Halfway through the season, here’s what we know about the Braves: The starting pitching is good, the power hitting is awful, and mathematically speaking they’ve got a chance to win an underachieving National League East.
After sweeping the Phillies, who are now tied with the Marlins for the division lead as a result of the three-straight losses, the Braves are 38-40 and two games out of first. No small feat, considering they’ve got what’s possibly the worst left and right field combination in the National League, if not all of Major League Baseball.
In the left corner, it’s the Babe Ruth of blasé, the Sultan of So What, the Dean of Disinterest ... Garrett Anderson.
And in right, it’s the Golden Boy Gone Wrong, the King of Swinging at Everything ... Jeff Francoeur.
Together, they’ve piled up a combined total of 10 home runs and 62 RBIs in a season’s worth of at bats. Neither gets on base on pace with the league average, and when you mix in Anderson’s Adam Dunn-like defense (to use the word liberally), it’s no wonder there are two pitchers on the staff with All-Star caliber ERAs and win-loss records at or around .500.
But if this week’s uptick is going to be more than a blip on the season-long radar and not one of the many teases of good play they’ve flashed this year, the Braves are going to have to get more production out of their corner outfielders — or acquire a new one.
To be fair, Anderson’s production has been better lately. His two-run, pinch-hit shot gave the Braves a nice cushion in Thursday’s win, and he hit three of his five home runs in June while batting .300 — though his on-base percentage was still a so-so .333. But considering the bases he’s giving up with his laissez-faire patrols in left field, his offense had better far exceed the mean to make it worth the $2.5 million appearance fee he’s getting for his one-year stint in Atlanta.
Francoeur is another matter entirely, and an emotionally charged one for a wide swath of the loose confederation that comprises Braves Nation.
Since his call up to the big leagues four years ago, no player has inspired more hope and despair than the former Prince of Parkview High. When he set the pros on fire and landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the summer of 2005, visions of MVP trophies danced in the heads of fans (and management, too, most likely). He was to restore an era of dominance that was quickly slipping away.
The slide into something sub-mediocre (for both player and team), has been painful to watch for anyone with a rooting interest or just a sympathetic heart.
It’s been two years since Francoeur was a solid contributor to the Braves lineup, and patience is wearing thin for even the most ardent hometown hopefuls. He was downright awful last season, batting .239 with career-low 11 home runs. A new approach at the plate has yet to bear fruit in 2009, and despite desperate cries that he’s coming around, Francoeur is just 10-for-43 in his last 12 games — right in line with his .250 average this season.
Compounding the issue, his market value is sagging. The Braves have reportedly dangled Francoeur as trade bait but haven’t found an offer to their liking.
All of which leaves the franchise in a pre-trade deadline predicament. The team clearly needs another bat if it’s to make a run at a postseason appearance. The Phillies are expected to make a move for a much-needed starting pitcher, the injury-decimated Mets should be getting healthy after the All-Star break, and the up-start Marlins are now tied with the Phillies for first place in National League East, and show no signs of fading away.
The question for Frank Wren and the Braves front office is how much is too much for 2009? Despite the deals made to bring in Javier Vazquez and Nate McClouth, they’ve still got plenty of valuable minor league pieces to move. But is it worth taking out another mortgage on the franchise’s future for the hope of salvaging a season that many considered lost before it began?
Anderson isn’t going anywhere, because nobody wants him. He’s past his prime and shows little interestin recovering it. As bad Francoeur has been, at 25 years old, he at least offers defense and the possibility of resurgence to a potential suitor.
The best option might be to sell off Francoeur for whatever can be had to restock the farm — the Red Sox and Royals are reportedly interested, at least at some level. Keep Gregor Blanco, who’s shown signs of offensive life lately (reaching base in six of his last 13 plate appearances) and provides solid defense, in center field. Shift Nate McClouth (somewhat ill-suited to center field, anyway) to right and give Matt Diaz, who often outperforms Anderson and certainly plays with more gusto, more chances in left.
It might not get the Braves into this postseason, but the current configuration probably won’t either, and it won’t hurt in hunt for future Octobers, either.
Whatever the solution and despite this week’s success, something should be done. Because anchored by their current corner outfielders, the Braves are still running in place, or in other words, going nowhere.
Brent Holloway is the sports editor for The Times. His column appears Fridays.