Despite ending a seven-game losing streak Tuesday night, the Braves affirmed their 2-1 win over St. Louis actually didn’t change much in the big picture. They lost the following to the Cardinals 7-1, dropping their third straight series (and falling to 1-5 on this homestand).
As I wrote in a column Tuesday night, the Braves’ biggest concern isn’t that they’re running out of time. It’s only May. The problem is that their major issues now are pretty much the same as they were a year ago: an unproductive offense (they rank 29th in runs scored), punctuated by a lack of clutch hitting (.220 and ranked 27th with runners on base; .201 and ranked 28th with runners in scoring position).
The Braves have scored one run in four of the last six games, and two or fewer runs in seven of the last 10 and 15 of 33 overall. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has made one significant change, batting the pitcher eighth in the order.
Here are a few other issues he may be looking at (and my vote):
• Issue 1: Dan Uggla or Ramiro Pena? Pena has started two of the last three games at second base, but Gonzalez has been hesitant to make the change permanent, or even commit to a platoon system. It’s hard to know if he really believes Uggla — who is hitting .184 for the season and 3-for-34 in the last 10 games — can turn it around, or if he just lacks confidence in Pena as a full-time player. But Uggla has even lost his power. He has two homers all season (coming in the same game April 14) and his slugging percentage (.272) is 182 points below his career average (.454). It’s time to see what Pena can do in a full-time role. If he doesn’t work out. the Braves can always switch back to Uggla or call up Tommy La Stella from Gwinnett (where he’s hitting .306).
• Issue 2: Jason Heyward or Option 2 leading off? I’m hearing from a lot of fans that the Braves need to make a change at the top of the order. Here’s the problem: There is no Option 2. Pena is a possibility (he’s 9 for 27 with a .400 on-base percentage in his career as a leadoff hitter). Possibly Andrelton Simmons (he’s had less success: .219 BA, .255 OBP leading off). But neither provide the speed or power that Heyward gives the Braves leading off. Heyward is hitting only .209 with a .295 OBP this season. That’s not close to what he accomplished as a leadoff hitter last season (.322, .403). But the lack of a viable option right now and Heyward’s potential make this an easy decision. Despite the pleas of others, Heyward needs to remain as the leadoff hitter for the foreseeable future.
• Issue 3: Alex Wood, Aaron Harang or Gavin Floyd to the bullpen: I weighed on this three weeks, writing that with six healthy starters (now that Floyd is in the rotation), Wood was the logical choice. You agreed: With over 1,200 votes cast in a poll, 32.7 percent said Wood should go to the bullpen, followed by Floyd (24.2) and Harang (14.4). For complete results, click here. That option became even more logical Tuesday night when Floyd, making his first start in a year after Tommy John surgery, allowed St. Louis only one run in seven innings. Harang has had five great outings (three earned runs in 32 2/3 innings) and one bad one (nine runs in 4 2/3). When Ervin Santana returns from a thumb injury, Wood seems like the odd man out.