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Cubs roll into Atlanta for three-game series

NSR's Kevin McCarthey previews the Cubs upcoming series with the Atlanta Braves

The Cubs are on pace to win 114 games this season; the Braves are on pace to win 45. In the last 63 years, only one team has won 45 games or fewer in a single season. In the same time span, only two teams have won 114 games or more.

So, this weekend will be a battle of two teams chasing history — well, one’s chasing it, the other is trying to run from it.

Atlanta is in rebuilding mode. General Manager John Coppolella told fans that the team would still try to win during their long-term rebuild, but those words seemed disingenuous at the time and look even more ridiculous now.

The Braves are 16-42 on the season, the worst mark in the bigs. No one had high expectations for this team, but few could have imagined something this bad. It’s only going a little bit worse than anyone could have ever possibly imagined.

It’s difficult to pinpoint one reason for their abysmal season. At this point, the wheels have come off, they’ve crashed and burned and you can feel free to insert more idioms about immense failure here. 

As bad as the 2016 season has been, the Braves front office is putting their hope in the future. A lot of money, expectation and pressure will be riding on the arms of a few young guns currently in their farm system. The team has focused their rebuild almost entirely around pitching, with plans to acquire established bats later on. It’s the exact opposite of the Cubs model. 

For Braves fans, this is a familiar strategy. The last time they tried it, they ended up winning 14 straight division titles. They also had three hall of famers together for those years— some guys named Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine. So that made things easier. 

Rebuilding years are never fun on the fans, no matter your patience level. Cubs fans can attest to this — they can also attest to just how fun it can be if things work out in the end. Time will tell if the Braves strategy will work or not.  

For now, they’re really, really bad. Here’s a deeper look at why.

Offense

The Braves have scored the fewest runs in the bigs (179), which equates to roughly three runs a game. They also rank last in the league in team batting average, home runs and on-base plus slugging percentage. 

Why can’t they score? To put it simply, their “good” players aren’t pulling their weight. 

Freddie Freeman has become a household name amongst baseball fans, but he’s not playing up to what they’re paying him. The slugger signed an 8-year, $135M contract two years ago. He’s slashing .248/.340/.425 — all three of those marks are career lows for him, which is discouraging for a player in his seventh year. The argument could be made that he’s getting pitched around due to his lack of protection in the lineup — and that’s likely true, notice the gap between his batting average and on-base percentage — but, that can’t be used as an excuse. 

Nick Markakis, one of few veterans in the lineup, is struggling at the plate. He’s hitting for a career-low in batting average and slugging percentage. In his 11-year career, his average slash line is .289/.358/.425, this year he’s slashing .245/.340/.332. That’s awful for a player making $11 million. 

Ender Inciarte, a product of the Shelby Miller trade, was expected to be a key contributor for the team as well. He missed a month with a hamstring injury and has struggled mightily since returning one month ago. He’s batting .212 with an on-base percentage of .290. The Braves spent big on outfielder Hector Olivera, too — now he’s serving an 82-game suspension for domestic violence. 

The theme on offense is simple: good players aren’t performing the way they’re supposed to. Jason Hammel, Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester are slated to pitch the three games this weekend for the Cubs. They should have no issue carving through this weak Braves lineup. 

Pitching

Bud Norris will pitch the series opener for Atlanta. He’s bounced back and forth between the bullpen and starting rotation this season, but neither role has been kind to the 31-year-old righty. He has a 5.28 ERA and 1.61 WHIP on the season. When he’s successful, he’s a ground ball pitcher who mixes his four-seamer, sinker and slider in order to keep the ball on the dirt. His last start against the Dodgers was his first in over a month, and he looked good, allowing just one run in five innings pitched. 

23-year-old right-hander Matt Wisler has been a lone bright spot on this year’s team, and he’ll pitch the Saturday game against Jake Arrieta. His 3.98 ERA and 1.12 WHIP are significant improvements in just his second year in the bigs. Wisler has the same repertoire as Norris — he relies heavily on his fastball, sinker and slider. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff, though his sweeping slider is very good. He’s a smart, level-headed, competitive youngster who could be a central piece in the Braves rotation for years to come. 

Williams Perez is slated to pitch the series finale on Sunday. The 25-year-old Venezuelan has shown signs of improvement in his second year. His strikeout rate is down from last year, but so is his walk rate, ERA and WHIP — he’s figured out how to be more efficient at the big league level. He relies entirely on his sinker at times, he throws the worm-killer on nearly 65% of his pitches. 

The team’s bullpen has been bad too, they rank 26th in the league in ERA. That hasn’t mattered much, however, considering the team rarely takes leads late into ball games. 

Predictions

There’s absolutely no reason that the Cubs shouldn’t sweep the Braves this weekend. But hey, that’s why they play the games and crazier things certainly have happened. It’s baseball. 

And remember, David took down Goliath. But it seems the Braves will need more than a slingshot to take down this Cubs team. Get out your brooms, folks. 


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