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Braves bench is their biggest problem

The Braves bench is awful and represents their best chance to get better down the stretch

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

It isn’t much of a secret but the Braves offense has been pretty bad in 2014. They are 13th in the National League in runs scored which is awful, especially for a team that came into this year with championship aspirations. Now the reality isn’t quite as bad as those numbers suggest. When offense is adjusted for park factors and adjusted to be context neutral, the Braves actually rank 10th in the NL in offense. If you subscribe to the theory that park factors matter when evaluating offense (pretty obvious to me), and that context neutral stats are more predictive going forward than runs scored (something I agree with though more controversial) then the Braves have the 10th best offense in the NL, not the 13th.

When you evaluate the Braves on how much value their position players add in total (not just at the plate) the Braves actually rank 5th in the NL in fWAR. The Braves have reached this mark by being 2nd in the NL in runs saved on defense, and third in the NL in baserunning runs. This suggests that the Braves position players are adding more value on defense and on the bases than the position players on the teams that rank higher than the Braves at hitting. The lineup is not a total disaster in other words and actually pretty good when you look at total value added and not just hitting. A run saved on defense is worth just as much as a run scored on offense, and any trade the Braves make would need to add more offensive runs than runs given up on defense to be worth the cost.

The Braves are therefore not as desperate to upgrade their lineup as their runs scored total would suggest they should be. The lineup should score more runs in the second half without actually hitting any better, just by having luck even out with regards to situations with runners in scoring position. The Braves have the 5th most valuable group of position players in the NL and trading some of the runs saved on defense for more offense won’t actually make the team as a whole better. The Braves have the 3rd best pitching staff in the NL by fWAR and are 2nd in the NL in FIP. This is why the Braves currently have the second best record in the NL, they have the 2nd best pitching staff so far and the 5th most valuable group of position players. The Braves are already good and not in serious trouble even if they make zero moves at the trade deadline.

The place the Braves are most in need of an upgrade and have the ability to upgrade is their bench. Gerald Laid has a 75 wRC+ and has actually been the Braves best bench bat this season. That’s how bad things have been. This is especially problematic because it is not as if it is normal for an MLB bench to be this bad. To see this all you have to do is compare the Braves bench this season to the Braves bench in 2013.

2014 Bench

Gerald Laird: 235/310/304, 73 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR

Jordan Schafer 174/250/232, 33 wRC+, 0.0 fWAR

Ramiro Pena 204/271/327, 66 wRC+, -0.1 fWAR

Ryan Doumit 202/232/319, 51 wRC+, -0.4 fWAR

Dan Uggla 162/241/231, 35 wRC+, -0.6 fWAR

Basically a disaster. Now look at what the Braves got from their bench last season.

2013 Bench

Jordan Schafer 247/331/346, 90 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR

Gerald Laird 281/367/372, 111 wRC+, 0.8 fWAR

Ramiro Pena 278/330/443, 115 wRC+, 0.4 fWAR

Juan Francisco 241/287/398, 90 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR

Reed Johnson 244/311/341, 84 wRC+, 0.2 fWAR

Elliot Johnson 261/317/359, 88 wRC+, 0.1 fWAR

Jose Constanza 258/258/258, 39 wRC+. 0.0 fWAR

Paul Janish 171/222/220, 20 wRC+, -0.2 fWAR

Joey Terdoslavich 215/315/266, 65 wRC+, -0.3 fWAR

Laird has the highest wRC+ of any Braves bench player this year but six bench players had a higher wRC+ for the Braves in 2013, including a guy the team DFA’d. The Braves DFA’d Juan Francisco in 2013 when he had a 90 wRC+ but that would lead the bench this year by a large margin. That’s how bad this group has been.

Now there are some easy moves to the Braves could make to improve this situation. One they need to DFA Dan Uggla and Jordan Schafer. They can then call up Todd Cunningham and Phil Gosselin who would immediately be more valuable than Uggla and Schafer. The Oliver projection system predicts Cunningham would have a 76 wRC+ if called up and Gosselin a 58 wRC+. Cunningham is a better defensive outfielder than Schafer and would provide just as much value on the bases. Gosselin doesn’t project to be much of a big league player but at a 58 wRC+ he would provide much more value than Uggla, while also being a useful defensive player. Gosselin can play 2nd base and 3rd base at a high level and even shortstop in emergencies.

Gosselin isn’t the ideal bench player, but he provides actual value and doesn’t cost the Braves anything to call up. These are zero cost moves that make the Braves better without giving up any resources. Joey Terdoslavich is another option the Braves have in the minors, and he is projected to have a 102 wRC+ if he were to be called up. Terdoslavich is a poor defensive player and not a good runner, but he could provide some desperately needed pop to the Braves bench at no cost. Either Gosselin or Terdoslavich would make the Braves better, I would give Gosselin first choice for both his defensive versatility and the fact that his breakout offensive season this year suggests Oliver may be underrating him. If he comes up and doesn't hit a lick you can then go to Terdoslavich.

The Braves can also make a trade for a bench bat who provides power and is a legitimate threat in in a late inning clutch situation. That is the role Ryan Doumit was supposed to fill but to this point has failed at. Terdoslavich could come up and fill Doumit’s role without the Braves expending any resources but the Braves do have the ability to go out and get even better help. If the Braves do go the trade route Scott Coleman has already identified Luis Valbuena as a good trade option and everything he said in that article still holds today. Valbuena is affordable, on a team going nowhere and willing to sell, and would be a massive upgrade over anything on the Braves bench. Ben Zobrist would be a dream addition but I don’t see the Braves paying the kind of price Zobrist would cost. If the Braves don’t trade for a player like Valbuena then they could call up Terdoslavich who would immediately be an upgrade over what Doumit has given the Braves. Josh Rutledge also seems like a possibility. He is a slightly above average offensive player, on a bad team who provides little value beyond the bat. The Braves could acquire him and he immediately becomes their best bench bat.

A bench of Valbuena, Cunningham, Gosselin, Pena, and Laird bench would do a lot to make the Braves better down the stretch. Pena is a good utility infielder who can actually play shortstop at a high level when necessary. Valbuena is a cheap, good defensive infielder who also hits far better than anyone on the Braves bench right now. Cunningham is just like Jordan Schafer except that he still has upside and should hit merely below average and not like a pitcher. Gosselin is a no cost utility infielder who in the worst case scenario is better than Uggla, in the best case actually hits a little bit at the big league level. Laird is good enough to be the Braves backup catcher and regression should lead him to hitting a little better in the second half of the season. Overall, this group would represent a massive upgrade over what the Braves are currently running out there. These kinds of changes are realistic and represent the Braves best chance to make their team better for the stretch run.

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