|Thursday, September 19
Updated: September 20, 8:05 PM ET
With Vinny, Braves no winny
By Chris Kahrl
Special to ESPN.com
It's that time of year again. I know that there is such an animal as a passionate, embittered Braves fan, someone who takes the repeated postseason disappointments hard. While Braves fans can take justifiable pride in what the team achieves every year as it stomp its opponents in the National League East, October seems to generate almost as much dread as anticipation. And unfortunately, much as in years past, there are real reasons to worry that this year might not be any different.
The most basic problem this year's Braves team has is its lineup. Make no bones about it, the Braves are the weakest of the NL teams headed into the postseason. They're behind all four of the other teams in the running for postseason slots in runs scored, even the Dodgers, who have to contend with trying to put up runs in Chavez Ravine.
The picture only gets worse when looking at performance metrics. In terms of Equivalent Average or Runs Created, the San Francisco Bondsmen field the best offense in the game. The Cardinals, Dodgers and Diamondbacks are all among the five best offensive clubs in the NL (Phillies fans can take solace that they do have a good lineup). The Braves? They currently rank 12th, but that blurs the point that they're just mixed in with a five-team pack which can only claim to be better than the Pirates or Rockies.
So what's wrong here? Although Chipper Jones has no Met dragons to slay this year, he's doing just fine. They went out and got Gary Sheffield, and all he's done has been their best hitter behind Chipper. Andruw Jones has gone back to drawing walks, and is putting up a nice little season. The season started with the grim spectre of a firstbase platoon of B.J. Surhoff and Wes Helms, and wound up with the surprisingly effective platoon of Los Dos well-traveled Francos, Julio and Matt.
The problem is that -- even more noticeably than the Giants and their unbalanced lineup -- the Braves have a gaggle of second-class citizens. For starters, there is Vinny Castilla. Keep in mind that this has been a lousy season for third basemen. Whether your offensive metric of choice are Equivalent Runs or VORP or the latest variation of Runs Created, third basemen have managed to put fewer runs on the board than shortstops. That probably isn't very surprising considering who you find manning shortstop these days. What is jarring is that the guys playing the position of Mike Schmidt and Eddie Mathews are contributing less to their team's offenses than second basemen, something pretty unusual this far from the Dead Ball Era. And Castilla, with his .231 average and .269 OBP, has been the star bad hitter.
Unfortunately for the Braves, there are other hangers-on. The Braves didn't go into the season planning for Keith Lockhart to get more than 300 plate appearances, and certainly the injury to Mark DeRosa helped make it so, but nevertheless, Lockhart (.211 average, .274 OBP) is among the game's weakest offensive players at his position. And catcher? Even after a couple of garbage-time taters off of the meaningless Marlins, Javy Lopez still looks done at 31. Henry Blanco's ability to contribute is perhaps best summed up by the fact that he can't pass by Lopez at his worst. Raffy Furcal has played the full season and he has been useful, but a leadoff man with a .323 OBP is what you would politely describe as less than ideal.
None of this has to be a handicap going into October. To properly support the offensive core of Sheffield and the Joneses, the Braves have viable alternatives. The most obvious suggestion is that Marcus Giles and DeRosa could replace Castilla and Lockhart and limit the Braves to only one weak spot in the lineup. Unfortunately, there's little reason to believe this is going to happen. First, although there's been some talk about getting Giles into the lineup more often, since his recall on August 11, he's gotten a whopping nine starts in 35 games, five at second, and four at third. DeRosa has gotten more work than that, but how confident can we be that Lockhart has been consigned to the bench when he's still starting now?
You could make an argument that Bobby Cox is the best manager of his generation. To his credit, he has been unafraid of trusting talent over experience in postseasons past, most notably his decision to play Andruw Jones in 1996. Unfortunately, there's also the example of letting Terry Pendleton play in 1996, or the decision to give up on using Jose Hernandez in 1999, when the alternatives were a limping Walt Weiss and Ozzie Guillen.
There are other nagging issues beyond the lineup, like the Braves won't draw a first-round matchup against either of the teams most likely to struggle with lefties Tom Glavine and Damian Moss -- the Cardinals or Diamondbacks. Instead, they'll have a short series to face one of two opponents you'd almost rather get a seven-game set against. They'll have to face either the Giants' offensive juggernaut, or a Dodgers team that, run by Jim Tracy, squeezes value out of every tactical matchup and edge possible. In a short series, the Giants can hide their comparative weakness in the third and fourth slots of their rotation, while the odds that a high-leverage managerial decision or two could win a game for the Dodgers in a series where it only takes three to advance loom equally large.
I'd love to see the Braves shut this kind of second-guessing up, and make their fans happy. But if they let the logic that they won with people like Castilla and Lockhart and Lopez and Blanco drive their choices about who plays and who doesn't get pinch-hit for in the postseason, they're just as likely to add another notch to list of October agonies.
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus at baseballprospectus.com. Chris Kahrl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Baseball Prospectus is a registered trademark of Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC.