Coming into the weekend, the Atlanta Braves have enjoyed a terrific 2011 season despite two lingering questions that continue to befuddle baseball fans:
How can they be this good without a bona fide leadoff hitter, and how can they be this good without a legitimate defender in center field?
The Braves answered both of those questions with one answer Sunday, acquiring Houston Astros center fielder and leadoff man Michael Bourn for a collection of prospects in a deal that promises to make the Braves a force in September and may have secured them a spot in the 2011 postseason.
Let's take a look at five reasons this deal immediately makes the Braves better all around.
The Atlanta Braves have featured outstanding pitching from top to bottom this season, with Brandon Beachy and Tommy Hanson emerging as outstanding talents, and Jair Jurrjens and Tim Hudson putting on clinics in craftiness.
Only Derek Lowe has struggled at all, and even his performance has been solid despite his 4.52 ERA.
Nevertheless, this is a team that pitches to contact and tries to get hitters to hit bad pitches. Only Beachy and Hanson average more than a strikeout per inning, and Hudson, Lowe and Jurrjens average far less.
How this staff has gotten as far as it has with Nate McLouth, one of the worst center field defenders in baseball (yes, even despite his Gold Glove), is a mystery.
Michael Bourn, meanwhile, is a rangy speedster in center and comes from Houston where he has patrolled one of the most spacious center fields in baseball.
This move immediately gives the pitching staff in Atlanta breathing room.
The Atlanta Braves' defensive alignment has been in a state of flux all season, and the Braves were starting to wear a bit thin.
Only second baseman Dan Uggla, shortstop Alex Gonzalez, first baseman Freddie Freeman and catcher Brian McCann have played the entire season at their position.
Meanwhile, the regular third baseman has been Chipper Jones, but Chipper is not really an everyday player anymore, which means regular left fielder Martin Prado has had to slide over to third base from time to time. This means regular center fielder Nate McLouth, a bad defender, has had to slide over to cover left field, which forces the Braves to stick the not-ready-for-prime time Jordan Schafer in center field.
As a general rule that has plenty of exceptions, defensive instability can impact teams in other ways, and now that Michael Bourn will be holding down center field full time, McLouth, Prado and Jones can figure out third base and left field together, creating stability and eliminating uncertainty.
The Atlanta Braves' offense has been atrocious in 2011.
The team averages 4.06 runs per game, which is just below the National League average of 4.12 runs per game. The Braves bat .242 as a team, with a team on-base percentage of .305 (both fourth-worst in the NL). They also rank last in the NL with nine team triples and second-to-last with 42 team stolen bases.
Bourn, with his .303 average, .363 on-base percentage, seven triples and 39 stolen bases, instantly makes these numbers better.
But Bourn's impact does not come simply from his own statistical presence.
Bourn is also in a position to make all the batters around him better.
In 2011, the Atlanta Braves have rotated Martin Prado, Jordan Schafer and Nate McLouth through the leadoff spot in the order. Those three guys have combined for a whole barrel of ugly, to the tune of .254 batting average, .306 on-base percentage and a .365 slugging percentage.
They have also only attempted 27 stolen bases and been caught 10 times. Yikes.
It is now accepted as a truism that major league hitters hit better with men on base, and the Braves are no exception to this rule. With the bases empty, the 2011 Braves have a .228 batting average with a .293 on-base percentage. With men on base, these numbers increase to .264 and .335, and with runners in scoring position, these numbers increase again to .268 and .358.
In short, the addition of Michael Bourn means more plate appearances for guys like Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann (when he returns from injury) and Chipper Jones with men on base, which puts the Braves' hitters in a position to hit better overall.
This is where things get a little scary for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Michael Bourn joins the Braves just one day after his former (as in, three days ago) Houston Astros teammate Hunter Pence joined the division rival Phillies.
And, by the way, Bourn came up through the Phillies' system and was traded to the Astros in the deal that brought Brad Lidge to Philadelphia—which brought the Phils, sans Bourn, a World Series trophy.
Think there is any way Bourn may draw some level of motivation out of suddenly being in a divisional race against his former teammate playing for the team that traded him away five years ago?
Yeah, me too.
At the end of the day, this could all be the perfect storm that upsets the Phillies' hopes of a magical season.