The following is a transcript of my conversation with an imaginary Braves fan:
Me: "I'm really excited about the Diamondbacks this season. They might be the deepest team in the NL, and they're still young and on the rise."
Imaginary Braves Fan: "Yeah, that's pretty much exactly how I feel about the Braves this year."
Me: "Sure, I get that you're excited about your team, but c'mon. Just look at Justin Upton: dude's a phenom in RF, and he's evolving into one of the best hitters in baseball. And he's still only 24. The Braves don't have anyone like that in their outfield. No one does."
IBF: "Well, actually, we do. Jason Heyward plays right field for us, and he was at least as highly regarded as Upton when he entered the league. He's really good in the field, put up 5 fWAR in his first season in the majors, and is currently hitting .361/.439/.611 in 2012. Also, he's 22."
Me: "That might have been a bad example. But look at someone like Paul Goldschmidt. He did horrible things to minor-league pitching last year, got called up and now he has one of the brightest futures of any first basemen in the majors."
IBF: "Actually, Freddie Freeman put up very similar numbers to Goldschmidt last year. Except that he did it over the course of an entire season, and he's three years younger than Paul."
Me: "Oh right. Guess I forgot about Freeman. Still, the Diamondbacks are blessed with one of the best offensive catchers in baseball. Miguel Montero put up a wOBA of .351 last year, all while appearing in a 140 games and providing solid defense. You can't ask for much more than that out of your starting catcher."
IBF: "Well, we can. Brian McCann hasn't put up a wOBA under .351 since 2007. And he's appeared in at least 128 games in every season since 2005. He's also still under contract, so he isn't going to leave as a free agent after the season."
Me: "That felt a bit uncalled for. And besides, what about pitching? Ian Kennedy discovered laser-light control last year, and almost won a Cy Young Award. Daniel Hudson posted a 3.28 FIP in his first full season in the majors at the ripe old age of 24. Josh Collmenter came from out of nowhere to post an ERA of 3.38. Trevor Cahill is a stud sinkerballer who is under team control for the forseeable future. Joe Saunders is probably a really nice person!"
IBF: /takes deep breath
"Jair Jurrjens has had an ERA under 3 for two of the past three seasons. Tommy Hanson posted an almost identical FIP to Hudson...at the age of 23. Brandon Beachy came out of nowhere to pitch even better than Collmenter last year. He also currently has an ERA that's literally more than 12 runs lower than Collmenter so far this year. Mike Minor is sort of like Cahill, except that he's younger, and rather than waiting for hitters to hit ground-balls, he just strikes them out to the tune of almost a batter per inning. It's gotten to the point where we had Derek Lowe, who's kind of a better version of Joe Saunders, but had to let him go because we had so much real pitching talent.
Me: "But...uh...PROSPECTS! One of the best things about the Diamondbacks is how many top-level pitching prospects they have. Bauer, Skaggs and Bradley were all rated among Baseball America's top 50 prospects! It sure is nice to know that if a starter struggles, there's a prospect right there to step if needed."
IBF: "Yeah, it really is nice. Luckily, we also have three pitching prospects who Baseball America rated in the top 50. And all of ours are at least in Double-A, unlike Bradley, who is still at least a couple years from the majors. In fact, we just did this with Randall Delgado, who replaced former ace Tim Hudson without missing a beat. Hell, we're considering doing a completely unnecessary trade of Jurrjens, just to make room for everyone."
Me: "Anything else?"
IBF: "Well, since you brought it up: we have one of the best switch-hitters in the history of the game at third base in Chipper Jones. The back end of our bullpen combined to throw 233.2 innings of baseball with a 1.5 ERA last year. And none of them are over the age of 27. Also, we picked up Dan Uggla just to annoy you guys. So let's hear it: what do you guys have that we don't?"
"A 2011 playoff berth."
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):
For all of the wonderful things that the Braves have going for them that I alluded to in that overly long introduction, they're currently in exactly the same place as the Diamondbacks: a 7-5 record and the general feeling that their team isn't playing up to preseason expectations, despite the positive record. If I had to guess, I'd assume the Braves will finish the season with a roughly average offense and an above-average pitching staff, so both of those numbers should improve as the season progresses.
1. Willie Bloomquist, SS
2. Aaron Hill, 2B
3. Justin Upton, RF
4. Miguel Montero, C
5. Jason Kubel, LF
6. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
7. Ryan Roberts, 3B
8. Gerardo Parra, CF
1. Michael Bourn, CF
2. Martin Prado, LF
3. Chipper Jones, 3B
4. Brian McCann, C
5. Freddie Freeman, 1B
6. Dan Uggla, 2B
7. Jason Heyward, RF
8. Tyler Pastornicky, SS
- No, I don't have any inside information regarding Upton's return. But he pinch-ran in Wednesday's game, and it seems like the Diamondbacks are really trying to avoid placing him on the DL, so I wouldn't be surprised if we see him in this series. I'm not saying he'll start all three games, but I expect he'll be around.
- Unless Pollock starts every game (unlikely), we should see the first example of the "Parra in center" chicanery that we were promised going into the season. It sucks that Young got injured like this, particularly since he was playing as well as he ever has in a D-Backs uniform, but one has to imagine that Parra will benefit from more consistent playing time.
- Michael Bourn has put up 8.9 fWAR in the past two years. Has anyone outside of Houston and Atlanta noticed?
- Freeman and McCann have actually hit in the 3-hole more frequently than Chipper this year. But the Braves' lineup is visually unsettling with Jones batting anywhere else.
- Something tells me that Jason Heyward will not be hitting seventh by July. Call it a hunch.
Thursday: Josh Collmenter (0-0, 12.86) vs. Mike Minor (1-1, 4.38)
Insightful Commentary: Collmenter set out to lower his ERA in his last start, and he did exactly that, watching it plummet from 15 all the way down to 12.86. I think the most startling thing about Collmenter's start is his lack of control. After bursting onto the scene with a BB/9 of 1.63 last year, it currently stands at 5.14 after two starts. If Collmenter wants to stay in the rotation, he's going to have to find his control, and find it fast.
Minor's career ERA of 4.71 in the majors doesn't jump out at you, and his fastball doesn't blow hitters away, averaging just under 91 MPH. However, he's still just 24, and his career FIP is over a run below his ERA at 3.44. If he can cut his walk rate even a little, he's as good of a candidate as anyone to sneak up on the league this year.
Friday: Trevor Cahill (1-0, 1.35) vs. Brandon Beachy (0.75, 1-1)
Insightful Commentary: Cahill was incredibly impressive in his last start, limiting the Rockies at Coors to one earned run in 7.2 innings. Really, even that shouldn't have happened. The Rockies singled on a misplay by Upton while snow was falling in the eighth inning, and Cahill was taken out of the game. Ziegler and Breslow then allowed the runner to score because, again--I really can't stress this enough--it was snowing while they were trying to play a major league baseball game. I'm not a meteorologist, but I can say with relative confidence that it will not be snowing in Phoenix on Friday.
I know I whined about this last year, but seriously, what did the Braves do to deserve Brandon Beachy? He was a nobody who was bouncing around in the Braves system when injuries forced him into the rotation in 2011. He responded with a 3.19 FIP as a 24-year-old. Honestly, look at all the young pitching talent this team already has, and remember that they had Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz in the not-so-distant past. Did they really need someone like Beachy to fall into their laps? Unless Beachy is actually the ghost of Steve Avery, I just don't see it.
Saturday: Joe Saunders (1-0, 0.64) vs. Tommy Hanson (1-2, 3.71)
Insightful Commentary: Saunders is not going to keep this up, so let's just get that out of the way now. He currently has a BABIP of .250, and something tells me his HR/FB is not going to stay at 0% all year. His career ERA is 4.11, and I imagine he'll finish somewhere around that again this year. That being said, his strikeouts are up, and his walks are down so far this year, which is an encouraging sign from any pitcher.
Hanson's 2011 was cut short by injuries, which kept him from building on a very good 2010 campaign that saw him put up an FIP of 3.31 at the age of 23. His velocity is down so far this year, which is a warning sign for pitchers coming off of injuries, but he looked better in his last start against the Mets. Last year's injury shouldn't hamper the career path for a very talented young starting pitcher.
Sunday: Ian Kennedy (2-0, 3.86) vs. Randall Delgado (2-0, 4.35)
Insightful Commentary: Ian's now had two very "meh" starts in three attempts, at least in terms of results. The peripherals seem to be there, but he's given up a lot of cheap hits, as evidenced by his .339 BABIP despite a lower line drive rate than he had last year. In short, he'll be fine.
Delgado's 22, had great numbers in the minors and should be a very good pitcher for years to co--oh for god's sake, how many of these guys do the Braves have? Christ, no one in this rotation is over the age of 26, and it's not an Orioles situation either. They're all really good, or at least should be really good shortly. And if they're not, guess what, the Braves have more guys just waiting down in the minors. Did a franchise fold and give all of it's young players to the Braves when Major League Baseball wasn't paying attention or something?
Final Verdict: These two teams are amazingly evenly-matched. They were pretty similar last year, right up until the last couple of weeks, and have fairly comparable stables of young talent. The Diamondbacks are at home, but I don't trust Collmenter at this point, and I have complete trust in Joe Saunders to remember he's Joe Saunders one of these days. Braves and Diamondbacks each take two games.
Head over to Talking Chop to talk about the Braves. Or to talk about Chop. Whatever that means.