The Atlanta Braves suffered another devastating injury this week when outfielder Jason Heyward hit the disabled list with a broken jaw, the result of an unfortunate encounter with a 90-mph Jon Niese fastball.
The ball glanced off Heyward’s ear flap, which probably prevented further damage. The 6′ 5″, 240 pound slugger underwent successful surgery to begin the healing process. The good news is, he didn’t have to have his jaw wired shut. Had that been the case, Heyward would certainly lose excessive weight, given that he wouldn’t be able to eat much, which would have greatly increased his rehab time.
As it is, there’s still no certain date for his return.
Joining Heyward on the DL is starting pitcher Brandon Beachy. Atlanta was thrilled to have him back in the rotation following his recovery from Tommy John surgery. However, during his last start, his velocity dipped dramatically. He’s set to visit Dr. James Andrews on Monday to determine if he’s done further structural damage to his elbow.
The Braves have already lost veteran Tim Hudson for the season. Hudson had his ankle stepped on and broken by Mets outfielder Eric Young on a bang-bang play at first base (Beachy’s injury came against the Mets as well. There must be some strange karmic forces at work here between the two old rivals).
As of today, the Braves have a 12 game lead over the Washington Nationals. It should be a safe margin with a little over a month left in the season. But the Nats have won 5 in a row, and the Braves have lost 3 straight. If the Nats stay hot, things could get interesting.
Atlanta, meanwhile, still has the talent to retain the division lead despite being thinned out by the injury bug. Their bullpen is still among the strongest in baseball. Craig Kimbrel has 40 saves, a 1.05 ERA, and is averaging 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings. And despite the fact that they lost both of their lefthanders, Johnny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty, to injury early this season, the Braves bullpen leads the major leagues with a 2.41 ERA.
Their lineup will be weakened by the absence of Heyward, who struggled early, but enjoyed a renaissance after being moved to the leadoff spot in the order. Now, B.J. Upton, Evan Gattis, and Jordan Schafer will be called upon to replace his plate appearances.
Upton has been an epic free-agent bust this year, but his career trends suggest he’s better than his slash line of .183/.263/.292. If Upton can do so much as revert back to his career averages .249/.330/.411, it would help mitigate Heyward’s loss. Gattis became the stuff of legend early this season when filling in for the injured Brian McCann at catcher, but he has since come down to Earth. He’s only 5 for 40 in the month of August.
The Braves lineup doesn’t make much contact (except for Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson, who are having outstanding years), but they can still hit the long ball. B.J.’s brother Justin leads the team with 24, Dan Uggla has 21, despite his .186 batting average, and five other non-disabled braves have double-digit round-trippers.
And it should be noted that young Andrelton Simmons is the best fielding shortstop in the majors, according to advanced metrics and the eye test.
Atlanta should still be able to win the weak NL East division, but the real question is how far can they go in the playoffs?
If the rest of the starting rotation, led by LHP Mike Minor (12-5, 3.06 ERA), and Julio Teheran (10-7, 3.08 ERA), and if Heyward can return in time for the postseason, the Braves still have a shot to go deep. But as of now, the Braves look awfully thin against what should be a deep playoff field in October. The Pirates, Cardinals, Reds, and Dodgers are healthy and strong in all aspects of their game.
However, all the Braves have to do is get in the tournament, and as we’ve seen, anything can happen.