Thirteen more wins. As simplistic as that sounds – and probably even irrelevant – it’s important to remember that reference point.
All the Atlanta Braves need to do to have a .500 season is win 13 more games than they did last year, when they finished 68-93.
Sure, last year has nothing to do with this year. But it’s the memory of the past two seasons, in which the Braves went 135-188, that made this year’s 1-6 start seem especially deflating. Each loss brought more thoughts of “it’s going to be a long summer.” The Toronto Blue Jays lost nine of their first 10, but nobody’s writing them off just yet.
It’s helpful to remember that last year’s team was historically bad – 18-46 through 64 games – yet still finished 13 wins short of .500. Even if they’re unlikely to win 20 out of 30 games at any point, as they did to finish last season, take that horrendous start and overachieving finish out of the equation. They were 30-37 between those two extremes.
Despite how poorly they played at times during that 1-6 start, this is still a much better team than last year’s.
What matters more is to look at why they lost those games. Two losses were on the bullpen, three on poor starting pitching, and one on Kurt Suzuki’s exasperating (for us to watch and I’m sure much more so for him to endure) inability to catch R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball. It brought to mind Bob Uecker’s quote on how to catch Phil Niekro’s knuckler.
“Wait till it stops rolling, walk over and pick it up.”
Catching a major league knuckleballer is almost as hard as hitting it, because neither the batter nor the catcher know exactly what the ball will do. But whether it’s Suzuki, Tyler Flowers or somebody else, they’re going to have to get a better effort catching Dickey.
My guess is Bartolo Colon and Dickey will be OK. Colon had one excellent start and one terrible start.
The lineup is still fairly solid even with Matt Kemp out with a strained hamstring. Ender Inciarte is starting to hit. Nick Markakis and Brandon Phillips have been hitting behind Freddie Freeman.
There are concerns. Rookie Dansby Swanson has struggled. It wouldn’t matter so much if he were a veteran. But the concern is that Swanson could get overwhelmed.
Another concern is Kemp’s hamstring. That’s the kind of injury that can linger and get worse throughout a long season. It’s probably going to make Kemp even more of a defensive liability.
Starting pitcher Jaime Garcia has been unimpressive. The bullpen is going to be up and down.
But there’s also reasons for hope.
One is that someone in the farm system will an impact. Matt Wisler could get it together in Gwinnett. Mississippi has three starters pitching well – Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard and Patrick Weigel. If just one of those guys progresses and takes Garcia’s spot, the rotation will be OK. If Garcia doesn’t improve soon, the Braves would be better off calling Wisler back up and see if he can make the most of a second chance.
The other hope is that John Coppalella trades for help. Regardless of their record by midseason, the Braves should become buyers rather than sellers when the trade market heats up. They are done rebuilding the farm system. The move into SunTrust Park necessitates the commitment to win now. They owe the fans as much.
The Braves pursued a top-of-the-rotation starter last winter but whiffed. They didn’t want to part with some of their prized prospects, and other teams didn’t want to give up on the 2017 season before it started it. Both of those positions could change within a couple of months.
Some of those great Braves teams of the 1990s were quite average in April. The ’93 team that won 104 games and famously chased down the San Francisco Giants to win the NL West was a pedestrian 12-13 in April. Trading for Fred McGriff made a huge difference. The ’95 team that won the World Series won seven of their first eight, but turned around and lost seven of their next eight. The ’96 team that went to the World Series started off 5-7.
Despite the optimism within the clubhouse, this is probably not a playoff team. But neither is it a bad team. Or so we hope.