As a Phillies fan, the Braves’ rotation is keeping me up at night. Derek Lowe. Tim Hudson (who just signed a three-year deal). Jair Jurrjens. Tommy Hanson. Javier Vazquez. Good god almighty, that is a solid five.
Oh, and don’t forget about Kenshin Kawakami, who posted a 3.86 ERA in 2009 and is under contract for another two seasons. He’s a pretty decent insurance plan.
Suffice it to say, Atlanta doesn’t need to worry about their starting pitching. What they do need to worry about is first base. And left field. And right field. And the bullpen. And Chipper Jones’ fragile, quickly deteriorating body.
Last season it took Atlanta a few months to figure out a lineup that could score runs. Once they realized Martin Prado was the answer at second base, and replaced Jordan Schaffer with Nate McLouth and Jeff Francoeur with Ryan Church, they were cooking with gas.
They also traded for Adam LaRoche, who provided his usual second-half fireworks. But now LaRoche is a free agent, and Atlanta is faced with the option of re-signing him and enduring his usual first-half craptitude, or pursuing another option. LaRoche’s first-half/second-half splits are real. His first-half OPS: .773. His second-half OPS: .909. Rather than bringing him back, a better plan would be moving Chipper Jones to first base. Jones’ defense appears to be slipping, but his bat is still potent. At first base he’d be more likely to stay healthy and he’d cost the team fewer runs on defense.
Who would play third if Chipper moved to first? Pedro Feliz will likely be available and nobody has a stronger, more accurate arm. Other free agents include Chone Figgins, Adrian Beltre and Mark DeRosa, but those guys will likely prove too expensive for the cash-strapped Braves. Melvin Mora and Placido Polanco are other options.
Last season, Matt Diaz played a big chunk of games in left field and did quite well. But Diaz is traditionally poor against righties and the Braves might want to keep him in a platoon. Fortunately, Atlanta has Ryan Church, who hits righties OK enough (.280/.353/.460). Diaz and Church can split time in left field, while rookie Jason Heyward can play right field if he makes the team out of spring training. Rob Neyer says, “Heyward’s first time in Double-A came this summer, when he was just turning 20. In 47 games he struck out 19 times, drew 28 walks, and posted a .446 on-base percentage.” So he’s going to be good. If Heyward needs some more minor league seasoning, Diaz/Church could shift to right field and the Braves could sign a free agent or trade for a left fielder. The AJC’s Dave O’Brien says not to dismiss rumors that Atlanta might trade for Florida 2B Dan Uggla and shift him to LF. I’m not sure I endorse that idea, but it’s one option.
Finally, we’ve got the bullpen. Between them, the Braves’ dual closers had as many blown saves in 2009 as Brad Lidge. That’s not good. On the other hand, their combined ERAs were still more than a run lower than Lidge’s. So let’s not go crazy bashing them. Mike Gonzalez walked a few too many batters, but mostly he and Rafael Soriano were just a little unlucky. The Braves paid them a total of about $10MM in 2009, and if they can sign them to similar deals in 2010 they should bring them back. Otherswise, there are plenty of free agent bullpen arms out there.
Ultimately, that’s all Atlanta needs. Shift Chipper to first and sign Feliz and you improve your infield defense. Create a Diaz/Church platoon, and you’ve improved over last year’s Diaz/Garrett Anderson platoon. Uggla/Heyward/Anyone-else in the other corner outfield spot is better than Jeff Francoeur, last year’s starting right fielder. A full season of Prado will be an improvement over a Kelly Johnson/Prado split.
The rumor is the Braves are going to trade one of their pitchers, most likely Lowe, Vazquez or Kawakami, to reduce payroll and land a left fielder with pop. I think the team should hang onto it’s pitching depth. They’re not the Giants. They’re not desperate for offense. They were fifth in OBP last season, sixth in wOBP, and fifth in runs scored. As for the team’s payroll situation, I’m not an accountant, but I don’t think my plan, which calls for signing one free agent position player (Feliz) and a couple of bullpen arms, is too extravagent.