Five Questions: Atlanta Braves

The Braves, for the second straight season, failed to win the division. Unlike in 2006, when the Mets ran away and hid and the Braves were never in it, the division was a three-way race most of the way, and arguably the Braves—though they finished third, five games behind the Phillies—were the best team. They had the best run differential in the division and “should” have won by two games according to that. They finished third in the league in both runs scored and runs allowed (the only team to finish in the top five in both categories), and by the end of the season, after adding Mark Teixeira to fill a gaping hole at first base, they probably had the best offense in the league.

The story of the 2007 Braves was basically that of the stars—John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Chipper Jones and Edgar Renteria, plus Teixeira—playing great baseball but being let down by the bit parts. The main culprit was the back half of the rotation, followed by a catastrophic anti-career year by the now-departed Andruw Jones, and a hapless bench anchored (in the sense of being weighed down) by the likes of Chris Woodward and Pete Orr.

Streak architect John Schuerholz retired, moving upstairs to an ill-defined president role. Replacement Frank Wren moved to address the rotation by trading Renteria to the Tigers, acquiring a much-needed major league-ready starter in Jair Jurrjens, and bringing back Tom Glavine from a five-year exile in Queens. His replacement for Andruw Jones, Mark Kotsay, cost former first round pick Joey Devine, and was not greeted with universal acclaim. To shore up the bench, he traded relievers to get Omar Infante from the Cubs and Josh Anderson from the Astros. Javy Lopez was brought back on a minor league deal and appears set to win the backup catcher job. In general, Wren followed the Schuerholz blueprint of improving the team through trades, limiting free agency to a few guys who have Atlanta connections, and unloading live arms for baseball players.

The hope is that the Braves can get one more great year from Smoltz and one more healthy year from Chipper Jones, and that the players added around the fringes can improve upon last year’s catastrophes. If everything breaks well, the Braves can win the division. If.

1. Did the Braves bring back Tom Glavine a year too late?

The Braves had an opportunity to sign Glavine after the 2006 season but were unable to come to terms. It probably cost them the division. John Smoltz and Tim Hudson were great at the top of the rotation. Chuck James was dead average in the third spot. The Braves’ fourth and fifth starter roles were filled by a cast of has-beens, never-weres, rushed prospects and players apparently without full control of their limbs. Starters other than Smoltz, Hudson and James went a collective 27-39 despite an offense that scored five runs a game, which is only to be expected since their collective ERA was about 6.00. The “best” of them was Buddy Carlyle, who had some good starts but wound up 8-7 with a 5.21 ERA. Kyle Davies was sent to the Royals after going 4-8 with a 5.76 ERA in 17 starts… and he was one of the better pitchers in those slots. The only starter other than Smoltz, Hudson and James to pitch well in 2007 was Jeff Bennett, who made two starts late in the season. The rest of the starts came from guys like Jo-Jo Reyes (2-2, 6.22, more walks than strikeouts), Lance Cormier (2-6, 7.09, 16 homers in 45 2/3 IP), and Mark Redman 0-4, 11.63, a fiend from the depths of Hell).

It was ugly. Meanwhile, Glavine was throwing 200 basically league-average innings for one of the teams the Braves were trying to beat. Sure, a difference of five games is a bit more than an average pitcher should be able to make up… but the guys whom he would have replaced were really that bad. They also put a strain on a bullpen that often found itself filling in 10 or 12 innings, or more, over two rotation spots. Basically every reliever except Peter Moylan broke down at some point last season, and only Moylan and Rafael Soriano were able to make it through the season with arms and reputations intact.

But it might be a year too late. Glavine’s strikeout rate reached a dangerously low level last year, only 4.1 per nine innings. He was obviously pitching poorly at the end of the season, as Mets fans (Hi, guys!) are fully aware, and it remains to be seen if he was just out of gas or if he’d totally broken down. Glavine’s faced career crises before and made corrections, but at 42 you have to wonder if he can again. He’s not a guy you just write off, but…

2. Is Jeff Francoeur about to make the Leap?

Francoeur went from hitting .260/.293/.449 in a disappointing sophomore season to .293/.338/.444 in 2007. The evidence that this change was caused by a real change in the player is, however, not all that great. The batting average increase is that old bugaboo, batting average on balls in play, which went from .284 to .337; Francoeur’s strikeout rate remained constant. He hit fewer homers, but his total number of extra-base hits was an identical 59 in both seasons.

The one sign of a change was that Francoeur’s walk rate went from abysmal to bad. After walking 23 times (six intentional) in 2006, he walked 42 times (five intentional) last year. More than doubling his intentional walk rate is a very good sign, even if he wasn’t actually seeing many more pitches per plate appearance (3.4, up from 3.3). From observation, he seemed less likely to swing at truly impossible pitches—sliders in the left-handed batter’s box, fastballs above the cap—than he did before.

I didn’t write last year’s Five Questions, which is kind of a shame, because I was going to ask, “So, is Jeff Francoeur stupid?” It seems that he is showing signs of figuring things out. If his walk rate gains are for real, the rest of his game should improve. He might not make the Leap, but a fair-sized hop is a good possibility.

3. Is Yunel Escobar for real?

Escobar was the one Braves bench player who had a good season, though he was really a regular-at-several-positions, He was called up in June to cover during Chipper Jones’ annual injury and wound up sticking around, playing short when Edgar Renteria was hurt and platooning with Kelly Johnson at second on those occasions when Jones and Renteria were both available. He hit well enough to justify his playing time, .326/.385/.451, and the Braves felt comfortable enough with his play at shortstop to trade Renteria in the offseason.

Now, Escobar hit .364 on balls in play, and probably isn’t really a .326 hitter, but few are. If he’s legitimately a .300 hitter, he has enough secondary offense to be a plus at shortstop. (When he first came up, all he did was hit singles, but as the year went by he started drawing walks and hitting a few doubles.) His minor league record is sparse; beating up on rookie ball and low-A at 22 in 2005, a bad AA season in Mississippi (a tough environment) in 2006, and a month and a half of strong play in AAA last year. His career minor league batting average is .295, and I think he can at least hit that in the majors. He was the hardest player on the team to strike out, and a canny baserunner. He should be a solid player for the Braves, though that’s only good enough to make him the fourth-best shortstop in the division. It’s a tough group.

4. What the heck is going on in left field?

[Ed. note: It now appears that Matt Diaz won't platoon with Brandon Jones, but either will play every day or platoon with Josh Anderson or Gregor Blanco, neither of whom hit enough for left field.]

The pattern for the last two years has been for Matt Diaz to start the season as the right-handed half of a platoon, for the Braves to blunder around with various options as the left-handed half, and for these options to eventually fail with Diaz finally taking over full time to pick up the pieces a couple of weeks after the season becomes unsalvageable. Diaz has hit .333/.366/.487 over 706 plate appearances in his two seasons as a Brave, and has ended each season playing full-time.

Matt Diaz will probably start the season as the right-handed half of a platoon.

In previous years, the platoon has been with Ryan Langerhans, who was eventually traded to the A’s on May 2 last year, steps ahead of an angry mob. Willie Harris took over and hit well for awhile, but then remembered he was Willie Harris and returned to his usual level; it took a few weeks for his stats to come down to a level where the Braves realized he wasn’t hitting.

This year, the platoon will probably be with Brandon Jones, who is a legitimate prospect and keeps the Braves’ Jones level at two. Jones doesn’t have any real A tools but is a B or B+ player at pretty much everything. Diaz, meanwhile, basically just hits for a high average, but .333 covers up a lot of skills. After hitting right-handers better than lefties in 2006, he had a normal platoon split in 2007, with basically all his secondary offense coming against left-handed pitchers. It should be a pretty good platoon, and Plan B—let Diaz play full-time—has worked out pretty well.

This all goes out the window if the Braves decide to let Josh Anderson take the platoon job with Diaz, as this will show that the Braves aren’t taking the season seriously.

5. Can Mark Kotsay replace Andruw Jones?

If the question is if Kotsay can hit .222 /.311/.413, like Andruw did last year… that, he probably can do. But the Braves would probably like something more. Kotsay isn’t going to hit 52 homers like Jones did in 2005, or even the 30+ that Jones averaged. But the Braves hope for a little more batting average and a little power. They’re not expecting too much, and Kotsay has been hitting eighth in spring. Kotsay was a fine defensive player before his back injury. Everything he doesn’t field in center will get an automatic “Andruw would have gotten it” from the fans—and he’s not Andruw—but the difference won’t be that great. And if he hits as badly as Andruw did last year, the Braves won’t have any attachment to him, so can call up prized prospect Jordan Schafer, or move Josh Anderson there if Schafer isn’t ready.

6. Will Mike Hampton pitch?

No.

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