In his available-by-subscription newsletter, the baseball writer Joe Sheehan noted that these Atlanta Braves entered June with the fewest home runs (21) since the 1994 strike. He also offered this: “The Braves are one of just two teams since the strike to enter June with fewer than 25 homers. The 2014 Royals — hey, that’s a fun comp(arison)! — were the other.”
(Why is that a fun comp? The 2014 Royals came within a Game 7 loss to the Giants and Madison Bumgarner — who works against the Braves at Turner Field today; small world — of winning the World Series.)
As if on cue, the Braves beat the Giants in 11 innings last night on a walk-off homer by Freddie Freeman. That gave them 22 for the season, 22 in 52 games. If the Braves hit 17 home runs against Bumgarner and the Giants today, they’d still rank last in the majors.
Granted, you knew this already. We’ve mentioned it ad nauseum since mid-April. This team hasn’t hit many home runs. This team is never going to hit many home runs. At issue is whether future Braves teams will.
The 25-and-under rotation has begun to hold up its end. If you’ve made young pitching the cornerstone of your reconstruction, that’s a very good sign. And the Braves have the No. 1 farm system in baseball and figure to augment that in next week’s MLB draft and the July international signing period. What they don’t have in that farm system is a power hitter of great promise.
Forget having a potential 40-homer guy. They don’t yet have a player with 30-homer potential. Maybe the 19-year-old Austin Riley will become that man, but he’s not nearly there yet. He has three home runs for Single-A Rome this season, with the most recent coming May 7. Dansby Swanson has five homers in Single-A and Double-A.
The leading homer-hitter for Triple-A Gwinnett/Double-A Mississippi is Matt Tuiasosopo, who has six. He’s 30 years old, which means he’s not a prospect. He’s a Triple A lifer. The big-league Braves designated him for assignment last month — he’d been one of the three guys Fredi Gonzalez requested in early May — but, having no other options, he stayed with Gwinnett.
Said general manager John Coppolella, speaking last month of his lovingly assembled pitching: “We hope to grow our young arms and build a strong and cost-efficient rotation that will allow us to spend our money on bats.”
As Sheehan wrote in a previous newsletter, only five teams since 1995 have hit fewer than 100 home runs in a season. The most punchless of those was San Diego in 2011. It had 91 homers. These Braves are on track to hit 69.
This is why the Braves aren’t yet ready to cut ties with Hector Olivera, who has been suspended by MLB through Aug. 1 for domestic abuse. He’ll probably never be a 30-homer guy — but he might be a 20-homer guy, which would make him Harmon Killebrew around here. Yes, he’s 31. No, he hasn’t done anything of note as a big-leaguer except get suspended. But that suspension, once served, will not invalidate his contract. The Braves will still owe him $30 million over the next four seasons. That’s a sunk cost. Might as well see if he can supply some measure of power.
Beyond the hope-against-hope of Olivera, there’s not much potential power under contract. The Braves can buy established bats in two ways — by using their pitching surplus as currency, but that requires a trade partner, or by spending big in free agency, which the Braves insist is wildly inefficient. (They’re correct.)
In the grand scheme, there is a cheaper way. They can start using some of these accumulated draft picks on hitters. Again we say: The draft is next week.
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