The first four games of a 162-game season doesn’t represent a scientific sampling. But this is the way things are tilting for the Braves regarding the team’s four biggest question marks heading into the year:
♦ 1. Chipper Jones (his health and swing): Thumbs up. He is hitting .353 (6 for 17) with two doubles and two RBI. His impressive spring was not an aberration.
♦ 2. Craig Kimbrel (replacing Billy Wagner as closer): Thumbs up. The 23-year-old has two saves in two appearances, striking out five of the six batters he has faced.
♦ 3. Defense (poor last year): Thumbs up. Only one error (on pitcher Tommy Hanson), two double plays and a majors-best .993 team fielding percentage in four games. Last season, the Braves’ 126 errors trailed only Pittsburgh and Washington (127 each) for the most in baseball.
♦ 4. Nate McLouth: Thumbs down.
So here’s the problem, if we can call it a problem after four games. McLouth had a solid spring and won the starting center field job over Jordan Schafer, who was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett. The job is McLouth’s for the foreseeable future.
The question is where to bat McLouth in the order. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has started him in the No. 2 spot, believing his speed would be an asset and his offensive problems were sufficiently straightened out.
But the reviews so far aren’t good. McLouth went 1 for 4 in Monday’s win over Milwaukee, which is fine. But he also struck out twice, which a No. 2 hitter can’t do. Success in that spot of the order is predicated on the batter making contact and advancing the runner. So far this season, McLouth is 3 for 16 (.188) with a team-high five strikeouts and one walk. He’s also 0 for 1 in stolen base attempts. (McLouth did score three times in an 11-2 win at Washington.)
The question is: How long will Gonzalez stick with McLouth? There’s an obvious viable option in Jason Heyward, who is batting sixth and is off to a good start (4 for 12) with a home run, two RBI, four walks and a team-best on-base percentage of .500.
Heyward has a better chance to drive in more runs hitting sixth. But he’ll get to the plate more often hitting second, which theoretically makes the Braves a bigger offensive threat.
Gonzalez isn’t likely to make any change soon. The question is how long does he stick with McLouth batting second?
Do you have any confidence McLouth will find a groove? Or should Gonzalez just go ahead and make the change now?
Plan for Tuesday: Driving to Augusta to cover Tiger Woods’ press conference.
By Jeff Schultz