Sunday, February 22, 2009

Atlanta Braves Preview

Overview: In 2008, the Atlanta Braves ended their season at 72-90, their worst finish since 1990, the year before rattling off 14 consecutive division titles. The Braves seem to have reloaded themselves through trades and free agent acquisitions this offseason, uncharacteristic to their usual development of prospects, though with all out battle projected to occur throughout spring training between Jordan Schafer, Gregor Blanco, Brandon Jones and Josh Anderson there is plenty of youth looking to burst onto the scene in the 2009 season. The Braves do look like a team that will be very competitive in the division that produced the 2008 World Series Champions.

Starting Pitching: Their strength in 2009 is going to be their greatest weakness from 2008. The Braves starting rotation is looking very deep with new acquisitions Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami couples with Jair Jurrjens and Tom Glavine. Lowe and Vazquez are proven durable starters and will give the top of the Braves rotation some great innings and set up the bullpen for success. It would make sense to me that Vazquez is primed for the best season now that he is back in the National League where offense is at a premium. He finished 3rd in the AL in strikeouts in 2008, and from a fantasy perspective, he should throw a for few more this season. Lowe will be a solid contributor, though his defense may hurt him from time to time as he averages better than 60% groundballs to flyballs. He throws for strikes now, better than earlier in his career and has managed his demons better than when he was in Boston. The fans in Atlanta will be very supportive of him and he should be in great position to put together some strong years for the Braves. If history proves to repeat itself with Kenshin Kawakami, a veteran Japanese starting pitcher, he will put together a strong start to the season and then once offenses figure out his stuff, he will struggle towards the end of the season (see every Japanese starting pitcher's first season numbers). Kawakami will need to be prepared to adapt. Jair Jurrjens could develop well this season with Javier Vazquez pitching in front of him. The two have similar styles and demeanor's, each could end up with 15+ wins as well. The Braves finish the rotation with Tom Glavine. It will be nice to see him finish his career in a Braves uniform, but I don't see him pitching long into the season with arm troubles highlighting the twilight of his career. Jorge Campillo, Charlie Morton and Tommy Hanson will be ready to throw and Tim Hudson could be ready to go in September. Remember Jorge Campillo finished last season with a 8-7 record and a 3.91 ERA, the Braves are loaded with pitching depth after last season's debacle.

The bullpen also looks to be a strength. Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano and Manny Acosta all recorded saves for the Braves in 2008. This season, Mike Gonzalez should be taking the ball in the 9th each time. He carries a history of arm trouble, as does Soriano, but the depth with other quality bullpen arms will be able to allow Bobby Cox to keep their arms fresh.

Offensively, the Braves just picked up Garrett Anderson this past week, which makes their depth in the outfield pretty solid. Anderson and Matt Diaz promise to be a very good platoon capable of hitting .300, 30,100 and only providing the Braves with a $5,000,000 price tag. Jeff Francoeur will be getting the majority of at-bats in right-field, but if he does not return to form, it won't be long before younger players mentioned at the beginning get a look. It has been said that Josh Anderson is in the lead for the opening in centerfield after hitting .294 (.334OBP) in limited at-bats in 2008. Gregor Blanco and Jordan Shafer will also get looks for this job. The rest of the team is pretty well set with Brian McCann, Chipper Jones and Casey Kotchmann looking like they will be a solid heart of the order. Yunel Escobar looks like he has the opportunity to grow to become an Edgar Renteria-type player, which would be a lift to the offense, with Kelly Johnson next to him at second. Johnson is potentially the weakest link on this offense (assuming Francoeur returns to form). Johnson's numbers all fell in 2008 and he plays poor defense. It won't take long for Martin Prado to take at-bats away from Johnson. Prado hit .320 in 2008 and will be one of the strongest assets to Bobby Cox's bench in 2009. Prado, David Ross, Greg Norton, Omar Infante, Anderson/Diaz should complete the bench. This will be a strength for the
Braves as Bobby Cox can mix and match well with this group.

PECOTA predicts the Braves and Phillies to tie for 2nd in the NL East at 90-72. I predict that the Braves could do a bit better than that record and be in position to finish the season stronger than the Mets or Phillies with the pending return of Tim Hudson. Their major weaknesses will be defense and the lead-off spot in the lineup. This team is going to be built on solid pitching and the offense will put the Braves in position for wins each night. This is not too much of a stretch as the top three teams in the NL East are going to be close, but I predict the Braves to resume their dominance of the in 2009 by winning the division.

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