, 3 1/2 games behind the four-time defending division champion Phillies and 2 1/2 games in back of the Marlins.

However, the Braves have been challenged offensively all season, partially because of injuries, and now have to overcome losing center fielder Nate McLouth (oblique) and right fielder Jason Heyward (shoulder) to the disabled list in the last week. Third baseman Chipper Jones is trying to play through torn cartilage in his right knee after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his left knee last August.

"We've got to battle with injuries, but everybody goes through that," Gonzalez said. "However, we are getting to point where all of a sudden every time our trainers come looking for you, you want to hide."

There is no hiding from the fact that the Braves' offense has been subpar, standing 11th in the NL and 21st in the majors with an average of 3.92 runs scored per game. Jones leads the regulars in True Average with a .276 mark, which ranks just 35th in the NL.

The Braves' offense figured to be better this season after the team acquired slugging second baseman Dan Uggla from the Marlins in the offseason then signed him to a five-year, $62 million contract. Uggla hit at least 31 home runs in each of the last four seasons and had career highs with a .319 TAv and 5.4 WARP in 2010. Yet this year he has a .222 TAv and has contributed just 0.2 WARP in 212 plate appearances while admitting that he is pressing to live up to his large contract.

"You want to show that you deserved the contract by doing everything you can to help the team win," Uggla said. "It's tough right now. I want to prove that the Braves did the right thing by bringing me over here and committing to me for the long term. I know I have to try to relax more. It's an adjustment I'm going to have to make."

The Braves have made up for the lack of offense with outstanding pitching and defense. They are tied with the Phillies for the major league lead in runs allowed with an average of 3.24 a game. The Braves' .737 Defensive Efficiency is tops in the NL and second in the majors, just a shade below the Rays' .738.

The strength of the Braves' staff has been the lights-out late-inning relief duo of rookie closer Craig Kimbrel and setup man Jonny Venters, a left-hander in his first full major-league season. Kimbrel has a 2.49 Fair Run Average, and Venters is right behind at 2.52. Lefty Eric O'Flaherty has also been highly effective out of the bullpen with a 2.60 FRA. Among pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched this season, Kimbrel is 11th in the majors in FRA while Venters is 13th and O'Flaherty 15th.

"We're just keeping it simple," Venters said with a smile about the bullpen. "We're just trying to get people out. We've got a good unit. We don't worry about statistics, just getting outs."

Jair Jurrjens has been the Braves' top starting pitcher after having last season wrecked by knee surgery. His 3.26 Fair Run Average leads the staff and is seventh in the NL while Tommy Hanson has a 3.66 mark.

Venters is 26 years old, Jurrjens is 25, Hanson is 24, and Kimbrel just turns 23 on Saturday, meaning the Braves' tradition of strong pitching could carry on for many more years to come, especially with top prospect Julio Teheran at Triple-A Gwinnett.

"We've got a nice blend on our pitching staff between veterans and young guys," Gonzalez said. "It's what's kept us where we're at now. It's been our strength since day one. When you have that and can catch the baseball, you've got a chance. Our offense will come around, and that is going to make us that much better when it does."

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Rumors and Rumblings: Two catchers who are likely to be available if and when the Giants decide to look a replacement for Buster Posey are the Nationals' Ivan Rodriguez and the Pirates' Ryan Doumit. … The White Sox have a logjam of starting pitching and are willing to listen to offers on right-hander Edwin Jackson, who is eligible for free agency at the end of the season. … Athletics manager Bob Geren, despite reports that his job may be in jeopardy, is likely to stay employed because of his willingness to carry out general manager Billy Beane's orders. … If Jim Crane is approved as the Astros owner, as expected, he will likely ask general manager Ed Wade to hire a statistical analyst to help in player evaluations. … The Rangers are struggling with the idea of trying to sign Josh Hamilton to a long-term contract, and the left fielder only muddled the situation by sliding headfirst three times in his first game back after missing six weeks with a broken upper arm. … The Phillies will give second baseman Chase Utley one or two days off each week through the rest of the season in order to keep him from putting too much stress on his damaged knee. … The Indians have no plans to send catcher Carlos Santana to the minors, with manager Manny Acta saying, "Everyone complains about the kid only hitting .200, but his on-base percentage has been around .350 all season, and that's what really matters." … A number of players are close to coming off the disabled list, including Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore (likely tonight), Athletics closer Andrew Bailey (Sunday), Marlins right-hander Josh Johnson (Wednesday) and Padres catcher Nick Hundley (Thursday).

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Scouts' views:

Indians outfielder Michael Brantley: "He's turning into a very good player. You can see he really has confidence that he can play in the major leagues now. He does a good job, especially for a young guy, of waiting for his pitch. He doesn't get himself out very often."

Cubs outfielder Tony Campana: "This kid can fly. I clocked him at 3.8 seconds from home to first. He has game-changing type speed like Darren Ford and Jarrod Dyson. If he cuts down on the strikeouts and puts the ball in play more, he could be a weapon."

Rangers closer Neftali Feliz: "I'm convinced there is something wrong him. He's throwing all fastballs and he's laboring on the mound. He's pitching like he's hurt."

Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge: "He really looks like a player who is at the end of the line. His bat has slowed way down and he's lost a lot of range at third base."

Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia: "You can see that he's getting comfortable now after the slow start he had. He's hitting the ball hard and taking charge behind the plate. A lot was expected of the guy at an early age, and it takes some players longer to blossom than others. He's blossoming right now."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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