Three Cuts: Braves schedule eases up, Norris enjoys much-needed resurgence
Barring two strong outings from Julio Teheran and Bud Norris, the Atlanta Braves turned in a lackluster week on the field to complement their all-too-important 2016 draft class, dropping two series against the Padres and Cubs. And as the 13-2 score in the series finale against Chicago suggests, the road can only get easier moving forward. Here are three observations from the week:
1. Reds offer welcome refuge from Cubs onslaught
In 2016, every stretch of Braves' schedule presents multiple pitfalls, but a West Coast road trip featuring the best pitcher in the world and a park the team had lost 12 straight games in only to return home and face the best baseball team on the planet was ... ambitious. The Braves have now lost eight of their past 10 games thanks to the Giants, Dodgers, Padres and Cubs, meaning a four-game set against a Cincinnati team in a similar 2016 funk could not come at a better time.
The Reds are essentially the inverse of the Braves. Their collective pitching performance has been atrocious, ranking dead last in the majors in WAR (minus-2.7), ERA (5.51), FIP (5.64), walk rate (4.47), home run rate (1.69), WHIP (1.56) and blown saves (12). They are the Braves lineup of pitching.
Injuries have rattled their rotation and the struggles of typically solid players like Alfredo Simon have not helped. Right-hander Dan Straily, picked up off waivers before the season, is the only starter having a solid season, but he has been unable to pick up the slack for the rotation as a whole. (The Braves will face Straily in Thursday's series finale.)
The Braves, of any team this season, understand what it's like to struggle at near-unsustainable levels as they continue to trail MLB's offensive leaderboards in almost every important statistical category. Their June numbers were up slightly heading into a difficult date with Cubs ace Jon Lester — notably with Ender Inciarte and Mallex Smith playing well — but there's a long way to go to even get out of the red in the wins above replacement department.
So this matchup is the exact opposite of the "Unstoppable Force Meets Immovable Object" cliche, and it's safe to assume that whichever team can overcome its deficiencies, whether it be the Reds' pitching or the Braves' hitting, will hold the upper hand. One last note for the upcoming four-game set at Turner Field: Baseball's worst team at home (7-25) is squaring off against baseball's worst road team (7-20).
Something, mercifully, has to give.
2. Has Bud Norris resurrected his trade value?
When Bud Norris was yanked from the Braves starting rotation before the calendar flipped to May, he owned an 8.74 ERA and generally looked like swing-and-a-miss $2.5 million offseason signing by the front office. If the franchise was looking for a steady, innings-eating veteran to buy time for its pitching prospects at Triple-A — and potentially a midseason trade piece when those prospects were deemed ready — Norris' April numbers quickly dismantled that strategy.
Then an odd thing happened when the 31-year-old right-hander shifted to the bullpen, primarily in a long relief role: He was everything the Braves were initially looking for.
In 12 relief appearances, Norris posted a 1.96 ERA and allowed opponents to hit just .217. His ERA predictors hint at a bit of good fortune — his strikeout rate was low and walk rate was elevated — but the franchise desperately needed results and his turnaround came at a good time. However, when injuries struck the rotation, sending Mike Foltynewicz and Williams Perez to the disabled list, there was reason to question whether Norris' success would translate back into a starting role.
Shutting down the Dodgers and Cubs provided a pretty clear answer, and now it appears Norris could once again bring back some semblance of value (See: Past two Kelly Johnson trades) if the franchise chooses to shop his name at the deadline. The Dodgers are not necessarily an offensive juggernaut — though do not tell that to Corey Seager — but the Cubs are, and Norris held both teams to one earned run apiece while striking out eight in his past two starts. That, coupled with his bullpen, should draw some attention.
If the Braves can recuperate a mid-level prospect or even continue to buy quality innings as the young starters get healthy and develop, that's a much better situation than they were in two months ago with Bud Norris.
3. What should be the expectations for Erick Aybar after his return from the disabled list?
More bad luck, if the Cubs series finale offers any indication.
It's been a forgettable and downright odd campaign for the veteran shortstop -— the most forgettable and odd campaign of his career. There's the fact that he owns the second-lowest WAR among all players (he relinquished the bottom spot while injured) and that he missed a game due to a chicken bone-related hospitalization. Then came his stint on the 15-day disabled list after a fastball hit him square on his right foot.
Aybar's first taste of MLB action after being activated on Sunday, sending Daniel Castro back to Triple-A Gwinnett, included a foul tip that hit him in the groin and was mistakenly called a strikeout. It's just been that kind of season.
His seventh-inning double, however, is more of what the front office is looking for moving forward. It's too late for Aybar to live up to the $8 million contract he brought with him in the Andrelton Simmons trade, but the lack of offensive production, Gordon Beckham's injury issues and the need for Chase d'Arnaud's bat at multiple positions all but forces him back in the lineup regardless of the payroll. (He's no longer hitting in the No. 2 hole, which is a common sense approach.)
He's now hitting .184/.226/.217 with five extra-base hits.
At this point, moving away from the distinction of "worst season of the 21st century" is a start.