For the Atlanta Braves, it was the worst week of what has been a splendid season.
Keep that last part in mind. Not so long ago, we had to try hard to find two or three happy days in a baseball summer. That this week stuck out, sore-thumb-like, is in its way another sign of progress.
That said, this was a really bad week. The Braves forfeited the rights to Round 1 draftee Carter Stewart, whom Brian Bridges, the team’s estimable scouting director, had called the No. 1 player on their board. That Stewart went No. 8 overall made him, briefly, a bit of a steal. His refusal to sign before Friday’s deadline marks a major organizational whiff.
Reports hold that the Braves were alarmed by a post-draft physical that showed Stewart, a high school pitcher from Melbourne, Fla., with a wrist issue. (Baseball is different from other sports in that it doesn’t allow teams to conduct full pre-draft exams.) It’s unclear whether this prompted the Braves to lower their offer, which was never very high. They had $4.9 million in slot money to spend on the No. 8 pick; according to Mark Bowman of MLB.com, they mightn’t have offered half that.
In the here and now, this isn’t a crippling loss: You can’t miss what you never had, and Stewart wasn’t going to step into the big-league rotation (about which more in a minute) anytime soon. And the Astros infamously mismanaged the signing of No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken in 2014, and they Houston hasn’t folded its franchise.
The upshot is that the Braves, provided they offered Stewart 40 percent of slot money, will receive an extra Round 1 pick next season. Still, the first draft of Alex Anthopoulos’ stewardship can’t be considered a coup. It’s … well, what’s the opposite of “coup”? “Uncoup”? “Coup-less”?
In more pressing matters, the Braves began the week in first place and beat the Yankees, then in first place themselves, on Ronald Acuna’s 11th-inning home run in the Bronx. The Braves have since lost five of six and have fallen into a virtual tie for first. (They’re .001 of a percentage point behind Philadelphia.)
Were these the imperial Braves of the middle ’90s, we’d shrug and say, “It’s one week in a six-month season. Stuff happens.” This being a team of mostly tender years, we react the way new parents do to every cough: They call the pediatrician. Fact is, the Braves just went 5-5 on a trip that saw them face three plus-.500 clubs. They don’t have pneumonia. They do, however, have the sniffles.
On June 5, Sean Newcomb lowered his seasonal ERA to 2.49. Of his six starts since, he has yielded five earned runs in half of them. (His ERA is now 3.44.) He hasn’t reached the fifth inning in his past two turns, yielding 17 baserunners, nine on walks, while managing 19 outs. With Brandon McCarthy, Max Fried and Mike Soroka on the disabled list and Julio Teheran alternating bad start with good – he felt sick after yielding five runs in five innings in Yankee Stadium – any Newcomb wobble assumes outsize importance. Mike Foltynewicz is an All-Star on merit and Anibal Sanchez is the best of Anthopoulos’ bargain buys, but you can’t make the playoffs with two reliable starters.
Newcomb hadn’t had more than four walks in any of his first 16 starts. He has issued nine in his past two turns, which spanned only 6 1/3 innings. Is this a sign of a youngish pitcher – he just turned 25 – feeling the strain of an increased workload? Newcomb is at 99 1/3 innings. Last season he worked 100 innings in the majors, 157 2/3 all told. Or is it a mere blip in a season that merited All-Star consideration?
As for the offense: The Braves still rank second among National League clubs in runs and batting average and third in OPB, but they’ve slipped to eighth in home runs. They hit none over the four games in Milwaukee. (The Brewers hoisted seven.) We probably should have seen this coming.
The 2017 Braves finished 28th in the majors in homers. The 2018 edition made a brighter start, averaging 1.15 home runs per game through May. They’ve since averaged .916, down even from the 1.02 of last season. They were 11th in the NL in homers in June; they’re 10th in July. On the season, only Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman have more than 10. Matt Adams, briefly a Brave, has 13 for Washington in 168 at-bats.
A daily dose of a healthy Acuna could change that. He has seven homers in 149 at-bats. And the Braves could trade for Mike Moustakas (possible) or Manny Machado (less possible). And it could be that the week just completed will stand as the season’s unchallenged low point, ending as it did with Ender Inciarte, an All-Star last season, being benched by Brian Snitker for failure to hustle.
Actually, that wasn’t quite the end. On Sunday night, four Braves were named to the All-Star team, the most this franchise has generated since 2012. Freeman made it, duh, as did Albies and Foltynewicz. So did Nick Markakis, the longest-serving major leaguer ever to become a newly minted All-Star. He’d played 1,928 MLB games, surpassing (if that’s the word) Ron Fairly, who’d made it after a mere 1,866. Thus did even the season’s darkest span see a sunny conclusion, which goes to show:
This is baseball. Baseball seasons last forever. If you’re not as good as your best week, you’re never as bad as your worst. There’s no reason these Braves can’t right themselves – providing Newcomb stops walking the ballpark and somebody starts hitting homers again. And providing Anthopoulos, who just saw his club lose a big arm, finds a couple of middling ones to get this team to October.