As part of our preview of our series against the Atlanta Braves I sent a handful of questions to bigjoe from Talking Chop SB Nation's terrific Atlanta Braves site. He was kind enough to send answers good enough to make the questions seem a little less inane. Here they are:
1. What's been the biggest surprise this season from the Braves?
The biggest surprise this season for the Braves...theres been a lot of them. Javier Vazquez has been absolutely lights out, posting some of the best strikeout and walk numbers of his career. Jair Jurrjens has avoided a sophomore slump and been our best pitcher. The bench has been absolutely dynamic this year, and we've gotten huge contributions from David Ross, Martin Prado, and (especially) Omar Infante. Infante's broken hand from Wednesday is really going to hurt the team though, since he was getting a lot more playing time lately due to Kelly Johnson's struggles. There's also been Casey Kotchman, who was dreadful after the Teixeira trade last year. He's been great for us at first, leading the league in doubles and showing some excellent defense.
2. Chipper Jones is amazing, how many more years can you get out of him?
Chipper is actually in kind of a down year so far this year...his OPS is "only" a little above .900. Right before the season, he got a 3 year extension that takes him to the 2011 season, when he'll be 39. Chipper has stated in the past he doesn't want to play too much longer after that, so maybe a one or two year deal after that to end his career. If he can keep producing the way he's produced recently (in his ~130 game season of course), I'd imagine he'd keep playing and would continue to be the heart and soul of the team. With the departure of John Smoltz, Chipper IS the Atlanta Braves, and god know what the fanbase would do if he suffered a serious injury or retired while still on top of his game.
3. Your bullpen has been a problem in the past, is it better this year? Who is the guy you'd want out there in the big moment of the game?
That's a tricky question. Rafael Soriano has been absolutely lights out in the 8th inning, and occasionally the 9th. Closer Mike Gonzalez is also doing pretty well this year, though he has days when his slider looks off and he gets beaten up a little bit. The biggest surprise this year in the bullpen is, without a doubt, LOOGY Eric O'Flaherty, who the Braves got off waivers from Seattle. He's been nothing short of amazing. I'll admit I wasn't sold on him this offseason, but I'm firmly aboard the bandwagon now. As for the rest of the pen...Peter Moylan has his good and bad days, still recovering from his TJ. Jeff Bennett has a low ERA, but is probably the luckiest pitcher in the majors when you look at his BAA and walks. Buddy Carlyle is an absolute mess, and will probably end up losing his job once Jorge Campillo gets off the DL. James Parr is a warm body, nothing more.
4. Will Jeff Francoeur ever learn to take a walk?
No. No he won't. Francoeur is a strange figure on Talking Chop...half of the community hates him and wants him to be DFAed (myself included), and the other half keeps talking about how he's improving and how we need to be patient, despite the fact that this year, he's doing worse then he was at this time last year. His walk rate this year has went from "really bad" to "absolutely horrendous". His defense is also slipping, due to his propensity to play shallow, and as a result, he misplays a lot of balls hit over his head. Last night, he knocked a grand slam over the fence and horribly misplayed a triple on the next at bat. He really needs to make some drastic improvements over the next 4 months, otherwise we shouldn't be seeing anymore of Mr Francoeur in Atlanta.
5. Have to ask is Brian McCann most underrated catch in baseball?
He really is. When it comes to National League catchers, everyone wants to talk about Russell Martin, for silly reasons like "he doesn't run like a catcher!" Its quite ridiculous. The Braves had always had pretty good hitting catchers, from Javy Lopez to the short reign of Johnny Estrada, to now McCann. He's signed very cheaply for the next few years, and he's one of those guys that we all hope is going to stay in Atlanta for a long time. The only knock on him is that he doesn't have a very good arm.
6. Bobby Cox has been manager there, well since he was manager here? Is he the best in baseball? What are his strength and weaknesses as a manager?
Bobby Cox has been manager for nearly 20 years. I think the game has really passed him by. Bobby does a lot of silly things, like continually hit Francoeur high in the lineup, pencil Garret Anderson in as his leadoff hitter, platoon Kelly Johnson and/or lead him off when he's clearly not comfortable there. When Brandon Jones was up in early May due to Anderson's leg injury, he barely got any playing time, as Bobby insisted on giving Matt Diaz (who absolutely positively cannot hit righthanders at all) most of the time in left. Its very odd...not to mention, Bobby tends to leave his starting pitchers in one batter too long, which also drives everyone insane...but hey, its Bobby. We're all used to it. He does have his positives though...Bobby is very positive and encouraging towards his players and his loyalty is being rewarded by Schafer, who's starting to heat up a little bit this week with a few hits. With the addition of David Ross, Bobby seems to be taking it easier on McCann this year to save him for the end of the season (which is always a good thing).
7. Is there anything else Blue Jay fans should know about the Braves going into this series?
The Braves offense is boom or bust. In the last series against the Rockies, they scored 1, 8, 12, and 0 runs. The offense really isn't very patient at all. The Jays pitching is going to have a field day if they keep doing what they've been doing all season. On the defensive side, Kawakami walks a whole lot of guys, but also mixes in some strikeouts. He works real deep into counts and throws a ton of pitches...usually doesn't last longer than 5 innings or so. Lowe and Jurrjens however, are really good. Neither really walk or strike out a lot of guys, and neither have been homer happy this year either. I expect pitching to decide this series, which is kind of surprising since so many left the Jays for dead after all of the injuries to the rotation. If the Jays can make the Braves use some of their subpar (get it? sub...Parr?) relievers, they should be able to take advantage and get some more runs on the board. If the Braves get 7 strong from the starter and let Soriano & Gonzalez come into the game, the door should be slammed shut.