Posted: 1:57 pm Monday, May 5th, 2014
By David O'Brien
Let’s start by making it clear that Dan Uggla is just one of a handful of Braves hitters struggling mightily during this six-game losing streak, an awful offensive stretch in which the Braves have hit .183 and scored 10 runs. I mean, one guy hitting sixth can only have so much effect on the overall lineup production.
That said, it’s time to wonder aloud just how much longer the Braves are willing to stick with Uggla as the primary second baseman, when prospect Tommy La Stella is hitting .313 with a .373 OBP at Triple-A Gwinnett in his first 27 games at that level. I’d guess another two weeks, tops, if Uggla doesn’t turn things around.
La Stella is not young (25) by prospect standards, and he doesn’t have anything remotely resembling Uggla’s raw power. Uggla hit two homers including a grand slam on April 14 at Philly, while La Stella has two extra-base hits (doubles) in 113 plate appearances this season and only 20 homers and a .479 slugging percentage in more than 1,111 career plate appearances in the minors.
And to be honest, we shouldn’t expect La Stella’s defense to be any better than Uggla. It might not even be as good, at least initially.
But here’s the thing: Uggla’s power is not anywhere near what it used to be, and we only see it in flashes, such as that game in the bandbox at Philly. Entire weeks go by now without him getting an extra-base hit, and time after time we’ve seen him, like so many other Braves, fail to put a ball in play in situations that cry out for that and that alone – put it in play, move the runner over, get the runner in from third.
After enduring a second consecutive career-worst season in 2013, including a .179 average, .309 OBP and .671 OPS with 171 strikeouts in 448 at-bats, Uggla has hit .190 in 27 games this season with two homers, 10 RBIs and a .248 OBP with 30 strikeouts and only six walks in 109 PAs. Even the walks are down now.
And both homers and half of his RBI total came in that one game April 14 at Philly.
Since then, Uggla has gone 9-for-55 (.164) with one double, no RBIs, four walks and 18 strikeouts in 15 games. He has no extra-base hits in his past 12 games, a brutal stretch that also included four errors in the first three games.
And while all that can and often must be tolerated from younger, developing players, and/or guys like Justin Upton who can change a game with one swing at any time, it’s hard to keep waiting patiently for a home run or a big hit from Uggla.
He hustles as much or more than anyone on the team, and teammates and plenty of fans love him for it. He’s a great dude, one of the best clubhouse guys you’ll find, and anything but the “cancer” that some know-it-all types suggest he is based on nothing more than his offensive performance or recent flurry of errors.
That said, the continued lack of production is putting wheels in motion in the front office. That you can believe.
If this keeps up, if Uggla keeps performing at his current level, it’s only a matter of time before La Stella is called up and thrust into the lineup. The Braves have done it before – think Andrelton Simmons at the end of May in 2012 – and aren’t afraid to do it again.
While we don’t want to make this about money, it’s no secret that if Uggla wasn’t owed $26 million over the final two years of his contract (this year and next), he’d have already been on the bench or off the roster. That’s not a cheap shot, just reality.
La Stella is, by all accounts – including my own, from watching him for a few days in the Arizona Fall League in November and again this spring training – a sound hitter who makes a lot of contact and has a mature-beyond-his-experience approach. He’s patient and drives the ball to all parts of the ballpark.
Ideally, the Braves would’ve preferred he spent most or all of the season at Triple-A, working on some minor swing adjustments that Braves hitting coaches talked to him about during spring training, things like an exaggerated “load” in his swing that wouldn’t inhibit him in the minor leagues but very well might at the big-league level.
And he did make progress in that area in the spring and apparently has continued with that so far at Triple-A, from those I’ve talked to. Enough so that the Braves might soon be ready to see what he can do to help their lineup, rather than wait much longer and hope that Uggla starts producing again so they don’t have to sit $26 million on the bench or eat all or most of it to get rid of him.
Braves lineup Monday
- Heyward RF
- JUpton LF
- Freeman 1B
- Gattis C
- BUpton CF
- Johnson 3B
- Simmons SS
- Harang P
- Pena 2b
• Good riddance, Gigantes: After being swept in a three-game home series by the Giants for the first time since 1988, the Braves are now 6-11 with a .200 batting average and 4.32 ERA against them since the beginning of the 2012 season. They’ll see them again next week in San Francisco, and the Braves can only hope the Giants have cooled some by then.
The Giants are 9-1 with a 2.25 ERA and 20 homers in their past 10 games, including at least one homer in every game and five multi-homer games.
Now the Braves, with their NL East lead having been trimmed in the past few days to less than a full game for the first time since April 13, continue a nine-game homestand by welcoming to town a Cardinals team that’s struggling, though obviously not to the degree that the Braves are struggling.
(Sidebar: Do you realize the Braves rank 29th in the majors in runs, with 99 in 30 games? This while being tied for ninth in home runs with 32? The Dodgers and Nats also have 32 homers, but they’ve scored 137 and 133 runs, respectively.)
St. Louis is 5-9 despite a 3.08 ERA in its past 14 games. The Cardinals have hit .246 with only eight homers and 43 runs in that 14-game stretch, scoring two or fewer runs in half of those games.
The Braves went 9-4 against the Cardinals in the past two seasons, batting .271 with 12 homers and 61 runs while posting a 3.77 ERA. However, the Braves lost three of four in the last series between the teams in August at St. Louis, where the Braves were outscored 15-7 in the first three games. The Braves swept a three-game July series against them Cardinals in Atlanta.
• Speaking of slumpers: Going back to the 10-inning, 1-0 win against the Reds the day before the six-game skid began, the Bravos have hit .186 with just three homer and 11 runs in their past seven games, scoring one of none in five of those seven.
It takes a group effort to struggle to that degree, and the Braves have gotten it. To wit:
– Evan Gattis went 9-for-13 with three homers and five RBis in three games April 12-16 against Washington and Philadelphia, including six hits, three homers and four RBIs in two games at Philly. Since then? Ouch. Gattis has gone 8-for-49 (.163) with three walks and 15 strikeouts, although he does have three homers and seven RBIs during that slump.
– Justin Upton had a remarkable 22-game stretch from April 5 through May 1, hitting .370 (30-for-81) with 13 extra-base hits (eight homers), 18 RBIs, a .441 OBP and .741 slugging percentage. Then in the three-game weekend series against the Giants he went 1-for-11 with two walks, seven strikeouts and no RBIs in Giants series, leaving runners on board in several crucial situations. For the season, he’s 6-for-31 (.194) with runners in scoring position, including 2-for-18 with five walks and 10 strikeouts with two outs.
– After looking like a Player of the Month favorite for most of April, Freddie Freeman is 3-for-28 (.107) with no extra-base hits, two RBIs, two walks and seven strikeouts in his past seven games (team 1-6).
– Chris Johnson has no extra-base hits or RBIs in his past 14 games, batting .188 (9-for-48) with three walks, 11 strikeouts and a .250 OBP in that span. For the season he’s 7-for-14 this season against lefties, but against righties he’s hit .207 (19-for-92) with one homer, three walks and 23 strikeouts.
Also, Johnson is 2-for-19 with runners in scoring position (tied for third-lowest in the NL), including 1-for-11 with RISP and two outs. That’s an area where just about everyone on the team other than Freeman has been dreadful. Oh, and in 14 home games Johnson has hit .151 (8-for-53) with one extra-base hit (double), one RBI and 18 strikeouts.
– Meanwhile, B.J. Upton, the guy who draws the second-most heat (behind Uggla) from so many fans and media? He has a .350 OBP in his past 14 games, going 11-for-50 (.220) with three doubles, a homer, 10 walks, 16 strikeouts and three stolen bases in that span. While that’s certainly not deal for the team’s highest-paid player, compared to last year it’s solid production from the center fielder and an encouraging development from the Braves’ perspective.
In other words, B.J. Upton has not been a primary problem with the offense, at least not lately.
• Harang vs. Miller: The Monday night matchup is another good one, with Aaron Harang facing Cardinals 23-year-old Shelby Miller.
Harang was 3-1 with a 0.85 ERA and .143 opponents’ average in five starts before getting rocked for 10 hits and nine runs including two homers in 4-2/3 innings at Miami in his last start Wednesday.
Miller, meanwhile, has had the opposite sort of start to the season, going 0-2 in his first two starts while allowing eight runs and four homers in 11-1/3 innings, but churning out a 3-0 record with a 1.57 ERA and .200 opponents’ average in four starts since.
Harang is 7-13 with a 4.37 ERA in 25 starts against the Cardinals, whom he faced frequently in his years with the Reds. Jhonny Peralta is 8-for-25 with two homers against him, but Matt Holliday is just 2-for-23 with one walk and seven strikeouts.
That’s good news for the Braves, because Holliday has been an Atlanta nemesis for quite some time. In 59 career games against the Braves, Holliday has hit .329 with 35 extra-base hits (nine homers), 45 RBIs and a .395 OBP and .570 slugging percentage. In 25 games at Turner Field he’s hit .366 with 14 extra-base hits, a .429 OBP and .564 slugging percentage.
Yadier Molina has also done plenty of damage with the bat against the Braves, hitting .321 with 30 RBIs and a .374 OBP in 51 games. Molina is 8-for-37 (.216) against Harang, with two walks and five strikeouts.
Miller went 1-1 with a 2.13 ERA in two starts against the Braves last year as a rookie, including a July 28 loss at Turner Field when he gave up six hits and three runs (two earned) in 5-2/3 innings.
Against Miller, Heyward is 1-for-2 with a homer and a walk, Johnson is 3-for-6, and Freeman is 2-for-6 with a homer. Andrelton Simmons is 2-for-5 against him, Justin Upton is 1-for-5, and Gattis, Uggla and B.J. Upton each is 0-for-3 with two strikeouts.
Couple of interesting facts from Elias out of the weekend’s games. The Giants went 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position during the sweep of the Braves, becoming the first major-league team to sweep a series of three or more games without registering a hit with runners in scoring position since April 8-10, 1969, when the Padres did it against the Astros in the first series in Padres franchise history. The Padres were 0-for-14 with runners in scoring position…. And the game’s best young pitcher – I think best pitcher, period – Miami’s Jose Fernandez, saw his bullpen blow a ninth-inning lead to deprive him of a decision, but he remained unbeatean (12-0) with a 1.09 ERA in his first 20 career starts at Marlins Park. That’s the lowest ERA for any major-league pitcher through his first 20 home starts since 1913, the first season when earned runs were officially recorded. That’s just ridiculously good.
Let’s close with timeless tune, one of those that sticks in my head from listening to endless hours of radio as a kid, back when stations were great and played a little bit of everything. Listen to it by clicking here.
“ODE TO BILLIE JOE” by Bobby Gentry
It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was balin’ hay
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat
And Mama hollered out the back door “y’all remember to wipe your feet”
And then she said “I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge”
“Today Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”
And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas
“Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please”
“There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow”
And Mama said it was shame about Billie Joe, anyhow
Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billie Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
And Brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don’t seem right”
“I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge”
“And now you tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”
And Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?”
“I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite”
“That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today”
“Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way”
“He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge”
“And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge”
A year has come ‘n’ gone since we heard the news ’bout Billie Joe
And Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo
There was a virus going ’round, Papa caught it and he died last Spring
And now Mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge
About the Author
David O'Brien has covered the Atlanta Braves for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2002, and previously covered the Marlins for the (Fort Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel for seven years. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas with a degree in journalism.