02 March 2007

BASEBALL’S BACK, BABY! NL EAST PREVIEW: ATLANTA BRAVES


Over the next few days, I will be previewing each team in the NL East, starting today with the Atlanta Braves.

Have you ever started shaving a goatee or beard and realized that you left one side too long, so you try and even it out by trimming the longer side down, but before you know it, you’ve overcompensated by cutting that side too short and ruined your attempt at good looking facial hair? Welcome to the Atlanta Braves offseason.

The Braves bullpen blew 29 saves last season, claiming the dubious title of being the worst in the league in the category. So what does John Schuerholz do? Improve his team’s weakness. He traded for Rafael Soriano, traded for Mike Gonzalez, and held on to closer Bob Wickman, all with the goal of turning ballgames into six-inning affairs for the team’s starters.

While it seems like Schuerholz’s strategy will work in closing out games, the problem is, the Braves ignored their offense and fact, lost some offense while bolstering the bullpen, hence the shaving analogy.

The meat of the Braves order has the potential to shine if they play a full season, with Edgar Renteria, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Brian McCann batting two-through-five, most likely in that order. However, Chipper Jones is now wearing three pairs of socks and larger shoes to compensate for his injured foot, which surgeons can’t touch until he retires (he needs all his toes broken and reset for it to ever fully heal). You hope for 120 games out of Chipper at this point in his career, and even that is generous (he’s played 109 and 110 in each of the last two seasons). While Brian McCann is emerging as one of the best offensive catchers in baseball, I wouldn’t be shocked to see his numbers decline from last season (.333 avg, 24 HR, 93 RBI).

After those guys though, the Braves may be in a lot of trouble. While Francoeur has shown flashes of greatness, he still strikes out too much (132 times last year) and has too low an on-base percentage (.293). Combine that with an unproven first baseman in Scott Thorman, an unknown left fielder (either Matt Diaz – that’s pronounced DIE-az for those of you scoring at home – Ryan Langerhans or Craig Wilson) and then the pitcher all batting in a row at the bottom of the order, and the Braves could see a lot of situations where the bottom of their order allows opposing pitchers to get into a solid rhythm in the middle of ballgames.

And that doesn’t even include the fact that the Braves don’t have a leadoff hitter or second baseman. Before spring training, converted left fielder/shortstop Kelly Johnson was looking to fill the role, who many people inside the organization claimed could hit .300 with 30 HRs and 30 SBs (pretty stout prediction that I’ll believe when I see). However, word out of Braves’ camp is that they are unhappy with the progress of Johnson’s fielding, and are looking closer at Martin Prado. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Prado make an opening day start at second. If Prado does get the second base job, chances are the Braves will allow Johnson to split time in left with Craig Wilson and Matt Diaz, and release Ryan Langerhans, who is out of options.

It all makes you wonder why the Braves would trade away Adam LaRoche, who emerged as a solid first baseman last season, particularly in the second half of the year, when he had a 1.042 OPS. I have a feeling that the loss of his offense in the back end of the lineup will cost the Braves, particularly when Chipper misses his 10th-straight game in the middle of August and Francoeur approaches the 120 strikeout mark.

However, the Braves rotation could be back to solid form, with veteran John Smoltz leading the way again. Smoltz is becoming one of those freaks-of-nature, whose stuff never seems to decline despite his age. Tim Hudson may be back as well, after a disappointing two seasons with the Braves. The word is that his stuff is nasty in camp so far, and may be in line for a big year. Chuck James is young and fearless, and is primed for another nice year during his sophomore campaign. Kyle Davies will be coming off a groin injury last year, which limited him to just 14 starts, but he will be a nice addition to the back of the rotation.

The big question for the Braves will be Mike Hampton. Recently, Hampton not only admitted that his recovery (after missing all of 2006) wasn’t coming along as he had hoped it would, but for the first time during his career, he is nervous about his ability to throw the ball. Not a good sign for the Braves, who are paying Hampton $14.5 million in 2007. If he’s not ready to pitch by the start of the season, it could potentially cause some issues for the Braves.

I’m also still not convinced that the Braves have gotten over the loss of their great pitching coach, Leo Mazzone. New pitching coach Roger McDowell has a lot to prove this year, after last year’s un-Brave like pitching.

So, the question becomes did Atlanta trim the bullpen side of its beard evenly, or do they need to even out the offensive side? The Braves enter 2007 thinking that by cutting down on their blown saves, they can be right in the thick of things in the NL East. However, unless a few of their questions in their starting lineup are answered, their offense may struggle enough to cost them some games. Still, they should be better than last season, and at least be able to make a wild card run during the season.

S.O.S’s projected finish: 83-79, 3rd in the NL East

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