The day the Braves reacquired outfielder Matt Diaz, pitcher Derek Lowe out-homered Atlanta’s outfielders 1-0. This was not at all a shocking development. Braves outfielders have been, as a group, among the worst in baseball this season.

Diaz, who hit .305/.353/.461 in five seasons with the Braves after being dismissed by the Rays and Royals organizations, has looked totally lost this year, hitting just .259/.303/.324 with no home runs in 100 games with the Pirates. A .335/.372/.538 hitter against southpaws with Atlanta, he has hit a mild .295/.342/.362 against them this season. League-wide, right-handed batters are slugging .406 against lefties, and have a .332 on-base percentage.

That association with the Pirates could cause any veteran to experience something resembling chronic fatigue syndrome can be taken for granted, but reeling in Diaz for the stretch drive must qualify as a desperation move; the outfielder has always been a defensive millstone, and when you have a 33-year-old bat-only player who only qualifies as offensive in the sense that the number of outs he has made causes the discerning observer to pinch his nose, he can hardly be called an upgrade—unless, that is, you’re talking about the marvel that is the Braves’ outfield.

As a group, Braves outfielders are hitting .250/.322/.381, their aggregate production ranking 14th in the National League (only the Padres and Giants are worse) and 24th in the majors. Starters have included Martin Prado, Eric Hinske, Nate McLouth, Jordan Schafer, Jason Heyward, Michael Bourn, Joe Mather, Matt Young, Wilkin Ramirez, and Jose “George” Constanza. All except for Bourn and Constanza—the former acquired from the Astros as the non-waiver trading deadline, the latter a minor-league vet who joined the Braves as a six-year free agent—have been, at best, disappointing.

After two and a half very consistent .300 seasons in which he was a second baseman who hit like a left fielder, Martin Prado is now a left fielder who hits like a second baseman. Since missing 31 games with a staph infection in his leg, Prado was hitting .249/.296/.333 heading into Wednesday’s action. McLouth was disappointing for the second year in a row before disappearing at the end of July with a sports hernia. He’s been superseded by Bourn, whose batting average and baserunning generate some offense to go with his excellent defense, but he cannot be characterized as a run-producer.

Of course, neither Prado or McLouth compare as disappointments with the anticlimax that is Jason Heyward. Last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up and baseball’s super-prospect prior to the ascendancy of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, Heyward has failed to build on last season and has lately fallen into a platoon situation, having hit only .188/.271/.313 against left-handers this year. Worse, he has hit only .226/.300/.384 overall in 57 games since his three-week trip to the disabled list with an inflamed rotator cuff beginning in late May.  

There is a discussion to be had about manager Fredi Gonzalez’s priorities here, and if he is overreacting to a small sample (107 PAs) in platooning Heyward, thereby potentially preventing him from finding his way to the adjustments that his immense physical talents, not to mention last year’s strong debut, would suggest that he can ultimately make. The Braves have a near lock on the National League wild card, and are tremendously unlikely to unseat the Phillies for the division lead (the gap is 7.5 games with 27 to play), so barring a ’64 Phillies like collapse on the part of either team, the Braves’ September will function as a long tune-up for the postseason, a postseason they stand a better chance of winning if Heyward managed to find his way out of his funk before the end of the regular season. More playing time, not less, would seem to be the key.

In fairness to Gonzalez, we don’t know what Heyward’s mental state is after such a difficult year. Casey Stengel, the father of modern platooning, said that you not only platooned based on a player’s abilities but sometimes “on his confidence” as well—protecting a kid from what he can’t do, he felt, protected a player from experiencing the kind of frustration that would ultimately undermine his overall contribution. If platooning Heyward in that sense, it is possible that Gonzalez is acting properly.

Still, the Braves would inarguably be better positioned to make a long post-season run if Heyward was fully functional. While center field has a place for defensive specialists, the corners are where the bats are normally found. A team with spectacular production up the middle can get away without having great corner bats (thus did the Yankees prosper in the 1999-2001 period with no regular left fielder and Paul O’Neill in decline—having Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Chuck Knoblauch, and Bernie Williams in places normally dominated by gloves helped cover for many weaknesses), but despite Brian McCann’s strong season and Dan Uggla’s second-half turnaround, that hardly describes the Braves.

Surprisingly, many teams have gone to the postseason with outfields that were comparable to if not worse than that of the Braves. In this century alone, among others, we’ve had the 2003 A’s win 96 games and the AL West despite an outfield unit that included Terrence Long (.245/.293/.385), Chris Singleton (.245/.301/.340), and Jermaine Dye (.172/.261/.253 in 65 games). Overall, the outfield hit .241/.303/.389 against league-average outfield production of .278/.338/.445, ranking last in all of baseball. The 2005 Astros went to the World Series despite an outfield that hit just .268/.320/.409 versus a league average of .272/.346/.450, ranking 14th in the NL and 27th in the majors. Their main outfielders were Chris Burke (.248/.309/.368), Willy Taveras (.291/.325/.341), and Jason Lane (.267/.316/.499). You can also find the 2003 Marlins on the list, with their outfield of Todd Hollandsworth, Juan Pierre, and Juan Encarnacion, just slightly buoyed by a young Miguel Cabrera. They hit just .271/.327/.410 as a group in a league where the average outfield hit .276/.353/.460, but they won the World Series anyway.

The anorexic outfield, then, can be overcome at least long enough to reach October, and sometimes even longer. That said, it’s far easier to make the postseason and win it with burly sluggers in the power positions. That the Braves have made it this far despite their weak outfield is an accomplishment in itself, as well as a testimony to their pitching staff. Acquiring Diaz makes sense both from the standpoint of protecting Heyward and keeping those pesky lefty specialists tamed during the playoffs, but if giving Heyward more rope between now and October stands some chance of sorting out his swing and helping him rediscover his nascent stardom, it’s in the franchise’s best interests, both this fall and in the future, to give him the opportunity.

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This assumes two things: (1) that Heyward's shoulder is healthy and (2) that 2010 was a good barometer for his "true" talent level. If either of those is wrong, and I'm particularly concerned about the first one, then keeping him in a limited role until his hitting improves makes some sense.
As a Braves fan, I couldn't agree with you more. I appreciate your nod to the fact that we don't have as much information as Fredi does, but Heyward is capable of carrying a team when hot and can be the Braves second best hitter, after McCann, based on last year and his room for continued growth. I trust Prado to get in done in the play-offs and Bourne has given the Braves a dimension they sorely needed. It sure seems that Heyward has a better chance of fixing what's wrong and gaining confidence by playing everyday (particularly in the low stress situation the Braves find themselves in) than sitting on the bench in favor of Diaz or Constanza. I think that Fredi's already made whatever point he was trying to make by sitting Heyward (playing time is earned on the field not through potential?) and it's time to keep him on the field. Despite this situation and hitting Alex Gonzalez and his .259 OBP higher than 8th with some regularity, I think Fredi's done a great job this year stepping into a difficult situation following Bobby Cox. Moving Chipper out of the #3 or #4 spot was long overdue and he handled it without causing a ripple. He also recognized he was on the verge of burning out the Big Three in the bullpen and has scaled back on their usuage post All-Star break.
Another issue re Heyward/Constanza. We all work harder when we think we'll actually be rewarded for successful efforts. So once your team is set, if the low-potential guy is actually outplaying the high-potential guy, he plays so long as that holds. Otherwise you will see the overall effort of your workforce/team go down.
"The Anorexic Outfield" sounds like a Malamud short story in the spirit of "The Natural"
Spot on article. The Braves' best chance at post-season success has a fully-functioning Heyward in RF. I like Georgie - but as a change of pace/situational player. If he's the RF in October. they'll be home before they know it. Now, if Heyward's shoulder isn't going to be sound until 2012, so be it. But he's been working with Chipper (whom I trust to be a better hitting coach than Parrish) and he has shown some brief glimpses the last couple of weeks. But they need to let him go full bore the last month to see whether he can be back on track. If Georgie needs PT, let it be at the expense of Prado, whose weak OF defense is only magnified by his lack of hitting. Fredi let Uggla work his way out of it. It took 3 months, but it finally happened. I'd like to see Heyward given at least this final month to see if he can do the same.
The 2000 Mets' outfield Valentine cobbled together by World Series time comes to mind as weaker than many other Series teams. Jay Payton flanked by Benny Agbayanni, Timo Perez, & tiny bit of Bubba Trammell.