Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Atlanta Braves' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview

The vast majority of the National League is very lopsided especially in the Central and West. I've previewed all the teams on both divisions and my very non-expert opinion is that only the Chicago Cubs have a genuine shot at the World Series. That's not to say nobody else from the Senior Circuit's weaker divisions could turn into a pleasant 2009 surprise.

This is still Major League Baseball—its history has proven time and again that anything can happen. Anyone can win, even the Winter Classic.

BUT the Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Colorado Rockies all have substantial issues in the rotation despite having rugged offenses (potentially).

The San Francisco Giants are the mirror image—stellar pitching staff and absolutely bupkus in the batter's box if we're being practical.

The San Diego Padres are just a stinking pile at this point while the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds each have a legit shot at being that surprise I mentioned. But everything must click just so.

Fortunately for Fox—the airer of the World Series—there's the NL East. Otherwise, that particular tete-a-tete probably wouldn't be watching too closely unless you're a true baseball fan.

Rather than tackle the favorites right away, I'm starting with the Atlanta Braves because there seems to be a lot of buzz around this team. Buzz that I don't totally understand considering their offseason was more conspicuous for the deals that didn't get done.

Of course, there are some nice new (and expensive) pieces in the ATL. Here's how they should fit into the picture:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Brian McCann
First base—Casey Kotchman
Second base—Kelly Johnson
Third base—Chipper Jones
Shortstop—Yunel Escobar
Left field—Garret Anderson
Center field—Josh Anderson
Right field—Jeff Francoeur

Like most things in MLB heading into Spring Training, that lineup probably looks better than it will be. Who knows what Atlanta will get from Francoeur and Garret Anderson. Jones is getting increasingly frail with time and Josh Anderson is a bit unproven. Of course, the Braves do have Matt Diaz in reserve in case Francoeur continues his sharp decline or if/when Anderson succumbs to the perils of hitting 37 before the All-Star break.

I bought into the Diaz hype at one point—not so much anymore.

Starting rotation

Ace—Derek Lowe (R)
Second spot—Javier Vazquez (R)
Third spot—Jair Jurjens (R)
Fourth spot—Kenshin Kawakami (R)
Fifth spot—Tom Glavine (L)

Considering what the 2008 rotation looked like, the 2009 represents a huge upgrade. The bad news is that doesn't mean a ton. Lowe isn't a typical ace although Atlanta is paying him like one—he's more steady than spectacular and spectacular is what you usually pay an ace for. Vazquez can be a strikeout machine, but I think it's another slight stretch to call him a number two starter.

I actually like the back-end of the rotation better than the front, but I'll get to that. And Jorge Campillo's ready to go if anyone goes down with an injury or sub-par performance.


Closer—Mike Gonzalez (L)
Set-up—Peter Moylan (R)
Set-up—Manny Acosta (R)
Set-up—Boone Logan (L)
Set-up—Buddy Carlyle (R)

It all kinda unravels there at the end, doesn't it?

As usual, let's hit the good right away and that means—first and foremost—Brian McCann. If you're in the habit of expecting production from all positions, McCann's your guy behind the plate. In 2008, he hit .301 with 42 doubles, 23 home runs, 68 runs scored, 87 runs batted in, a .373 on-base percentage, and an .896 OPS. From catcher. Oh, and he's only 25.

Enough said.

Chipper Jones would be the best thing about this club except he'll be 37 soon after Opening Day and age catches up with everyone. With increased scrutiny directed towards performance-enhancing drugs, age might start nabbing Major Leaguers faster than has been the case in recent years. But Larry's one of the guys I'd expect might be clean and he's not exactly showing signs of slowing down—'08 saw him limp to a .364 average, 24 doubles, 22 HRs, 82 runs, 75 RBI, a .470 OBP, and a 1.044 OPS in just 439 ABs.

Not too shabby for an old dude.

But here's where the red flags starting popping up.

Kelly Johnson finished with a flourish in '08, but his final line—.287, 39 doubles, 12 bombs, 86 runs, 69 RBI, 11 stolen bases, a .349 OBP, and a .795 OPS—still didn't result in the progress baseball people expected. At 27, that could be momentary pause or real trouble.

The same can be said for Yunel Escobar and Casey Kotchman.

Escobar turn in a .288 average, 24 doubles, 10 HRs, 71 runs, 60 RBI, a .366 OBP, and a .766 OPS at the age of 26. Kotchman (a newly minted 26) spent time in both the American League and NL so perhaps it's not totally fair to judge him on '08's body of work, which was a .272 average, 28 doubles, 14 taters, 65 runs, 74 RBI, a .328 OBP, and a .738 OPS.

Those numbers aren't bad, but neither set represents the kind of arc you want to see in young talent. It's the kind of arc that makes a plateau look a lot more likely than the leap to stardom.

I was gonna slaughter Josh Anderson because I'd never heard of the guy, but he put up some nice little numbers in just over 130 ABs so I'll reserve judgment.

Jeff Francoeur is a mess and has been for the last two years. What he'll give Atlanta is anybody's guess—it could be 30 bombs and a .290 average or he could struggle to hit his weight.

But forget Francoeur and the other unknowns on that side of the equation, the Braves' real issues are in the pitching staff.

I've covered the front end above, so let's skip to the back three.

For whatever reason, people keep singing the praises of these Japanese imports. If Kenshin Kawakami is so great, why wasn't he brought over before Daisuke Matsuzaka? Or Hiroki Kuroda? And neither of those guys has been unstoppable (don't give me Dice-K because he's working with one of the safest nets in MLB).

The newest Japanese oddity is 33, missed time in 2008 with an injury, and hails from an admitted pitcher's park in Japan. Color me skeptical.

I actually like Jair Jurjens as the third guy in the rotation and Tom Glavine should be better than most fives, but that doesn't make up for the overall mediocrity of the rotation.

And the bullpen could be as atrocious as it was last year. Atlanta's gonna need Rafael Soriano to bounce back from injury and to be as good as new because Mike Gonzalez just won't last the whole season without missing time.

How comfortable can you be entering the season with a closer who's never thrown more than 54 innings in a season over the course of six years? And he hasn't even amassed that measly number in the last two years.

The rest of the 'pen is as average as they come.

For all of Atlanta's weaknesses and vulnerabilities, the real bit of bad luck for the Braves is that they reside in the NL East. Had they landed in the NL Central or West, this team would probably be favored to make the playoffs. At the very least, they'd be the Cubbies' fiercest competition.

But in the National League's stoutest division? They're looking at a steep uphill climb and possibly a long year of being not quite good enough.

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