Five Questions: Atlanta Braves

Braves fans are in a familiar position this year, with the departure of several key players threatening to put the team’s division title streak in jeopardy. 2004 looked to be the end for real with the losses of Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, and Greg Maddux. The trio was replaced by the glass-jawed J.D. Drew, the previously anemic bat of Johnny Estrada, and John “yawn” Thomson. With the media once again predicting the end of the reign, Braves fans had reason to listen. Clearly, John Schuerholz, Bobby Cox, and Leo Mazzone must know something we don’t. Estrada made the All-Star team (deservedly), J.D. just missed it (undeservedly), and Thomson matched Mad Dog is almost every category. In addition, the Braves received unexpected production from Jaret Wright, Antonio Alfonseca, Charles Thomas, and Eli Marrero.

This year the Braves start the season without last season’s best players on offense and defense: Drew and Wright. Solid contributors Thomas, Marrero, Alfonseca, Paul Byrd, Russ Ortiz, and Juan Cruz are gone, as well. The big positive changes are the additions of Tim Hudson and John Smoltz to the rotation with Danny Kolb stepping in to take over Smoltz’s closing role. But, the acquisitions of Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi to cover the outfield corners don’t seem to constitute a good-faith effort to replace what was lost. In this sense, the Braves look to be in a situation that is slightly worse than last year on offense, with some improvement on defense.

But this year’s situation is much different when you look at the whole organization. Last year’s opening day roster included Jesse Garcia, Mike Hessman, Dewayne Wise, Will Cunnane, and C.J. Nitkowski … yuck. All of these players spent much of the season in Triple-A or being cut. This year, the depth of the club is greatly improved, with some real competition over who will get the last roster spots. The Braves have already sent Kelly Johnson, Billy McCarthy, Kyle Davies, and super-stud prospect Andy Marte to Triple-A. Wilson Betemit and Pete Orr are still fighting it out for the final infield slot on the big club. All of these players are far better than the reserves who made the team last year. So, how does this whole club stand up? Let’s go to the questions.

1. Can this outfield work?

Geezers on the Corners

So, Schuerholz, you lose an MVP-quality outfielder in right field and a productive platoon in left, what do you do? Sign a border-line headcase, and roll out a formerly adequate outfielder who was a fan favorite. Schuerholz spent a measly $1.6 million on free agent replacements for the outfield; now, that’s being thrifty. And you thought Billy Beane is playing Moneyball? According to press reports Mondesi is in great shape. Whether this new athletic commitment translates to good performance on the field is another question. Even if Mondesi doesn’t pull a Bobby Fischer, having him in right field may not yield that much production. He’s 34, and two years ago he posted an OPS+ of just 114, not good for an aging outfield corner. But, if Mondesi has that potential he showed so long ago, maybe he will have something a little extra to show. Jordan, on the other hand, has to be a platoon player to be productive. He’s old (turning 38 just before opening day) and, like Mondesi, he was never all that great anyway, merely adequate. He’s been bothered by injuries ever since he left Atlanta in a huff, but outside of last year, he’s really been pretty steady for a guy in his mid-30s. He’ll start the year in left, sharing time with rookie Ryan Langerhans, who should be the more productive member of the platoon.

However, theses moves show the genius of Schuerholz at work. The free agent market this year was insane. Whether it was a market correction or a bubble waiting to pop, it is too early to tell. The Braves farm is bursting with talent, so why blow a wad of cash on a possibly overpriced free agent like Jeromy Burnitz when you can take the shotgun approach. By the All-Star break, Mondesi may be on a trip with Ricky Williams, and Jordan could be in traction, but so what? These guys are like disposable plates that blow away in a picnic wind. They are cheap, and there’s a whole stack of these guys in the Richmond. By not giving up Magglio Ordonez dollars to replace Drew, the Braves also have some cash available to take on a veteran contract in mid-season if all else fails.

The Next Generation

Schuerholz may not even need to go shopping if the old folks don’t work out, because the next group of Atlanta regulars is just about ready to make the jump. And with Jeff Francoeur and Andy Marte needing places to play soon, you don’t need high-priced veterans taking up slots for the next few years. The outfield in 2006 could include not only Francoeur or Marte, but Johnson, Langerhans, McCarthy, or even Adam LaRoche. All of these guys, except Francoeur, may get a chance to play some major league outfield in 2005.

The Rock

And let’s not forget Andruw Jones in center. He’ll provide his normally stellar defense and offers up the promise of becoming an MVP with the bat. Atlanta fans are still waiting for the break-out — he still is just 28 — but even if he stays the same, it’s one position the Braves don’t need to worry about. Expect a 120 OPS+ from AJ this year.

2. Can the infield make up for the outfield?

Geezers on the Corners…again

While the corner outfielders may look a little light for a contending team, the infield makes up for it. Chipper Jones should bounce back from a disappointing 2004, in which he hit a “paltry” 117 OPS+ while suffering through a painful hamstring injury. Expect a full-season from Chipper; thanks to a move to the infield, he should stay in the line-up. A healthy and happy Chipper will allow the Braves to get the most out of a still very productive player. Sure, there’s no denying that Chipper has declined some from 1999, but I expect Chipper (who is only 33) to post a 130-140 OPS+ year. That’s not shabby at all.

Over at first base, Julio Franco continues to be part of a productive platoon and solid pinch-hitter off the bench. He might finally play like a 46-year-old this year, but that would be like expecting the Braves to lose the division. LaRoche is the youth that brings the average age of this platoon down to 35. He showed us a lot in the second half of 2004 (.302/.368/.576), but it’s not clear if this was for real. The problem with LaRoche is that he’s trying to play a position that the Braves really need to use for Chipper. If you’re a lefty and can’t mash like a first baseman, it’s probably a good idea to shag some fly balls in the spring. The situation at first is magnified by the presence of Marte, who has his own question below.

Up the Middle

This will be the last year to see the Rafael Furcal- Marcus Giles combo up the middle in Atlanta. If Cristian Guzman can get $4 million a year as free agent, think of what a switch-hitting shortstop who can actually hit is going to get. And there is no way Atlanta is going to pay the big bucks for a guy who hasn’t exactly been an upstanding citizen. Furcal will be solid with the bat, and will make some mistakes with the glove. Overall, the trade-off will be a good one. Giles has had some bad luck over his career, he’s due for some normalcy. Giles gets on base, hits for power, runs the bases well, and is not a bad glove man. He doesn’t project all that well for 2005 because his isolated-power dropped 100 points from 2003, but this was likely a result of his injury. In September of 2004, his power was back up to his old level. Barring another freak accident, he is not a bad pick for the NL MVP.

3. Is the pitching improved enough to make-up for any lost offense?

The Starters

This is one place where the Braves really upgraded over 2004. Hudson and Smoltz should be outstanding. There is the question of whether Smoltz’s arm will hold up as a starter. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that he’s any more likely to get hurt starting than closing. Yes, no one has really done this before at Smoltz’s age, but the one-way movement of starters to relievers is largely driven by the fact that starters lose something as they age. Smoltz appears to have plenty left in the tank. From 1995-1999, his best years as a starter, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 3.87. From 2002-2004 it was 6.4. This is likely indicative that he has gives a little more per appearance out of the pen, but that’s what you’d expect from a guy facing high leverage situations. Closing in 2001 and 2002 was probably a good idea, but I think he left a lot of innings in the clubhouse the last two seasons. His repertoire includes two fastballs, a slider, a curve, a change-up, a knuckler, and a side-arm delivery option. Come to think of it, what on earth has John been doing in the bullpen? John has been an amazingly good pitcher the past three years, and I think he will be just fine in his new role.

John Thomson should be quietly solid to very good. Mike Hampton could be good or bad, who knows? Horacio Ramirez posted a good ERA before his injury last year despite dreadfully weak peripherals. He has been very lucky the last two years, and I would not be surprised if he loses his fifth starter slot to Kyle Davies or Chris Reitsma.

The Relievers

The bullpen suffered some very significant losses from last year (Smoltz, Alfonseca, and Cruz), and the bullpen was quite good, ranking 4th in the NL in terms of Win Probability Added (WPA). Smoltz’s anointed replacement, Kolb, is a very different style of pitcher. Like Smoltz, he has pitched in a lot of high-leverage situations, but he has not been as successful in terms of WPA. Kolb is a low-walk, low-K, extreme ground-ball pitcher; he’s good because keeps the ball in the park, but gambling on balls in play is not exactly what you want in the ninth. According to The Hardball Times Bullpen Book, Kolb has entered 6 tie games in the ninth in his career and blown 3 of them. A second key difference between Kolb and Smoltz is the amount of innings pitched. In 2004, Kolb threw 57 innings compared to Smoltz’s 82, with a quarter of Smoltz’s appearances coming in the eighth. Kolb just can’t be used like this, so look for Kolb to be used as the main middle-reliever (like Alfonseca in 2004) by the end of the season.

The other potential closers are Romon Colon and Reitsma, who have higher strikeout rates than Kolb. Though Reitsma collapsed down the stretch and was quite unclutch in 2004, he pitched well for 80 innings, with a FIP ERA of 3.8 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3:1. Kevin Gryboski is a poor-man’s Kolb. His infuriating ability to walk batters without striking them out seems to be sufficiently counteracted by his ability to keep the ball in the yard. He has allowed only 5 home runs over 95 innings the past two seasons. Tom Martin is trying to play his way off the roster in Florida right now and hopefully will succeed. The Braves may go with Gabe White as their situational lefty. Some other possible contributors include Adam Bernero and Buddy Hernandez. The Braves are always creative with the bullpen, and someone will catch the Mazzone magic, we just don’t know who it is yet.

4. When will we see Andy Marte and where will he play?

Player       Age  Class   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS
Andy Marte    20     AA  .269  .364  .525   889
David Wright  20      A  .270  .369  .459   828

Now do you understand why Braves fans are excited? Marte was recently named the best hitting prospect by John Sickels and the top overall prospect by Baseball Prospectus. After tearing up Greenville despite a bum ankle, Marte proceeded to make a push for the big team by hitting .259/.369/.413 in the Dominican Winter League and putting up a 1.083 OPS in 24 ABs in the Grapefruit League. Sure it could be a tease for 2005, but there is no doubt that this guy will play in the big leagues soon. David Wright’s ascension to the majors at age 21 has all Braves fans expecting Marte to do the same this year.

Marte will start the year in Richmond playing third base, which is a huge problem. Chipper plays third base, and no matter what any one else says, he is not going back to the outfield to risk injury. Marte is, by all written accounts, a solid defender. Ideally he will take over the third base job with Chipper shifting to first. This would be fine except this is where lefty infielder LaRoche needs play. The Braves considered shifting Marte to the outfield before spring training began, but decided to abandon the plan until they knew Marte was ready to make the jump. But his recent play led Cox to state that Marte may indeed get some time in the outfield in Richmond.

What is going to happen if Marte actually lives up to these grand expectations? Schuerholz has a problem on his hands, but it’s a nice problem to have. There is a good chance that either Mondesi or Jordan will be a dud, which will create room in the outfield. I wouldn’t be surprised if LaRoche, and not Marte, goes to the outfield. It’s not a transition one wants to make in mid-season, but it’s better setting things up in the spring for Marte to succeed only to watch him become the next Betemit. Having Chipper at first and Marte at third makes the most sense for the team in the long run. LaRoche could also be traded, but that could be complicated, especially if Adam gets off to a slow start. Look to see Marte in the Atlanta by June.

5. Will Johnny Estrada hit like he did in 2005?

There is a contingent of people who think that because Estrada couldn’t hit several years ago, he shouldn’t be able to hit now. Well, I’m not sure why it happened, but Estrada’s turnaround appears to be for real. In 2003 he posted a .328/.393/.494 line in Richmond, and followed it up with .314/.378/.450 in Atlanta last year. He may have been slow to develop, but Estrada is a major league catcher now, so deal with it. However, all is not perfect for Mr. Estrada. My own projection system predicts that he will lose about 25 points on his batting average this year. Expect .290/.345/.445 from Johnny in 2005, which is below his 2004 but just fine for a catcher.

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