The Braves are 42-47 at the All-Star break. It’s the first time they are below .500 at the All-Star break since 2009 (43-45) and represents their worst won-lost percentage in the first half (.472) since 2006 (40-49, .449).
This should not come as a surprise, given the team’s moves during the winter, punctuated by the trade of closer Craig Kimbrel on the eve of the season, which left the bullpen thin and exposed. At their current pace, the Braves would finish 76-86. Their preseason over/under win projection in Las Vegas was 73.5. The recent injury to closer to Jason Grilli (torn Achilles) and the likelihood of the Braves being sellers at the trade deadline could make 73 wins a challenge.
Here are five hot-button issues on the team and my thoughts on each:
1. Question: Is the team’s record Fredi Gonzalez’s fault?
Answer: No. If you wanted Gonzalez fired before this season because you believed he was the cause of the team falling short of expectations in the past, we can have that debate. But to blame him for anything about this season is absurd. The Braves are 42-47 because they’re a 42-47 level of a team. An argument can be made that they’ve actually overachieved, given the roster in general and the pitching staff in particular. No. 1 starter Julio Teheran has an ERA of 4.56 (ballooned from 2.89 last year). Shelby Miller is the only starter who has pitched up to expectations, and even he hasn't won in his last 10 starts (though partly from lack of run support). The bullpen’s ERA is 4.40 (second worst in the majors) and has blown 15 saves (tied for the most in the majors). Gonzalez has used 60 defensive lineups, 79 batting orders and 24 pitchers in relief. It’s not because he’s has the 64 Crayola box and can’t decide which one to use. It’s because the crayons keep breaking. There isn’t one manager in baseball would have this team with a winning record right now. Not one.
2. Question: Will the Braves be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline?
Grilli’s injury doesn’t change anything, other than the fact his injury removes a significant asset from the table. President of baseball operations John Hart was going to be a seller at the deadline, anyway, and Grilli was a potential trade piece. The primary objective never has been about winning this season, it was about reloading the minor-league system with young pitching, shedding big salaries and dealing players looking at free agency after this season. Other potential trade pieces include four veterans who can help a potential postseason team -- reliever Jim Johnson (2-3, 2.09), catcher A.J. Pierzynski (.283), outfielder Cameron Maybin (.289) and infielder Juan Uribe (.290).
3. Question: What was the organization’s biggest miscalculation of the first half?
Answer: Christian Bethancourt.
The Braves have a lot invested in Bethancourt. He was billed as the catcher of the future. The belief was: He's ready to make the jump now. That played a minor role in the decision to not re-sign Brian McCann two years ago and a significant role to deal Evan Gattis to Houston this winter. But Bethancourt was sent to Gwinnett (AAA) in June, less because of his anemic batting average (.198) than his weaknesses in defense and handling a pitching staff. It’s unknown if this is a case of a young player simply needing to grow up or whether he ever will be fully committed to improving. Regardless, Pierzynski wasn’t supposed to play this many games (60). Gattis, primarily a designated hitter in Houston, leads the Astros in RBIs (54) and ranks second in home runs (15).
4. Question: Will the Braves make the playoffs?
Washington will run away with the National League East and the Braves don’t have the players to make a second-half run for a wild card berth and beat out any combination of Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Arizona and San Diego. The contending teams also are likely to strengthen themselves at the deadline.
5. Question: So why go to the games?
Answer: Because for all of their problems, the Braves play hard and compete, similar to where the Hawks were two seasons ago. I realize that doesn't count for much in the competitive world of sports -- but, hey, given low expectations and the sales’ department’s need to fill seats, there’s a chance quite a few games will be discounted.