2014 Atlanta Braves: Sore spots

Gene Oliver

Mostly a backup catcher, Gene Oliver five times hit double-figures in home runs, despite never having more than 398 at-bats in a season. His high was 21 on the ’65 Braves, one of six players on that team who hit at least 20. Oliver never played in the postseason, leaving the Cardinals a year before their 1964 World Series title and joining the Red Sox a year after their ’67 AL pennant. Oliver hit 14 homers for the Cards in ’62 and 17 with a career-high 65 RBIs in ’63, when he was dealt to the Braves for ’57 Series hero Lew Burdette. Oliver hit a career-best .276 in ’64, then had a career-best .818 OPS in 65. He hit only eight home runs in ’66, but three of those came in the same game, a 15-2 win over the Giants in which he knocked in seven. Oliver was traded to the Phillies in June ’67 for Bob Uecker, which didn’t bode well for his career. He hit .224 with seven homers for the Phils and played sparingly for the Red Sox and Cubs thereafter. Oliver had gone to Northwestern on a football scholarship, and was remembered for his sense of humor. Said former Cubs teammate Randy Hundley, according to the Chicago Tribune.com: “He used to say that he had to spend two terms in 4th grade — Truman’s and Eisenhower’s.” The final numbers: .246 average, 93 homers, 320 RBIs, .315 on-base, .427 slugging, .742 OPS, 6.5 WAR, 36% of opposing base stealers thrown out.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: Here’s what Dan Uggla should see if the Lasik surgery worked on his vision: minor-leaguer Tom La Stella primed to take his job. La Stella has developed into a prospect, hitting .328, .302 and .343 in his prime stops over the last three seasons. He has a career .412 on-base percentage and is a successful, if infrequent, base stealer (23-for-29). There’s a divergence of opinion on La Stella’s prospects, given his age (25) and draft status (eighth round). Baseballamerica.com ranks him the Braves’ ninth-best prospect but John Sickels, at minorleagueball.com, ranks him second. Wrote Sickels: “I get the Matt Carpenter/Allen Craig St. Louis Cardinals type massively underrated prospect vibe with this one, and I swore this year that I won’t get talked out of where my analysis leads me. La Stella can simply hit and his fielding is underrated. My main concern is durability …”

Trivia: Six Braves hit at least 20 home runs for Milwaukee in 1965 and Atlanta in 2003. Name them. And who had the most? Answer below.

What he said: Braves outfielder Jason Heyward: “Nobody makes excuses for you. Injuries are going to happen. But nobody is ever going to give you a pass for them.” What he meant: “If Aaron Harang makes 30 starts for us, we’re in trouble.”

Outlook: What would happen if a season ended before it even began? The Braves start 2014 having already lost starting pitchers Brian Beachy and Kris Medlen to Tommy John surgeries. The Braves may not lead the NL East this year, but they’re first in TJ surgeries, with reliever Johnny Venters recovering (reliever Cory Gearrin will start the season on the DL and may be next).

Thus the Braves’ rotation is a lot of hope and desperation as the new season starts, as are their chances. The Braves won 96 games and surged past the Nationals last year, but they seem a lot less likely to stay ahead of them.

The Braves lost free-agent catcher and morality policeman Brian McCann, while the Nats added Doug Fister, who would be a big upgrade for the Braves over retread Aaron Harang or hopefuls David Hale and Alex Wood.

The Braves extended their young nucleus, which made sense, but they’re still paying lots of money to Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton, which doesn’t. They can’t build that new stadium fast enough. Braves fans expecting another run of 14 consecutive division titles are going to be sorely disappointed when the new Braves fall 13 short.

Which is not to say the Braves couldn’t win or make the playoffs, or don’t have a bright future. They do. The farm system is ranked 22nd by ESPN.com’s Keith Law, but that’s misleading in that so many players have left the farm system and prospered at young ages with the varsity.

But the Braves won’t outdistance the Nationals in 2014 unless Jason Heyward stops mirroring Justin Upton or both improve. Their careers are similar in their inconsistencies: Heyward’s age 20 .849 OPS is still his best, and every other year he’s been below .800; Upton’s age 21 .899 is still his best, with a near repeat of .898 at 23, and he too has alternated his better years. Last year was supposed to be a plus one and Upton hit 27 homers, but just 15 in the last five months of the season, and eight of those in August.

For all the boasts about the Braves’ outfield after the addition of the Upton brothers, they were 42nd (Justin), 53rd (Heyward) and 76th (B.J.) in OPS of the 76 outfielders with a minimum of 400 at-bats.

The Braves can only hope there’s humility in the struggle.

Trivia answer: Eddie Matthews and Hank Aaron led the ’65 Braves with 32 home runs apiece. Mack Jones was next with 31, followed by Joe Torre (27), Felipe Alou (23) and Gene Oliver (21). Javier Lopez led the 2003 Braves with 43 home runs, followed by Gary Sheffield (39), Andruw Jones (36), Chipper Jones (27), Vinny Castilla (22) and Marcus Giles (21). The two Braves teams are the only NL teams to have six 20-home run hitters; four AL teams have had seven, all after the ’65 Braves. The 2003 Braves led the NL with 235 home runs and finished first; the ’65 Braves led the NL with 196 homers and finished fifth.

Team song: Mississippi John Hurt: Monday Morning Blues

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