Tonight is the opening of baseball's second half of the season and that means the Mets are headed down to Turner Field to take on the Atlanta Braves. The Braves sit just a half game ahead of the Mets in the NL East with a 46-39 record. They're also four games behind the division-leading Nationals. These two clubs have not seen each other since the middle of April but the Mets have won four of the six matchups between them thus far. In order to get a better grasp on the 2012 Braves, I sent a few questions over to Tony Almeyda of SB Nation's Braves site Talking Chop and he was kind enough to answer them for us. (I also answered some Mets questions for their series preview at Talking Chop).
Amazin' Avenue: With the Braves coming off of a collapse a year ago, they once again find themselves back in the thick of a pennant race. How do you feel about this year's team compared to last year's squad? Do you think they are more or less equipped to succeed down the stretch?
Talking Chop: I’m cautiously optimistic about the 2012 Braves. The bullpen hasn’t been as dominant as it was last year (with the exception of Craig Kimbrel) and the bench has been awful; Eric Hinske has just about lost it and Juan Francisco is a home run-or-nothing hitter. Despite all of that, the Braves are still just four games out of first like they were through 85 games last year.
If the Braves are expected to contend, though, they’ll need better performances out of Mike Minor and Randall Delgado. Minor’s been the less effective of the two and Delgado can’t get a lick of run support. The team got some help when they signed Ben Sheets at the end of June and, in all likelihood, will start Sunday’s game. Sheets has said he felt good in his two minor league starts and could prove to be a big boost to the rotation. What that means for Minor and Delgado is that one of them will either be sent to the bullpen or down to the minors for more seasoning.
The team has also looked at trading for pitching help. Matt Garza and Zack Greinke have been tossed around the most among desired targets, but I think Greinke is a long shot and the Braves would have to give up too much to get him. At least the signing of Sheets is a low-risk move and adds another experienced arm to the rotation.
AA: Lefty reliever Jonny Venters has had a rough season. Certainly, relievers are often enigmatic from year to year but considering how dominant he was, what have you seen from him this season to cause a dip in performance?
TC: In a nutshell, I think his location is off. His huge workload may be catching him as he recently was placed on the DL with "elbow impingement". More often than not when he’s pitched, he has missed with his breaking pitches and his sinker doesn’t sink. His groundball rate has dropped, his hits/9 has shot through the roof and has already given up six home runs in 32 innings. His strikeout rate is healthy, though, so nothing is wrong with his stuff. We’re hoping a stint in the minors fixes what’s ailing him.
AA: Before injuring his finger a couple of days ago, rookie Andrelton Simmons had been a revelation for the Braves at shortstop. With it looking like he'll miss at least a month, what do you think the Braves' plan is to fill that void? Any chance they go outside the organization?
TC: Atlanta had Tyler Pastornicky as the starting shortstop for much of the season, but he’s a black hole on defense, which makes the loss of Simmons hurt that much more. Plus, he hasn’t exactly been hammering the ball at Gwinnett. Jack Wilson is better than Tyler defensively, but is a liability on offense. Neither option is particularly appealing, but the team hasn’t ruled out looking outside the organization. As far as I know, no one player has been mentioned as a primary target, but as this post says, Stephen Drew and Jamey Carroll have been listed as desired options.
AA: Chipper Jones has long been a nemesis of the Mets but he's (finally) retiring after this season. I know he's missed a lot of time in recent years due to injuries, but he still manages to hit whenever he's on the field. How do Braves fans feel about his impending retirement and who do you think takes over 3rd base in 2013?
TC: I doubt there will be a single dry eye among the TC faithful once the 2012 season is finished. Chipper has been the face of the Braves since his rookie year and not seeing him in the dugout anymore would certainly be a surreal experience. Whoever takes over the hot corner next year will have mighty big shoes to fill. Ideally, I’d like Martin Prado to take over third base. He’s such an underrated hitter, it’s not even funny. Any third basemen available for trades would be a downgrade to Prado, I think. The Braves don’t have any major-league ready third basemen in the minors at the moment, so I’m betting Prado gets the nod.
AA: While I believe the role of the manager often gets overrated at times, Mets fans heard plenty of complaints regarding Fredi Gonzalez's managerial abilities late last season as the Braves fell apart. How has he done this season in comparison to last year and do you feel he's the right man at the helm of the team?
TC: In my own opinion, Fredi could certainly be a lot worse. All managers make questionable decisions over the course of a season, some more than most, but I don’t blame 2011 on Fredi. He’s not as much of a raging bunt-aholic as he was last year, but otherwise, he’s been the same feeling, cap-tipping Frediot we all like to make fun of. He’s retained his penchant for hooking young starting pitchers once they encounter trouble and for facepalm-worthy postgame comments. Anyone remember his bullpen management flowchart from last year? There’s one for this year, and it’s just as ridiculous.
Thanks again to Tony Almeyda of Talking Chop for graciously taking the time to answer these questions for us. Here are the pitching matchups for this series:
July 13, 7:35 PM: Chris Young against Tim Hudson
July 15, 1:35 PM: Johan Santana against Ben Sheets