Five questions: Atlanta Braves

After 14 years of winning their division (and yes, that excludes the strike-shortened 1994 season when the Expos were top of the standings) the Atlanta Braves haven’t come close to playing October ball. This season figures to be the end of an era for the Tomahawks as Bobby Cox spits out his chewing tobacco for the final time. Can the the Braves win for Bobby? Will Jason Heyward mash 75 homers? Can Billy Wagner strike out every hitter he faces? These questions and more are answered below.

To mix things up a bit I’ve teamed up with Alex Remington, who writes about the Braves at Chop-n-Change and also blogs at Fangraphs and at Yahoo! Sports Big League Stew. Hang on—here we go.

1. What production can we expect from Jason Heyward in 2010?

Alex: As I wrote elsewhere, I think that Heyward’s superior control of the strike zone will lead him to exceed the expectations of most of the offseason projection systems, nearly all of which expect him to hit fewer than 20 homers with an OPS right around .800. I’m expecting a tick better on all those counts. Most importantly, though, he stabilizes the Braves’ right field situation, where he’ll be far, far, far better than the .262/.305/.409 that Jeff Francoeur produced from 2007 to 2009, and isn’t likely to be a downgrade defensively.

Of course, he isn’t guaranteed for immediate success. Even Matt Wieters, who once stole second, third and the shortstop’s hat on the same pitch, had an adjustment period last year before catching fire in the last month of the season. While Heyward’s floor is probably higher than Francoeur’s baseline, it may not necessarily be that much higher. So he’ll be a welcome improvement for the Braves, and he’ll likely post Nick Johnson-like P/PA numbers, but he won’t be an offensive catalyst just yet.

John: There’s no doubt Heyward is good—you’ve just got to look at his spring training stats. His line is a massive .347/.467/.490 and some of his home runs were true monsters. The most impressive thing is his ability to get on base. Make no mistake: This kid has a 20:20 batting eye, and unlike Francoeur, whose place Heyward will inherit as face of the franchise, he’ll walk enough to get to Everest and back (aside: for goodness sake, Jason, don’t do any Delta ads). That should mean at the very least he’ll survive in the bigs.

He also tops most prospect lists, which is encouraging but by no means guarantees success. Remember who the last Brave was to be the No. 1 rated prospect in all of baseball? Yes … Andy Marte. His career line of .216/.272/.352/ is anything but magical and is a stark reminder of how quickly baseball talent turns from boom to bust. However, let’s not kid ourselves. Heyward’s minor league career has already been on a different planet than Marte’s.

Given the weakness that the Braves have in the outfield, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see Heyward top the pile come the end of the year. One thing is certain: It is unlikely the Braves will challenge for the division without a productive Heyward.

2. Is Wagner going to dominate the ninth?

Alex: Mariano Rivera‘s contemporaneous career has obscured just how good he’s been, but Wagner has been one of the most consistent and excellent relievers of the modern closer era—as Mac Thomason has written,

“There aren’t many relievers, ever, who have been better than Wagner.”

Wagner has had exactly one bad year in the major leagues: 2000, when he posted a 6.18 ERA in 27.2 innings before going on the DL and eventually undergoing elbow surgery. That is the only time in his major league career that he had an ERA over 3.00 or a K/9 under 10.

It was also, prior to 2009, the only time he’d ever pitched fewer than 47 innings in a season. Then, of course, he blew out his elbow again, but came off Tommy John surgery just in time to throw upper-90s heat in September to secure a one-year payday. When he’s been healthy, he’s never been anything short of excellent. If he’s healthy, there’s little reason to doubt that he can be excellent again, especially considering the year that the 41-year-old Trevor Hoffman just had in Milwaukee.

If he’s healthy. After all, he’s a 38-year-old lefty coming off his second elbow surgery. He’s a physical freak—an undersized righty who can somehow throw 100 mph with his left hand—but even physical freaks can’t stretch their tendons forever. Tommy John surgery is viewed as a relatively safe procedure, but it’s not foolproof. Wagner had a nice stretch run in 2009 and has pitched well in the spring of 2010, but his arm will be monitored closely. If he goes down, the Braves will rely on their setup duo, fellow Tommy John returnee Peter Moylan and the 40-year-old Takashi Saito. If the Braves can get 150 innings out of that trio, the late innings will be well in hand. If not, they could be in trouble.

John: Certainty. That is what a great closer gives you. When did the Braves last have certainty in the ninth? In 2004, when John Smoltz was at the back end of the rotation. Since then the Braves have wheeled out sub-standard closers: Dan Kolb, Kyle Farnsworth, Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano … there’s no certainty there. At least Soriano and Gonzalez can pitch … day to day you can’t be sure if they’ll be healthy.

Certainty is what the Braves hope to get from Wagner. Sure he has been far from healthy over the last couple of years. But last year, after Tommy John surgery, he did well at Fenway Park. His heat was in the mid- to high-90s and he looked like his old self. I’m optimistic that Wagner will work out well for the Braves.

Let’s go through the facts. First, Wagner is a seriously good pitcher. His career ERA is 2.39; his K/BB is 3.9 and his K/9 is 12. Second, despite being on the DL he is STILL a seriously good hurler. As Alex mentioned, the only time that Wagner has had an ERA over 3.00 was in 2000, and that was when we was hurt. You want me to prognosticate? He’ll keep off the DL, put in a sub-3 ERA and get at least 30 saves. You heard it here!

3. How good is the rotation?

Alex: The Braves’ 2009 Opening Day starter, Derek Lowe, was so unimpressive last year after signing a four-year, $60 million contract that the Braves spent most of the offseason fruitlessly trying to offload him. When it became clear that no one wanted him any more than the Braves did, they turned around and traded their best pitcher of 2009, Javier Vazquez, for Melky Cabrera and a flame-throwing teenager.

After all that, Lowe’s still a Brave, and he’s not bad for the back of the rotation, where he and Kenshin Kawakami are still likely to deliver an ERA somewhere south of 4.50. Anything better than that will be gravy.

That’s because, as usual, the Braves’ top three starters are terrific. Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens and Tim Hudson are all No. 1/No. 2 starters, and all look set to excel in 2010. Like Wagner, Hudson came back from Tommy John surgery last year, and like Wagner, he pitched quite well in the final months of the year. Jurrjens is likely to come back to earth a bit after 2010, when he had an ERA about a run less than the year before despite virtually identical components. But his 2008 was plenty good. And Hanson was simply dominant during the final months of the season, looking every bit like the ace he was predicted to be. He and Jurrjens might be the best under-24 one-two punch in baseball.

John: I like the Braves’ rotation. Sure I’d rather have seen Lowe disappear rather than Vasquez, but that was never going to happen when Lowe still has three years left on his $60 million contract. Anyway, our old friend, regression to the mean, should help Braves fans get past their initial disappointment.

Also, for the first time in many years, the Braves have a stable rotation that should hold together for a few years. Kawakami is only one year into his contract, Hudson re-upped in the offseason, and Jurrjens and Hanson, the young whippersnappers, are still pre-arb. This crew could hang together for three more years (although if Lowe has a good year he’ll be offloaded). The last time the Braves had a stable rotation, with a solid top three … yup, Smoltz, Glavine, Maddux.

Now I’m not suggesting that the current trio is a patch on what may have been the best 1-2-3 in baseball. Nowhere near. But a look at the projections shows Jurrjens on a 3.80 ERA, Hudson with a 3.90 ERA and Hanson at a 3.50 ERA. On paper it sounds great—but then again most rotations do. One of these guys is bound to hit the DL at some stage and that is when the Braves will struggle. Who’s the reserve starter at Turner Field? Jo-Jo Reyes? …. Please, no.

4. Can Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus stay on the field?

Alex: The pitching probably won’t be the problem for the Braves. It’s the offense. No regular slugged over .500 or hit 25 homers for the Braves in 2009, and there’s a very good chance no one will in 2010 either, considering that Heyward won’t turn 21 until August. The team is severely underpowered, and the No. 3 and No. 4 hitters are aging sluggers with injury problems.

Glaus and Jones were two of the best third basemen of the last decade, but they’re both past their prime, and Glaus is trying to learn how to wear a first baseman’s mitt, too. Glaus has played 149 games in three of the last five years, a total that Jones hasn’t reached since 2003, but the fact is: Over the past seven years, Glaus is averaging 104 games played, and Chipper’s averaging 131. (Over that same period, Jones is slugging .535, and Glaus is slugging .498.) When they’ve played, they’ve hit. They’ve just been off the field a lot.

If the Braves can get 1,000 combined at-bats out of their corner infielders, they’ll have a decent middle of the order. The rest of the lineup is filled with pesky hitters with double-digit home run power: center fielder Nate McLouth, shortstop Yunel Escobar, second baseman Martin Prado, catcher Brian McCann (the Braves’ best hitter in 2009), right fielder Heyward, and the left field platoon of Matt Diaz and Cabrera. None of them are automatic outs, but none of them is all that frightening, either. Without production from Jones and Glaus, the Braves will be playing a lot of 4-3 ballgames.

John: Who the hell is asking these questions … another health-related conundrum. Given Alex has done such a good job with his answer and I’m bored of talking about the DL I’ll answer a different question, “Can Chipper Jones regain batting title form?”.

Chipper’s demise has been predicted for years. Remember in 2004 when he went .248/.362/.485? Pundits were ready to pen an obituary to what even was at that point a stellar career. Since then Jones has accelerated: 2005 was .296/.412/.556 and then his average didn’t drop below .300 until 2009, when he hit a disappointing .264/.388/.430. Can he bounce back once again?

Unfortunately, the odds are more against him than last time. He’s 38 years old and at this point in their careers many hitters see a sharp drop-off in performance. And it wasn’t like he was especially unhealthy in 2009. Sure he had some knocks and niggles, but he started 143 games—the most since 2003.

However, his batting eye is as sharp as a fox’s, as evidenced by his ability to get on base at a .388 clip. That has a lot of value even if his arms can’t deliver the power they used to. My admiration for Jones as a player has grown this season as he has confounded the baseball community with his approach at the plate.

The many projections figure that Jones should hit for a .290/.400/.470 clip. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take that line right now. My head tells me he’ll be closer to where he was last season, but that’s still better than the rest of the Braves infield.

5. The biggie… can Bobby win again?

Alex: The 2010 Braves look a lot like the teams that Cox took to the playoffs like clockwork: a deep, dominating starting rotation and a pesky but underpowered offense. They certainly look like one of the best four teams in the league, but while Cox certainly can escort this team to October, these Braves don’t immediately look dominant enough to win it all. The Phillies return a terrific team with Roy Halladay at the fore, and the Marlins, Rockies, Cardinals, Dodgers and Giants all finished with better records than the Braves in 2009. Some of those wins may have been fluky—I’m looking at you, Ryan Franklin—but the Braves will have a lot of teams to leapfrog.

The Braves don’t necessarily have more question marks than any other team—after all, just about every team has to caveat its chances against the likelihood of injury. The Braves had the third-best run differential in the NL last year, and they’ve had the best run differential in the Grapefruit League this spring. They’re virtually guaranteed to score a lot more runs than they give up. But they won’t bludgeon anyone to death—they’ll win with pitching and singles. That may well be enough in the regular season, but it likely won’t once October rolls around.

John: I could write an essay on this, but I’ll keep it short. The Braves were unlucky last year. They score a lot more runs than they gave up and should have ended up with a better record. The rotation should be an improvement despite the loss of Vasquez. Lowe will improve a bit, Hudson will replace Vasquez, and Hanson and Jurrjens are a year wiser. Although the bullpen is a weak spot, a healthy Wagner will covert a lot of close games if he is given the chance. And Heyward has the discipline and power to be a rock star in the outfield.

If that happens, that I fancy their chances. If one of those factors goes off, then no way. The problem is that the NL East is probably the strongest division on the Senior Circuit. The Phillies have reached the last two World Series and, if anything, have upgraded with Doc Halladay over the offseason. The Mets have the talent but underperform and the Marlins are starting to up their payroll and still have a very talented bunch of ballplayers.

It’s Bobby Cox’s last season in charge. You know he wants it—that is why Heyward is starting. Here is hoping that the Tomahawks can give one of the greatest managers in the game the send-off he deserves. Go Braves!

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Comments

  1. Nathan said...

    Huh.  Why do you say that Jo-Jo is the 6th starter?  Isn’t Kris Medlen clearly the guy there?  And honestly, as the Braves blogosphere has been pretty vocal about, it’s not clear that Medlen isn’t a better starter than Kawakami, who is more than fine as a back-end starter himself.

    After trading Vazquez, we don’t go 7 deep anymore, but Medlen as a 6 and Reyes as a 7 strikes me as better than the vast majority of teams have to offer.

  2. matt r said...

    Agree with Nathan, we need to trade Jo-Jo before he gets much older, but would there even be any takers?

  3. Trevor said...

    Some of those “sub-standard” closers were actually pretty damn good. Farnsworth pitched for them in his best season, and was pretty untouchable with the Braves, leading to the infamous huge contract with the Yankees. Soriano was worth roughly 2.5 wins in his 150 innings pitched in a Braves uniform, also pretty good. Gonzalez, almost a win and a half in about 125 IP. While I agree that these guys had injury troubles, they were also above average relievers. Kolb however was terrible. No argument with that.

  4. John Beamer said...

    Not saying they weren’t good – Soriano and Gonzo were good pitchers. Gonzalez was only ever a bit part closer for the Braves. And the year he had most saves – 14 – was his worst year in a Braves’ uniform.

    Soriano closed more regularly and provided value but often got into difficulty – but he was good (better than Kolb (and Farnsworth)!!!)

  5. DonCoburleone said...

    This team is like my fantasy team, high risk-high reward. The #3 & #4 hitters, the #1 starter, the setup man AND the closer could all be on the DL before the calender turns to May.  Doesn’t exactly sound like an 89-94 win team to me…  And if more than a couple of those guys go down, the Braves will be lucky to win 80 games.  I understand what they did this offseason (rolling the dice on some high risk guys in Bobby’s last season) but still so many things will have to go right I just don’t see it happening.

  6. TCQ said...

    Ditto Nathan. There’s an argument to be made that Medlen is better than Kawakami,and if he isn’t next in line when somebody goes down…well, suffice it to say, the Braves have bigger problems than the injury.

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