02 July 2007

Braves Preview: Wild Card Rivals

by Joshua Worley

Let's say that the Padres really are the best team in the NL West, and that they will go on to win the division. Even in this depressing hypothetical, things aren't so grim, though. There is still the wild card race, in which the Dodgers have to be the favorites. But which teams would be the competition in a wild-card race? I will also assume that the Mets and Brewers go on to win their divisions, removing them as wild-card competition.

The Snakes are only a half game back of the Dodgers right now, so they have to be considered a wild-card rival. I'm sure any Snake fan reading this would take issue with me calling the Dodgers the obvious favorites when the Snakes are just a half game back, but I just don't believe that Snakes can sustain their record for much longer. Besides the Snakes, who else? The next closest team in the Braves. Here are the wild card standings right now:

Dodgers -- 0
Snakes -- 0.5
Braves -- 3
Phillies -- 4
Cubs -- 5

I think we can do better than just look at the standings, though. How well have these teams really played so far, and how likely are they to play well enough to win the wild card in the second half?

The Baseball Prospectus postseason odds are illuminating. In particular, I'm interested in each team's average wins in the simulations of the million season that they run. As of 2 June 2007, they are:

Dodgers -- 91.1
Cubs -- 87.1
Braves -- 84.9
Snakes -- 82.5
Phillies -- 82.2

The Braves are still the Dodgers' second biggest rival for the wild card, but now the Cubs have made a huge leap to become the Dodgers biggest rival, while the Snakes have fallen away. As I said earlier, I think this is right. I think the Snakes will eventually fade, unless all their young players suddenly start hitting.

The Dodgers host the Braves for four beginning tonight. These are not only games the Dodgers need to win to keep pace with the Padres, but they are games with their second biggest wild card rivals. Let the Braves win 3 out of 4, and not only do the Dodgers lose ground to the Padres, but they would suddenly only be 1 game up on the Braves in the wild card race.

The Braves are 43-39, with 371 runs scored and 369 allowed. Early in the season it appeared they might challenge the Mets for the division, but they've fallen away from the Mets and don't seem likely to catch them again. But the Braves are probably better than this record and run differential. They faced a brutal interleague schedule. They lost 4 out of 6 to the Red Sox and were swept by the Tigers and the Twins. They took 2 of 3 from another tough opponent, the Indians. Since coming off a tough 3-9 interleague stretch, the Braves are 5-1 against weak NL East teams Washington and Florida.


Larry Wayne Jones Jr. -- 3B

age - bats
35 - switch

AVG -- OBP -- SLG
0.327 -- 0.416 -- 0.595

Chipper has missed about a month of games so far this season. He's been hitting 0.411 since he came off the DL on June 13. He's been like James Loney since coming back, almost. Loney was called up June 10, just three days before Chipper came off the DL. But Loney has more home runs than Chipper since June 13. Chipper only has 1; Loney has 3.


Kelly Andrew Johnson -- 2B

25 -- left

0.281 -- 0.385 -- 0.459

His batting average has been sinking since his hot start. How low will it go? He does walk a lot, so his OBP is still excellent. After 5 home runs in April, he has only 3 since then. Though his season line is better than Kent's right now, I think Kent may be ahead of him by year end. I just don't think he's as dangerous as this line makes him out to be. The Braves appear not to think so either, because recent call-up Yunel Escobar has been getting a lot of starts at second base in the last week.


Yunel Escobar -- 2B

24 -- right

0.310 -- 0.348 -- 0.425

He was called up June 3 to play third base and be a utility infielder while Chipper was out. Recently he's been starting at second base, including 3 of 4 games in place of Johnson. He figures to start at least against lefties Hendrickson and Wolf in the Dodger series. I expect him to go 2-2 against Hendrickson.

A platoon at second may be the way to go for the Braves, but I don't see much in Yunel's minor league or current major league stats to get too excited about.


Edgar Enrique Renteria -- SS

31 -- right

0.324 -- 0.386 -- 0.493

These are the numbers that we might be seeing from Rafael Furcal if not for Repko treating Furcal like an outfield wall and heedlessly slamming into him. Given Repko's track record of obliviousness in the outfield, I don't think it's a stretch to hold him partly responsible for what happened. Yes, outfield collisions happen, and he surely wasn't trying to hurt someone. But he has a track record of just being oblivious to anything else but the ball in the outfield, and that just isn't acceptable. He's done it before. At best you'll hurt only yourself, as he did last year when he leapt into the outfield wall, and at worst you'll turn the star shortstop into a near Juan Pierre clone. I don't know, maybe I'm overreacting to it, but whenever I see Furcal limping around and not hitting home runs or stealing bases I think of Repko and his maddeningly misplaced hustle. Anyway, the Braves don't seem to have any Repkos on their team to run into Renteria, so he's doing great this year.


Scott Robert Thorman -- 1B

25 -- left

0.225 -- 0.261 -- 0.410

He's like Chris Young of the Snakes, but without even the middling batting average or the tough defensive position. The Braves seriously have to get more from first base, and they have started to by playing Saltalamacchia there, especially against lefty pitchers.


Jarrod Scott Saltalamacchia -- C/1B

22 -- switch

0.330 -- 0.385 -- 0.511

He's rockin' in 32 games this season. The Braves are all excited about the rookie duo of Salty and Yunel, though I think only Salty really deserves the excitement. He's playing about twice a week at McCann's backup at catcher and maybe twice a week at first base in recent weeks. The Dodgers will see him at least against Wolf and Hendrickson, and I hope that's it.


Brian Michael McCann -- C

23 -- left

0.261 -- 0.314 -- 0.427

I guess I'm old fashioned, but I have a hard time buying the typical conventional wisdom that McCann will end up being a little better than Martin. It's all because I can't see past this year's stats, I guess. If you look at numbers previous to this year, McCann comes out ahead. But Martin isn't that far behind, and based on this year I give him the slight edge moving forward. McCann and Martin are both going to the All-star game, and they should battle for the starting spot for years to come.


Andruw Rudolf Jones -- CF

30 -- right

0.199 -- 0.297 -- 0.384

Andruw has suffered from a high strikeout rate and middling line drive rate for years now, which when combined are sure to create a low batting average. In years past he was able to keep his batting average up around 0.260 simply by hitting a ton of home runs. Not so this year. Way too many of his fly outs are staying in the park, being caught, and he's striking out more than ever, which is saying something. He's on pace for about 160 whiffs this year. He's still a good defender, and draws a lot of walks, but I wouldn't even think of signing him this off season. If his power doesn't come back, he's a bad hitter. Not that the Dodgers need to think about signing him: they're set in center for the next four years. Whoopee.


Jeffrey Braden Francoeur -- RF

23 -- right

0.286 -- 0.328 -- 0.419

In the battle between right fielders who briefly flashed onto the NL scene in each of the past two year with impressive and unsustainable success, Andre Ethier holds the slight lead right now. Ethier has actually done well in June with a 0.848 OPS, and he now has a better line than Francoeur. Francoeur is on a quest for more patience at the plate this year, with the encouragement of hitting coach Terry Pendleton. But after 9 walks in April he had just 5 in each of the next two months. It's still not really enough, and Francoeur has played every day so far this season, so he's getting ample opportunity. Even as he works on improving his walk total, his home runs have come way down from last year. After 5 in April of this year and 29 last year, he has just 3 in the last two months combined. I will be really annoyed if Francoeur does anything but make outs and hit an occasional single in this series.


Matthew Edward Diaz -- LF

29 -- right

0.347 -- 0.364 -- 0.468

Willie Charles Harris -- LF

29 -- left

0.373 -- 0.444 -- 0.485

The Braves have a nice left field platoon going at the moment. Combined these guys have an Ichiro-like batting line.


Defense:

Andruw Jones is excellent as always, while Chipper Jones is pretty bad. Thorman, Renteria and Johnson are all good enough to pull the infield defense up to about average on the whole. Hit your ground balls to the extreme left, Dodger hitters. But hit your fly balls to the right, where Francoeur has been a bit sub-par. The left field platoon is about average. McCann is only throwing out 20% of base-stealers this year, right near the bottom of NL catchers. Saltalamacchia is at 23%. The Dodgers should look to run in this series, though perhaps not quite as aggresively as in the Padre series.


Bullpen:

I think the best descriptor for the Braves 'pen is average-good, because among good 'pens, it's about average. The 'pen corps do have a 14-6 record, so they haven't blown too many starter leads or ties, or when they have the offense has bailed them out.

Chad Michael Paronto -- 4.55 -- 1.65 -- right

Hey you! Yeah, you, the one whose last name sounds like the father of a Canadian city. Grab a mop. You're on cleanup duty in this 10-2 stinker of a baseball game.

Yep, he's a mop-up guy. He looks like a bouncer in his photo. His neck is as thick of one of Broxton's legs.

Peter Michael Moylan -- 2.41 -- 1.07 -- right

He's not a regular set-up man, in spite of his good stats. This is the kind of guy I can see going into a game with his shiny ERA and coming out of the game with it a run higher. He's due for a beat-down.

Wilfredo Jose Ledezma -- 4.95 -- 1.73 -- left

The Braves obtained him from Detroit in a trade, for some reason. "Some reason" would seem to be that he's a lefty in a 'pen otherwise lacking them. He has 26 walks in 40 innings pitched. I think it is Joe Beimel's destiny to reach Ledezma's pitching ineptitude.

Oscar Eduardo Villareal -- 4.01 -- 1.31 -- right

He's having the kind of season that Tsao of the Dodgers may end up having. Good strikeout numbers.

Tyler Kali Yates -- 3.06 -- 1.08 -- right

The Braves are like a lot of teams with kind of good bullpens: the back end of the 'pen is mostly bad, their are two great pitchers sharing the set-up duties, and the closer is a name guy but overrated. Yates is one of the ace set-up guys. He's pitching a lot like Broxton, though with not quite as many strikeouts.

Rafael Soriano -- 3.12 -- 0.87 -- right

Soriano is the second ace set-up guy on the Braves. He's given up a home run in three of his last 8 appearances, and he lost the game for the Braves in his last appearance against the Fish.

Robert Joe Wickman -- 4.33 -- 1.56 -- right

Another guy who looks like a bouncer! I think Paronto would win in a fight, though. The only rationale I see for making him the closer instead of Yates or Soriano is that he was a pretty good closer the last two years. He's just 14 of 18 in save chances this year.


Running:

The Braves aren't really a running team. Part time player Willie Harris is their most dangerous threat, with 13 stolen and 4 times caught. Renteria is very efficient, with 7 of 8 stolen. Kelly Johnson would be better off staying at first, as he's 6 for 10. The rest of the team hasn't done much running and will likely stay at first against Martin unless there is a busted hit-and-run play.


Starters:

The pitching match-ups are Smoltz v Lowe, Davies v Wolf, James v Hendrickson, and Hudson v Penny. Except for Wolf clearly being better than Davies, these are all pretty even match-ups. I'll look at each on individually on game day if I get to them.

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