He barely made it into the All-Star game, so maybe it’s fitting that Chipper’s only at bat ended in a (misplayed) dribbler that barely made it through the infield. He still got a standing ovation, delivered a televised, inspiring, and adlibbed pep talk to his NL teammates before the game, and got a lot of love from the crowd and commentators throughout the night.
By the eighth inning, when the Craig Machine took the mound, I knew the NL had the game in the bag (I mean, how many runs could the AL possibly score against Kimbrel, Chapman, Hanrahan, and Papelbon?) I was happy to see the NL get the win for Chipper’s final All-Star game, but much more excited for home field advantage in the World Series. For years I’ve been adamantly against the All-Star game deciding home field advantage (you know, when the AL went on that seven-year winning streak) but it’s hard to be against a rule when it can give your team a big advantage. During the game last night, Joe Buck said that six of the last nine teams with home field advantage in the World Series walked away champs.
That got me thinking about Atlanta’s chances to make a playoff run this season. Plenty of unknowns will determine the outcome of our second half, such as how long we have to play without Simmons and how his absence affects our lineup and fielding percentage. And Will Uggla turn it around at some point, or is this just a Mendoza-line season for him? Ultimately, I believe our validity as a post-season threat comes down to pitching. As the season began, our offense looked much more fragile than the pitching, but the opposite has turned out to be true. With Beachy being out for the season and more, and Minor’s colossal struggles, as well as JJ’s ups and downs, it’s clear that we need to add to our rotation to be real contenders in the NL.
Already, the team has made an under-the-radar move in the pitching department by signing Ben Sheets. I have to reconcile the ideas I’ve attached to his name (dominant Milwaukee ace in the mid 2000’s) with his current reality (thirty-four-year-old who left the game after elbow surgery and hasn’t played professionally in two years). When I look closely at the move, I get all kinds of concerns. First, his fastball clocks in the low 90’s. Without great location and good off-speed pitches to balance him out, low 90’s are batting practice for MLB batters. Second, what kind of physical shape is he in, having not played for a couple years? Even if he pitches four scoreless innings a game, then has to get pulled in the fifth or sixth, that’s going to put a lot of stress on our bullpen, which isn’t exactly bulletproof.
Sheets made two starts with Double-A Mississippi. In the first appearance, he gave up four runs over five innings, but all the runs came in the first two innings (shaking off the rust?) and he then retired ten straight batters. In his second start, on Monday, he pitched six innings and gave up just one unearned run. Obviously, Double-A is not the Majors, but I look at both of those games as good signs.
According to CBS Sports Sheets will start for the Braves on Sunday against the Mets. This might seem like rushing his comeback, but I think it’s a good idea. We need to know what Sheets has to offer as soon as possible, because his impact on our rotation will likely influence how much effort the front office puts toward pursuing other available pitchers before the July 31st deadline, such as Zack Greinke.
We didn’t have to give anything up any talent to sign Sheets, so we’re making a pretty safe bet. If he crumbles in his first couple starts, we can send him back to the minors and focus on acquiring someone else before the deadline. It’s not realistic to expect a prime form Ben Sheets, but I don’t think it’s ridiculous to expect some solid performances. In the absolute best-case scenario, Sheets proves a reliable guy in the rotation (at least for the rest of this season) and we make a move for another quality starter. We don’t have to replace both Minor and Delgado to be playoff contenders, but it would certainly improve our chances.
Let me know what you think of Sheets or Atlanta’s chances in the post-season in the comments, or send me a tweet @ThomasMDuncan.