From the Sidelines: Next two weeks crucial for Braves fans

Published 9:04 am Saturday, July 18, 2009

So the Atlanta Braves officially kicked off baseball’s unofficial second half Thursday against the division rival New York Mets. The game marks the beginning of a two-week period in which Braves’ fans annually use to determine whether or not their team is in fact in contention.

In recent years the Braves have played near .500 ball prior to the all-star break. And in recent years, they have subsequently tanked after the break. That fact has made the Braves sellers more than it has turned them into buyers in view of the league’s annual non-waiver trade deadline.

So what will Atlanta do over the next two weeks? Should the team put together any semblance of a winning streak, logic dictates general manager Frank Wren will seek to add offense through the trade market.

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At the break, Atlanta ranked 27th in the Big Leagues in home runs with 68. The Braves also were in the bottom tier in runs scored (22nd), RBIs (21st), total bases (22nd) and slugging percentage (25th). Oddly enough, Wren’s team also sits in the middle of the pack in hits (14th), on-base percentage (15th), walks (16th) and batting average (17th). So the team is clearly getting on base. It just lacks players capable of driving in runs.

In fact, the Braves’ leader in home runs and RBIs as of the break was newly-acquired Nate McClouth. His 14 round-trippers makes him the only Brave in double digits in that category. Incidentally McClouth, the Braves’ leadoff hitter, also leads the roster with 51 runs scored.

Known commodities Brian McCann and Chipper Jones have had very little protection in the lineup aside from the occasional spurt from Garrett Anderson.

So where is the offense going to come from? Recent call-up Brooks Conrad may provide some pop in the bottom of the order. The 29-year-old second baseman was hitting .355 with a pair of home runs, two triples, a double and eight RBIs through his first 31 at-bats with the team. However, such a small sampling makes it difficult to dictate how successful Conrad will be.

What is certain is that Wren will have to do something to put together an offense complementary to a pitching staff that ranks among the best in ERA (sixth), hits allowed (fifth), strikeouts (seventh) and WHIP (sixth).

The Atlanta GM bet it all on black in the offseason and worked to restructure his starting rotation. Those moves have produced acceptable returns thus far.

After sending a package of prospects to the White Sox, Atlanta has gotten 119 innings pitched, 136 strikeouts, a 2.95 ERA and a 6-7 record from Javier Vazquez. A $60 million contract brought Derek Lowe to Atlanta and with him a 4.39 ERA with an 8-7 through 112.2 innings of work. Japanese import Kenshin Kawakami boasted a 4.26 ERA with a 5-6 record and 88.2 innings pitched in the first half. Jair Jurrjens continued his success with a 7-7 record and a 2.91 ERA in 114.1 innings on the mound while rookie Tommy Hanson has not disappointed with a 4-0 record and a 2.85 ERA in 41 innings on the hill.

So the rotation has been strong. Unfortunately, Wren did bet it all on black in the offseason. That left Atlanta with a nearly anemic offense and a bullpen that had converted only 21 of 34 save opportunities through the team’s first 88 games.

That all adds up to a 43-45 record and a lot of frustrated Braves fans.

Even more frustrating for the Atlanta faithful is their lack of confidence in Wren. While the McClouth trade seems to be working out and the offseason pitching moves were strong, Wren has already had more than his fair share of head scratchers.

His most egregious offense was shipping Mark Teixeira to the Angels for Casey Kotchman and Stephen Marek. All of this came approximately a year after Atlanta got Tex from the Rangers for a package of players that included Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus and Matt Harrison. Those three have all been producing considerably for a Texas team that is in position to make a playoff run.

For those keeping score at home, Marek is a 25-year-old right-handed reliever who has a combined 5.23 ERA and has allowed 60 runners to reach base in 32.2 innings between Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett. Kotchman, the better half of the Braves’ pull in the Teixeira deal, was hitting a pedestrian .274 with four home runs and 31 RBIs headed into the break. The man who was supposed to be Atlanta’s everyday first baseman was also splitting at-bats with Martin Prado.

But, just as fans were beginning to get over the sting of that trade, Wren sent Jeff Francoeur to the Mets for Ryan Church. It is not the fact that Francoeur is no longer a Brave that hurts. It is the fact that he was sent to an arch rival for a player who — at 30 years old — is a career .272 hitter, has never driven in more than 70 runs in a season and has never scored more than 57. At least with Frenchie, as frustrating as he was, there was upside. Church is a player who does not do anything particularly well.

So where are the Braves two weeks from now? That is difficult to say. But Braves fans have to hope the team they love is buying; not only because the would love to see Atlanta in contention, but also because Frank Wren apparently fails to grasp the concept of getting the most out of what he’s getting rid of.