The Braves felt pretty good about their chances entering 2008. They weren’t the only ones. I picked Atlanta to win the NL East. Hey, why not? They had Chipper Jones, who was coming off a huge year. They had the ageless John Smoltz and the resurgent Tim Hudson. They had a pair of promising, young middle infielders in Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson. They had Mark Teixeira, who was in a contract year.
Outside of a few bullpen questions, it seemed like a recipe for success.
Of course, through a combination of injury and extreme suckage, the Braves finished fourth. And my prediction looked a little silly.
In 2009, my hopes for the Braves aren’t nearly so high. But that doesn’t mean that Atlanta has given up on the season. Quite the contrary. Braves GM Frank Wren is trying to pull off a mega deal for Padres ace Jake Peavy. And he’s talking about landing a couple of big time free agents this offseason. Maybe Derrek Lowe, or AJ Burnett or Ben Sheets or Oliver Perez.
But even if Atlanta does succeed in acquiring two bonafide top of the rotation starters, the team still has some major questions, such as:
- Will John Smoltz be able to pitch in 2009?
- If so, will he pitch as a starter or a reliever?
- Will Tom Glavine return?
- Who will play left field?
- Can Jeff Francoeur rebound from a truly craptastic 2008?
- Can Wren improve the Braves’ bullpen?
- If the Braves trade Yunel Escobar as part of a package to get Peavy, who will play shortstop?
One thing is for sure: Tim Hudson won’t be pitching in 2009, after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Maybe it’s me, but I think Atlanta needs too much to go right in order to be competitive in 2009. Shooting for 2010, when Hudson is back in the rotation, seems like a much more reasonable goal. But even that is a stretch. Let’s say this winter Atlanta signs Lowe and Burnett. Then they’ll be looking at a 2010 rotation of Hudson, Lowe, Burnett, highly regarded prospect Tommy Hanson and either Jo Jo Reyes or Charlie Morton Jair Jurrjens. And who knows, maybe Smoltz will still be pitching? Never bet against him.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that, barring any major moves, Atlanta’s 2010 outfield will be led by Francoeur, who had a .294 OBP in 2008, Jordan Schafer, who will presumably be entering his first full year in the bigs, and a left fielder to be named later. Chipper Jones might be around, but he might not. He’s a free agent after this season.
In 2008, Atlanta was 14th out of 16 NL teams in home runs. That number doesn’t stand to improve this season, especially with Casey Kotchman manning first base in place of Mark Teixeira. Will it improve by 2010? Not without a significant shuffling of the deck, especially if Chipper departs.
Also in 2008, Atlanta gave up the fifth most runs in the NL. That could improve in 2009 if the team signs a couple of starters. But the loss of Hudson (and maybe Smoltz) could minimize the impact that any free agent pitchers make.
Here’s the problem as I see it: the Braves have enough money to add two impact players. But they need more than that. Even if the goal is 2010 and you assume that Schaeffer and Hanson will show up ready to play, you’re still talking about a team that has no real option in left field (last year the Braves left fielders were worth -34 runs), a right fielder who barely hits his weight, and a shoddy bullpen.
Conclusion: The Braves have little hope to compete in 2009, even if they sign two top starters. 2010 is more realistic, but only slightly. If it were me, I’d rebuild the team. But it’s clear Wren isn’t ready to go that route. Not yet. So he should sign a couple arms and cross his fingers that Chipper stays healthy, Hudson comes back strong from surgery, Smoltz is able to pitch again, Francoeur remembers how to hit and learns how to take a walk, Hanson and Schaeffer realize their potential, and McCann, Escobar and Johnson stay healthy.
It’s a lot to hope for.
UPDATE: Even though both sides continue to downplay the rumors, it seems likely that Atlanta will trade for Jake Peavy. And if they land Peavy, Fox’s Ken Rosenthal (via MLB Trade Rumors) says the Braves would turn their attention to former Brave Rafael Furcal. Furcal is a legit MVP candidate and adding him would be huge. But which is better, signing Lowe and Burnett and keeping Yunel Escobar, Gorkys Hernandez, Charlie Morton and Blaine Boyer, or trading those guys for Peavy and signing Furcal? I’m not sure.