We start a 3 game series with the Atlanta Braves tonight. The Braves are 40-33, 5 games back of the Phillies for second in the NL East, but tied with the Brewers and Cardinals for the lead in the Wild Card race. Tony Almeyda from Talking Chop, SB Nation's very popular Braves blog, and I exchanged questions on our respective teams. Here are his answers.
How is Alex Gonzalez working out for you guys?
Gonzalez has provided nothing more than what was expected of him; he's all glove and not enough bat. He's been invaluable on defense and has even had some big hits for us. He hasn't been Yunel Escobar at the plate, but with the offense struggling as it has been recently, we'd certainly like him to be.
Can you give us a quick scouting report on the starting pitchers the Jays will face?
Tim Hudson: he's a sinkerball pitcher who mixes in a changeup and an occasional splitter; when he's on, he gets a lot of ground balls.
Mike Minor: he's a young lefty who's essentially a two-pitch pitcher, throwing a fastball and changeup, but his breaking pitches still need some work, especially his curveball; he's a strikeout pitcher, although he struggles with location and gives up a lot of hits.
Brandon Beachy: he debuted late last year and was pitching very well this year before his oblique injury in May, posting a strikeout/walk ratio of almost 4 to 1; he's mostly a fastball/slider pitcher with an occasional changeup and curveball; he's induced mostly fly balls among balls in play, which I find a bit worrisome.
More after the Jump
You have a new manager for the first time in years, how are fans taking to Fredi Gonzalez? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
Fredi Gonzalez seemed like a logical choice to replace Bobby Cox: he had been a coach for the Braves for several years and was familiar with their system of operation. One thing I've noticed from Fredi is that he doesn't accept lazy play. I'm sure many remember the game last year when he benched Hanley Ramirez in the middle of a game for not sprinting after a bloop hit that was kicked away. I doubt he'll have that sort of problem with the Braves, but it's nice to know he'll get in a player's face if necessary.
One concern I have, though, is that he doesn't seem to be as fiery as Bobby was. He hasn't argued with the umps all that much, but when he does, he's not as aggressive in his arguing as I believe he should be. I'm not saying he should be just like Bobby, but he should put forth a little more effort into defending his players.
He also calls for bunts way too much, although not as much now as he did a month ago.
Who is your closer? How confident are you in him and the rest of the bullpen?
We're very excited to have Craig Kimbrel pitching the ninth inning for us. He features a nasty 95+ fastball and a lethal slider, and he utilizes both to finish off hitters; that's led him to 55 strikeouts in 36 innings. Walks can be a problem for him, but the good outweighs the bad in my opinion. When Kimbrel is on, hitters don't have a prayer.
Who is your early season MVP?
Right now, I say it would be Brian McCann. The offense has struggled lately, but McCann has been a constant force in the lineup and has delivered some key hits for us. His production is especially welcome since Martin Prado was placed on the DL with a staph infection in his right leg. Prado is a big part of this offense and with him unavailable, it's nice to know that someone can step up and provide some much-needed support.
How is Jason Heyward doing in his second year?
In 2010, his rookie year, he hit .277 with a .393 OBP and slugged .456; he could've put up even better numbers had he not missed time with a wrist injury. Heyward has struggled a bit offensively this year due to an inflamed shoulder, hitting only .214 before returning to the lineup last week. When healthy, he's as dangerous a hitter as anyone.
Anything else us Jay fans should know about the Braves?
Since Nate McLouth was placed on the DL, Jordan Schafer has been a welcome presence in the leadoff spot and in center field. When Schafer scores a run, the Braves are 10-3. He's also become the team leader in stolen bases with eight; no one else has more than three. Now that McLouth is back, he will play left field until Prado returns; what happens after that is anyone's guess at the moment.
Chipper Jones is still one of the best hitters around despite what his .266 average says. However, he has sat the last three games after pulling a groin muscle Thursday, but he hopes to be able to play in this series.
I mentioned earlier about Brian McCann supporting a struggling offense. For the month of June, the Braves are hitting .219 but have still managed to win 10 of 17 games. They're hitting .238 overall.
Pitching, especially the bullpen, has been the biggest strength for the Braves this season. Kimbrel anchors the ninth, but Jonny Venters has been near automatic in the eighth inning. He dominates with a sinker that has fooled dozens of hitters while sporting a miniscule 0.60 ERA. Eric O'Flaherty has been another reliable arm out of the pen and, like Venters, is a lefty who can retire both LH and RH hitters, but has been bothered with a bad back lately. George Sherrill and Scott Linebrink have usually filled the seventh-inning slot, Sherrill has been good as the lefty specialist, but Linebrink has been spotty. Cristhian Martinez has provided excellent long relief.
The Braves bench consists of some pretty good hitters. I'm sure a lot of Jays fans remember Eric Hinske; he's been a reliable lefty bat off the bench for the Braves, but has done much of his damage this year in the starting lineup. Brooks Conrad has also provided some late-inning hits. Braves fans certainly remember his walk-off grand slam last year among other hits and this year, has hit two late home runs that led to wins. David Ross is Atlanta's super-backup catcher. It's safe to assume Ross has been the best backup backstop for the last three years, hitting .287 with an .891 OPS with the Braves, and slugging .553 this year in 16 games.
Freddie Freeman's rookie season has gone quite well up to this point manning first base: he's batting .271 with 18 multi-hit games and seven home runs. His last two homers were crushed, proving that his first major-league home run off Roy Halladay last year was no fluke.