PHILADELPHIA, PA - Dan Uggla of the Atlanta Braves strikes out against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
The Atlanta Braves have a big lead going into September. They're going to approach it just a little differently this year.
There's a tendency to assign attributes to teams across different seasons, even if the personnel and makeup of the team is radically different. I'm as guilty of it as anyone. The Pirates collapsed after a strong start last year, so look out for that collapse this year. The Yankees will pull through and win the division because they always do. These are two examples, but you can think of more. Heck, there's supposed to be some sort of trans-temporal current of losing that runs through Cubs teams past, present, and future.
Most of it is hokum. The Pirates last year are different from the Pirates this year. Same with the Yankees and Cubs. There are going to be similarities from season to season, sure, but it doesn't make sense that every season is going to play out exactly the same way because of the logos on the cap and uniform.
Then there are the Braves. After they acquired Michael Bourn at the deadline last year, they stood pat. Like, really stood pat. It's like they were playing a game of 25-card roster stud -- and that's only a slight exaggeration. Juan Francisco was the one-man cavalry, and he didn't show up until the season started. The Braves were convinced they had the roster to win last year before the fates intervened, and they impressively, if stubbornly, held fast to that belief.
Which is to say, if you thought the Braves collapsed last year because of a faulty roster, they'd probably be great bets to do it again. After an 18-8 July, the Braves have been two games over .500. That's not a full ruh-roh, but it's a little disconcerting.
But even though the offseason wasn't frenzied, this Braves team is different from last year's. Kris Medlen is like a rich man's Justin Verlander, for one. I think I accidentally deleted the e-mail announcing that little development to the world. The old (still young) Jason Heyward is back. The bullpen hasn't been worked as hard. The Braves have been proactive with rotation reinforcements, acquiring both Ben Sheets (who's hurt) and Paul Maholm (who's been pretty good).
The clearest sign the 2012 Braves are different from last year's team, though? Their willingness to make a tough lineup decision, even if it means spurning a veteran. Dan Uggla, who was supposed to be a key cog in the middle of the Braves' lineup, is likely to see a reduction in playing time. Talking Chop explains:
This is a big change in managing style from last year, especially down the stretch. Gonzalez basically watched from the bench last year as players under-performed. This year he's giving everyone, even the veterans, a short leash. He's putting the guys who are hitting in the lineup, and he's making out his lineup with platoon splits and matchups in mind -- trying to maximize every advantage on paper that he can, which is about all you can ask him to do.
The 2011 team didn't have an obvious scapegoat. It was a group effort and an historic collapse that was only overshadowed by the more historic collapse going on in the other league. Who should Fredi have benched? Freeman? McCann? Bourn? His fascination with Jose Constanza ebbed by the start of September. And if he thought that Chipper Jones had a little more juice left, he was right. Everything had to go wrong, and it did.
But the Uggla semi-benching is a different approach. Uggla fields like he's wearing a Chewbacca costume, so if he isn't hitting, he isn't worth playing. And he isn't hitting -- after five straight years of 30+ home runs, he might not crack 20 this season. And since his high-water mark of June 9, where he had an .872 OPS, Uggla has hit .155/.297/.272. It's been an abysmal stretch.
So now the Braves are going with Reed Johnson in left and Martin Prado at second, at least for a good portion of the time. It might not be better. It might not be an improvement over what Uggla would have done over the last month of the season. But it's different. It's the Braves suggesting that even though things are going okay, there are some ways they could improve.
It's proactive rather than reactive. Well, it's still a little reactive, but at least it isn't inactive. The Braves are in a good spot to host the first-ever Wild Card play-in game, but sitting Uggla, even if he still has $39 million left on his contract, is an indication that they aren't standing still and letting baseball come to them, like they did last year.
If that works or not, well, let's wait a month. CoolStandings.com has the Braves as having a 91.5-percent chance at making the playoffs last year. That's great, but last year the table listed a link to StubHub tickets for the playoffs instead of an actual percentage. Not really. Please don't e-mail me screenshots. The point is that the Braves have been here before. But when it comes to filling out the same lineup and hoping for better things to happen, they're trying a different approach. And maybe "different" is synonymous with "better" a year after the ... unpleasantness. Couldn't hurt.
(Unless it does. I'd probably stick with Uggla, to be honest, so don't look at me. At least they're trying something different)