Fresh off of a disappointing series loss in Miami, the Mets' task only gets tougher this weekend as they head to Atlanta to take on the first place Braves. Thanks to the contributions of Justin Upton and some strong pitching, Fredi Gonzalez's club has gotten off to a hot start and they sit at 17-10 heading into Friday night's series opener. In order to learn more about the Braves, I sent some questions over to Talking Chop contributor Tony Almeyda and he was kind enough to answer them for us.
Amazin' Avenue: What are your expectations for the Braves this year and what has to happen for them to reach those expectations?
Talking Chop: I expect this Braves team to be able to go deep into the playoffs. The pitching staff is capable of a lot of wins and the lineup can bludgeon the opposition with the long ball. They’ll certainly strike out a bunch, but as long as they win in the end, I’m okay with it.
They’ll certainly have to stay healthy if they are to play in October, but they’ve been winning without Brian McCann, Jonny Venters and Jason Heyward. When everyone is healthy, this team is tough to beat.
AA: Justin Upton has started the year on fire but outfield-mates B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward have not. What's going on with B.J. and have you seen any signs of him breaking out at the plate? With Heyward on the DL, who will we see in right field this weekend?
TC: The only logical reason I think B.J. is striking out so much is that he’s seeing many of these NL pitchers for the first time. Other than that, I couldn’t tell you what’s wrong. He said when he was struggling the first week of the season that he feels fine, and one month into a five-year, $75.25 million contract is too soon to be panicking. I’m confident he’ll start hitting with more regularity in the coming weeks.
In Heyward’s absence, Jordan Schafer and Reed Johnson have split playing time in right field; Schafer against righties and Reed against lefties, so I expect Schafer to start in right field Friday and Sunday. If B.J. continues to struggle, both Schafer and Johnson could be in the lineup at the same time.
AA: Chipper Jones is finally retired but luckily for the Braves, his replacements at third base, Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco, have gotten off to strong starts. Do you think this duo can adequately replace Chipper over the course of the season?
TC: I believe they can. Johnson certainly isn’t going to maintain his torrid pace as much as we’d like for him to, but he’s the better all-around hitter between him and Francisco, which is why I think he’ll get the bulk of the starts at third. Juan is more of a homer-or-strikeout type hitter, but he’ll run into a multi-hit game on occasion.
AA: Aside from Julio Teheran's slow start, the Braves' starting pitching has been great in the early going. Is 37-year old Tim Hudson still the best pitcher on this staff or could somebody else edge him out for that title? Mike Minor and Paul Maholm have looked good. Is this just a few good starts or are they doing anything differently?
TC: Teheran has actually pitched much better of late, and Atlanta has won each of his five starts thus far; he’s only given up three runs total in his last two outings. Regarding Hudson, any of Atlanta’s top four starters could be considered the best on the staff they’ve pitched that well (with the exception of getting slugged to death in Detroit), but I still consider Hudson Atlanta’s best starter; the guy simply knows how to pitch. A case could be made for Maholm, but Hudson has been more consistent in his career.
Speaking of Maholm, I think he often gets overlooked because he’s had to pitch in Pittsburgh and Chicago, but he’s one of the better pitchers in the league in my opinion. As for Minor, his problems early last year had to deal with trying to do too much and getting rattled when he didn't get a desired result. He appears to have overcome that and has become the pitcher the Braves have expected him to be.
AA: Give us a little background on 26-year old rookie catcher Evan Gattis. Does he project to stick behind the plate and if so, do you think that could impact what the Braves do with Brian McCann this offseason?
TC: Gattis is best suited to be a catcher and Fredi Gonzalez has said that he’ll stick with the Braves even when Brian McCann returns from the DL. Many scouts have said his defense needs work, but so far he’s proven to be quite adept defensively. After getting off to a hot start, he’s cooled off a bit. It appears teams have figured out he’s susceptible to breaking pitches away, but he is no doubt a tremendous hitter.
Also, if you don’t know Gattis’s amazing story, USA Today published an article about him.
Thanks again to Tony Almeyda for giving us a preview of the Braves! Here are the pitching matchups for this series: