Might Be Yankees Year; Giambi and Padilla join Smoltz on Released and Designated for Assignment List

I struggled to stay up to watch the Yankees-Red Sox fifteen inning masterpiece – a great game, really, with loads of amazing pitching and the best stained player of his generation hitting a game-winning homer in the 15th inning to win it.  You had Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett, former teammates in Florida, dueling it out before handing it to the bullpen.  And it was the bullpen of the Sox – heck, the pitching of the Sox, once touted for its depth and skill and now looking frazzled and weak – that finally caved.  The one time weakness, the Yankees bullpen, pitched nearly eight innings of beautiful baseball.  It’s certainly not over.  Ali looked like he would finish Frazier in 4 rounds in Manilla, if you remember, but Frazier gamely came back for more.  A war of this size cannot be won in a single series.  But the Yankees look like the best team in the AL East, and Tampa might be #2.  And the difference is depth – depth in offense and pitching, which the Yankees have now, and the Sox do not.

Speaking of the Red Sox pitching…  What to do with John Smoltz, he of the 8-plus ERA?  He’s been designated for assignment.  The Sox have ten days to trade or release him, and then Smoltz will have to figure out what he wants to do.  Should he head to the minors and work through it?  Should he take another offer?  Should he ride off in his golf cart into the sunset?  If so, he’ll have plenty of people to golf with – now that Maddux and Glavine also have free time.  The PGA Champions Tour will have to look out.  Smoltz is coming soon.  [MLB, SI, ESPN, FoxSports]

Just as the Cubs started rolling after the All-Star break, another pitcher stumbles.  This time, it’s Carlos Zambrano who was scratched from his start with a stiff lower back.  [SI]

And, the Dodgers don’t need this – Chad Billingsley tweaked his hamstring running the bases after hitting a single in the sixth inning.  Billingsley tried to pitch at the start of the seventh, but one warmup pitch later, he was done.  He’s start to start, but a DL stint wouldn’t be surprising.  [MLB]

Seattle’s Erik Bedard has fraying in his sore throwing shoulder – and will likely miss this season and if another MRI shows more damage, could require surgery.  [SI]

The Minnesota Twins could use some starting pitching, and Cleveland – who had given up on 2009 – gave them Carl Pavano.  Pavano will actually start Saturday for the Twins.  Cleveland put Pavano on the waiver wire, the Twins pegged him, so the two clubs worked out a deal.  Cleveland will get a player to be named later.  [MLB]

Baltimore also got a player to be named later when they agreed to trade catcher Greg Zaun to Tampa.  Chad Moeller was recalled from AAA to back up Matt Wieters.  [SI]

Most teams are looking for help.  Here are two teams that are moving in the other direction.  Texas designated Vincente Padilla for assignment.  Padilla hasn’t been in the good graces of Rangers management – and now management has ten days to trade, release, or send Padilla to the minors.  And, Oakland released Jason Giambi.  The 38-year-old slugger has been fighting a quad injury that has him on the DL – and now he’s got time to find a new job.  If he’s healthy, he might be able to help someone off the bench for six weeks – so somebody might take a flyer on him.  [SI]

Alex Rios was considered a franchise type player by Toronto.  Now, he’s been put on the waiver wire and according to sources, some team put in a claim.  Toronto can let him go (the new team takes on the rest of his $60 million in salary), or pull him back and make a trade offer.  [FoxSports]

Welcome Back!  Geovany Soto (Cubs), Darin Erstad (Astros), Rich Aurilia (Giants) all returned from the DL.  Chris Woodward had been released by Seattle – Boston needs a shortstop badly, so they signed him up…

Hurry Back!  Astro reliever Doug Brocail heads to the DL with a strained right shoulder.  The Dodgers got two starts out of Jason Schmidt before he headed back to the DL with a strained shoulder.  Now THAT was a good investment of $47 million… 

Welcome to the Majors!  Julio Borbon was called up by Texas.  He’s hit over .300 the last couple of years heading through the minors, but in cities that make people look like hitters.  He’s got some speed and won’t turn down a walk, but isn’t likely to get one because he makes so much contact.  He’s probably no better or worse than Willy Taveras (though he won’t run as often), but he is certainly younger and cheaper…

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Rain, Not Nationals, Stops Johnson… And Other Baseball Notes

Rain prevented Randy Johnson from getting a shot at winning his 300th game.  Doubleheader tomorrow – which makes me wonder if Johnson will face the A team or the B team for Washington?

Hamstring injuries?  Evan Longoria, Tampa, and Willy Taveras, Cincinnati.  Day-to-day.  Rox shortstop Troy Tulowitski’s hand will require an MRI.

I’d be nervous playing for Cleveland or the New York Mets – a DL trip is in your future.  Goodbye, Asdrubel Cabrera – 15 days to heal a strained shoulder.  Hurry back, Ramon Martinez – 15 days to heal a broken pinky finger.  Cleveland recalls Josh Barfield to replace Cabrera, while the Mets give Emil Brown a chance at a major league paycheck.

It’s not the swine flu, the Mets say, and Carlos Beltran should return to the lineup soon.  I’m not shaking his hand until next week, though, if Beltran homers.

Speaking of a bad case of the flu, Jake Peavy left his start after an inning yesterday and has a nasty virus of some kind.

You know the Yankees are feeling it when they decide to tempt fate and give Chien-Ming Wang a start and send Phil Hughes to the bullpen.  Both had been successful in their current roles, so why is Joe Girardi switching things up?

Tom Glavine’s release and an injury to Jorge Campillo opens the door to a Tommy Hanson start on Saturday for the Braves.  I’ll be watching – on the DVR later…  First, there’s this bachelor party…

Cardinal pitcher Kyle Lohse left his start against the Reds early – he has tightness in his forearm, near where he got hit by a pitch a few days ago.

Poor performances and a bad attitude may have Vincente Padilla on the waiver wire, according to FoxSports.  Officially, the Texas Rangers can’t say anything, but younger pitchers have fared better.

On the Mend?  Houston closer Jose Valverde feels great, and Tiger outfielder Marcus Thames is banging it around Toledo in his rehab stint.  Michael Cuddyer’s finger feels fine, which makes the Twins doubly happy.  Brandon Webb is throwing again, which is good news for Arizona.

And, buried at the bottom, Sammy Sosa says he’s going to officially retire, but remains mum as to his use of PEDs.

Atlanta Braves Release Tom Glavine

There are many sides to every story.

The Braves have the left-hander of the future in the minors, Tommy Hanson, and may not be willing to commit a roster spot to a veteran coming off an injury who (a) hasn’t really been successful in two years and (b) doesn’t have a whole lot of velocity left on his fastball (not that velocity made Tom Glavine the pitcher he has been).

The Braves may not feel the same level of commitment to a player who left for money and pitched for five years with the Mets, a team in their division; a team for which Glavine won his 300th game.

Tom Glavine hasn’t always sounded like he was committed to his rehab, saying once that if things didn’t look up, he’d retire anyway.

Though in his last two efforts, Glavine sounded like he felt good and was ready for one last ML shot.

And, I don’t think Glavine wanted to wait for a few more starts, and maybe a start at AAA rather than A to see if he could get better hitters out.  And something tells me that the Braves didn’t see eye to eye with Glavine as to his state of readiness.

And when all these forces collide, you get a news headline like this one and realize that you may never get a chance to see Tom Glavine pitch again.  It’s sad to see him leave, it’s sad to see him released, and I don’t want him just taking a job with someone like – oh – Washington because they need to find ANYBODY who can pitch six innings every fifth or sixth day for the rest of the season.  (I would guess other pitching starved teams in contention might give him a shot – like Philadelphia – before he’d sign with Washington.)

At the same time, getting released sounds so harsh.  There will be no pleasant retirement, with tears, surrounded by teammates and management and all.  (Who was the last long-time Brave to actually retire with the Braves?  Phil Niekro?)

Just a quick fax to the MLB offices saying it’s over in Atlanta for Tom Glavine.

Public Admonishing of Umpires

Didn’t get to watch any baseball last night as I was the emcee for the Norcrest Elementary School PTA Fundraiser. Jeanne was the chair of the event – I just stood on the stage and talked about some of the cool things people could bid on and announced winners. We raised about $13,000 last night, which is pretty cool.

The best item, probably, was a deal provided by Santana Moss, whose kids go to Norcrest and went to pre-school with Casey. He is paying for four people to fly to Washington DC, stay in a hotel for the weekend, and be his guest at a Redskins game… Top bid was around $2500.

The verdict is in – Carlos Zambrano will miss six games.

With most position players, this would be a two game suspension, but for starting pitchers they have to do more games because they have to make sure he misses a normal turn in the rotation. Frankly, this is unfair to the pitchers who then get docked six days pay instead of two days pay. Can we get a system that separates making the pitcher miss a turn in the rotation from getting whacked in the paycheck?

More unfair, however, is the umpire leaning in and causing the bump – it was totally inadvertant. Had the umpire backed off instead of leaning in and turning in Zambrano’s direction, the Gatorade machine is saved and cooler heads might have prevailed.

And, at what point should an umpire just challenge people? Back off, allow for a short vent, ask them to leave, and walk away. If the player or manager chases, then you have room to kick someone out. But sometimes you have to walk away. And, when the umpire is out of line – as he was here, and the umpire who pushed Magglio Ordonez out of the batter’s box, I want public admonishment from MLB.

Take last night’s fiasco between the Twins and Red Sox where a bad home plate umpire having a rough night missed a call at the plate and then had to run Mike Redmond and Ron Gardenhire – and THEN, because his strike zone judgment was impaired, ran Jason Varitek and Terry Francona. If four people are tossed, maybe the umpire needs a six-day suspension.

Todd Tichenor needs a suspension and the league should announce it.

The Phillies Brett Myers may have hip surgery, which would put the defending champs in a bit of a (Randy) lurch. Myers said in an interview that there was fraying in his hip.

Jorge Posada will be with the Yankees as they begin a series in Cleveland. Players who arrived early got to see a great basketball game last night…

Cubs utility infielder Ryan Freel went on the DL last night with a strained hamstring – not surprising since Freel does this every couple of months or so. Bobby Scales, who had been dispatched to AAA Iowa, was asked to turn the car around and head back to the park. Scales returned in time to hit a pinch hit homer in the Cubs loss to the Dodgers.

On the transaction list, Baltimore recalled David Hernandez from AAA Norfolk, gave him the start last night, and he won his debut. Hernandez can pitch. In the minors, he averaged 10.4 Ks per nine, he kept the ball in the park, and while he’s occasionally wild, he’s been dominating people the last two years. He had 60Ks in 43.1 innings at Norfolk. This is the kind of dominating performance you want from a propsect. I hope he stays – he’s a heckuva lot better than Adam Eaton. If you are hunting for a cheap starter, go get him.

Mike MacDougal, former Royals arm, gets a chance with the Nationals. Meanwhile, former Orioles closer Chris Ray heads back to Norfolk to find his stuff.

On the Mend? Tom Glavine had a successful rehab start. Annibel Sanchez was assigned to Jupiter (may have to find a night to see him pitch) by the Marlins. C Carlos Dominguez was sent to Bakersfield by Texas.

One Fan’s Agony and Other Baseball Notes…

Tough to be a Marlins fan right now… You start 11 – 1, then fall way below .500, now we’re watching a slew of players get shuttled back and forth between the bigs and either New Orleans or Jacksonville. Last night, errors and a dose of Matt Lindstrom led to a 10 – 3 loss (it was tied at 3 after seven)- and this on the heels of a 15 – 2 loss on Friday night. UGH!

My friend Steve Roberts came up with a great (Berman-esque) nickname for pitcher Reynal Pinto. “72” Watching him pitch, it makes sense – goes along nicely but it’s only a matter of time before something hits him and he explodes. Say it out loud… 72 Pinto.

The Cubs fan in me is struggling with the Cubs latest slide, as they can’t beat (or score on) the Padres. No wonder Piniella wants Hoffpauir in the lineup.

And, the Royals are on the wrong side of a slide facing the amazingly hot St. Louis Cardinals. My three favorite teams are all taking a beating.

How about the Mets? Can’t keep a healthy player in the lineup but they find ways to beat the Red Sox on back to back nights. Yesterday, Omir Santos homered off of Jonathon Papelbon in the 9th to win.

Let’s all give a quick salute to chemistry. A-Roid’s homer in the 9th off of Brad Lidge tied the score, leading to a 9th inning rally for the Yankees over Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Jason Giambi hit his 400th homer last night in Oakland’s loss to Arizona. (And a tough loss – leading 5 – 1 into the eighth, gave up four in 8th and lost in extras when they scored two, but allowed 3 in the 11th.)

I mentioned the Mets – last night Francisco Rodriguez’s back was so sore he couldn’t stand, much less walk. He’ll be out a few days for sure. It’s his first back injury, but apparently it was a doozy.

I mentioned the Royals – Luke Hochevar was sent back to AAA Omaha (bummer) and struggling Mike Aviles was placed on the DL with a strained right forearm. He’s had pain in that forearm since the spring, but the real pain was that .183 batting average. Willie Bloomquist is the new starting SS. Robinson Tejada also went to the DL (Shoulder Tendonitis). Coming back? Pitchers John Bale, Roman Colon, and infielder Tug Hulett.

Bale is returning after having thyroid surgery, while Colon is a reliever who had performed well in Omaha. He’s not a true prospect, already nearing 30 and having struggled in a few ML trips the last three years. He is a fly ball guy who gives up a few long balls… Tug Hulett is Tim’s son (Tim Jr, actually – Tug is a nickname). Tug went to Auburn, was drafted by Texas, went to Seattle, and came to the Royals in the off season. He’s actually an interesting player – very patient, has had good on base percentages, runs the bases well (96 steals, just 29 caught stealing) and has a little pop. It’s getting time for him to make it – got a cup of coffee last year and didn’t disappoint.

I mentioned the Marlins… Henry Owens is getting to rehab with Jupiter. The guy throws hard, but has no shoulder or elbow to carry the load. Good Luck and Hurry back!!!

Orioles starter Koji Uehara left last night’s game with Washington with a hamstring injury. Dave Trembley said he’s praying it’s not serious. It’s not like Baltimore has a lot of options for the rotation and many of their prospects are still a year or two away… They already lost a sold hitter to a thumb injury – Lou Montanez injured his thumb making a diving catch a few weeks ago and now is heading toward surgery, which would kill much of his season.

Cleveland placed Anthony Reyes and Aaron Laffey (taffy) on the DL. Jeremy Sowers (I said before, no prospect no matter what Baseball America thinks) and Rich Rundles get the call from Columbus.

The Angels put Shane Loux on the DL with shoulder tendonitis and recalled Rafael Rodriguez to log some mop up innings. He’s no prospect.

Rockies catcher Chris Ianetta is struggling with a hamstring injury. Michael Young’s injury was actually an ankle sprain and he’ll miss a few games.

Tom Glavine heads to Gwinnett for a rehab assignment. Good luck, Tommy. Won’t be many more of these to go and we’d like to see you one more time.

Couple of Newcomer Notes…

John Mayberry Jr. hit his first career homer in Yankee Stadium for the Phillies yesterday, a three-run shot. His teammates gave him the silent treatment in the dugout… Minnesota’s Anthony Swarzak, the Davie, FL grad, got the start last night and threw seven solid innings to beat Milwaukee for his first major league win.

Looking ahead to today’s games…

Cole Hamels vs. C.C. Sabathia in Yankee stadium. James Shields vs. Josh Johnson in the final game of the Florida Wars. Hope it don’t rain too hard there… Matt Palmer (5 – 0) faces Chad Billingsley (6 – 1) in LA – that’s a great matchup.

Vin Scully, Voice of the Yankees? Say it Ain’t So!!!

Carlos Delgado is out ten weeks to surgery on his impinged hip – the new injury of the new decade. The Mets can cope as they have a few outfield options and could choose to give one a shot at first base. Fernando Tatis for now. Still – this could be troublesome, costing the team about two to three games in the standings if they can’t find a comparable replacement.

Rickie Weeks went down to a wrist injury, leaving the Brewers with difficult choices in their lineup. He’s having surgery to repair a torn sheath – similar to David Ortiz a while back – and may affect his really quick bat. Weeks is a great fielder and a decent enough hitter who was really putting it together. For now, the Brewers look to platooning and may call up an infielder from the minors. Craig Counsell is probably the best fielder, but Casey McGehee can play some. This is probably worth five wins over the next four plus months in terms of lost productivity.

Eric Chavez’s back is REALLY bad – he said a degenerative disk is so bad that the next pop in his back will require fusing disks and end his career. One day after announcing that, Chavez has reversed that to some degree, saying that he hopes that strengthening and stretching will help, but he’s really just trying to avoid another surgery. Jack Cust has been playing third. As many other writers have reminded Oakland fans, they signed this guy to a six year deal for a LOT of money ($66 Million) and then missed more than two seasons worth of games…

Noah Lowry had problems with numbness in his hand and underwent surgery to fix issues in his forearm. That didn’t work, and now doctors are calling it a misdiagnosis of a circulatory problem and will be removing one of Lowry’s ribs – costing him this season, too. Once a prospect, Lowry’s career is on the brink as well. Others to have had this surgery? Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman.

Josh Hamilton came off the DL, strained his groin, and now is missing a couple of games and hoping not to go on the DL.

David Ortiz took a series off and will play today hoping to get his first homer of the season. Wow. That’s a sentence, huh?

Jason Kendall got his 2000th hit against the Cardinals. MLB.com, in reporting the story, says that his teammates celebrated by putting the honor on the labels of specially marked Bud Light bottles. BUD LIGHT? Not Miller Lite??? Either the reporting is wrong, or somebody should tell whoever put this together that the Brewers play in Milwaukee.

Todd Helton looked like he got his 2000th hit last night, but it was ruled an error. Some are suggesting that the official scorer may reverse that decision (it was a SHOT past a ducking Yunel Escobar). I hope they saved the ball.

Nate Robertson’s back feels better, but he’s not ready to pitch in a rehab start.

Speaking of Tigers, Magglio Ordonez is the second player given time off to attend to a personal matter (Minnesota’s Delmon Young is caring for his extremely ill mom), so Detroit is calling up prospect Wilkin Ramirez. Ramirez is a free swinger who can run some – but there are some odd things in his record. He gets caught stealing more than you would like, and he strikes out as frequently as you get advertisements for credit cards in your mailbox – at least once or twice every day. Ramirez was hitting well in Toledo, though, and earned the shot.

Pat Burrell is on the DL with a neck strain.

Glen Perkins is on the DL with inflammation in his left elbow, as is Oakland’s Dan Giese – though with Giese it’s his right elbow and tied to his ulnar nerve. C’mon, say it with me. He’s got some nerve!

Need saves? David Aardsma is the new closer for Seattle. Until recently, Aardsma’s biggest claim to fame was moving ahead of Henry Aaron for the first spot in your baseball encyclopedia thanks to alphabetical superiority.

The Mets’ Alex Cora injured his thumb sliding into second base and now is on the DL. Cora was playing because Jose Reyes has swelling in his calf (see Jose Valverde) and has called himself “day-to-day” for six days now. (What player on my team isn’t day to day???)

Speaking of day-to-day, Cincy’s Joey Votto has had dizzy spells following a bout with the flu and didn’t make the trip home because he couldn’t fly with the team, so he’s being watched in San Diego.

On the mend? Tom Glavine, Kevin Youkilis, Rick Ankiel, Ryan Ludwick, and Hiroki Kuroda. Glavine’s recent simulated game went over well.

Want a crazy story? Read this.  Says here that Vin Scully very nearly became the voice of the Yankees.

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.