Guerry Clegg commentary: Time for Braves to make major moves

May 20, 2014 

Braves Giants Baseball

Associated PressAtlanta Braves center fielder B.J. Upton reacts after being called out on strikes Tuesday by umpire Ed Hickox, rear, against San Francisco Giants pitcher Ryan Vogelsong during the fourth inning in San Francisco.

AP

When the Atlanta Braves shocked and angered many of their fans by announcing their move to Cobb County, the justification was that the move was necessary to remain financially strong so they could remain competitive where it matters most -- on the field.

After all, winning championships is what professional sports are all about, at least on the highest level.

That being said, while the Braves owe the better part of $86.6 million to two hopelessly lost players, Dan Uggla and BJ Upton, they owe their fans something just as valuable -- a commitment to win.

So far this season, their offense has been abysmal. Attribute some of that to the nature of the game and some to their overall lack of experience. Three starters -- Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons -- won't turn 25 until after the All-Star break. Evan Gattis is 28 but has played only 141 big league games.

Certainly some of their problems are within their control. They are perhaps the most undisciplined lineup in baseball. Hitting coach Greg Walker seems to be getting exasperated trying to get the hitters to be more selective. But that starts with pitch recognition. Maybe they just don't have that talent.

Either way, it doesn't matter. Something has to be done. The Braves can't sit back and hope this offense fixes itself.

They can't afford keep relying on a non-competitive lineup -- one that's either last or near last in virtually every meaningful offensive category. They are going to have to make some hard decisions if they expect to make the playoffs again this year and keep the fans' interest.

It starts with the obvious ones. It's time to release Uggla and bench BJ Upton. Yes, that's easier to say when we're not the ones writing the checks or the ones responsible for those atrocious contracts. By the way, in fairness, not all the blame rests with general manager Frank Wren. While the final decisions rests with him, these were organizational moves presumably endorsed on several levels.

Their combined salaries for this season and 2015 is $56.5 million. They will still owe Upton $33.1 million for the final two years of his contract. It's tough to see that much money go to waste.

But it comes down to this. They're going to have to pay them either way. Forget trading either one of them. That is out of the question. So which is worse -- pay them to not play or continue losing?

Getting more production from second base and center field would boost the offense. The logical first step is to promote from within. Jordan Schafer has earned a shot in center field, just as Tyler Pastornicky is getting one at second base.

If that doesn't work, the next step is to make an even tougher decision. How much longer will they wait Heyward to become an All-Star? His .228 batting average going into Tuesday night's game was a little misleading. That included an 8-for-59 start. Since then, Heyward has hit a decent .286. But the Braves need more power from him even if he is batting leadoff.

In 2012, Heyward hit a career-high 27 home runs in 587 at-bats. That's one homer ever 21.7 at-bats. Last year, his power dropped to 14 homers in 383 at-bats, or one per 27.3 at-bats. This year, he's down to three homers in 162 at-bats, one every 54 at-bats. Right field is a power-producing position. If Heyward is going to sacrifice his power to be a leadoff hitter, they might as well move him to center field and shop for a right fielder. If they don't have room to add to the payroll, then they might have to shop Ervin Santana and his $14 million salary to make room for another bat.

Whatever it is, something must be done or losing their hold on first place won't be their biggest concern. They could lose fan support.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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