2007: 84-78 (3rd NL East)
Forget what you might read about the Mets, or how the Phillies are building to repeat. The Braves, after a short hiatus following a long stretch of division titles, are about to roll out another championship quality team.
Bobby Cox’s best skill – and that of John Schuerholz when he ran the front office – was in finding horses and letting them run. In the past, that meant finding enough hitting to help out solid pitching. Now, it’s about finding enough pitching to support one of the most potent young offenses in baseball.
And, it’s about merging young players with veterans. Nobody has a better mix than Atlanta.
Looking Back on 2007
The Braves rocketed out in front with the Mets, winning seven of eight to start. In time, their record was 24 – 12. Some of it was beating up on the Nationals and Marlins, and some of it was solid hitting.
Then, things just sort of drifted. Andruw Jones could never find his batting stroke – the only guy in the lineup who wasn’t hitting. And, despite fine pitching from John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, the rest of the pitching was woefully inadequate. Chuck James was average but didn’t pitch that many innings in 30 starts, and the four other semi-regular starters had ERAs between 5.21 and 7.09. Mark Redman made five starts and had an era with four digits – never a good sign.
A five game losing streak while playing Boston and Detroit in interleague games dropped the Braves back to .500 on June 24th. Playing the Marlins, Nationals, and Pittsburgh, the Braves rallied again to get back into the race, but another stretch and a west coast swing left the team at a crossroads, so the Braves traded away a slew of prospects, including Jarrod Saltalamacchia to the Texas Rangers for Mark Teixeira in hopes of battering opponents and getting back into the race. What they needed was another starter.
Well – the hitting kept on coming. In July, the Braves as a team nearly hit .300. In August, the average dropped, but they hit 41 homers. Andruw Jones hit a little bit better, while Chipper Jones continued with one of his finest seasons, and Teixeira joined in the fray with 17 HRs and 56 RBI in just 54 games. Five guys batted over .300, four others were over .270, and nine guys were in double digits in home runs. But they couldn’t over come the lack of a third or fourth starting option and fell to the wayside. The final record shows they were only five games out of the race, but only because the Mets closed with a whimper to make it close for everyone.
In summary, the 2007 Atlanta Braves were a decent team – they outscored their opponents 810 to 733. They just needed to make a few changes to fill a few holes. They needed one or two extra starting pitchers. They needed to decide what to do with Andruw Jones. 2008 will test whether or not they made the right moves.
Tell me about that offense
A lot of batters were helping put runs on the board. At the top of the order, you had Kelly Johnson who hit .276 with 52 extra base hits, and 79 walks. He was worth about 95 runs. He was followed by Edgar Renteria, whose .332 batting average was among the league leaders. With a higher batting average was Chipper Jones, with a .337 batting average, and a .604 slugging percentage. Jones also drew 80 walks, leading to a .429 on base percentage. These three were backed by Matt Diaz (.338 and some power in 358 at bats), Jeff Francoeur (105 RBI batting behind these guys), and even Yunel Escobar batted .326 in 300+ at bats. Catcher Brian McCann batted .270 with power. The weak hitters were Andruw Jones (.228 with less power in an off year) and Scott Thorman, who hit .216 and was replaced by Teixeira.
The performance of Escobar made the veteran Renteria expendable, so Edgar was shipped to Detroit for Jair Jurrjens, a pitching prospect who debuted with Detroit and appeared ready for the big leagues after pitching well at AA Erie last season.
Andruw Jones was allowed to leave Atlanta for a big Los Angeles Dodgers paycheck, and the Braves replaced him with the roving Mark Kotsay, coming off a season shortened by back injuries. Kotsay, like Jones, struggled to bat his weight but usually has been a reasonably decent outfielder for his three previous teams. While there are serious cost savings involved, both moves might have been made to help the pitchers by adding a few younger gloves to the roster.
Teixeira was remarkable at first base, not only is he a significant upgrade at the plate, but he made nearly three quarters of a play per nine innings more than Thorman. Kelly Johnson was okay – his range is slightly below average (-3.2 rating, meaning he adds three points to a batters batting average), but he was above average in terms of turning two and not making errors. That’s the good side. The left side was significantly below average.
Chipper Jones ranked at -5.6, costing his team about ten runs. He participated in 17 double plays – only three teams started fewer double plays at third than Atlanta (24), and each of those turned 23 from the hot corner. With the exception of Escobar – who was fantastic – his other backups were even worse. And Renteria, who won a couple of Gold Gloves five years ago, was worse with a -10 ranking, costing the Braves another 15 runs. Escobar, who was great at second and third, was better – though below average – at short. If you watch a Braves broadcast, they rave about his range, so Escobar will be an improvement if he just works out as an average shortstop.
In the outfield, Matt Diaz and (new National fourth outfielder) Willie Harris showed above average range. Diaz and Harris saved the Braves a dozen runs combined – Harris showing good range in center, too. In right, Jeff Franceour has average range but a decent arm, nailing 19 baserunners. However, Andruw Jones has been deteriorating in center. He still glides and makes diving catches, but the glide is a step slower than it used to be. He’s now slightly below average in range – while Kotsay arrives showing decent range despite a bad back. If Kotsay holds form for the season, it could save the Braves an additional ten runs.
Looking ahead, tightening up the defense with Teixeira, Escobar, and Kotsay could help remove 25 runs from opposing scoreboards.
An improved defense only helps the pitching staff. Hudson (-28.5 runs) and Smoltz (-28 runs) were fabulous. Smoltz probably ranks a bit higher due to his strikeout rates, but Hudson eats innings and keeps people off the bases, too. Hudson’s lone advantage is his age – he’s eight years younger. After that, however, you had six guys who were at least ten runs worse than an average pitcher, led by the miserable Mark Redman (-18.79 in just five starts – ugh).
Add to the mix Tom Glavine, who has shown signs of decline and was about the league average pitcher last year (still a step up if he has one more year in him). Add Jurrjens, who hails from The Netherlands (pitched in the 2006 World Baseball Classic for them), and might stay near the league average. Mike Hampton – who hasn’t pitched since 2005, and missed his first start due to a pectoral muscle pull while warming up, which can’t be good – made the team after a good spring training. When he last pitched, he was decent but you never know. With Kyle Davies, it was pretty obvious he was overmatched and Jo Jo Reyes, who was decent at AAA Richmond, didn’t pitch well with the big club.
Bob Wickman was replaced at the backend of the pen by Rafael Soriano, who looks like the real deal (70 Ks and only 15 BBs in 72 innings). Mike Gonzales, brought in from Pittsburgh last year and looking good until he hurt his elbow, may come back this summer to help. Peter Moylan looks like a good set up man option, and Will Ohman can work out of the pen. They could use one more arm here – perhaps Royce Ring will step up.
I’m going out on a limb and saying that the Braves will win the NL East. Offensively, I would expect a bit of a decline from Chipper Jones because of his age and the fact that last year he had a great year – almost too good. However, that decline would be more than made up by having a full season of Mark Teixeira. Diaz and Escobar were both solid playing about 70% of a full season, so there is reason for optimism if they play a full year. Escobar has a chance to be a really good shortstop. Kotsay’s best season isn’t better than Andruw Jones’s best season, but his good seasons are as good as Jones was last year. If he stays healthy, it’s a wash. If not, the Braves should not hesitate to put a young speedster like Gregor Blanco out there. Blanco’s batting average in AAA Richmond wasn’t as good as Escobar’s (.282 compared to .333), but there are things to like – like his speed and his patience at the plate. You could bat him eighth and not feel too badly about his glove.
Pitching will be the challenge. Smoltz is running out of innings in his career, though he remains a dominant pitcher when he’s on the hill. Hudson is an ace. After that, the Braves are relying on Tom Glavine, who first pitched for the Braves when Phil Niekro was on the team. In 2007 Glavine was solid in April, average in May, and then had an ERA over 5.00 for three of the last four months of the year. My fear is that he will be below average this year, and not necessarily help the team. If he stays within 10 runs of average and makes 30 starts, though, that’s still better than what the Braves had last year. Hampton is fragile and an unknown quantity. Chuck James showed signs of skill, but he hasn’t been consistent – and he started the season on the DL due to a partial tear in his rotator cuff. He will miss a few turns before rejoining the team. That leaves Jurrjens as the lone young prospect. Jurrjens is 22 and had a fantastic spring – but he made a jump from AA Erie to the Tigers last year and might be a year away from ready.
The Braves are taking a lot of chances, but I think at least one or two work out. An improvement defensively of 20 runs and an improvement from the pitching staff of about 20 runs would make this team extremely difficult to beat. And with two anchors in the playoffs, they could make a run to the World Series.