April 2016 was unkind to my favorite sports team, the Atlanta Braves. Or maybe I should say the Braves were unkind to April. They sucked. They experienced the worst 20-game start (actually extended to 21 games) in franchise history and ended the month at 5-18. This is baseball's oldest franchise, going back to 1876. So the absolute worst start in all that time is not only historic it is difficult to witness as a life-long fan. The closest season by comparison in my lifetime was the 1988 Braves, who experienced a 4-16 record and went on to lose 106 ballgames.
At a family gathering in March I was asked how many games I thought the Braves would win this year. My deadpan response was "61" (which means 101 loses). This surprised the guy I was talking to. I guess he figured since I am an avid fan I would be more optimistic. Well, perhaps I was too optimistic even with that dismal prediction. Right now, the Braves are on a trajectory (or nose dive) to lose 136 games(!) - which might be the worst season in major league history.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. I don't think things will get THAT bad. At some point this season, the Braves are likely to put together a meaningful winning streak or two. To quote Tommy Lasorda: “No matter how good you are, you're going to lose one-third of your games. No matter how bad you are you're going to win one-third of your games. It's the other third that makes the difference.” I'm not sure the Braves are good enough to win many of that "other third" of games they will play. But they should win at least 54 games - which is still a disastrous season.
Don't blame Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. He is a competent skipper, he just doesn't have much to work with after the Braves front office continued to dismantle their ball club. I mentioned before a short list of good to great players the Braves let go in order to manage the team's overall salary versus talent situation. Since that post they have traded away arguably the game's best defensive shortstop, Andrelton Simmons. They traded away perhaps their best starting pitcher, Shelby Miller, a player I had high hopes for.
The one "star" left on the team is Freddie Freeman. He is off to a dismal start at the plate (though he is improving). In fact the Braves as a whole are not hitting, their fielding is mediocre at best, and their bullpen (mostly Jason Grilli but there's plenty of blame to go around) has already blown at least 2-3 games that should have been won. That isn't really the manager's fault. Gonzalez is making do with what he has.
But there are slivers of silver linings here. The Braves got a lot of promising minor league talent for these trades. There are a number of young players who likely will have a chance to learn the craft of baseball at the major league level at some point this season. Several are in the minor leagues but progressing quickly.
One ray of early hope this season is Mallex Smith, who is showing promise in all facets of the game. Coming in to today's play, Smith is only batting .218 overall but he has terrific speed and great instincts in center field. Over the past seven games, however, Smith is batting .462 with three doubles. He is one to watch.
Even more interesting, recently Gonzalez has Smith batting ninth in the line-up, the traditional pitcher's slot, and it is this move that has lit a fire under Smith. Little things like this is why I like Fredi as a manager. By placing Smith at the bottom of the line-up he is, in effect, a "delayed" lead-off hitter for Nick Markakis, the only consistent bat (so far this season) in the Braves line-up. This probably won't last all season, but it is a fascinating footnote to an otherwise horrendous start to 2016.
Of course, none of this wins ball games by itself. But it is an example of thinking outside the box when nothing else seems to be working. Who knows? Maybe things will jell a bit in later in the season and this team might at least end up being fun to watch, even if they finish dead last.
The 2016 Braves remind me of the 1988 and 1989 Braves teams in many respects. There were a number of promising young players back then, among them Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Hopefully, we have a new crop of "young guns" and position players emerging that will fill the ranks of the traded and decimated. Only time will tell.
Jennifer has been a Braves fan since 1990. So she has never experienced the team in this sad state. We still follow the team, of course. Checking scores, player stats, and watching highlights (yes, there are a few highlights worth seeing). But we are not spending a lot of time on the team, frankly.
We have tickets of the final game against the Detroit Tigers in Turner Field this season. It will be the final game ever in that stadium as the Braves will move to a new location just north of Atlanta next season. Back in 1997 I purchased a nicely made Inaugural Season commemorative cap at the stadium during a game we attended way back then. It wasn't the first game played at Turner Field, but me and my cap will be there for the last game. Sort of putting bookends on all those seasons there.
Until then I will sit and suffer, like Braves fans everywhere. It is going to be an ugly season. But, as I told some mutual Braves fans recently, bad baseball is better than no baseball at all. Do I really believe that? The 2016 Braves will sorely test that theory.
Note: The Braves beat the New York Mets tonight 3-0. One of the Braves' promising young starters, Matt Wisler, pitched eight strong innings, allowing only one hit while walking two and striking out four. Mallex Smith, batting ninth, hit his first career home run. I really like how he wears his socks, way up high to the knee. Classic.
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