Starting Monday at PNC Park, the Pirates face a flailing 9-27 Braves team for the first time this year. Here's what to expect.
Game times and probables
Monday, 7:05: Williams Perez vs. Jon Niese
Tuesday, 7:05: Aaron Blair vs. Juan Nicasio
Wednesday, 7:05: Julio Teheran vs. Francisco Liriano
Thursday, 7:05: Mike Foltynewicz vs. Jeff Locke
Perez is a generic righty who's struck out 3.9 batters per nine innings so far in his big-league career. He probably would be Triple-A depth in most other organizations (think a healthy Casey Sadler, or something like that), although he does get a fair number of ground balls. Blair arrived in the Shelby Miller trade and is a real prospect, but he's only four starts into his big-league career and has seven whiffs and 11 walks so far.
Teheran, at 25, is the Braves' veteran workhorse, and he remains a solid starter even though his control has gotten worse since he entered the league. Foltynewicz, who arrived from the Astros organization in the Evan Gattis trade, is the hardest-throwing of the four starters the Bucs will face this series. He's only walked two batters in 18.2 big-league innings so far this season, but has had control issues throughout his career, including this year at Triple-A. He also has fly ball tendencies and doesn't throw his changeup much, so he might wind up as a reliever in the long term.
In other words, though it's worth noting that the Bucs themselves are starting four pitchers who've been underwhelming this season, there isn't much here for the Pirates to fear.
C A.J. Pierzynski, Tyler Flowers
1B Freddie Freeman
2B Kelly Johnson
SS Erick Aybar
3B Gordon Beckham
IF Daniel Castro
IF Reid Brignac
LF Ender Enciarte
CF Mallex Smith
RF Nick Markakis
OF Jeff Francoeur
OF Chase d'Arnaud
Beyond Freddie Freeman being a good player, I have no idea what to make of this group. By my count, the Braves have made nine transactions this month involving position players on their 25-man roster, reflecting a degree of restless that's highly uncommon, but also understandable. The Braves are batting a remarkable .229/.293/.297 this season, with an incredibly poor -3.9 fWAR.
The complete list of Braves position players who have positive WAR figures is as follows: Freeman, Smith, Beckham. That's it. So there's Freeman, and you might also take note of Smith, a rookie who probably hasn't developed quite enough as a hitter but who's extremely fast. But I can't even tell you for sure who's going to start in the infield, although it's mostly been Freeman/Johnson/Aybar/Beckham recently. (The guy you probably want to watch there is Daniel Castro, who's a highlight-reel defender, although he can't hit at all.) And notably, everyone who's supposed to care about things like who the starting position players are seems to understand that it's all deck-chair shuffling. Type "Braves infield" into Google News and you get a bunch of stories about prospects Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies, which makes sense -- if I were a Braves fan, that's who I'd want to know about too.
Just for kicks, I looked at the numbers for the notoriously terrible 2003 Tigers to see how the Braves compared. The Braves are actually worse, as the Tigers only produced -1.2 fWAR for the whole season. You've probably heard about the Braves' inability to hit homers; they have nine for the whole year so far, more than three times fewer than the next-worst team. Their team slugging percentage is 67 points lower than anyone else's. As a team, they're batting .229/.293/.297 for the season. I'm struggling to find Pirates-related analogues that explain how bad that is. It's worse than Jose Tabata in 2014, say, or Matt Diaz in 2011. Bobby Crosby in 2010 comes close. The whole team is hitting like that.
This group walks way too many batters and is too heavily dependent on older pitchers who aren't as effective as they once were, like Grilli, Ogando and O'Flaherty. But there are some hard throwers, including Vizcaino and Krol, and Vizcaino is a perfectly useful closer, to the extent that the 2016 Braves really need a closer. This isn't a good bullpen, but it's not as bad as the rest of the team.
* * *
This weekend, the Pirates had to go to Wrigley Field to face the Cubs. It stunk. The Pirates had already had to face the Cubs once this year, and it hadn't been much fun at all. The Bucs escaped with one win, but their task against the Cubs felt Sisyphean. The Cubs were so good. Man, were they good.
Here's the thing: The Braves are nearly as bad as the Cubs are good. They're the only team in baseball that hasn't won ten games yet, and their runs scored for the season (109) is the same as the Cubs' run differential (as someone, I think ESPN, noted earlier this week on Twitter). The Braves' own run differential (-64) is the worst in the majors. So far, the Cubs have been about as good as MLB teams get. The Braves have been about as bad as they get.
Let us not hold contradictory beliefs. If we see the Cubs on the Pirates' schedule and groan, we should be thrilled when we see the Braves. That doesn't mean the Pirates will win all four games, but as matchups go, the Braves are about the best one a team can have on its schedule, and the Bucs' beleaguered rotation, in particular, should feel relieved.