The Atlanta Braves were sitting pretty back on the morning of April 29. They were 17-7 and 3½ games up on the Washington Nationals in the NL East.
But then manager Fredi Gonzalez made a decision that might come back to haunt him. He shook up his lineup by sitting four of his eight regulars. While you can make a good argument that several of the Atlanta regulars need to sit on the bench permanently, Gonzalez did it for a different reason.
The Braves were facing Miami right-hander Jose Fernandez that night. Fernandez had shut down the Braves the week before in Atlanta, so Gonzalez emptied his bench and started Ramiro Pena at third base, Ryan Doumit in left field, Jordan Schafer in center and Tyler Pastornicky at second.
Fernandez shut out the Braves again as the Marlins won 9-0. Atlanta got only three hits in the game. You could say it wouldn’t have mattered who was in Gonzalez’s lineup. Fernandez, who has since blown out his elbow and will miss the rest of the season, was just that good in both games against the Braves.
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But since that game, since Gonzalez sat half his lineup, the Braves are 5-12. They are barely hanging on to first place, and the offense continues to be embarrassing.
Perhaps Gonzalez’s lineup change and the Braves’ subsequent downturn was just a coincidence. But it seemed like he was scared of Fernandez, worried that his starters couldn’t handle a dominant pitcher. Maybe Gonzalez was right, but the Braves haven’t been the same since he pulled that trick.
The fact is, Atlanta’s regulars can’t handle many pitchers this season. In the past 17 games, the Braves have hit .209 and scored only 40 runs (2.35 runs per game).
Gonzalez, thankfully, has benched Dan Uggla, and even that hasn’t helped. Gonzalez has changed his lineup around a bit, batting the pitcher eighth, and that hasn’t helped. Maybe he’s running out of ideas.
This reminded me of the 1993 Braves. That group also started the season slowly at the plate, or at least that’s what I remembered. But a closer look and a comparison to this year’s team make that hard to believe.
While the Braves have B.J. Upton back near a .200 batting average, and the production from second base has been right near that mark, as well, the Braves of 21 years ago had no one near a .200 batting average.
The lowest batting average on the 1993 team belonged to catcher Damon Berryhill, who hit .245. The rest of the regulars hit between .252 and .305. Berryhill was also the only regular with an on-base percentage below .300. All of the other seven regulars were not only above .300, but six were actually above .332. The only one between those two numbers was third baseman Terry Pendleton, who had a .311 OBP but had another outstanding overall season.
So that offense was supposedly struggling, and the Braves still went out and acquired Fred McGriff from San Diego. McGriff made the Braves much better, and they went on an historic run the second half of that season to make the playoffs for the third year in a row.
There is no debate about this year’s offense. It has been awful. The solid pitching is the only reason the Braves are above .500, and another bad week will change that quickly.
So what can the Braves do? They can be patient and hope these hitters come around. But is that really going to work? Can this lineup get on track and be consistent?
This is not a team slump. A slump lasts for a week or two. This pathetic offense has not been good all season. Some of these hitters are not just in a slump. They’re just not very good.
The Braves need to do what they did 21 years ago and make a big trade. Shaking up the lineup hasn’t worked, so maybe they just need to shake up the roster.
They are limited, however, in who they can deal. No team will take Uggla. The Braves just recently locked up their first baseman, shortstop and third baseman to long-term contracts. And no one would dare take B.J. Upton, as his struggles continue and he’s under contract for three-and-a-half more years.
Atlanta could swap Evan Gattis in a deal, but he’s relatively cheap and provides power. That leaves Justin Upton and Jason Heyward, who are both under contract through next season. Perhaps that makes them more likely for a deal.
Could they find a team to swap players at the position where those three play? For example, would the Braves trade Heyward to Toronto for Jose Bautista? Would they trade Justin Upton to the New York Yankees for Brett Gardner and a reliever? Would they swap Gattis to the Cincinnati Reds for Devin Mesoraco and another bat? Maybe one of the extra starting pitchers can be traded for a bat.
I’m just throwing stuff up against the wall here to see what might stick. The Braves must do something to shake up this team. Allowing the pitcher to hit eighth won’t cut it. They need another McGriff-like trade to ignite an offense that has been dormant for six weeks.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at www.twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.