Final playoff rosters aren't due until 10 a.m. local time on the morning of the series opener, but the Braves, whose Division Series against the Dodgers opens in Atlanta on Thursday, have already announced theirs and it contains a couple of surprises. Dan Uggla and Paul Maholm, who spent most of the season as the team's starting second baseman and fourth starter, respectively, have been left off. While the absence of Uggla, the Braves' highest-paid player, is the one that will draw more headlines, it's that of Maholm that could have a greater impact on the series.
The 33-year-old Uggla suffered through a miserable campaign this year, hitting .179/.309/.362 with a career-worst 31.8 percent strikeout rate, albeit with 22 homers and 77 walks. Including his terrible defense (-19 Defensive Runs Saved), he finished with −1.3 WAR; in other words, he was more than a win below replacement level. It's a drastic fall for a player who once ranked among the game's top-hitting second basemen, but has collapsed since being traded to Atlanta. From 2006 through 2010 with the Marlins, Uggla hit a combined .263/.349/.488, but in three years since then, he's sunk to .213/.323/.404. He's still got power (31 homers a year for the Marlins, 26 for the Braves), but the other hits are no longer falling; his BABIP is down 46 points from his Florida days (from .302to .256) and was a dreadful .225 this year.
Back in August, the Braves put Uggla on the disabled list so he could undergo LASIK surgery to correct his astigmatism, something they wanted him to do in spring training. At that point, he chose to try contact lenses, but prior to surgery, he conceded , "I haven’t been able to pull the trigger on a lot of the pitches I’ve made my money on and done a lot of damage on… my eyes aren’t telling me the right thing."
Uggla returned after missing the minimum 15 days, but his production plunged even further; he hit just .133/.325/.183 with one homer and two RBIs in 77 plate appearances upon being activated. Meanwhile, light-hitting utilityman Elliot Johnson started 16 of the team's final 36 games after being picked up on waivers during Uggla's absence and hit a comparatively respectable .261/.317/.359 in 102 PA while playing above-average defense, thus earning manager Fredi Gonzalez's trust. Uggla is so lost in the weeds that the team brass apparently doesn't think he can even help as a power threat off the bench, and will take another light hitter, Paul Janish, as the backup.
Uggla still has two years and $26 million remaining on his deal, which will make for some awkward conversations this winter, but the team is less committed to Maholm, a pending free agent. Maholm's performance in 2013 was nothing to write home about (4.41 ERA and 88 ERA+ in 153 innings) but it was hardly a crater on the same scale as Uggla.
Maholm didn't initially figure to be the team's fourth starter come October, but the losses of Tim Hudson and Brandon Beachy to season-ending injuries and the innings cap of 22-year-old rookie Alex Wood appeared to bolster his claim on that spot. Just after the All-Star break, Maholm did serve a month-long stint on the DL due to a wrist sprain, but his performance hardly wavered after returning in late August; he had a 4.41 ERA and 2.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in six starts afterwards, compared to a 4.41 ERA and 2.3 ratio prior.
Instead of Maholm, Gonzalez has announced that Freddy Garcia will start against the Dodgers if there's a Game 4. The 36-year-old righty made just three starts and three relief appearances for the Braves, and while he pitched to a 1.65 ERA in 27 1/3 innings, his full-season stats including his stint with the Orioles are less impressive: a 4.37 ERA with a whopping 2.0 homers per nine in 80 1/3 innings. Taking into account all of his peripherals and all of Maholm's, Garcia finished the year with a 5.49 FIP to Maholm's 4.21.
It may be that Maholm's elbow, which caused him to skip a turn in mid-September and undergo an MRI that showed no structural damage, is acting up again. He did pitch well in his final start of the season (seven innings, three runs, no walks and seven strikeouts on 100 pitches) against the Brewers on Sept. 25, a start more memorable for the bench-clearing brawl that was sparked by a Carlos Gomez home run. Thus far, the Braves have yet to say anything about his health or any other reason for leaving him off the roster. It could be that Gonzalez prefers the experience of Garcia, who has 10 postseason starts compared to Maholm's zero. That said, just one of those for Garcia has come since 2005, when he still had something resembling a fastball. In 2011, he threw 5 1/3 innings and allowed four runs (three earned) in Game 2 of the Division Series for the Yankees against the Tigers.
Beyond the two pitchers' relative effectiveness, the fact that the Braves are going with a righty instead of a lefty could help the Dodgers' cause. Los Angeles hit .268/.331/.398 against righties, compared to .253/.315/.391 against lefties, for a gap of 23 points of OPS; if you exclude pitchers and players who won't be on the Division Series roster, the advantage grows to 39 points of OPS: .282/.345/.424 versus righties, .260/.324/.406 versus lefties. The Dodgers lineup will likely feature three lefties in Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and either Skip Schumaker or Andre Ethier, the latter of whom is hoping to return from his ankle sprain in time for Games 3 and 4 in Los Angeles, the last of which would have been Maholm's start. It's likely we'll here more about the reason the Braves tabbed Garcia over Maholm in the coming days but for now, this appears to be a headscratcher, and has the potential to alter the outcome of the series. Game 4 will either be the Braves' chance to finish off L.A. and or a potential elimination game for them. Even if they get to Game 5, Clayton Kershaw looms for the Dodgers, which puts additional pressure on Garcia.