Every year the Braves seem to have a 25-40% turnover in their roster. So it's almost dangerous to predict a fast start for this team. Sometimes it just takes time for a team to find its way with so many new players. So since 44% of this year's Opening Day roster was brand new, you kind of knew the Braves wouldn't get out of the gates quickly.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what kept the Braves from being even better than 14-10 in April. The offense was anemic, posting a .244 team batting average (14th in the National League). Atlanta scored two runs or less in a third of their twenty-four games.
Chipper Jones didn't start the last week of the month, but there's no doubt that when he's in the lineup, he's the most important part of the offensive puzzle. Jones wanted to bounce back after an embarrassing 2004 season for him at the plate, and his .375 April average has everyone believing that he's back to his MVP-caliber form.
But he's got to stay healthy, and right now, he's a huge question mark. His groin injury doesn't seem to be getting any better, and the Braves may have to make a decision in a few days of whether it would be better to go ahead and give him two weeks off so he'll be healthy for the rest of the season.
After a fantastic spring training, Andruw Jones has looked more like Rowland Office. He hit only .239 in April, but was near the Mendoza Line for much of the month. Jones is going to have to be more productive for this team to realize its offensive potential. When Andruw is hot, he's a very feared hitter. But he hasn't struck the fear in anyone so far this season.
Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles are off to very different starts. Furcal has struggled with his batting average, but when he has been on base he has made things happen with seven stolen bases. Meanwhile, Giles has not been very productive as far as homers and RBI are concerned, but he has been on base a great deal. You wonder how many times he's been left on base as well.
Adam LaRoche and Johnny Estrada are both off to slow starts. LaRoche always starts off slow, so that is really no surprise. He's simply a hitter that is going to get hotter as the weather does. Adam has played superb in the field. His platoon partner, the ageless Julio Franco, hit only .243 in April and did not play well in the field. You wonder if LaRoche will get a few more at bats against lefties if Franco doesn't improve.
Estrada is never going to be a power threat, but you would like to see a home run once in a while. He didn't have one in April, and his .242 average was nothing like his 2004 numbers. Chances are Estrada is going to hit fifth or sixth in the lineup, so it's very important that he improves at the plate. Defensively, he's really taken over as a solid receiver. When he's catching, he's in control on the field, and that's something you want to see in your backstop.
The two biggest questions coming into the season remain so after the first month. Raul Mondesi (.210) and Brian Jordan (.244) have been inconsistent. Mondesi's game-winning home run Saturday night was a big boost, but he's got to be more of a consistent threat in the lineup. And defensively Mondesi does not look like the same player he was when he won a few Gold Gloves with the Dodgers back in the 1990s. He's misplayed balls at times and his arm, always a huge strength for him, has been inconsistent. Perhaps since he missed all of last season he's going to take longer to get going, but it's difficult to believe another month of hitting .210 will keep him as a regular.
Jordan has had a couple of big home runs, but he's also made you remember that he is a 38-year-old former football player. You just have to wonder how long his legs will be able to hold up. It wouldn't be so bad to have a player like him, one that hustles at any cost, hitting .241 if our outfield didn't have another player hitting in the low .200-range. But with Mondesi also struggling, it brings Jordan's troubles to the forefront.
The bench has been used more to substitute for the injured starters more than anything. Pete Orr has shown why the Braves were able to trade Nick Green without any hesitation. Orr is a super-utility player, with the ability to fill in at second, short, third, and he even started a game in left field. Wilson Betemit has been called upon to fill in for Chipper Jones, and while he average is still not great, he has shown that he can be an offensive contributor to this team.
Ryan Langerhans won a game for the Braves with his dramatic home run in Houston, but it did little to get him additional playing time. Before the season started, it was believed Langerhans might platoon with Jordan, if for nothing else to keep the veteran fresher as the season progressed. But so far, Langerhans has been your typical fourth outfielder. If Mondesi and/or Jordan continue to hit below .250, expect Langerhans to possibly get a little more time in the outfield. While everyone clamors for a trade to improve our offense, Langerhans needs to be the first internal option given a chance before a major trade is pulled off.
The strength of the team in April was not a surprise. The starting pitching was tremendous. Atlanta's starters had an ERA of 2.89 for the first month, and if you take away John Smoltz's horrific Opening Day performance, the starters had an ERA of 2.57. The Braves' starters pitched at least six innings in 19 of the 24 games, including nine games in a row, and they posted 16 quality starts. The starters also allowed one or no runs in half of the games played in April.
John Smoltz has proved that his arm is sound, but of course, the true test will be after he logs 100 innings or so. He rebounded after that first nasty start in Florida to roll off four straight quality starts, and he could have won all four games if he had gotten any run support. Smoltz has fulfilled his own prophecy so far, and if he keeps it up, the Braves will have one of the top starters in the game.
Perhaps the best surprise has been left-hander Mike Hampton, who has gotten off to sinfully slow starts in his first two seasons in a Braves' uniform. However this year Hampton has carried over his fantastic second half performance from last year into this season. As the Braves' de facto number three starter, Hampton is showing that he may once again be one of the best left-handers in the game.
Tim Hudson was acquired to be an ace pitcher, and through the first month he has done nothing to disprove the theory that he can be just that. His performance on April 18th against the Astros and Roger Clemens was perhaps the best we'll see all season. The trio of Hudson, Hampton, and Smoltz could be the best the Braves have ever had. It is a lethal trio that no opponent will want to face in the postseason.
John Thomson has been superb as a number four starter. Thomson has averaged over six innings per start, and has thrived in a less-pressured situation of being a number four. Horacio Ramirez has been a bit inconsistent in his role as the number five, but considering he missed two-thirds of last season with his shoulder trouble, you knew it was going to take him a while to get back into the swing of things completely. Having two quality arms at the bottom of the rotation will probably be under-estimated, but the Braves know it does give them a clear advantage, particularly against some poorer teams.
When you look at the bullpen, you start of course with closer Dan Kolb. Well, he's going to give some of us a heart attack. But we're just going to have to have the nitroglycerin by the television. Kolb is not perfect, and that's what we had practically gotten used to with John Smoltz in that role the last few years. He's a guy that's going to look fine in some games, and yet very, very human in others.
If Kolb can't cut it as the closer, and again you can't ignore the fact that he did have six saves in April, then the Braves do have an internal candidate to turn to. Chris Reitsma is pitching as the Braves envisioned he could when they acquired him from the Reds thirteen months ago. Reitsma has been outstanding as the 8th inning set-up man. If it comes to where the Braves need to switch Kolb and Reitsma, I don't think they'll worry one bit. Reitsma has outstanding stuff, and the Braves wondered a year ago if he might take over for Smoltz eventually anyway.
But for now, Reitsma will continue as the lead set-up reliever. The other bullpen twirlers have also been effective. Roman Colon, Jorge Sosa, and Kevin Gryboski have been solid, and Adam Bernero has outstanding numbers in his first season with Atlanta. Once the Braves released Tom Martin, it improved the bullpen 100%, and John Foster, Martin's replacement, has been perfect so far.
While Kolb is a worry, you can't be too terribly disappointed in the bullpen. Overall, it's been very solid. When Kolb gets more consistent, this could be one of the best groups in the game. And rest assured that if the pen struggles, General Manager John Schuerholz will find help.
The outfield situation is the biggest dilemma. But before you continue to chant for John Schuerholz to find another bat through a trade, remember the internal options that are hanging around. Ryan Langerhans will probably get more than the 20 at bats he saw him April, and Kelly Johnson and Andy Marte were both impressive in their first month in AAA. But Mondesi and Jordan can get better, and if they do, this offense will certainly score more than 98 runs this month.
So what's to make of this team through 24 games? Well, there's no doubt that if the offense had been better, they would have been better than 14-10. The pitching gave them a chance to win all but four of those games. But now the hope is the offense will warm up, and if the pitching continues to do well, this team will be even better than four games over .500 in May.
Bill Shanks has a new book coming out this month called Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. It is about baseball scouting and player development with the Braves as its main focus. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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