Monday, March 2, 2009

Guide Preview: Atlanta Braves

It's a new week and that means a new division to preview for the 2009 season. We've already taken a look at the NL Central and the NL West, so we might as well finish off the National League by taking a look at the East. After fourteen consecutive first-place finishes from 1991 through 2005 (excluding the strike-shortened 1994), the Atlanta Braves have now finished in 3rd place or worse for three consecutive years, with their 90 losses last year being their worst showing since 1990. With an aging and slowly dwindling core of veterans and no true infusion of youth on the club, the Braves are in a tough position.

As before, this preview is meant to be a summary of what the three main baseball preview magazines are saying about the team's 2009 season. I've included quotes and other information from each of the them - Sporting News, Athlon, and Lindy's. I've also included some statistics about each magazines' success at predictions over the last ten years. Be sure to check out the Team-by-Team Season Preview index for other guide previews over the next few weeks.

My original intention was to completely refrain from providing any opinion. I was afraid that I would have too much to say about some teams and too little about others. But, after doing a few of these now, I feel like there's room for some personal commentary. I think it'll add a little bit of personality to the preview. But I don't want to make my opinion the focus of the post, so I'll put it near the end. Please feel free to ignore it; I've never claimed to be the most knowledgeable person when it comes to all 30 teams. With that said, on with the "combined" team preview for the...

Atlanta Braves
Last Year: 72 - 90, 4th Place, NL East

Since 1999

This YearLast Year
Avg Pred.Avg Finish
Sporting News3


* Sporting News average includes preview guides from these years: 1999 - 2001, 2003 - 2004, 2006 - 2008
** Athlon average includes preview guides from these years: 1999 - 2003, 2006 - 2008

Team Notes

After an unprecedented string of success in the 1990s and the first part of the 2000s, a 90-loss season is nearly uncharted waters for the Atlanta Braves. But that's where the club finds itself heading in to spring training this year. It's up to GM Frank Wren and manager Bobby Cox to get the most out of the roster, which should be helped some by having Chipper Jones and Brian McCann on it.
"After losing 90 games in 2008 and striking out with several high-profile personnel pursuits early during the off-season, it was beginning to look like the Braves would have to rely more heavily than they hoped on aging, familiar faces and some young players whose careers are yet to be defined. But after the January signings of free agent pitchers Derek Lowe and Japanese star Kenshin Kawakami, the Braves and manager Bobby Cox felt better about their chances of ending a three-year playoff drought in 2009. It remains to be seen whether the Braves have enough offensive firepower and whether their talented but surgery-scarred bullpen can stay healthy enough to help the Braves climb from fourth place back to the top of an NL East division they once ruled. (Athlon)"
The biggest asset that the Braves organization has is their young catcher, Brian McCann, a three-time All-Star already at age 25 and only the third catcher ever to have posted two 20-homer season by that age. There are very few players of his caliber in the majors at his position, and he has already taken that as a reason for leadership.
"McCann, though, has to be one of the cornerstones for [the Braves]. You've got Chipper (Jones) as the main guy, but McCann has kind of become the secondary leader of that club. I think it was a very smart move to sign him up for all those years (through 2012). He's pretty tough to pitch to because he takes the balls to the gaps. He stays on the ball. He's not a dead-pull hitter. He'll pull certain pitchers, but he's more of a reaction hitter to the pull side. (TSN)"
As has been the case for the past fourteen seasons, though, the heart of the lineup might hinge most on the bat of switch-hitting third baseman Chipper Jones who, at age 36 last year, posted the highest batting average (.364) and OPS+ (174) of his career. His fellow corner-infielder, Casey Kotchman, is also a key part of the Braves' hopes for the year.
"When it became clear that the Mark Teixeira experiment wasn't working, the Braves cut their losses and swung a deal with the Angels. Casey Kotchman, Teixeira's replacement, is a slick fielder and a good contact guy, but his .410 slugging percentage ranked 21st among 25 MLB first basemen. Across the diamond, Chipper Jones remains a hitting marvel as he approaches his 37th birthday. Last year, Jones became the oldest Brave to win a batting title since Ernie 'The Schnozz' Lombardi in 1942. (Lindy's)"
Spotlight Quote

Athlon's "Final Analysis" of the Atlanta Braves:
"No longer favorites, the Braves have seen how the other half lives. Since ending a run of 14 consecutive division titles, they have gone 235-251 over the past three seasons, while the Phillies have a 266-220 record and the Mets are 274-212. The Braves can improve upon last year's fourth-place finish in the NL East, but they'll need fewer pitching injuries and improved production from a few players who regressed in 2008. They made no significant offensive additions to a team that ranked 14th in the NL in homers in 2008 - and that was with Mark Teixeira in the lineup until late July."

I remember when, as a young kid, the Braves were the butt of all jokes. They were the worst team in baseball, and had been for years. But then the '90s hit and the Braves didn't have to worry about success again for almost 15 years. It's been a couple of years now since that string of unprecedented success, and that trend probably won't be reversed this year. I think, though, that Braves fans probably don't have to worry about falling to the 1988 levels just yet. With Chipper Jones and Brian McCann playing at All-Star levels, the team is unlikely to fall all that far. Plus, they're still in the same division as the lowly Washington Nationals, which is a source of optimism for the four other teams. But with the Phillies and Mets in the division, I don't think the Braves will be finishing at the top of the division in the next few years.


tHeMARksMiTh said...

As a Braves fan, I'm not too optimistic about this season. For the past few seasons, I've been very optimistic but have been disappointed. Without a true power-hitter, I wonder how many runs the Braves will score. I don't think they will be the worst, but can they score enough for a much improved pitching staff?

But the future does look bright. The Braves still have a top farm system that should help in the next few years. If Hanson, Freeman, Heyward, Schafer, and Hernandez can help and be productive, the Braves can be back to serious winning ways in a coupe years.

This year, though? I'm not too sure. But they have the potential to surprise.

Ryan said...

I feel bad for Teams like the Blue Jays and the Braves who have decent squads, but are really penalized for the divisions they play in. I think the Braves are good and may stick around the Wild Card, but no chance to win the 93+ it will take to win the division...

The Common Man said...

@ Ryan

The Braves were on the other end of that disparity year in and year out through until last year. I'm with Mark; this club looks pretty good in 2010, when Hudson's back full time and some of the kids establish themselves.

tHeMARksMiTh said...

Imagine this rotation: Hudson, Lowe, Vazquez, Kawakami, Jurrjens, and Hanson. You'd have to trade one and could probably get decent value. Still need that power-hitter for 2010, though.