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The Atlanta Braves had a disappointing 2008, winning only 72 games and finishing in fourth place. But some of that was just bad luck. After all, the team’s Pythagorean record was 79 wins.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that 79 wins still would have left them 13 games out of first.

This offseason, GM Frank Wren started by trading for White Sox starter Javy Vazquez, a reliable pitcher who has a reputation for choking in big games but is a near lock to pitch 200 innings.

Next Wren attempted to trade for Jake Peavy and failed. Then he tried to sign free agent SS Rafael Furcal and came oh so close. Then Wren went after AJ Burnett, but that didn’t happen either.

So Wren went to plan D, signing free agent Japanese pitcher Kenshin Kawakami and Derek Lowe. Kawakami is a bit of an unknown and is being compared to Kei Igawa, but with better control. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but it’s especially difficult to predict how Japanese pitchers will perform, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

As for Lowe, truth be told he probably should have been the target all along, since he required fewer years and dollars and has a better injury history than Burnett. Sure, there are questions about signing a guy his age to a four-year deal, but he’s proven remarkably durable.

Unfortunately, while the Braves’ pitching should improve in 2009, the offense will likely be even worse. Remember, the Braves offense had Mark Teixeira for most of last year and his production cannot be replaced by a full season of Casey Kotchman, who doesn’t project as even a league average first baseman.

Then there’s the Braves’ outfield, which features RF Jeff Francoeur and his sub-.300 OBP, and a rotating cast of left fielders. Braves’ infielders were worth a combined 104.6 runs of offense plus defense in 2008. The team’s outfield was worth -81 runs. How Braves GM Frank Wren has convinced himself the team doesn’t need to sign an outfielder is beyond me. Who knows, maybe the price of free agent outfielders like Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu will continue to drop and Atlanta will be unable to resist. Anything’s possible, but for now the Braves seem to have reached their spending limit.

Added: Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami, Javier Vazquez, Boone Logan.

Lost: John Smoltz, Tyler Flowers, Brent Lillibridge.

Projected lineup, rotation, and closer:

2B Kelly Johnson
SS Yunel Escobar
3B Chipper Jones
1B Casey Kotchman
C Brian McCann
RF Jeff Francoeur
LF Matt Diaz/Brandon Jones
CF Jordan Shaffer/Gregor Blanco/Josh Anderson

SP Derek Lowe
SP Javier Vazquez
SP Kenshin Kawakami
SP Jair Jurrjens
SP Tom Glavine/Jo-Jo Reyes

CL Mike Gonzalez

Grade: B-

The Braves did well to improve their starting pitching, but they’ve got major questions in the outfield. I just don’t think they have enough to challenge the Mets or Phillies (or even the Marlins, for that matter) in the tough NL East.

-Hot Offseason Action index -

18 Responses to “Hot Offseason Action: Atlanta Braves”

  1. Sarah Green says:

    B-?? Really? I would not have given the Braves a passing grade, myself. Not only did they fail to materially improve their ballclub, they also offended Mr. Brave himself, John Smoltz, and sent him packing. As you yourself (at least, I think it was you) put it earlier this winter, it’s like their offseason strategy was to stand there slackjawed and keep saying, “But…wait…we’re the Braves!”

  2. Wow, this is like the first even faintly optimistic thing I have read about Atlanta’s offseason. I had been continually disheartened by the deals that fell through, and was just shocked when I heard about Smoltzy (my all time favorite Bravo). A mediocre offseason and taking key club players for granted just won’t cut it in the NL East. I’m afraid it might take years to get back on top. I mean it’s not entirely impossible, but I fear now the only hope would be some stellar mid-season acquisitions, a revival of Frenchy-Big Mac bats, and a healthy Chipper. The Braves Achilles heel has ALWAYS been relying too heavily on serendipitous heroics.

  3. Sarah Green says:

    They need to start keeping some of their young talent for themselves instead of trading it all away. The Braves have a great scouting system.

  4. Coley Ward says:

    I concede that from a PR standpoint the Braves’ offseason was a disaster. First they very publicly state their intent to land a big free agent pitcher, then they fail to land him, then they accuse Furcal of backing out of an agreement, then they accuse Smoltz of disloyalty. Brutal.

    But the truth is the Braves improved their pitching staff this offseason. True, they lost Smoltz. But we’re talking about a guy who won three games in 2008 and most likely won’t be able to pitch in 2009 until June. They were probably smart to let him go, even if it didn’t win any goodwill from the fans. Likewise, Lowe is probably the guy they should have been pursuing all along, rather than chasing Burnett, who required way more money and years and probably brought greater injury risk.

    Moreover, I think it’s worth mentioning that Atlanta still has one of the best farm systems in baseball (Kieth Law ranks them fourth), they were sixth in runs scored in 2008 (though that will be hard to repeat without Teixeira), and they play solid defense. So let’s cut them a little slack.

  5. Coley Ward says:

    Oh, and while I still think it’s unlikely Atlanta will contend in 2009, it’s not out of the question that they’ll contend in 2010.

    The Braves have Lowe, Vazquez and Kawakami under contract for 2010, and SP Jair Jurrjens will still be under team control. They’ll pick up the option on Hudson, provided he bounces back from Tommy John. And they’ll promote Tommy Hanson. That’s six very solid arms. The Braves can trade one of them for the outfield bat they so sorely need and all of a sudden they’re in business. Plus, by 2010 Jordan Schaefer should be manning CF full time.

  6. The Braves need more offense. No doubt about it. That offense can come in the form of a bounce-back season from Francoeur, a big bat acquired this winter, or preferably (if you’re a Braves fan)… BOTH!

    There are questions with this Braves lineup. That said, Coley has overstated the severity of the Braves challenges.

    This is a lineup with Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, and several other solid hitters… Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson, and Casey Kotchman (all 3 of whom will hit double-digit homers, a lot of doubles, 60-80 RBI, and hit for a respectable average.

    The Braves offensive woes were fueled last year by Francoeur’s struggles, and the fact that Teiexeira always saves his best work for the final 1/3 of the season (when he was no longer in a Braves uniform).

    If the Braves can get at least one of the two afore mentioned things (a Francoeur rebound or another big bat), the offense will be solid. Not GREAT, but solid. They’re also looking forward to seeing what top CF prospect Jordan Schafer can do as he tries to win the job this spring.

    Without more offense, the Braves CANNOT win this division. However, even if the don’t get the bat their looking for this winter or a Francoeur bounce-back, their pitching is now good enough to keep them in the picture up until the trade deadline, where they can take another stab at acquiring the bat they need.

    The Braves pitching is now the best in the NL East, and that will count for a lot.

    Not only did they add 3 quality starters (to go with Jair Jurrjens, who had an outstanding rookie season in 08)… but they also have the top starting pitching prospect in all of baseball, Tommy Hanson, who appears more than ready to make is ML debut this season.

    It the bullpen, they have Mike Gonzalez, who has quietly established himself as one of the most dominant closers in the game… and should see the return of the two of the best setup men in the league, Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan, who were injured most of last year.

    I agree with Dayn Perry’s recent assessment of the team. If the Braves get a little more offense and a healthy bullpen, they can win this division. If not, they can’t.

  7. Coley Ward says:

    KC, I think a Francouer bounceback is far from certain. And the Braves aren’t likely to acquire another big bat. If they do, then I’ll update this post.

    Also, I think it’s a stretch to say the Braves have the best pitching in the NL East. Is Lowe as good as Hamels? No, though I think he’ll probably prove more durable even at his age. Is Vazquez as good as Myers? I’d say it’s a push. Is Kawakami any good at all? We’ll find out, but if anybody tells you they know for sure they’re full of crap. Jurrjens seems like a good starter, though probably more of a back end guy. Glavine’s best days are way, way behind him. I think the Braves could have decent pitching, but they could have really mediocre pitching. I think the Phillies and Marlins staffs are probably deeper.

  8. Paul Moro says:

    Not to mention the fact that “a bounce-back year from Francouer” still isn’t worth much. they guy doesn’t create nearly enough runs. even in 2007 he was a below average corner OFer.

  9. I moved to ATL from Texas a few years ago, and have had many opportunities to watch this team play (though I think I brought the TX Rangers luck with me! lol). I work in radio and have had to pay fairly close attention to what’s happening with this team for the purpose of reporting on them. I’m just telling you how I see it. If we’re comparing the Phillies and Braves rotations, here’s my take:

    Hamels vs. Lowe: I agree, Hamels is better… but not by a wide margin. In 08, Lowe went 14-11, with a 3.24 ERA, and Hamels went 14-10, with 3.09. Both tend to rise to the occasion in big games.

    Myers VS. Vasquez… I agree, not much difference there. I suspect both will put up significantly better number than they did last year.

    But the Braves advantage is not at the top end of the rotation. It’s in the middle and bottom of the rotation.

    Cole, if you think Jurrjens is a “back-end” guy… then I now understand your perspective on the Braves pitching.

    Jurrjens just completed a rookie season that saw him win 13 games and post an ERA of 3.68 (better than the rookie seasons of young aces like Lincecum and Hamels). And it’s not fool’s gold. Jurrjens has an excellent fastball that he can run up into the mid-90′s, and devastating changeup, and 2 other good very solid pitches. A couple years ago, Jurrjens was voted as having the best control of any pitcher in the Tigers’ system, and he does in fact have near-Glavine-like control. I have also heard numerous people in the Braves organization RAVING about his makeup and maturity. He understands pitching, and wants to pitch to contact and keep the ball on the ground, despite having the stuff to run up his strikeout total as most young hurlers with his stuff try to do.

    Maybe Jurrjens will end up being nothing more than a middle-of-rotation or back-end guy. Sometimes even the best bets fizzle out. But from what I’ve seen… that’s pretty damned unlikely. I feel Jurrjens has already established himself as legitimate #2 starter, and certainly has a good chance to step up and become something more. If Jamie Moyer can continue to thumb his nose at Father Time, he’s certainly a solid starter… but I’d take Jurrjens over Moyer in 09, in a NY minute.

    Kenshin Kawakami was also a nice pickup for Atlanta. He’s won the Japanese equivalent of the CY, and has been compared closely to LA’s H.Kuroda, both in style and overall career results. Kuroda posted a 3.73 ERA in 181 innings for LA in 08, and the consensus among analysts in these parts seems to be to expect something similar from Kawakami. We’ll have to wait and see… but I’d bet on his being significantly better than Joe Blanton.

    As for the 5th starter… again Tommy Hanson is rated as one of the top few pitching prospects in baseball in Baseball America’s 09 prospect report and Keith Law’s Top-100 prospect list. I’ve heard more than one scout say they consider him to be the #1 pitching prospect in all of baseball. The Braves will decide this spring whether to give him a spot in the rotation on opening day or start him out at AAA (just to be absolutely sure they’re not rushing him in the slightest), but consensus seems to be that he’s ready.

    And there are number of other possible options for the #5 slot, from Tom Glavine (if he makes a successful comeback), to Jorge Campillo, who posted a 3.91 in 25 starts for ATL last year, to a couple of other ML ready prospects. I believe that whoever winds up anchoring the 5th slot is going to be significantly better than either Blanton or Kendrick and their mid-upper 5.00 range ERA’s.

    As for the bullpen, the Braves could wind up with a slightly above average pen, or the best bullpen in baseball. It all depends on the health of Soriano and Moylan (again, two of the best late-inning relievers in the league, when healthy, both of whom missed most of 08) and the development of Blaine Boyer and Manny Acosta. Boyer and Acosta both have closer-like stuff and should benefit from not being overworked and thrust into late-inning roles they’re not ready for (as they were last year after bullpen injuries).

    Unless sidelined by injuries, the Braves have a “Nasty Boys” type of trio at the back of their pen, and some other good arms to go with them. So I guess I should stipulate my earlier statement. IF the Braves bullpen IS HEALTHY, to go with a rotation that will likely include 5 quality starters… the Braves have the best pitching in the NL East.

  10. As for Francoeur, PAUL, you said he was a “below average outfielder”. Well, if you call .293, 19 homers, 105 RBI, 40 doubles, and a gold glove award “below average”, then I guess you’re right.

    Cole, I never said a bounce-back year was anything other than “far from certain”. Of course it’s far from certain. That’s why the Braves have been working the phones all winter to try and find another bat, and continue to do so.

    And I must disagree with your assertion that the Braves are unlikely to get another bat this winter. I’m not saying it’s LIKELY that they will pick up another bat… there are not a whole lot of options out there. But I wouldn’t call it unlikely.

    The Braves reportedly still have about 10 million (per) to spend. Neither Dunn nor Abreu are a perfect fit for the ATL (The Braves want a right-handed slugger who isn’t a defensive liability), but either would certainly help, and both seem to be slipping into a price range that force the Braves to consider them.

    And they’ve had multiple discussions with the Yankees about Nady, and have a few other ongoing talks about which the Braves refuse offer details. The Braves farm system was recently rated the best in the league by Baseball America, so they certainly have the trade bait.

  11. Paul Moro says:

    When that .293 AVG and 19 HR is accompanied by a .338 OBP and .444 SLG, then yes, absolutely it’s below average for a corner OFer. No ifs ands or buts.

    To his credit, he did do very well with RISP in 07. But then again, when you get 295 ABs with RISPs like he did that year, you’d better drive in at least 100. So you also have to give a lot of credit to Chipper, Tex and McCann who hit in front of him to give him all those chances.

    And Gold Glove means absolutely nothing until people like Nate McLouth and Michael Young stop winning them. Francouer’s by no means bad defensively.
    He’s pretty good, actually.

    And though I get the sense that this won’t mean much to you, Francoeur had a .337 BABIP in 2007. So he was pretty lucky to even post slightly below-average numbers.

  12. PAUL, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. No, .338 is not a great on-base percentage… but it’s not shameful either. Not for someone hitting in the bottom half of the order.

    As for the .444 SLG… not what you want from your cleanup hitter. But then, he wasn’t the cleanup hitter.

    So he hit a lot of singles… so what? However he did it, be it with a single, a double, or a homer, he was getting the job done.

    As you pointed out, prior to 08, he was one of the better clutch hitters in the league. Not just in 07, but prior to that as well.

    I just don’t believe that you can whitewash a .292 average and 105 RBI by quoting his SLG and OBP. And one could argue that his hitting behind Chipper and Teixeira actually made it tougher for him to accrue the 105 RBI’s he tallied in 07.

    And keep in mind that he also drove in 100 in 2006, and if you were to project his partial 05 season out to a full year… he was on pace to do it in his rookie season as well.

    I’m not trying to turn him into a slick fielding version of Juan Gonzalez. I just respectfully disagree with your assertion that he was a “below average” outfielder in 07. I don’t think you could find a single person in Major League Baseball that would agree with that assessment.

    He was very good. Not a superstar… but definitely a very good all around RF’er prior to 08.

  13. Coley Ward says:

    Maybe Kawakami has been compared to Kuroda. I’ve seen him compared to Igawa. You wanna bet that Kawakami is going to be an effective major leaguer? Go ahead. I’m not touching that bet with a 20-foot poll. Even the best Japanese pitchers struggle to adjust to our strike zone and the slightly larger MLB ball. Matsuzaka won 18 games last year but he led the league in walks.

  14. Well, I haven’t bet anything that Kawakami will be an effective big leaguer. The BRAVES bet 21 million that he will be, and I’m sure they didn’t do so without talking to a lot of scouts and doing a lot of analysis.

    There are always a little bit of risk when bringing a Japanese pitcher over. But over time, major league teams have developed a metric for determining how Japanese pitching stats generally translate to big league pitching stats. Using those averages in along with the counsel of the scouting dept. teams are able to set reasonable expectations for a Japanese pitcher making the leap.

    I only know what I’ve heard from Braves officials, one scout, and a couple of reporters I’ve talked to. And THEY could ALL wind being wrong. Who knows?

    But to go back to my original point, I would feel comfortable wagering that he’ll be more effective than Blanton.

  15. Paul Moro says:

    I would argue that it’s the reverse. Talking about his RBI and AVG whitewashes the importance of OBP and SLG which are the two most important offensive statistics in baseball. And they’re both below average for a corner outfielder. His Adjusted OPS was 103. That’s 3% better than the average NL player. Which, for a corner outfielder, is below average.

    The problem here is that we value completely different numbers so you’re right, we’re just going to disagree. But if his bounce-back number is a Adj OPS of 103, then I’m not going to think of him as a better than average player.

    And the idea that having great hitters ahead of you hurts your RBI potential is a myth. Like I said, Francouer had 295 ABs with runners on base, which was 11th most in MLB in 2007 and the most among Braves. So he had a lot of chances. That part’s not skill.

  16. PAUL, in the end, there are only two numbers that matter for a player. How many times did he cross the home plate, and how many times did he help is teammates cross home plate. Period.

    In both 2006 and 2007, if you add his runs and RBI together, you get a total of nearly 190. Pretty darn good.

    Any time your runs plus RBI put you in the 200 neighborhood… you are a fairly big run producer. And Jeff Francoeur WAS exactly that from the moment of his call-up through the end of 07.

  17. PAUL, also, if you’re going to measure how many hitters Francoeur had on base in front of him in 07, you need to do the same for 06 and 05, since he produced at the same level in those seasons as well.

  18. KC, RBIs and Runs don’t tell you nearly enough about one player’s individual accomplishments. They both rely heavily on teammates. It doesn’t matter how many homeruns you hit. If your teammates don’t get on base before you, you’re not going to rack up RBIs. And if they don’t hit behind you, you don’t score runs. Which is what makes OBP (being on base so your teammates can bat you in) and SLG (the ability to hit for power so you can drive your teammates in) the two most important statistics in evaluating one player. RBIs and Runs tell you more about who’s hitting ahead of you and behind you than your own abilities. This is an undeniable fact that lazy sportswriters refuse to acknowledge and continue to spew out to the general public. But if you’re not interested in this stuff, then, again, we’re just never ever going to agree.

    And regarding ABs with runners on: 278 in 2006 (20th in MLB). I’m not sure what you wanted me to do in 2005 since he only played 70 games.

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