2011 Season Forecast: Toronto Blue Jays

Last Five Years:

2010: 85 – 77 (4th in AL East)
2009: 75 – 87
2008: 86 – 76
2007: 83 – 79
2006: 87 – 75

Consistently good, not always as competitive in the toughest division to win in baseball.

Runs Scored: 755 (6th in AL, but 4th in the AL East)
Runs Allowed: 728 (9th in AL)

With this combination of run scored and allowed, you’d expect 84 wins, so Toronto was pretty much on the money.

2010 Recap:

Most everyone had them fourth – so no surprises here.  Well, not at a team level anyway…  A LOT of surprises at the player level – but we’ll cover that down below.

After trading wins and losses for a month, the Blue Jays got hot in May and raced toward the top of the division.  Unfortunately, the Jays were equally cold in June and fell back to fourth.  June was their only losing month – from July 7th on, the Jays were 14 over .500, so if they hadn’t gone cold for the 30 days from June 6 to July 6, it’s very likely that the Jays could have sneaked into the playoffs.

What made Toronto competitive on heals of losing the best pitcher in their team’s history, Roy Halliday, was a BUNCH of home runs.  Jose Bautista hit 54, Vernon Wells slammed 31 dingers, John Buck had 20, Edwin Encarnacion hit 21, even Alex Gonzalez had 17 in just 85 games.  Aaron Hill didn’t hit much, but clocked 26 homers.  Adam Lind tallied 23, Lyle Overbay slashed 20, and even the half season of Travis Snider was good for 14.  Toronto hit 257 homers but only allowed 150, a gap that covered for other weaknesses.

During the season, the Jays made a few minor deals, but the one that made a splash was the trade in July that sent shortstop Alex Gonzalez and two minor leaguers to Atlanta for Yunel Escobar and Jo-Jo Reyes.

Starters:

As mentioned, Roy Halliday was gone, and the Blue Jays were forced to rely on a bunch of young arms – many of whom were returning from prior shoulder and elbow injuries.  Ricky Romero improved on an impressive 2009 rookie season and made 32 starts, logged 210 innings and win 14 games, pitching like an ace for much of the season.  Shaun Marcum returned to go 13 – 8 and missed by a start of hitting 200 innings.  Brett Cecil, the #1 pick in 2007, raced through the minors and showed moxie – leading the team with 15 wins.  Brandon Morrow, who never seemed to live up to the hype in Seattle, fanned 178 batters in just 146.1 innings, kept hitters off stride, and won 10 decisions.  The fifth starter role was given to Marc Rzepczynski and Dana Eveland, but at the end was given to former Phillie prospect Kyle Drabek, who looks to make the rotation in 2011.

Looking ahead, Shaun Marcum is gone, having been moved to Milwaukee for Brett Lawrie, a top second base prospect.  That leaves Romero, Cecil, Morrow, and either Rzepczynski, Drabek, Reyes, or Jesse Litsch – another former Jays starter coming back from hip surgery.  Drabek comes with the most hype – the top prospect in the Toronto chain, having gone 14 – 9 for New Hampshire in the Eastern League.  Reyes can pitch some, but more likely will start the year in the bullpen and pick up a start from time to time, which leaves Litsch and Rzepczynski battling for the fifth slot.  I think Drabek can be every bit as good as Marcum was in 2010, and if Litsch or Rzepczynski can make 25 healthy starts, this will be a slight improvement – if only because you won’t have the nine less than stellar starts of Dana Eveland in the mix (or, for that matter, Litsch’s nine less than impressive starts).

Bullpen:

Gone is Kevin Gregg, who saved 37 games last year.  Gregg is NOT a dominant closer – but rather a tolerable one,  He was ably supported by Shawn Camp, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, Casey Janssen, and David Purcey.

For 2011, the closer looks to be former Ranger closer Frank Francisco, who can be much better than Gregg but historically is just marginally better.  Other closers are in camp, including Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch, as well as Frasor, Janssen, Camp, and Purcey.  This is a very deep staff and should continue to keep Toronto in games.

Catching:

Last year’s duo of John Buck and Jose Molina were impressive defensively – above average in six different categories, and league average in terms of basic mobility.  Buck also hit well – an all-star level performance.

Looking ahead, Toronto will be depending on rookie J.P. Arencibia.  After struggling through a rough 2009 season in Las Vegas, Arencibia pounded PCL pitchers to the tune of 32 – 85 – .301 in 104 games.  That translates to about 20 – 65 – .250, which is not too far from a typical John Buck season.  Molina remains as a capable defensive backup.

Infield:

The changes continue from the infield that started the 2010 season.  Basher Jose Bautista showed to be more consistent at third than Edwin Encarnacion, who will move to first or DH in 2011.  Yunel Escobar can find his groove and hopefully contribute like the hitter he was in 2009, and second baseman Aaron Hill will rebound from his .205 2010 season and hopefully retain his power.  Adam Lind moves to first base, replacing Lyle Overbay.  I’m nervous about this unit.  The left side will be marginally better than 2010 defensively, but the right side will not be.  Lind has yet to produce as many runs as Overbay, and the 85 games Alex Gonzalez played were productive and hard to immediately replace.

John McDonald is still around to back everyone up – as is Encarncion.

Outfield:

Left field will be manned by former Angel Juan Rivera, who replaces Fred Lewis – a fourth outfielder at best.  While an improvement, Rivera is starting to get old and in ten seasons has never played 140 games in a season.  Vernon Wells is gone, replaced by Rajai Davis.  Davis is faster than Wells, but about 25 runs behind him as a hitter.  In right is Travis Snider, who replaces Bautista’s role.  Snider is due to step forward as a hitter, but hasn’t been a strong fielder.

Down on the Farm:

AAA Las Vegas wasn’t loaded with prospects other than Arencibia, who will start on opening day, and Brett Wallace, who was traded to Houston for Anthony Gose – a low level centerfielder with speed to burn, but a problem with contact and little power.  (I’ll be honest, I don’t see the reasoning there unless one thinks Wallace didn’t have a future in Toronto, but I think he’s better than Encarnacion.)

AA New Hampshire had Drabek, but also Zach Stewart, who is a year older but not quite as good.  David Cooper is a first baseman who has stats that look like Lyle Overbay – but at AA.  He might be a year away, but he’s not quite there yet.  Eric Thames has more power and a touch of speed.  He could replace Juan Rivera and you might not lose a step.  Darin Mastroianni is a leadoff type hitter, great speed and good on base percentages.  At 25, he’s getting old for a prospect, but he could help somebody for a months if needed.  The guy who is really interesting is Cuban import Adeiny Hechavarria, who looks like Davy Concepcion did when he was 21 years old – great glove, could grow into a hitter (but not yet).  Tristan Magnuson was successful as a reliever in AA, with great control, but Danny Farquhar has better stuff – 79Ks in 76 innings, just 50 hits allowed.  He’s a touch wild.

Alan Farina didn’t look like a prospect after a season of struggle at A+ Dunedin, but he DOMINATED A+ in 2010 and moved up to New Hampshire and kept right on going (74Ks in 55.2 innings).  If he does this in Las Vegas, he may make the roster in September, 2011.  Joel Carreno is a starter with moxie who will start in AA this year after a successful run in 2010 with Dunedin.  Catcher Travis D’Arnaud will get to build on a reasonably successful 2010 season, but it would help if he shows a little more power.

2011 Forecast:

There are things to like.  The outfield defense should be stronger.  The team will be spending less money at a couple of positions, which helped pay for a Jose Bautista contract.  The pitching staff is rather deep, especially in the bullpen.  The only slip defensively is at first base – which means the team will likely stay around 715 runs allowed, if not a few less than that.

The things that make you nervous?  I think the offense has to fall back.  I can see Bautista having a good season, but will it be as good as last year?  Probably not.  You have a drop in offense at first and center and possibly at catcher against potential improvements in left and second.  But there are too many “downs” to make up for the possible “ups” – and I see this as being sixty to eighty runs less than 2010.  As such, I see Toronto falling below .500 to about 77 – 85, which could very well be last in the AL East.  This isn’t a BAD team, just a team in the wrong division and falling back because a couple of guys were over their heads last year.  On the other hand, there are signs that this team is trying to build a new foundation of young players that can get them over the 90 win plateau and finally get back to the playoffs.

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2010 Season Forecast: Atlanta Braves

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 86 – 76 (3rd NL East)
2008: 72 – 90
2007: 84 – 78
2006: 79 – 83
2005: 90 – 72

Runs Scored: 735 (6th NL)
Runs Allowed: 641 (4th NL)

When a team outscores its opponents by 100 runs, the team can expect to win more than 90 games.  The Braves should have finished about 92 – 70.

Season Recap:

The Braves spent three months figuring things out – playing indifferent baseball and hanging within a few games of .500 through June.

In June, however, the pitching came together.  Javier Vazquez started pitching like an ace, Tommy Hanson joined the rotation and started winning like Brave starters of the previous decade.  Jair Jurrjens acted like a Cy Young candidate, and Derek Lowe ate innings.  After manager Bobby Cox flipped closers, replacing Mike Gonzalez with Rafael Soriano.

When the offense started gelling in July (Matt Diaz replacing Jeff Francouer and Martin Prado replacing Kelly Johnson), the Braves started making ground on the rest of the league.  Falling to 34 – 40, the Braves would win most series down the stretch – and then going on tear in September, winning 16 of 19 games to get into the fringe of the wild card race.  Unfortunately, they faced an equally talented Marlins squad, and lost the last six games – including four straight to Washington and four one-run games in the mix.

Pitching:

Javier Vazquez, new Yankee fourth starter, won 15 and finished with a 2.87 ERA – saving the Braves more than 36 runs.  And with that, he was the SECOND best starter on the staff.  Jair Jurrjens didn’t flash the same K/W numbers, but had a 2.60 ERA and saved the Braves 38 runs over what one might expect from average pitching.

Derek Lowe was a 15 game winner in a slightly off season – his ERA was 4.67, which might have been bad luck with balls in play followed by feeling the pressure of struggling.  Still – Lowe made 34 starts and remains a dependable arm.

Tommy Hanson joined the rotation to make 21 starts, winning 11, and finishing with a sub 3 ERA – and it’s not easy to find teams in recent years to have three pitchers with at least 120 innings and ERAs under 3.00.  (Houston, 2005 – Boston, 2002).  Finally, Kenshin Kawakami made 25 starts and pitched well enough to deserve a better record than 7 – 12.

The good news is that Tim Hudson returned from 2008’s season ending surgery to make seven solid starts and ready himself for a rotation slot in 2010.  The Braves even tested two other options – JoJo Reyes made five forgettable starts (7.00 ERA) while Kris Medlin worked four starts into mostly bullpen work and would be a nice fifth option or reliever.

In the bullpen, Rafael Soriano smoked 102 batters in 75.2 innings, and only allowed 80 baserunners saving 28 games.  Mike Gonzalez accepted his demotion with a vengeance and finished with 90Ks in 74.1 innings – providing the Braves with a devastating one-two punch to close games.  Medlin, Eric O’Flaherty, Jeff Bennett, Peter Moylan, and Manny Acosto also pitched better than average innings – one of the deeper bullpens in the National League.

Looking ahead, Vazquez is gone – but it might not matter.  Tim Hudson is back and looks great (he did in the spring), Jurrjens returns after two straight solid seasons, and Tommy Hanson gets to make 33 starts instead of 21.  Derek Lowe is still around, and the fifth spot could be handled by either Kawakami or Medlin without feeling any loss in skill.  That’s FIVE sold starters with a dependable sixth option.

The bullpen got a makeover when both Soriano and Gonzalez took free agent options in Tampa Bay and Baltimore (respectively).  Still – the Braves have options, signing a newly healthy Billy Wagner and bringing in Takashi Saito from Boston.  These two are old (38 and 40) but have been dependable for years.  Moylan, Medlen, O’Flaherty, and Jesse Chavez are able backups and Jo-Jo Reyes isn’t a lousy 12th arm in the pen.  He’ll be better this year.

Catching:

Brian McCann is the best hitting catcher in the NL right now – power, average, and despite troublesome issues with his eyes gets a few walks from time to time…  His backup, David Ross, isn’t chopped liver either – slugging .508 and getting on base to a .380 clip.  This is the best catching in the NL – offensively anyway.

Infield:

The Braves shifted from Casey Kotchman to Adam LaRoche at the trading deadline and got better production from LaRoche offensively and defensively – despite Kotchman’s reputation.  It certainly helped the Braves finish strongly.  For 2010, the Braves are giving veteran third baseman Troy Glaus a chance.  I’m not sure this will be an improvement, to be honest.  Glaus has had troubles staying healthy and hasn’t been a regular first baseman before, so this would be a question mark going forward.

Kelly Johnson had the job at the beginning of the year, but Martin Prado will carry it forward.  Prado can hit, he’s a tolerable fielder (no different than Johnson), so this should be a benefit in 2010.

Yunel Escobar remains a potent offensively player, and is improving equally as a defensive player.  He’s a good shortstop to own in fantasy leagues for 2010.

Chipper Jones is running out of years – injured more frequently and his batting numbers slopped, though he still has enough patience to help score runs.  Defensively, he’s not much – costing his team nearly 20 runs a year.  It’s time to find a replacement by 2012, wouldn’t you think?

Omar Infante and Brooks Conrad back up this unit – Infante has some skills as a hitter, but wasn’t very mobile defensively in 2009.  Conrad is getting his feet wet, but nears 30.

Outfield:

Garrett Anderson was a free agent signee and test drive who hit a little but couldn’t cover enough ground in left.  He’s gone in 2010, with his replacement, Matt Diaz, likely getting a full time job as a fourth outfielder and left fielder.

Nate McClouth came over from Pittsburgh when rookie Jordan Schafer‘s injuries interrupted his development.  McClouth can hit and isn’t an awful fielder, but he won’t make anyone forget Andruw Jones in his prime.  Melky Cabrera was added and may move McClouth to left and/or picking up defensive innings as required.

With Jeff Francoeur now a Met, the Braves are turning to rookie Jason Heyward, who is rated by many as the top prospect in all of baseball.  He may not have Francoeur’s arm, but he can hit and he has young legs.  It should be a fun season for jersey sales.

Omar Infante can cover the remaining innings in the outfield, and Eric Hinske arrives able to play corner outfield and infield positions as well as pinch hit.

Prospects:

AAA Gwinnett featured a lot of veteran hitters and a few pitching prospects – some of whom aren’t around because they were sent out in trades (Charlie Morton), or because they are on the team (Hanson, Medlin).  Boone Logan and Luis Valdez are good pitchers – might be prospects on other teams.

The best prospect at AA was Jason Heyward – after that it’s slim pickings.  Pitcher Jose Ortegano has control and is just 22.  He might make the bullpen in two years.

A+ Myrtle Beach features reliever Cory Gearrin, who walked just three and fanned 32 in 29.1 innings, earning 17 saves.  Gearrin was still good in 20 outings at AA Mississippi – and appears to have reigned in the wildness that marked his first two years in the minors.

J.J. Hoover, Dimaster Delgado, and Randall Delgado looked solid at A Rome, and are just getting their careers started.  Same with 2008 draft pick Adam Milligan, who showed flashes of power and a sweet bat at three levels. Too bad he’s not a third baseman…

Forecast:

Defensively, the team will probably stay the same.  The rotation is solid and can withstand an injury or two.  The bullpen is deep, but not necessarily capable of stellar performances.  However, the defense should be better in the outfield and middle infield.

Offensively, I’m not so sure, but I don’t see many reasons to think it’s going to be WORSE.  I don’t see how it’s going to be BETTER.  I think the positives and negatives will offset each other and the team will still score runs.  There are a lot of good hitters in their prime, and a couple of veteran bats and a deep bench.

As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if the team is still 100 runs better than their opponents, and win 90 – 92 games.  And, if the bad luck in decisions that seemed to follow them last year goes away, it could be more.  Will it be enough to beat the Phillies?  I don’t know.  But they should be a playoff contender for sure.  The system calls for 92 – 70, so I’ll go with that.

Puma Derailed By Calf; Cubs Sign Ryan to Minor League Deal

Houston first basemen Lance Berkman left last night’s game in the eighth inning with a calf strain.  He’s listed as day-to-day, but Berkman admitted the calf had been bothering him for a while.  [MLB]

Lacking “organizational depth” (Piniella’s term) in left-handed relievers, the Chicago Cubs signed former Toronto closer B.J. Ryan to a minor league deal.  Ryan will report to the Cubs’ Arizona training complex and if all goes well, head to AAA Iowa for seasoning.  [ESPN]

The Braves look forward to the return of Javier Vasquez, and think Mike Gonzalez is still a couple of days away from returning to the mound.  Gonzalez is struggling with elbow inflammation.  [MLB]

Texas and St. Louis are contenders in the Roy Halliday sweepstakes.  Personally, I’m not sure that Toronto should deal their ace away – it’s hard to find guys like Halliday, no matter how many prospects or players you might get.  Only one team has ever really turned this to their favor – Cleveland’s trading Bartolo Colon netted them Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips (since traded).  [MLB]

Boston is willing to eat shortstop Julio Lugo’s salary, and is looking for takers in a trade according to Ken Rosenthal.  The oft-injured shortstop has a year and a half left on a $9 million per season contract.  [FoxSports]

No news is bad news – the Mets remain unsure about the return of too many players.  The longer Reyes, Maine, Delgado, and Beltran remain on the DL, the worse my prediction that the Mets would win the NL East looks…  [MLB]

By the way, if you like tragedies, read Cliff Corcoran’s opinion on why the Cubs are miserable failures so far in 2009.  [SI.com]

Five more minor leaguers out of the Dominican Republic were suspended for steroid use.  Anybody surprised?  [ESPN]

Hurry Back!  Padre ace Jake Peavy lost his boot and is throwing a little.  Rehab begins now that Peavy got a clean bill of health from team doctors…  Milwaukee starter Dave Bush continues to struggle in his rehab, having suffered a torn triceps.  LA’s Cory Wade heads to the DL with a right shoulder strain.  Atlanta’s Jo-Jo Reyes gets a rehab stint in Gwinnett.

Welcome Back!  The Royals activated Alex Gordon and newly acquired shorstop Yuniesky Betancourt from the DL.  (I missed this trade while vacationing…  The Royals sent cash and a couple of players to Seattle to fill a gap at short.  Danny Cortes is a fireballer with control issues joining his third organization.  Just 22, he might benefit by becoming a reliever.  The other guy, Derrick Saito, is a Hawaiian reliever who was drafted out of Cal Poly.  He has skills and could make the Mariners happy in 2011.  Seattle filled the organization gap by signing Alex Cintron to a minor league deal.).  The Royals need a shot in the arm, and this could help immensely.  Colorado welcomes back reliever Manny Corpas.

Others coming back to the majors?  Blake DeWitt (Dodgers), Josh Whitesell (D-backs), Angel Berroa (Mets), Alexi Casilla (Twins), Garrett Mock (Nationals), Wesley Wright (Astros).

Others heading in the wrong direction?  Mett Belisle (Giants) and Tony Pena (Royals) were designated for assignment.  The Mets dispatched Argenis Reyes back to the minors.

Peavy Stays a Padre – Sox Crushed Twice in Loss to Twins, Too.

Was it that big a story? I guess so – but three of the top twenty baseball headlines featured Jake Peavy… Peavy, as you all know, rejected a trade that would have sent the Padre ace to the White Sox for four propsects, and a huge reduction in salary expenses, citing a desire to stay home and in the National League.

So, the White Sox went out and lost to the Twins 20 – 1.  Jose Morales, who caught the game, was sent back to AAA when it was over so the Twins could bring back Delmon Young.

Games to watch? Randy Johnson faces the Mariners in search of win #299. ESPN’s Steve Phillips say watch the long ball in the Phillies – Yankees series this weekend. Buster Olney says that the new Yankee Stadium is on pace for more than 300 (!) homers this year. (Olney’s blog is pretty complete, by the way. He relies on a big staff, I guess. I’m a staff of one.)

Joba Chamberlain’s knee checked out after being hit by a liner last night.  The Yankee starter left the game in the first inning… He may miss a start, but I don’t think he will.

Tony Gwynn, JR. scored the winning run for the Padres against the Giants last night. C’mon – that’s cool. Gwynn arrived in San Diego yesterday after being traded by the Brewers (actually, the Nashville Sounds) for outfielder Jody Gerut.

MLB.com is reporting that Alfonso Soriano may move to second base in the future, according to Cubs manager Lou Piniella. They need a shortstop with range and for Derrek Lee and Geovany Soto to start hitting, and this is what he comes up with?

Edinson Volquez hits the DL with a strained back, and Homer Bailey – a prospect for most of this decade – returns to the Reds. If it’s gonna happen for Homer, it’s got to happen now or he’ll be done as a prospect soon. And it’s not like he was smoking AAA, either. As for Volquez, it’s muscular and not structural, according to Dusty Baker.

Texas starter Vincente Padilla, expected to be an ace this year, hasn’t been healthy – he goes to the DL with a strained shoulder. Coming back from the DL is closer Frank Francisco.

Day-to-day? Jose Reyes (still) with what has been diagnosed as tendonitis in his calf. Chipper Jones has a foot injury (Bunions?). He’s hurt a lot these days. Bobby Abreu sprained a toe and will likely miss the weekend.

On the mend? John Smoltz threw three scoreless last night. Brandon Webb is healing, progressing slowly. Rick Ankiel might be close, but not close enough for a call up.

The Marlins are keeping the transaction fax machine busy. Alfredo Amezega is on the DL with a bruised knee. So, they brought up onetime starter Alejandro De Aza – for a couple of days. He’s back in AAA now. David Davidson was called up, and Andy Gonzalez sent back down. Then, they activated Cristian Martinez from AAA. Martinez gave up a game-winning homer in the eighth inning last night and was immediately dispatched back to AAA.

Atlanta’s Jo-Jo Reyes went on the DL with a strained hamstring, so Tommy Hanson was bypassed for his roommate – Kris Medlen. Medlen was awesome in the minors and may be a long term prospect, but he was swatted around by Colorado yesterday. Medlin throws low 90s with a mean change up and a breaking ball that’s okay. The Braves also placed Omar Infante on the DL with a broken left hand.

Toronto’s Travis Snider will get time to get out of his funk in AAA, as will Brewer Hernan Iribarren. Welcome back to the majors, R.J. Swindle (still rooting for him). Another prospect deemed not ready? Bryan Augenstein. He’ll be back.

Frank Catalanotto signed a minor league deal with the Huntsville Stars. He can still play.

2009 Season Forecast: Atlanta Braves

Atlanta Braves
2008: 72-90 (4th NL East, 20 games back)

This was my worst pick last year – picking them to win the division, only to watch the pitching staff get obliterated by injuries, and a couple of players taking steps back in production.  That being said, looking at the 2008 Braves, it’s really confusing to see a team that should have been better finish with a record totally unbefitting its reputation, manager, and its statistics.

Looking Back on 2008

Many people had the Braves to finish at or near the top of the division.  Bobby Cox’s team was fronted by two great starters in John Smoltz and Tim Hudson.  Tom Glavine returned home and Jair Jurrjens looked ready for his first full season in the rotation.  There was a decent power core in Chipper Jones, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur, some good young hitters in the infield and outfield – this was a very good team.  On paper.

And then the pitching staff was gone.  Smoltz made five starts and left without a functioning elbow.  Tim Hudson made it into August before his elbow went.  Tom Glavine never missed a turn for twenty years – he made just 13 starts.  Mike Hampton’s comeback stalled in spring training, he made only 13 starts.  Chuck James made seven starts.  Lousy starts.

For the first two months, the Braves were more than competitive.  Chipper Jones looked like he might hit .400.  Other hitters supported the cause.  But Smoltz was already gone and Glavine would follow.  Five games over .500 approaching Memorial Day, the Braves slumped in June and July and fell out of the race.  At that point, the Braves decided to become sellers.  Mark Teixeira was given away to the Angels. (For Casey Kotchman?  That’s all you could get?  Shame!)  Mark Kotsay was sent to Boston.  When management gave up on the team, the team gave up on the season, going 9 – 20 in August.

And yet, they still should have done better.  The team scored nearly as many runs as they allowed, 753 to 778, which means that with a little luck, they might have finished 78 – 84 or so.  This was especially problematic on the road, where they were outscored by only four runs, but finished 29 – 52.

Tell me about that offense

The Braves, even without Teixeria now, have a lot of offensive options but will be looking to fill a couple of holes.

The infield is led by third baseman Chipper Jones, who has improved his on base percentage each of the last two years because (a) he’s hitting better than ever, and (b) he’s drawing even more walks than he was in 2006.  As such, he’s now creating nearly 11 runs per 27 outs – one of the best rates in baseball.  At first base, Mark Teixeira produced runs at a decent clip until he was shipped out.  Casey Kotchman arrived and did not – hitting for a low average (.237) with no power (one homer a month).  Few teams can win when the first baseman doesn’t produce runs.  Kelly Johnson is a decent hitting second baseman; he has some power and a good eye.  Last year he hit 39 doubles and 12 homers, which are good numbers from someone who can hit first or second in the lineup.  Yunel Escobar didn’t hit .300, but he hit enough, drew a few walks, and finished with double digit homers.  Three of the four positions are solidly represented at the plate.  Even backup Omar Infante hit pretty well.

Like with the Marlins, the outfield didn’t do its job.  Matt Diaz fell from hitting .330 to .244 with no power and only 3 walks against 32 strikeouts in 135 at bats.  Mark Kotsay was okay but barely above average and his back is no longer dependable for 120 games anymore.  Josh Anderson looked like a better hitter when he arrived in August.  And then you have Jeff Francouer, who had a season he’d probably rather forget.  He’s gone from 29 homers to 19, and last year finished with 11.  His RBI count was down because his batting average fell from .293 to .239.  He didn’t strike out more often; he just couldn’t get good contact on the ball.  Gregor Blanco, Greg Norton, and Brandon Jones are all decent backups, but aren’t championship quality hitters or defenders.

Brian McCann is the best hitting catcher in baseball – high averages, good power (23 homers and 42 doubles), and good plate discipline, earning some walks and not too many strikeouts.

Defensively:

With the glove, you have a veritable mixed bag of talent, but nobody who really stands out.

McCann’s catching isn’t very good.  He makes a few more mistakes (errors, passed balls) than you would like.  Only two teams allowed more stolen bases (SD and WASH) and both of those teams play in caverns where it’s hard to bash your way to runs.  On the other hand, he’s still mobile and contributes a little bit.  With his bat, a few extra stolen bases aren’t going to kill you.

Both Teixeira and Kotchman have great reputations for their glovework, but you wouldn’t have noticed it from their stats where both were actually below average in terms of range (but both were great in not making errors).  Chipper Jones had a decent year – a better ratio of double plays to errors, as well as better range than in 2007.  However, he’s still slightly below average at third.  Of the backups, Martin Prado did the best, and Infante was no better than Jones.  Both Escobar and Johnson have slightly above average range, but make more errors than you would like – the signs of young infielders.

Nobody in the outfield was very good.  Francouer has slightly below average range but a fantastic arm.  Kotsay looked immobile in centerfield (-7.6 range) – in a half season’s worth of innings, he cost the team eleven runs.  Gregor Blanco is supposed to be fast, but you wouldn’t know it by his statistics.  He cost his team another twelve or thirteen runs.  Matt Diaz was their best outfielder and he couldn’t hit.

Despite that, the Braves were about league average overall in terms of turning balls in play into outs, and that was because the infield was pretty good.

Now Pitching…

Hudson and Smoltz were great, but as you remember, were short term pitchers.   Jair Jurrgens, in his first full season, was fantastic finishing with 13 – 10 with a 3.68 ERA in 31 starts.  Jorge Campillo was forced into the rotation and was above average in terms of preventing runs in about 160 innings.  Mike Hampton and Tom Glavine were slightly below league average but didn’t turn in many innings.  In total, the first three slots of the rotation (when you combine them all) were actually pretty good.  The last two slots, though, were really bad.  Chuck James had an ERA over nine in his seven starts.  Charlie Morton was forced into fifteen starts and had an ERA over six.  Jo Jo Reyes got 22 starts that the Braves wish didn’t happen.  Still – all told, the starters were about eighteen runs better than the average rotation, which was a positive.

The problem was the lack of a consistent bullpen.  A couple of options were okay – Jeff Bennett had a solid season.  But for every good option, there was at least one pitcher who negated that benefit.  Manny Acosta had a decent ERA despite having a lousy strikeout to walk ratio.  Blaine Boyer was the opposite – a few too many homers allowed, but good numbers otherwise.  Mike Gonzalez came back in the second half to record 14 saves, but had a high ERA.  Will Ohman and Buddy Carlisle had okay seasons, but Royce Ring pitched only 22 innings in 42 appearances and had an ERA of 8.46.  Like the rotation, there were more positives than negatives, though.

Forecasting 2009:

The 2009 Braves will see a lot of changes.  Gone are both Hudson and Smoltz.  Smoltz signed as a free agent with the Red Sox, who gave him a better guaranteed contract, while Hudson only recently started throwing and is hoping to pitch after the all-star break.  In their places will be Derek Lowe and Javier Vasquez.  Kenshin Kawakami comes over from Japan and will likely be in the rotation behind Jurrgens, who is the number three starter.  That leaves the fifth spot to Campillo, or possibly to rookie Tommy Hanson. 

Lowe has been a dependable starter for a long time; in terms of what he offers the Braves he will essentially replace Hudson.  Vasquez has been logging innings, but he’s mildly above average because he is a fly ball pitcher.  In Atlanta, he might fare a bit better – but he’s still a step down from a full season of Smoltz (not that the Braves got a full season from him).  Kawakami is going to be an improvement over Reyes even if he’s league average, and I am reasonably confident Jurrjens will not suffer a sophomore letdown unless his control gets the best of him.

The bullpen didn’t change over the offseason, with the hopes of a full season of Gonzalez and improvement from some younger relievers in the seventh and eighth innings.  If the Braves get more innings out of their starters than last year, that will be worth ten runs just not having to dip into long relief as often.  The upgrade to the staff is likely worth about twenty or twenty five runs.

Offensively, I’m concerned about the team’s ability to score more runs than last season.  Jones turns 37 this April and while he’s been amazing over the last three years, he hasn’t been healthy.  Casey Kotchman for a full season will be twenty runs worse (or more) than having a full season of Mark Teixeira.  So, the infield may contribute 30 or 40 runs less than last year.  Garrett Anderson has been brought in to play left field – he will be an upgrade over what Matt Diaz and Gregor Blanco provided, but he’s also long in the tooth and may need 40 days off over the course of the season.  And, he’s not an improvement defensively, either.  A full season of Josh Anderson or Blanco in center isn’t going to be that much better than what the Braves got out of Kotsay and others in 2008.  So, the key to the outfield will be a comeback season by Francoeur.  If he comes back to the levels of the previous two years – 100 runs created instead of 60 – and Anderson stays healthy and hits the way he has in the past, this gets the Braves to about the same level as last season.  I like McCann to keep producing for three or four more years.

The optimist says that the team scores about 750 runs and allows about 750 runs – that’s a .500 season.  A pragmatist might wonder about what having most of the staff pitching in the World Baseball Classic means to their rotation in September, and worries that the outfield will remain mildly disappointing, and even weaker defensively.  If you are Javier Vasquez and you see an outfield that doesn’t run down fly balls, you might be one frustrated pitcher.  For that reason, I don’t agree with the optimistic view, and peg the Braves to finish about 78 – 84.

Down on the Farm…

The Braves AAA club in Gwinnett, GA got most of the prospects up to the big leagues.  Josh Anderson hit .314 and stole 42 bases.  He’s not a free swinger, but doesn’t bring a big OBA to the big leagues, so if he makes it as the starting centerfielder, he probably bats seventh or eighth in this lineup.  Charlie Morton pitched well before being called up – in 79 innings, he fanned 72 against only 27 walks and didn’t give up a homer.  I think he’ll be okay as a long reliever while he figures things out at the big league level.  Most of the rest of the AAA roster, you saw at the major league level much of the last few years.

At AA Mississippi, what impresses you most are the pitchers.  Tulsa native Tommy Hanson went 8-4, 3.03 with 114 strikeouts in just 98 innings.  Some compare his slider to Smoltz.  Todd Redmond went 13 – 5, 3.52 with good control.  He has a chance to make the big league roster by the end of 2009 with a good season in AAA next year.  Closer Luis Valdez stepped up with 28 saves and a lot of strikeouts.  His control may be his only weakness.

Jason Heyward was the star of the A Rome Braves, flashing some power, running the bases, and looking like Francoeur’s replacement by 2011.  He’s just 19.  Fredrick Freeman also hit well, showing some power while playing first base there – he’s a month younger than Heyward.  So, if Kotchman is a dud this year, look for Freeman to be a contender for the job in 2010 – especially if Freeman continues to mature in AA.  Edgar Osuna started and relieved in Rome – he looks like he has tools to compete at higher levels.  Look for catcher Tyler Flowers to make it to the big leagues one day.  His batting stats look like a young Mickey Tettleton at A Myrtle Beach.