It’s May 7, and the Atlanta Braves are looking like a very different team than they did one month ago. Remember those posts about their spring training record? Remember when they dropped their first three games against the New York Mets?
Since then, unlike the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox, the Braves have picked themselves up and gone on to compete at the top of their division and have records that rival the Texas Rangers, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the division-leading Washington Nationals. That says a lot about this team and their resiliency. It says a lot about where this season could go for Atlanta and a taste of what October could bring.
Many of the sports pundits put the Philadelphia Phillies in first place before the season started, both because they’ve held that position for the last three or four years and also because their starting pitching staff is arguably the best in baseball. But the absence of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard has illuminated their lack of offense that has been on the decline for the last two years. Now, the Phillies have spent more time in last place than any other team in the NL East.
I’m certainly not saying that they are out of it. Far from it. Right now, taking first place would be good for the Braves, but even better would be to put as much distance as they can between themselves and the Phillies.
So, what is it? Our starting pitching has been good, but not great. Our offense has been incredible (especially for Braves fans who remember the last two years) but that was in spite of Jason Heyward starting slow, Chipper Jones missing the first week or so of the season and Brian McCann starting slow as well. I might argue that the Braves’ bench has a lot to do with that mark and will continue to do so for the rest of the season.
On that bench is Eric Hinske, a guy who has played from the bench for a number of years now, but was a part of three different World Series teams in as many years. David Ross, our back up catcher, who could easily be a starter for almost any other team in baseball; Matt Diaz, a Brave turned Pirate turned Brave again and Jack Wilson, former Pirate shortstop.
Those four players have each played a part in making this team one of the best in baseball right now, even if none of them is a starting player. Hinkse, you may remember, hit a two run shot late in the game against the Colorado Rockies a few days ago; but before that, he’d had a four-for-four night and is currently batting .400 with seven RBI’s. Both Ross and Diaz are right around the .300 mark and have nine RBI’s between the two of them. Wilson isn’t much of a batter anymore, but his glove more than makes up for it and is the reason he’s on the team.
Now, while those numbers are good, they aren’t all encompassing. It’s not like they’re responsible for the offensive run-fest that has been the Braves so far. What they offer is more intangible; that is, those numbers allow Fredi Gonzalez to handle his club a little differently and with confidence. Jones, as we all know, isn’t going to play 140 games this season. He’ll certainly play as many as he can, but his age and his physical limitations are going to keep him from that mark. McCann is going to need some days off because the position he plays is hard on anyone. Heyward and Martin Prado have both needed a couple days to recover already and may need the same as the season goes on.
What that means is the Braves will need players to step in and pull their weight, not just be place holders until the “real” players come back. They have to defend their positions and make some moves with the bat. This year, I think they’re doing that with style. Like I said, Ross is a starting catcher on almost any other team and the Braves are happy to have someone with that kind of talent as a back up. Hinske has been swinging a mighty bat and has the versatility to play the outfield or first base. Diaz has a great approach to the game of baseball, even though his throw and swing are pretty ugly. He’s a gamer and I’m happy any time he’s in the lineup.
Add to that a bullpen that includes two former starters as long relievers and the Braves have a truly interesting makeup. This is a team that is built for stamina in the long run, with talent to spare in all facets of their game. They have the ability to relieve players for a game or an inning equally and I think that will be a huge plus down the stretch. We’ve already seen what happens when a starting player, no matter how good they are, is shouldered with the responsibility of carrying a team. Cliff Lee of the Phillies pitched ten full innings to 1-0 loss against the San Francisco Giants and although the team denied that his extended start was the culprit in his injury, there’s no reason a pitcher should put in ten innings in a game in April, unless he’s throwing a perfect game. Or if a team doesn’t believe in their relievers.
Either way, having options for all positions gives a manager the opportunity to rest players as well as play the numbers in pin-point situations, which adds up to a team having a chance for a longer run with healthy, rested players when September comes around. And I think you’ll see that it’s going to keep serving the Braves well this season.