11:48 am Apr. 9, 2012
The things we know now, after the Mets' season-opening three-game sweep against the Braves, are the things we knew before it.
Johan Santana is terrific when he's healthy, but his value over the course of the season depends on his ability to recover and do that every five days.
Lucas Duda can hit, slugging two home runs on Saturday, but he can't field, as demonstrated by the routine fly ball he allowed to bounce off of his glove in the seventh inning on Sunday.
The team has some exciting young players, like Ruben Tejada and Ike Davis, along with a left fielder in Jason Bay who can only seem to hit the ball on the ground.
The team is in trouble when injuries strike, with center fielder Andres Torres's calf injury Thursday forcing New York to rush outfield prospect Kirk Nieuwenhuis to the major leagues.
And the fans are still angry at what the cash-strapped owners have done to the roster: The Sunday crowd at Citi Field was announced at just 27,855, even after the Mets gave away tickets for Opening Day weekend and even after they won the first two.
But while the early returns don't mean a whole lot—the Mets' 3-0 mark is about as useful in judging them as the 0-3 records currently sported by the Yankees and Red Sox—this weekend did seem to say something about the Atlanta Braves, and it wasn't a positive statement.
That's an awfully strange thought, considering that as of the end of August last year, the Braves held a 10.5 game lead over the Cardinals for the National League's wild card spot. Though Atlanta collapsed, and St. Louis beat the Braves out, Atlanta still finished with 89 wins, and brought the same young team back largely intact. Playoff contention shouldn't be a question.
But the lineup the Braves brought to Citi Field didn't feel like much of a threat. Martin Prado and Jason Heyward, two bats supposed to give the Braves depth, looked quite ordinary. Prado should be fine, but Heyward is a major concern. The strong right fielder burst onto the scene as a 20-year-old, but never felt physically right last year due to an injured shoulder. He chose not to have surgery, and his swing this season looks to have more in common with 2011 than 2010.
That leaves the Atlanta attack in the hands of catcher Brian McCann, who is an elite hitter at his position, along with first baseman Freddie Freeman and second baseman Dan Uggla. Freeman is a garden-variety first baseman—good bat, poor glove—while Uggla's offensive game is so limited outside of home runs that he's only a bit above league average.
Then there's Chipper Jones, who was still a threat in 126 games last year. But Jones, who is retiring after this year and turns 40 this month, has played in more than 134 games just once since 2005. And his backup, the castoff Juan Francisco, doesn't appear to be a starting-caliber player should Jones miss significant time.
It was the pitching that carried the Braves last year, however—Atlanta was tenth in the National League in runs scored, fourth in E.R.A. So if the offense regresses at all, the Braves will need the pitching to be even better. But Saturday's starter, Jair Jurrjens, looked much more like the pitcher who pitched to a 5.88 E.R.A. after July 17 before missing the final month of the season with a knee injury than the pitcher who started the season with a 1.87 E.R.A through July 17 and made the All Star team.
With Tim Hudson, Atlanta's other most valuable starter in 2011 along with Jurrjens, not expected back before the end of April following back surgery, the Braves could be facing an offensive shortfall and not enough pitching to cover it.
This is not to suggest that the Braves can't win plenty of games. But at the moment, they look less like a contender than a team that will be jockeying for position in the N.L. East this year with the Mets.