Saturday, May 10, 2014

Solving the Braves Offensive Problems

First, I hope to keep a promise to myself and return to writing post-MBA about business, baseball and a few personal pieces. It has been a while, but I plan to wipe the dust off by writing about the Braves offensive struggles and some ideas how to improve during the season.

I moved to Atlanta in 2008 to work for the Braves in a season where Chipper Jones was hitting over .400 well into the summer in what was one of the most impressive offensive seasons I have ever been able to closely watch. Since, Atlanta has lacked a dominant offensive player, which is their first problem and one that likely will not have a solution unless Freddie Freeman take the last step this season from one of the best first-basemen in the league to one of the best players in all of baseball. In order to do that, his power numbers will need to climb to 30+ and his ability to come up with a clutch hit needs to continue to be strong. When he signed the long term contract this past off-season my first thought is that there is a good chance that he has a run at an MVP season during the contract though it may be a few years away. As is, he is a top-30 offensive player, the Braves need him to jump to top-10 to really require opposing managers to make hard decisions when playing the Braves. Justin Upton also has potential to make a big jump, but he has had that potential for several years and he continues to be a streaky offensive player, so it seems unlikely. It is even less likely to make a splash in the trade market. Teams with top offensive talent in an era of baseball dominated by pitching are not going to trade that talent. Giancarlo Stanton would be amazing, but it is not realistic to imagine Miami trading him without requiring MLB ready talent plus a haul of top prospects - not worth it for the Braves who do not have many blue chips to barter with. So developing a cornerstone of the offense is going to likely have to come from within with Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton being the most likely to fill that role.

The amount of offensive dead weight on the team is tremendous and it is time to trim some of it down. In 2013, the Braves made it to the playoffs with two starting offensive players with a batting average under .200. That was the first time that had ever happened in the history of Major League Baseball. It is not realistic to imagine that can be sustainable. They were a playoff team last year because they had the best bullpen in Major League Baseball and a very strong starting rotation. The decision to bench Dan Uggla is long overdue. A player who has hit .233, .220 and .179 in three seasons as a starting second baseman. His saving grace the last two seasons has been above average power for a second baseman and a decent on base percentage. Through the first fourth of the season, he has not showed much power or the ability to work a walk. I credit Fredi Gonzalez for making the decision to start playing Tyler Pastornicky and Ramiro Pena more often. While neither possess the ability to hit for power, they are bigger threats to make more consistent contact. Uggla is due $13M next season and is pro rated at the same amount for this season, it is advisable to cut ties with him because low-contact players have little to no value as players coming off the bench. Prospect Tommy La Stella is knocking on the door at AAA Gwinnett and has showed contact ability. The sad thing for the Braves is that it is not just Uggla. BJ Upton had a season in 2007 that earned him a huge contract where he hit .300 with 24 home runs and 22 stolen bases. He hit .273 in 2008 and has not eclipsed .246 since. After hitting .184 last season he is again around .200 this season and still has a contract that will pay him nearly $50M over the course of the next three seasons. It's a shame for Atlanta, but the Braves are simply stuck with BJ Upton and have to try to make it work at least for the next two seasons.

What the team really is sorely missing is a Moneyball player who can hit for contact and get on base to put pressure on opposing pitchers. This pressure would give Freeman and Justin Upton the opportunity to become the top-tier player that their talent lends to. In looking at the possible trade landscape, here are some options that seem to be possible:

1. The St. Louis Cardinals have Oscar Tavares in AAA Memphis. Tavares is MLB ready right now and they are likely to bring him up soon. MLB Trade Rumors recently stated that there is a chance that when Tavares is promoted, Matt Adams or Allen Craig could be traded. Adams would not make sense in Atlanta, but Craig sure would. 29 years old and posting a career .297/.349/.828, this would be an incredible addition to the #2 spot in the lineup. He is not having a great start to this season however, so it could be a buy low opportunity. That said, I would still expect Craig to return top level talent for the Cardinals (think Alex Wood or David Hale type). It also would mean that Jason Heyward would become the starting centerfielder and BJ Upton would become a very expensive utility player. There are problems with this scenario, but it does make the Braves immediately and significantly better offensively.

2. The Chicago Cubs have Emilio Bonifacio now who is making a career on contact hitting, speed and defensive versatility. He has also played on 6 different teams since 2007. He lacks star power, but Atlanta has a history of making players like him succeed (remember Omar Infante?). He could very easily help the Braves all over the diamond and play any position in the field except for catcher or first-base. He can get on base and his speed is disrupting to opposing pitchers. Best of all, he would not be overly expensive also in a trade.

3. Jose Altuve has become one of the lone bright spots for the Houston Astros the last few seasons during their rebuilding mode. Like Bonifacio, he too possesses speed, contact hitting ability and strong defense. He also has some gap power, but will never be a big threat to hit home runs. Can work walks, but it is not necessarily a strength of his. The Astros have been dealing with a PR nightmare in the wake of their new ownership, trading one of their best players for anything less than someone that is MLB ready would be a bad decision. Personally, I'd like to see Tommy La Stella before Altuve - La Stella seems to have a higher ceiling than Altuve, who appears to have reached his ceiling.

The team has the pitching to contend for a World Series, but history will continue to repeat itself without more consistent contact hitting coming on offense.