2012 Season Forecast – Atlanta Braves

2011 Record: 89 – 73
Runs Scored: 641 (10th in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 605 (3rd in the NL)

The Braves actually played better than can be expected based on the ratio of runs to runs scored (estimated 86 wins).

2011 Season Summary:

Never really a threat to win the division (to my dismay as I predicted them to surprise many to win the east), the Braves were never really bad.  They could win in four spots of the rotation, but they couldn’t generate enough offense to make it easy.  Off seasons by Jason Heyward, Chipper Jones, Dan Uggla (he needed a 30-game hitting streak to get to .233 on the season), and anyone who played center field offset a bullpen led by Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters that held every lead…  Well, until the last ten days of the season.  Like their old cousins in Boston, the Braves couldn’t get that one or two wins that would have sealed the deal and wound up being kicked out the playoffs by the Cardinals.

Pitching:

The Braves have ample starting pitching.  Tim Hudson won 16 games and was well above average all year long.  Three others made between 22 and 25 starts – all were successful.  Jair Jurrjens, who is constantly on the trading block, was the best of the lot (13 – 6, 2.96 ERA), but Tommy Hanson and Brandon Beachy were both decent.  Mike Minor took on 15 starts and continues to improve – he’s nearly a league average pitcher now and could be ready for a rotation slot.  Only Derek Lowe struggled – he fell off the map in the second half – and has been dispatched to Cleveland to see if he has anything left.  The Braves even have prospects in Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado if needed.  Looking forward, the rotation could still be solid if not a hair better than last year.  Hudson and Jurrjens might take a slight step backward, but Beachy and Minor could be better and one of the rookies will most certainly be better than Derek Lowe last year.

In the bullpen, three pitchers had absolutely stunning years.  Closer Craig Kimbrel saved 46 games and was 16 runs better than the average pitcher in his 75 innings.  Set up man Jonny Venters was even better – 21.5 runs better than average.  The best of the lot was Eric O’Flaherty, who had a 0.98 ERA in just shy of 74 innings and saved the team nearly 25 full runs.  George Sherrill, Scott Linebrink, and Christian Martinez were also above average pitchers last year.  Looking ahead, it’s hard to see the Braves being BETTER than that – it’s rare to save that many runs over 70+ innings – so I think gravity is going to pull this team back some 25 runs.  O’Flaherty can’t possibly have a sub 1.00 ERA again, for example.  This will still be a good unit, but it can’t be THAT good again.

Catching:

Brian McCann is one of the premier offensive catchers in the game and his defensive skills are pretty good.  His backup Dave Ross remains dependable and adds a little offense.  As a unit, this is one of the three best teams in baseball behind the plate.  At issue is the fact that McCann may be the best offensive player on the team – but his best seasons seem to be two or three years ago.

Infield:

Defensively, an infield of Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla, Alex Gonzalez, and Chipper Jones is, at best, not bad but not too good either.  It’s actually better when Martin Prado plays third.  Offensively, they put up runs – and that’s one reason the Braves win games.

Freddie Freeman is going to be one of the better first basemen in the NL – already a fair fielder and an above average hitter, he will be an all-star for many years to come.  Dan Uggla has been a steady, dependable power source and is good on the double play.  Tyler Pastornicky is going to get every shot to take over at short, now that Alex Gonzalez has been allowed to leave.  Gonzalez gave you flashes of power, but his bat isn’t great anymore and his glove is now just pretty good for an old guy.  Pastornicky will have better range, but might not match the offense.  As for Chipper Jones, he’s nursing sore knees and has already said that 2012 will be his last season.  Defensively, he’s been problematic at third for a while but his bat has been good enough.  Now, that’s not going to be the case.  When Jones is gone, Prado or Eric Hinske will get innings.  It sure would be more beneficial if Prado hit closer to .300 than .260 as he did last year.

I think Freeman and Uggla will be slightly better this year, which should make up for the team losing runs at short and third – call it a wash…

Outfield:

I think that the Cubs have a weak outfield in terms of production.  The Braves aren’t much better.

In left, you had Martin Prado – decent glove, middling power, and slightly worse than league average production.  That’s LEAGUE average, not LEFT FIELD average – where you want someone who hits 20+ homers and might drive in 85 or more runs.  Prado went 13 – 57 – .260 with hardly any other benefits (4/12 SBs, 34 walks in 129 games).  If Jose Constanza can hit the way he did in 109 at bats last year, that wouldn’t hurt.  Unfortunately, he’s not a banger either – he’s a burner and could play center for many teams.

In center, nobody hit.  Michael Bourn will be there all year, but he’s never hit .300 and doesn’t hit for power.  Nate McClouth hit .228 with four homers and Jordan Schafer was less productive (and sent to Houston for Bourn).  A full year of Bourn will be better, though, than what the Braves had last year.

In right, you had sophomore Jason Heyward, who fell off the map after such a promising rookie season.  I don’t see him hitting .227 again.  He still shows some patience at the plate and his power remains.

The problem may be a lack of a plan B.  Eric Hinske remains, as does Constanza, but even a returning Matt Diaz doesn’t look to help much if a hole opens up in the outfield.

Bench:

Prado gives the Braves some versatility, as does Hinske.  Diaz can pinch hit and platoon some.  Josh and Jack Wilson are around, but don’t offer much offense (and Jack is getting up there in years) and both are losing defensive skills, too.  Ross is good behind the plate.  It’s a full bench, but maybe not a great one.

Prospects:

The top prospects in AAA mostly made it for cups of coffee last year, including Constanza, Teheran and Pastornicky.  The one who didn’t was undrafted first baseman Mauro Gomez, who might be able to help out.  I don’t have a read on his glove, but he’s a decent power bat – might hit .250 with 20 homers in the big leagues.  He just doesn’t have a place to play here.  Another guy who wouldn’t kill you might be pitcher Todd Redmond, who had decent numbers at AAA Gwinett, going 10 – 8 with 142 Ks and just 47 walks in 169.2 innings.  The problem is that he’s been at AAA for three years now and he’s probably going to have to get a shot somewhere else as he’s not high on the prospect list.

The best hitter in AA isn’t high on the prospect lists either – that’s 26 year old Ernesto Mejia, who has stats like Mauro Gomez and, thus, has nowhere to play.  Some like infielder Mykal Jones, but he’s not going to replace Pastornicky any time soon.  Pitchers Arodys Vizcaino and Randall Delgado got shots – they have major league stuff and are just kids.  Another good arm might be Brett Oberholtzer, who is close but needs more strikeouts to move up more quickly.  Reliever Billy Bullock has quite the arm, but lacks in control (65Ks, 34BBs in 49.2 innings).

A+ Rome features catcher Joe Terdoslavich, a power hitter who had 52 doubles to go with 20 homers. A one-time former #1 pick, Cory Rasmus has the stuff, but needs to find the strike zone more frequently – and stay healthier.

2012 Forecast:

I think the offense can be 25 runs better than last year – might even be more than that – because Bourn is here all year and Heyward will be better.  On the other hand, I think that the gravitational pull that will be working against the bullpen will equally offset that 25 run gain.  Throw in the fact that two other teams may well be challenging for the top spot in the NL East, the Braves will be lucky to finish with 85 wins, which might be third or fourth in this division.

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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.

Top NL Second Basemen in 2009

Chase Utley (PHI):  One of the ten most valuable players in all of baseball, Utley hits for a decent average, power, works the count to get on base, steals bases and is among the best fielders at his position.  Not counting first basemen, I have Utley at just a shade more valuable than Robinson Cano and Aaron Hill as the most valuable infielder in the game.  While it pains me to say it, he might be more valuable than Ryne Sandberg in his prime.  Sandberg never had a .400 OBP – that’s for sure.  Part of the reason is because Utley gets hit by a lot of pitches – between 24 and 27 each of the last three years.  He doesn’t walk more often than Sandberg did.  That might be the only advantage…

That being said, Utley has been in a minor (graceful) slide for two seasons now and he’s already 31.  He didn’t establish himself as a major leaguer until 2004 when he was 25 years-old.  His walks total sprung forward a bit last season, compensating for a lower batting average.  I’m NOT predicting doom and gloom here – I’m just saying that he’s not going to be the first second baseman to hit 400 career homers or drive in 1500 runs.  And, even if he slides down to .270 and 20 homers, he’s going to have value.  And only one other guy in the NL is even CLOSE to that kind of productivity.  (119.3 Runs Created, 18.2 Runs Saved = 137.53 Total Run Production)

Brandon Phillips (CIN):  One of the great ones, and lost in a Reds organization that hasn’t put much of a run together for a playoff run.  One hopes this happens before he runs out of gas.  Anybody out there remember that Phillips was traded to the Reds for pitcher Jeff Stevens in 2006?  Jeff Stevens finally made it to the bigs with the Cubs last year and got pounded in 11 appearances.  Who did Cleveland have that was better?  (92.6 Runs Created, 13.5 Runs Saved = 106.15 Total Run Production)

Orlando Hudson (LAD):  Now in Minnesota.  I was reading a Joe Posnanski comment where he, like me, wondered why nobody seems to want this guy.  The Dodgers benched him to play Ronnie Belliard – is that for real?  Gets on base, plays a solid second base.  Anybody should LOVE to have this guy on the roster.  (90.8 Runs Created, 12.3 Runs Saved = 103.10 Total Run Production)

I don’t know where you stand on this, but the Dodgers are taking a step back here in 2010.  Ronnie Belliard hits okay but he doesn’t have Hudson’s dependable glove.  Backing him up will be Jamey Carroll, who isn’t in either guy’s league.  Behind that is Blake DeWitt, who looked like a major leaguer in 2008 but didn’t play like one in 2009 and was shifted back and forth between the majors and AAA as often as anybody last year.  I’m betting DeWitt will have this job by July, or the Dodgers will try to get somebody for the stretch run.

Felipe Lopez (ARI/MIL):  Milwaukee got him to cover for Rickie Weeks when Weeks went down and he played great.  High batting average, a few walks, a little power and league average defender.  In the NL, that makes you a valuable commodity.  As of 2/15, still didn’t have a job – which makes no sense to me…  The Mets or Cardinals would LOVE to have this guy, wouldn’t you think? (98.6 Runs Created, -4.2 Runs Saved = 94.4 Total Run Production)

Juan Uribe (SF):  Nobody was a regular at this position in 2009 for the Giants, and defensively Uribe wasn’t as strong at second has he had been in the past.  However, if he had a full time job at this position, he would likely rank here.  There’s no way that Emmanuel Burriss is better than Uribe and, to be honest, I think Uribe is one of the most underrated players of the last decade.  Hits for power, decent average, usually a good glove.  (64.6 Runs Created, 10.9 Runs Saved = 75.53 Total Run Production)

Kaz Matsui (HOU):  Starting to show signs of age but still has some value because of his defense.  Doesn’t put runs on the board, though…  The AL is LOADED with good second basemen, but the NL’s top six isn’t in their league…  (56.9 Runs Created, 15.3 Runs Saved = 72.15 Total Run Production)

Dan Uggla (FLA):  The opposite of Matsui – a run producer despite the low batting average.  Last year his range, which had been tolerable the last couple of years, fell off the map and I don’t think he’s going to turn it around and field like Chase Utley any time soon.  My son’s favorite player…  (86.7 Runs Created, -15.3 Runs Saved = 71.39 Total Run Production)

Clint Barmes (COL):  Power doesn’t make up for not getting on base (.298 OBP) but I’m not sure that Colorado has better options.  Had a decent enough year with the glove…  (65.9 Runs Created, 4.2 Runs Saved = 70.08 Total Run Production)

Martin Prado (ATL):  Hit better than Kelly Johnson, but was a liability with the glove.  Room to improve, though, and if he hits .300 with moderate power as he did last year, the Braves will appreciate the help.  (79.7 Runs Created, -10.2 Runs Saved = 69.53 Total Run Production)

Freddy Sanchez (PIT/SF):  If he hits .344, as he did in 2006, he has value.  If he hits .270, his lack of walks and doubles power isn’t creating that many runs.  He was a pretty good defensive third baseman, but just about league average at second base.  And he’s hurt.  The Giants don’t need that kind of problem right now.  (63.6 Runs Created, -1.2 Runs Saved = 62.4 Total Run Production)

David Eckstein (SD):  In my mind, he’s the replacement level second baseman – and yet he was the eighth most productive second baseman in the NL last year.  Doesn’t really get on base a lot, doesn’t really hit for a good average, and doesn’t have any power at all.  (63.3 Runs Created, -3.8 Runs Saved = 59.49 Total Run Production)

Luis Castillo (NYM):  Came back some as a hitter last year, but his range is slipping and it’s time to look for some younger legs.  I’d want him around as a bench guy, don’t get me wrong – he’s still got some playing time left.  He gets on base and can still run the bases.  Two years away from 2000 career hits – and I’d say he’s going to get them and be done…  (71.9 Runs Created, -13.1 Runs Saved = 58.82 Total Run Production)

Skip Schumaker (STL):  Hits like Castillo without the baserunning skills, and – as an outfielder forced to play second base – looked very out of position with the glove.  Despite that, he provided some value for a team that had too many outfielders and no infield depth and can be a #2 hitter and not embarrass the lineup any because he hits doubles and gets on base.  I don’t think he’ll last for long as a starter, but LaRussa may keep him in the majors for another decade.  (79.9 Runs Created, -24.6 Runs Saved = 55.30 Total Run Production)

Jeff Baker (CHC):  His defense was better than Mike Fontenot, and his batting was more productive.  Combined, the two would rank between Lopez and Uribe on the list…  I don’t know if Baker could hit .305 over 500 at bats, but if he fields this well, the Cubs would LOVE it if he hit .270 in the eighth spot in the lineup.  (31.2 Runs Created, 14.2 Runs Saved = 45.38 Total Run Production)

Mike Fontenot (CHC):  Ordinary fielder, less than ordinary hitter.  About to become a utility infielder for the rest of his career.  (41.2 Runs Created, -0.3 Runs Saved = 40.92 Total Run Production)

Kelly Johnson (ATL):  I always thought he was underappreciated.  League average fielder, gets on base.  But, he never got out of Bobby Cox’s dog house and when he stopped getting hits last year, he lost his job to Martin Prado.  Even hitting .224, he was near the league average in terms of runs created per 27 outs because he draws walks and hits for some power.  Now the Arizona second baseman, I think he’s going to bounce back fine.  (39.2 Runs Created, -1.0 Runs Saved = 38.14 Total Run Production)

Delwyn Young (PIT):  Inherited the job Freddy Sanchez left behind and needs to make some improvements to move far up this list.  Hits about as well as Johnson did, but didn’t field well in limited innings.  I’d like to give him 1000 innings and see what happens.  I just don’t see Young having a long career – he’s already 29 and hasn’t made it yet.  Besides, the Pirates signed Akinori Iwamura for 2010 and unless he’s lost a step following that catastrophic knee injury, he’ll be the starter.  (43.7 Runs Created, -5.7 Runs Saved = 38.00 Total Run Production)

Ronnie Belliard (LAD):  Hot bat after arriving in LA gave him the Dodgers job down the stretch.  He has always been a hitter, but his range is not what you would want for the position and the Dodger pitchers will want Hudson back.  (42.3 Runs Created, -7.3 Runs Saved = 35.00 Total Run Production)

Rickie Weeks (MIL):  Won’t rank this low if he plays a full season.  Not a GREAT leadoff hitter, but he has pop in the bat and holds his own with the glove.  In a full season, he’s probably rank about fifth in the league.  I’m a fan.  (27.8 Runs Created, -0.7 RUns Saved = 27.02 Total Run Production)

Anderson Hernandez (WAS):  Got a chance and played himself out of a job by not hitting or fielding well enough to be a regular.  Adam Kennedy moves to the Nationals after a fine season in Oakland.  (23.8 Runs Created, -4.2 Runs Saved = 19.56 Total Run Production)

Emmanuel Burriss (SF):  May still get playing time while Sanchez heals.  I don’t know why.  (17.2 Runs Created, 1.6 Runs Saved = 18.87 Total Run Production)

Smoltz For the Birds; Votto’s Struggles Continue

John Smoltz joined the Cardinals yesterday and will open this weekend as the fifth starter against San Diego.  The reason Smoltz is getting a start is to get him some innings and give the team a chance to see what Smoltz has left.  After two or three starts, Smoltz may stay in the rotation or move to the bullpen.  [ESPN]

Cincinnati’s Joey Votto’s 2009 season continues to provide new challenges.  First, it was dizziness caused by inner ear infections, followed by a DL stint to deal with anxiety and depression.  Now, Votto left a game with blurred vision.  He’s day-to-day.  [ESPN]

Cleveland prospect Matt LaPorta will get another shot with the big league club as Trevor Crowe needs a DL stint to deal with an oblique strain.  LaPorta struggled in a previous call up and needs to demonstrate why he was the centerpiece of last year’s C.C. Sabathia deal.  [SI]

Milwaukee sent outfielder Bill Hall to Seattle for minor league reliever Ruben Flores.  Gordon Ash, Brewers GM, admits that this is a cost saving move.  [SI]

Los Angeles signed Vincente Padilla – who now heads to Albuquerque to make a warm up start before taking Hiroki Kuroda’s spot in the rotation.  [SI]

FoxSports reported that D-Backs starter Jon Garland cleared waivers, meaning any team willing to absorb a few million dollars for a six week stretch run can consider adding Garland to their roster.  [FoxSports]

Houston’s Mike Hampton has a partially torn rotator cuff, but isn’t getting another operation and hopes to pitch one more time this season.  [ESPN]

Mets reliever Billy Wagner is ready to make his return from Tommy John surgery, but if he gets a shot with New York, it’s as an audition…  The Mets are looking to move Wagner before the waiver trading deadline (8/31).  Wagner has a lot of money left on his final contract year and becomes a free agent for 2010.  Again – the Marlins could use someone for the stretch run and it would be a gas if he had anything left…  [ESPN]

Braves infielder Martin Prado is suffering from exertional headaches and is hoping that inflammatory medicines help reduce the strain.  [MLB]

Hurry Back! Willy Taveras (CIN) goes to the DL with a strained left quad.  Everyday Eddie Guardado (TEX) heads to the DL with a strained knee.

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.