Thursday, June 13, 2013

Braves Outfield Disappoints

Dan Uggla greets Heyward after a long home run
Hopes were high for Jason Heyward and the Atlanta Braves coming into the 2013 season. After winning 94 games last year while ushering Chipper Jones into retirement, the Braves went out and signed B.J. Upton to the largest free agent contract in franchise history. Two months later, they fleeced the Arizona Diamondbacks for Justin Upton, scoring a 25 year-old superstar-in-the-making who won't become a free agent until after the 2015 season.

Adding the Upton brothers to its incumbent right fielder gave Atlanta one of baseball's best outfields. All three are young, athletic ballplayers projected for greatness long before they ever set foot on a big league diamond. Blessed with power and speed, the trio of former first round draft picks are three of the game's brightest talents.

So why aren't they playing like it?

More than two months into the season, the outfield that was supposed to lead Atlanta back to the postseason has gone bust. elder Upton's been a train wreck at the plate, striking out in one-third of his plate appearances and showing no semblance of the power stroke that helped him blast 28 home runs last year. Justin carried the Braves with his monster April  but hasn't done much lately, batting just .222/.343/.326 since April 28th.

And then there's Heyward, who's slow start to the season was exacerbated by an emergency appendectomy that forced him onto the Disabled List in late April and caused him to miss 23 games (the same operation derailed Adam Dunn early in 2011, and we all know how that turned out). Since returning to action on May 17th, it's taken Heyward a couple weeks to get his timing back and regain his footing at the plate.

But with both Uptons still dragging their feet in June, Heyward has shown signs of life at the plate. After going 2-for-5 with a double last night, Heyward now has hits in each of his last 10 games--including seven multi-hit efforts--to push his batting line up to .215/.324/.362.  He's been squaring up the ball better and making hard contact more consistently. These improvements are reflected in his improved strikeout rate, which he's trimmed from 18.8 percent before June 2nd to 12.8 percent since.

Credit Fredi Gonzalez for sticking with his slumping 23 year-old, batting him second even as his batting average languished below the Mendoza line into early June. Many managers would have dropped Heyward down in the lineup or benched him in an effort to help get him going, but such moves can end up doing more harm then good. They reflect a lack of faith on the manager's part and can end up damaging the ballplayer's already diminished confidence. Gonzalez's long leash has served him (and Heyward) well.

Even after getting swept by the San Diego Padres, Atlanta still leads the NL East by six games. The Braves are a first place team in spite of their vaunted outfield, not because of them. The rotation's remained healthy and everybody's pitching well. Evan Gattis and Chris Johnson are picking up the slack on offense. The defense is as good as expected.

Still, one can only imagine how strong the Braves will be once Heyward and the Uptons start doing what they're capable of.

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