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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.