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Braves Sure Bets: What Atlanta Fans Can Take To The Bank In 2011

There are no sure things in sports, but sometimes, you can come close.

In baseball, some players are so consistent that a look at their previous three or so years can give you a pretty good estimation of how they will perform in the coming season.

Here’s what Braves fans can reasonably expect.

Chipper Jones will get hurt; no rational human being can expect anything close to a full, healthy season from Chipper.

He hasn’t played more than 150 games since 2003, and many of the games in which he does appear are single pinch-hitting appearances or early exits after tweaking some body part. He further weakens the team with all those games where he’s too hurt to play, but not hurt enough to go on the DL.

Consider that he’s also had a steady three-year decline in slugging and he’s a $14 million dollar albatross around the Braves’ collective neck.

This leads us to our next guarantee.

Derek Lowe will eat innings and record double-digit wins. Roto players hate him, but since becoming a starter, Lowe has never failed to win in double-digits and never misses a start.

Considering the nightmarish wave of injuries that befell the Braves rotation in 2008, it’s no wonder Frank Wren was willing to overpay for this workhorse.

Dan Uggla will hit 30 homers and make 15 errors. Since Uggla joined the big leagues, he is second only to Albert Pujols in homers by National League right-handed hitters. Both his power numbers and his fielding stats have held steady over the course of his career.

Considering how hotly contested the Braves playoff series with the Giants was, despite Atlanta’s dearth of power and poor fielding in the series, I think Atlanta can stomach the occasional error from their new slugger.

Brian McCann will be Brian McCann and Martin Prado will be Martin Prado. Two models of consistency, McCann can be relied on for 20 homers, Prado will bat .300 and both will provide steady defense and a positive presence in the clubhouse.

The only question will be: Who plays left field when Prado takes over third base after Chipper’s inevitable injury?

Nate McLouth will stink.

Frank Wren has said that the Braves need McLouth to return to the form he showed in Pittsburgh, but let’s be clear about something: Nate McLouth had one terrific year in Pittsburgh in 2008, but was never that caliber of player before or since. Even at his best, he still only batted .276 with a .350 on-base percentage.

Take away his one atypical season and McLouth is a 10-homer, 12-steal guy with a .250 batting average. Hardly worth a starting spot on a championship contender.

Those are my guarantees for the season. Anyone else see any sure things for the Braves in the coming year?

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It’s Do or Die for the Mets

The New York Mets begin a critical stretch tonight in their quest to end a three-year playoff drought. The Mets entered the break having dropped back-to-back series at home against the Reds and the Braves, and failing to win any of their previous four series. The team has played below .500 since consecutive sweeps of Cleveland and Baltimore, the AL’s bottom two teams, in mid-June.

The first thirty days out of the break will effectively measure the Mets’ playoff-worthiness. The team begins an eleven-game west coast swing, including eight against the Dodgers and Giants. They come home to the Cardinals, a breather series with Arizona, and then it’s back to the grind with road series against the Braves and Phillies, before returning home to the Rockies and another go with Philly.

Adding to the team’s concerns is Mike Pelfrey’s complaint of a dead arm. The right-hander was smacked around in his two starts prior to the break. With John Maine out indefinitely, the rotation is a concern. On the plus side, Carlos Beltran is back and appears to be healthy, which will provide a boost in the lineup and the clubhouse.

By August 15, when this killer stretch ends, New York fans will know what kind of team they have in the Mets. If they’re still in it a month from now, the schedule lightens up considerably, and the team will be in line for a nice stretch run. The question is, will they still be in the running by then?




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Scalped! Blue Jays Get the Better of the Braves in Escobar Trade

You’re a general manager with a team in the thick of a pennant race, trying to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Your shortstop has not yet produced at the plate, but has performed well in the field (sixth in the league in fielding average, and first in the league in double-plays turned). Shopping for a replacement, you come up with two choices:

Shortstop 1: .299 batting average, .837 OPS, 14 homers.

Shortstop 2: .238 batting average, .635 OPS, 8 homers.

You want shortstop No. 1, right?

Not if you’re Frank Wren, who just traded shortstop No. 1, Yunel Escobar, to the Toronto Blue Jays for shortstop No. 2, Alex Gonzalez. Okay, those are 2009 numbers, and we all know that baseball statistics are more meaningful when taken as larger samplings, so let’s take a look at the last few… What? Oh! That’s right! You’re Frank Wren, and you don’t believe in looking at a player’s performance in the long-term. You believe that a three-month sampling outweighs a player’s performance over a three-year span, or even a career. This sort of thinking is reminiscent of the miserable Braves teams of the 1980s, who once rewarded Alex Trevino for an early-season hot streak with a regrettable multi-year contract.

But let’s give Wren the benefit of the doubt, and take a look at current numbers. Over the course of the season’s first half, Gonzalez has outperformed Escobar in the power department, amassing 17 homers and 43 extra-base hits, while Escobar is inexplicably still looking for his first home run. Yet, Gonzalez still boasts a Darrel Chaney-esque .296 OBP. Who is Darrel Chaney, you ask? My point exactly.

The consensus around baseball is that Escobar can only get better. He’s too good, and has been too steady over the course of his career to keep performing at such a low level. It is also agreed that Gonzalez will not sustain these power numbers—he’s done nothing in his career to indicate this is anything but an exceptional, and atypical, hot streak. Even if he continues to perform near his current level, Gonazalez is a bad fit for this Braves team, which has thrived on making contact, hitting behind the runner, bunting, and manufacturing runs in a way no Bobby Cox team has before. Escobar, despite his power lapse, has a decent OBP, and puts the bat on the ball. Gonzalez strikes out once every 5 1/2 at-bats, a rate nearly double that of Escobar, and that rate is true not only for this season, but for his career.

The best case scenario for the Braves is that Gonzalez will be another Nate McLouth, who hits an occasional home run, plays good defense, and does little else. Some Braves fans will call for the light-hitting Omar Infante to take over at shortstop, but Infante’s value lies in his versatility. He can play seven positions, and play them fairly well, the value of which cannot be underestimated, especially with the oft-injured Chipper Jones, Matt Diaz, and the aforementioned McLouth on the team.

Rumor has it that the Braves, and particularly Bobby Cox, have soured on Escobar, citing a poor attitude and lack of intensity. Whether that is the motivation behind this move, or merely Wren making an impulsive decision in hopes of adding a little more pop to the lineup, this is a bad deal for the Braves. If anything, the team needs a clutch hitter who will consistently deliver a base hit in a critical situation—someone like Josh Willingham. What they got was a home run and a double a week, and lots of misery in between.

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Major League Baseball: The “Never-an-All-Star” Team

Baseball history is littered with undeserving All-Star selections, due in large part to the rule that each team must be represented. In today’s era of bloated all-star rosters, it’s hard to imagine a good player playing his entire career without ever making an all-star team. Here are some of the best players to never make it to a mid-season classic.

Catcher- Cliff Johnson

This 15-year veteran had several seasons of 15 to 20 home runs in an era in which 20 homers actually meant something. He managed to accumulate two World Series rings, but no all-star appearances.

First Base- Eric Karros

Five seasons of 30-plus homers and 100-plus RBI, a Rookie of the Year award, a Silver Slugger, and a top-five finish in MVP voting, yet never even won a reserve position on an all-star roster.

Second Base- Delino DeShields

Among the top-50 base stealers in baseball history, DeShields had six seasons in which he stole 40 bases or more, two more in which he just fell short, and he never failed to reach double-digits in steals.

Shortstop- Tony Phillips

Despite more than 2,000 hits, 1,300 runs scored, and reaching base over 3,300 times, Phillips never made an all-star team. His versatility likely worked against him, as he generally played 140 or more games a season, but never settled into a single starting position. You know he’s hating Omar Infante right now.

Third Base- Eric Chavez

Injuries derailed his career, but from 2001-2006, the Oakland third baseman won six Gold Gloves, averaged 28 homers and 96 RBI, and received MVP votes in four seasons, but apparently never had a strong enough first half to make an all-star roster.

Left Field- Lyman Bostock

Bostock was on his way to a stellar career when his life was cut tragically short after only four seasons in the majors. His lifetime batting average was .311 with double-digit stolen bases. In his breakout season of 1977, his third in the majors, he batted .336, drove in 90 runs, scored 104 runs, had 199 hits, with 36 doubles, 12 triples, 14 homers, and 16 stolen bases. But apparently, he was not deemed all-star worthy.

Center Field- Otis Nixon

More than 16,000 men have donned a Major League uniform. Fifteen of them have stolen more bases than Otis Nixon, who 11 times finished in the top-10 in stolen bases.

Right Field- Tim Salmon

I considered Kirk Gibson for this spot, but Salmon’s career numbers are just a shade better. Salmon leads never-an-all-star players in home runs with 299. For his career, the Angels outfielder averaged 29 homers, 98 RBI, and 96 runs scored per 162 games played. He also was named Rookie of the Year, won a Silver Slugger, gained MVP votes in three seasons, and earned a World Series ring.

Pitcher- Mike Torrez

His 185 career wins is tops among never-all-stars. He was twice a 20-game winner, and helped lead the Yankees to the 1977 world championship, going 2-0 with two complete game victories.


That’s my starting nine. Who are your choices?

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