(The FOX Sports South staff — Chip Caray, Cory McCartney, Zach Dillard and Jay Clemons — takes on five questions heading into the Braves-Dodgers NLDS showdown.)
Who is the most important player for the Braves this postseason and why? MCCARTNEY: It all starts, quite literally, with Jason Heyward atop the order. In the 30 games he’s lead off, Heyward has hit .322/.403/.551 and every other player the Braves have tried in that spot — Elliot Johnson, Andrelton Simmons and B.J. Upton — have combined to hit .226/.348/.281.
But it’s more than just the stability that Heyward brings to the top of the order, it’s the punch as the Braves have gone 16-3 in games when he’s had at least one hit. That’s crucial against the Dodgers, who have the best ERA in the majors at 3.13, because if Atlanta is going to break through in a series that may be defined by pitching duels, it needs Freddie Freeman (.443 average with RISP) and Justin Upton — who drove in more than one run on just eight of his 27 home runs — to be in positions to drive in multiple runs.
CLEMONS: It’s hard to imagine the Braves taking this series if Justin Upton — the only Atlanta regular with a substantial track record against Clayton Kershaw — replicates his lifetime splits with batting (.217), on-base percentage (.281), slugging (.375) and one homer every 34.3 at-bats against the Dodgers.
Before Upton was acquired prior to spring training, the Braves were universally viewed as a team on the rise, or even next year’s champions. But everything changed once general manager Frank Wren executed a blockbuster trade that brought Upton and Chris Johnson (12 homers, 68 RBI, .321 batting) to Atlanta. To clarify, I’m not saying that Upton (27 homers, 94 RBI) must carry his club for all five games; but he needs to be a consistent presence throughout the series … while maybe putting the offense on his back for one night.
Preferably against Kershaw or Zack Greinke.
CARAY: I would just say based upon the last six weeks, Jason Heyward. I think what Jason has done atop the batting order has totally revolutionized the offense. His ability to get on base and score runs even without getting hits has set the table for Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Brian McCann and others. His dynamic play in center field, he’s a Gold Glove defender.
I just think Jason Heyward as a table-setter, a leadoff guy and a guy that can set the tone with a leadoff home run, a hustle double and patience at the plate and ability to manufacture offense is going to be critically important.
That’s going to be especially important against guys like Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu in the first round because this is a left-hand dominated lineup. They’re going to have to hit lefties and they’re going to have to get on base against lefties to give other guys a chance to drive in runs.
DILLARD: I’ll stand by the statement I resorted to throughout the second half, and that’s that Heyward is the key to the offense’s (and team’s) success this postseason. There just seems to be an added level of confidence when he’s in the lineup, particularly in the leadoff spot — the Braves are 22-7 this season with Heyward batting at the top of the order. His numbers are solid (.254/.349/.427, 14 HR, 3.4 WAR) and bolstered by playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at two outfield positions, but he really turned it on in the second half despite suffering a fractured jaw.
After the All-Star break, Heyward hit .305/.397/.534 and helped spark the team’s unofficial NL East-clinching 14-game winning streak. This team knows what it’s getting from it’s top three starters (Medlen-Minor-Teheran), Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann and Chris Johnson have been fairly consistent all year. The Braves will need a healthy Heyward to produce.
The Braves made a big decision by excluding Dan Uggla from their NLDS roster, while including a similarly struggling B.J. Upton on it. Did the Braves make the right call? If you were playing manager/GM, how would you have handled the situation?
CARAY: Unfortunately I think both Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton will tell you it’s their play that made those decisions difficult. Historically, Uggla — and I hate to say it because he’s a great guy — had one of the worst seasons in the history of the game for a second baseman and B.J. Upton in the first year of his deal wasn’t that far behind.
At this time of year it’s very, very difficult to make these decisions but you have to go with the guys that give you the best chance to win. Obviously management and the manager felt that Elliot Johnson and Paul Janish gave the Braves a better chance to win right now than Dan Uggla.
If the Braves get past the Dodgers and they have had trouble at second base and Dan has swung the bat well in instructional league, I’m sure there will be discussions whether he should be placed back on the roster. It wasn’t my decision to make, but when you look at the raw numbers for Dan Uggla in September and frankly for the whole year, it wasn’t that all surprising.
DILLARD: As difficult as the decision must have been for manager Fredi Gonzalez in telling Uggla he did not make the NLDS cut, I do believe it was the correct call. Johnson essentially stole the starting spot over the final month of the season and Janish offers more bench utility as a late-game defensive substitution. You could make a case for Uggla over Reed Johnson as a pinch-hitter based purely on power and base-on-balls potential, but it wouldn’t be a strong one.
The fact is that Uggla hit just .133/.298/.231 in the second half of the season, broke his own strikeout record, is not hitting for power (four home runs in second half), graded out as one of the worst defensive players in baseball and is not a threat on the basepaths. Gonzalez struggled to take emotion out of it, but I agree with the decision to exclude Uggla this time around. Simply reevaluate next round.
As for B.J. Upton, the thought of him and Uggla being equals in this playoff roster debate is misguided. Despite posting one of the worst offensive seasons in baseball, Upton still provides utility as a defensive replacement and/or pinch-runner (12 steals). Even if the Braves refuse to start him — I think he will log at least two starts if the series goes to five games — they made the right call including him on the roster. Keep in mind: Upton was a postseason threat in Tampa Bay, hitting .267/.324/.554 with seven home runs in 111 playoff plate appearances.
MCCARTNEY: I think Gonzalez handled it as well as he could have. This isn’t the first time he’s had to take a similar approach with Uggla, benching him when the two were together in Miami and last season as well.
Doing it in the playoffs to a guy who is your highest-paid player this season is a different story, but with Uggla hitting .179 with a .362 slugging percentage, 22 home runs and a franchise-record 171 strikeouts, the Braves couldn’t justify keeping him around in the series based on his power potential. It was the right call.
B.J. Upton has struggled mightily in his first season as a Brave — he hit a career-worst .184/.268/.289 and had his fewest home runs (nine) since 2008 — but his is a different situation given his speed (12 steals) and defense. I still think he gets at least one start in the series, but at the worst he could be a game-changer as a pinch runner. Frankly, Upton was too valuable to keep off the roster.
CLEMONS: For me, it’s quite simple: Unless one of the hitters has a history of unrivaled success — or failure — against a particular Dodgers pitcher, I’d ride B.J. Upton (bats righty) against lefties, Jordan Schafer (bats left) against right-handers … and then hope for the best.
Frankly speaking, neither Upton (.157 batting, .227 OBP vs. lefties) nor Schafer (.265 batting) are in a position to dictate playing time. Gonzalez would be wise to play to each outfielder’s relative strengths for the five-game series, instead of exposing them in potentially dire situations. For example, against righties, Schafer tallied 18 steals and a .355 on-base percentage … but against lefties, he collected only four hits in 31 pedestrian at-bats.
Both Upton and Schafer have above-average skills with overall baserunning, steals attempts and defensive prowess. For a series of this magnitude, this is a classic platoon scenario.
The Braves had the best bullpen ERA in the majors this year, but struggled down the stretch. Any concerns entering postseason play? CLEMONS: At some point during the playoffs, I’m sure the Atlanta bullpen will have a calamitous inning. But when doing a tale of the tape, the Braves hold a considerable advantage over the Dodgers in this underrated area — although L.A.’s bullpen has shown marked improvement since their lost weekend here back in May.
No. 1 Setup: David Carpenter (1.78 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, .198 OBA) over Brandon League (14 saves, 5.30 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, .305 OBA)
Plus, with David Hale (0.82 ERA, 1.09 WHIP) and Alex Wood now available for short- or long-term stints during the playoffs, that’s just another checkmark in the Braves’ favor.
MCCARTNEY: Considering that during a stretch in September the bullpen allowed at least one run eight times and multiple runs on five occasions, there’s a worry that this group simply got worn down by increased workloads, especially Luis Avilan and his 2.35 ERA over the final month.
That being said, Kimbrel (1.21 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and 50 saves) remains arguably the most dominant player at any position and Carpenter actually had his most effective month in September with a 0.69 ERA. Factor in the additions of rookies Wood and his 23-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio when coming out of the bullpen and Hale (14 Ks in 11 innings) and there’s enough of a mixture of power and innings eaters to believe the ‘pen will be fine.
DILLARD: There are still some health concerns with Jordan Walden, but overall this remains one of the best bullpens in baseball thanks to the best closer around (Kimbrel), a more-than-capable lefty-righty setup trio (Walden, Avilan, Carpenter) and some solid young arms that have proven themselves capable of logging starters’ innings at the major league level if needed (Wood, Hale).
There are some other names to toss around here, too, but the Braves’ bullpen’s late-season struggles were a bit overblown: in September, the unit still logged a 2.91 ERA and a 3.30 FIP. Off the season pace? Sure. But the relievers will be used much more liberally now that October has arrived, so expect Gonzalez to put them in better situations to succeed. Any bullpen can get blown up by a hot offense. But it’s not something worth fretting over from the outset.
CARAY: My concerns: 1. Will they miss the third lefty? It’s a luxury to have a third lefty and they don’t have it; 2. Is Jordan Walden healthy and can he pitch multiple innings or multiple games?
Walden can get lefties or righties out equally, he sort of negates the need for a third lefty, David Hale is the long guy and Craig Kimbrel to close. That’s not bad but this time of year, obviously workload and effectiveness … those are always questions managers have with bullpens going into the postseason.
If you had to pick one for the Dodgers series, what is the must-win game? CLEMONS: If the Braves can split Kershaw’s starts (Game 1, then Game 4 or 5), they’ll have an excellent chance at claiming the series. It’s that simple. Kershaw (16-9, 1.83 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 232 strikeouts) is the greatest pitcher on the planet right now … meaning his 5.87 ERA over five career playoff appearances (three starts) likely carries no weight for the impending series.
DILLARD: I’ll take a different approach and look to Los Angeles. It’s interesting to me — not wrong, just interesting — that Gonzalez and his staff are going with the best-starter-available approach by throwing Medlen then Minor at home. This leaves a rookie (Teheran) and a guy the franchise picked up for cash considerations a couple months ago (Freddy Garcia) as the Games 3 and 4 starters. That’s not ideal scenario for a team that finished with a 40-41 road record this season, especially if the Dodgers go into either game looking to clinch.
So I’ll go with Teheran and Game 3. Whether the Braves are looking to sweep, to avoid the sweep or to take a 2-1 NLDS lead, Teheran’s performance in a Dodger-blue, hostile environment will be his biggest test as a professional baseball player. He needs to outperform Dodgers “rookie” Ryu. Of note: Teheran is 6-4 with a 3.38 ERA on the road.
CARAY: You’ve got to win any three and I think putting any more importance on one game as opposed to another I think is a mistake. Obviously you’d like to win both games at home, keep home-field advantage and force the Dodgers to have to win three straight.
They haven’t faced Clayton Kershaw in two years and he is arguably the best player on the planet, but I believe the matchup the Braves had with the Phillies’ Cliff Lee will really help this club. Cliff Lee carved up the lineup twice in September and Clayton Kershaw is every bit as good as Cliff Lee and vice versa. It’s not going to be a totally unfamiliar commodity. It would be great to beat him, it would be great to beat Greinke and keep home-field advantage.
MCCARTNEY: Kershaw is a daunting matchup for the Braves considering that they haven’t faced him since 2011 and that the players on the NLDS roster with the most plate appearances have struggled (Justin Upton is hitting .103, Paul Janish is at .182 and Chris Johnson .083).
This is not to insinuate that the Braves don’t have a chance to beat Kershaw in Game 1, but it’s not an ideal setting against the likely NL Cy Young winner and it puts even more pressure on Mike Minor to give Atlanta the best chance of winning Game 2 against Zack Greinke. The last thing the Braves — who have a playoff-worst 40-41 road record — want is to head to Los Angeles needing to win twice to keep their season alive, making Game 2 potentially the most crucial game of this series.
Braves-Dodgers will feature some of baseball’s top rookies. Which first-year player do you have the most faith in? MCCARTNEY: Evan Gattis (22 HRs) has had his moments and Wood and Hale have been impressive, but no Braves rookie looms larger — and none elicits more faith — than Teheran.
After allowing four runs in five innings in an April 18 start vs. the Pirates, Teheran (14-8) would post a 2.45 ERA and a 94-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 110 innings over his next 17 starts. That stretch also includes a near-no-hitter against another playoff team, the Pirates. If Game 3 turns into a potential close-out chance or a game the Braves need to stay alive, Teheran has been so good for such a long stretch this season that he should be able to handle the situation.
CARAY: I think what Gattis has done is just remarkable. Not just the baseball part, which everyone wants to talk about. You’re talking about a guy whose life was turned around and I don’t think the pressure of playing in a playoff atmosphere is going to rattle Evan Gattis.
Teheran has grown up exponentially. I think the big moment for him was the Bryce Harper confrontation when he plunked Bryce Harper and Harper had a chance to go get him and you could see Teheran say, “What are you going to do? I’m here, come get me.”
These guys are, yes, first-year players. But these guys aren’t shaking violently by any stretch of the imagination. They’ve been battled-tested and they’ve been through an awful lot in life.
DILLARD: As vital as Teheran will be in Game 3 — and he’s certainly the cream of Atlanta’s rookie crop — Avilan is my choice here. I think Gonzalez has plenty of faith in his young left-hander in the late innings after he posted a 1.52 ERA and 3.28 FIP in 65 innings of work this season. He tends to get himself into some trouble because he does not strike too many guys out and his walk rates are rather high (though he improved dramatically in this regard in September, posting a 8-to-1 K/BB ratio), but he always seems to find a way … and he rarely ever gives up the big hit.
The production of rookies like Teheran, Gattis, Puig and Ryu will have a larger impact on the series, but as far as knowing exactly what you’re getting from a young player, Avilan is the safest bet.
CLEMONS: As a general statement, I have very little faith in rookies during the postseason. For all their sublime physical gifts, first-year players typically have trouble adjusting to the mental side of a high-profile, pressure-packed series. There is one breakout candidate, though:
From April 23 to Aug. 6, spanning 19 starts, Teheran posted 17 outings of three runs or less, collecting nine victories and five games of eight-plus strikeouts during that stretch. His two clunkers: The Padres (June 10) and Reds (July 14) chased Teheran from the outset, taking an aggressive stance early in the respective counts. Teheran isn’t your typical rookie pitcher. For the month of September, he didn’t surrender a single walk in his final three starts.