COMMENTARY | Justin Upton struck out swinging to put a very metaphorically apt bookend to the Atlanta Braves' 2013 season.
The Braves fell 4-3 to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 after Atlanta's MLB-best bullpen was unable to hold a one-run lead in the eighth inning. David Carpenter surrendered the go-ahead two-run homer to Juan Uribe to help highlight another Atlanta strength turned playoff weakness.
The Braves were a team that lived and died with the long ball all season long, and, in the playoffs, it turned out to be their poison pill. Atlanta hit just one home run in the series -- a ninth-inning blast by Jason Heyward in a Game 3 that had already been all but decided. The Braves were out homered 7-1 by the Dodgers in the series.
In the regular season, the Braves led the National League in both home runs and strikeouts. Although the power did not carry over into the playoffs, the strikeouts surely did. The Braves were sent back to the dugout with their heads held low 42 times in only four postseason games. What's worse is that Atlanta hitters looked at strike-three 13 times in the series, essentially giving back 4 1/3 innings worth of at-bats without even attempting to hit.
After compiling 96 regular-season wins on their way to their first division title since 2005, expectations were sky-high for the postseason, but it is painfully clear that the Braves' all-or-nothing approach at the plate is not built to sustain a playoff run. Changes will surely need to be made in the offseason if Atlanta hopes to contend in 2014.
Who is safe, who should be fired, and what can the Braves do about the $27.25 million owed to Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton next year?
Fredi Gonzalez, Manager
Unfortunately, Gonzalez is not likely to go anywhere but back to the bench to make more misguided decisions for the Braves in 2014. This season was a comedy of errors for the Atlanta skipper who decided to save his best for last.
With Yasiel Puig leading off the eighth inning, Gonzalez elected to move Fredi Freeman off of the line at first. Puig then hit a ground ball that would have been a routine first out right at Freeman's normal positioning, but, instead, it went for a double and turned Uribe's would-be solo shot into a two-run game-winning blast.
Gonzalez also kept Kimbrel waiting impotently in the bullpen while a right-hander who had already surrendered a home run earlier in the series was thrust onto the biggest stage. In his postgame press conference, Gonzalez said they planned to bring Kimbrel in after two outs in the inning but never considered allowing him to go for the full two-inning save.
Instead of asking Kimbrel to get two extra outs, leading into what would have been an off-day before Game 5, Gonzalez felt it very necessary to save those extra six pitches worth of wear on his closer's arm and now Atlanta gets to watch the rest of the playoffs on the television.
To be fair, Gonzalez had a lot of injuries to deal with this season, but I just can't trust someone who took five months to realize B.J. Upton's sub-.200 average wasn't going to get any better.
Tim Hudson Needs to Return
When the 15-year veteran fractured his ankle against the New York Mets on July 24, I assumed his days as an Atlanta pitcher were over. At $9 million for the 2013 season, a comparable salary for 2014 would likely have Hudson earning more money than the rest of the Braves' young starting staff combined.
I originally thought that was far too much to spend on an aging veteran, but after watching the unproven crop of young arms struggle in front of a national television audience in the playoffs, just give Hudson a blank check and tell him to start writing zeroes until he is satisfied.
In nine career postseason starts, Hudson has a 3.46 ERA, including surrendering zero runs in seven innings of work for Atlanta in 2010.
B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, Strikeout Extraordinaires
With 322 combined strikeouts in 2013, and a total salary of $26.25 million, Upton and Uggla were paid an average of $81,521.74 each time they got the long face from the umpire this season. The two highest-paid players on the team were so bad that Uggla did not even make the playoff roster, and Upton was buried so far on the bench that he only saw three at-bats all series long (all strikeouts).
The Braves would certainly love to move either, or both, of these players to another willing sucker, err, I mean "team" this offseason, but their contracts will make that very difficult. Uggla still has two years at $13.2 million per season left on his contract, and Upton is only one season into the richest deal the Braves' franchise ever had the misguided notion of giving a player (five years, $72.5 million).
Atlanta may have already found its long-term answer at second base if Ramiro Pena is able to come back strong from the season-ending shoulder injury he suffered in June. Pena hit .278 with a .330 on-base percentage in 50 games in 2013. And get a load at this: He struck out only 18 times.
Upton will be back in center to start the 2014 season, but he could find himself right back on the bench if his sophomore season is anything like his first trip on the Atlanta merry-go-round.
Brian McCann, Catcher
The Braves have a big decision to make regarding their seven-time All-Star catcher this offseason. McCann will be a free agent and likely demand a salary close to the $12 million he made in 2013. The problem is that Atlanta has Evan Gattis waiting in the wings to take over the everyday catching duties.
McCann certainly didn't do himself any favors at the negotiating table with his postseason performance. If this series is the lasting image fans have of McCann, it will be of a player who went 0-for-13 and earned a four-K Golden Sombrero in the final game.
I, for one, hope the Braves do find a way to keep McCann on the roster. After Chipper Jones retired in 2012, McCann became the longest tenured player on the team. McCann is a Georgia native, and many fans would love to see him spend his entire career with the Braves and eventually have his No. 16 raised to the rafters with the legendary likes of Chipper, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux.
The one sticking point to McCann returning would be his high salary demand, coupled with his aging knees. The designated hitter position in the American League will likely be a very attractive option for McCann to try and squeeze more serviceable years out of his catcher's body.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter who has been following the Atlanta Braves for over 20 years. He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
- Sports & Recreation
- Atlanta Braves
- Justin Upton
- Fredi Gonzalez