Q: The Atlanta Braves have fallen off after their quick start. Do you think they have the talent and moxie to get back to the top of the NL East and win it in 2012?
- Doug Upstone
A: Back in the spring, I liked the chances of improvement for the Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins more than I liked the Braves' chances of rebounding from their late-2011 choke job that cost them a wildcard spot.
So I picked the Braves for fourth place and right at .500 - and while they may be better than that, there still are enough issues present to make you wonder about their playoff chances again.
Of course, I also thought the Philadelphia Phillies had one more division title/playoff appearance in them. But that is in serious jeopardy, with the rotation struggling since the Roy Halladay injury, bullpen issues, and Chase Utley and Ryan Howard slow to return to an underwhelming offense.
When you look at the NL East now, the Nationals have opened up a nice lead behind the game's best-performing pitching staff. They just got Michael Morse's big bat back in the lineup, and could get closer Drew Storen back around the All-Star break.
So even with the Stephen Strasburg innings limit looming like a dark cloud, you have to like their chances of remaining in the postseason chase the rest of the way.
As for the Braves, they have their issues, but fortunately for them, so does every other NL contender. So they certainly can reach the expanded postseason field if enough things fall into place. But here's why they may not:
- While closer Craig Kimbrel continues to put up remarkable numbers, the left-handed setup tandem of Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty have not been able to keep pace with their brilliant 2011 seasons.
- Rotation-wise, Tim Hudson has to stay healthy and pitch like an ace. There's nothing not to like about Brandon Beachy, but Mike Minor barely is hanging onto his spot, Randall Delgado rarely gets past the sixth inning, Jair Jurrjens is struggling at Triple-A, and Julio Teheran has been underwhelming in his limited big-league exposures. In fact, the Braves sat 11th in the NL in team ERA through Wednesday - worst among NL contenders.
- They also have swapped rookie shortstops - Andrelton Simmons for Tyler Pastornicky - and rookie shortstops rarely reach the postseason, unless their names are Troy Tulowitzki or Derek Jeter.
- And Chipper Jones' importance to the lineup can't be overstated. How much can they expect from him in the rest of his farewell season?
It will be interesting to see if general manager Frank Wren, who chose to stand pat over the winter despite the late-September collapse, will change course and make an addition or two before the trade deadline.
Q: Mark Trumbo is playing like a bona-fide star. Do you think he is the real deal?
- Susan, Los Angeles
A: For all the well-deserved attention Mike Trout is receiving lately, as well as the recent returns to form of Albert Pujols and Torii Hunter, it's Trumbo who leads the Angels in hits, home runs, RBI, slugging percentage and OPS.
So to answer your question, yes, I do think he's a legit middle-of-the-order power threat who is improving on his strong 2011 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up numbers, and heading for a 30-homer, 100-RBI season that could get him some AL MVP-top 10 consideration.
2011: .254/.291/.477 in 149 games and 573 plate appearances.
2012: .328/.385/.622 in 55 games and 221 plate appearances.
Since Trumbo hit .300 only once in six minor-league seasons (2010 at Triple-A Salt Lake City), his current batting average and on-base percentage numbers aren't likely to hold. The slugging percentage also is well above his career norm, so a dropoff is likely there, too.
But Trumbo's walk rate has improved, while his strikeout rate is about the same, and if he settles somewhere near the middle of his 2011 and current 2012 numbers, that will be an excellent year.
The Angels also have found a new top-of-the-lineup combination that sets up Trumbo nicely for some big production: Against left-handed starters, Trumbo is hitting fourth behind Trout, Hunter and Pujols, and against right-handers, Trumbo is fifth behind that same trio and Kendrys Morales.
The result has produced 5.33 runs per game in the Angels' first 12 games this month - a jump from 4.10 runs per game in May, and 3.48 runs per game when they stumbled to an 8-15 April.
And when you throw in the fact that these Angels regulars remain far below their career batting averages and slugging percentages, there is reason to expect more offensive production going forward, especially from the bottom half of the lineup:
Yes, things are looking up offensively for Trumbo and the Angels.
Q: Do all starting pitchers on a team sit in the dugout during all games?
- Richard Beattie, Winterville, N.C.
A: That's a very broad question, but generally speaking, the answer is yes. On their off days, starting pitchers are supposed to do their running, weight-training and throwing sessions before the game - even before batting practice - and then be on the bench during games.
But to say that every starting pitcher sits on the bench for every inning of every game without exception is a stretch. Let's face it, starting pitchers aren't going to get into the game on their off days unless in a late-inning emergency situation.
So, to duck away for a couple of minutes to get medical treatment, check out game video, or attend to a teammate or a personal/family matter is acceptable and does occur.
That said, I don't know if you're referring to what happened with a couple of the Red Sox's starters late last season, but I do know this: Reportedly eating fried chicken and drinking beer during games is, a) unacceptable to the rest of the team, and b) uncommon.