Hey, howdy and whatup! Cy Shourek tossed a complete game with the Marlins preview, so you know Colin Auscapee has to go deep in his first ever RR feature. Today’s question: how will the team from the city that Coke built fare in the ’09? This preview is much like my junk, if you sift through all the fluff; there is substance in there somewhere.
Don’t make me say it. It’s 2009. We wouldn’t sneak a euphemism for an ethnic group onto a list comprised largely of non-human animals, mythical figures and occupations, would we? Oh, shit. Really? Well, they’re called the Braves. Their logo is a primitive chopping tool. Their fans chant an imagined Native American war cry. It’s all in reverence, don’tcha know?
Team History: Founded in Boston in 1871 as the Boston Red Stockings, with an assist from a gent named Harry Wright, who had previously formed another team with the same name, the very first pro team in fact. I don’t know what city that team played in, unfortunately. Perhaps someone can help? Anyhow, in 1912 the Boston Red Stockings became known as the Braves. In 1953 they moved to Milwaukee. They have been in their current digs, the ATL, since 1966.
Owner: Liberty Media
GM: Frank Wren
President: John Schuerholz
Manager: Bobby Cox
Pitching Coach: Roger McDowell
2008 Payroll: $102,400,000
Estimated 2009 Payroll: Ninety-plus stacks.
Not what we are used to seeing. 72-90. (Pythagorean record was 6 wins better). Fourth place. Worse than the Reds. In fact, since their remarkable streak of 14 straight playoff appearances ended, the Braves have not been to Narnia (what the playoffs seem like to this aspiring Red Reporter [trying to earn his Red Wings?]) in their last 3 campaigns. In 2009, will the fantastical wardrobe open again for these once-proud people? Will they journey all the way to meet Aslan? Or will there be another taint of smallpox on the batting helmets?
SPs Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez, LF Garrett Anderson.
RP Will Ohman, SPs John Smoltz, Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton. I heard somewhere that one must rid one’s life of SPs, so perhaps this is a case of addition through subtraction.
This group has undergone a major overhaul in the offseason. Allegedly, Mike Hampton and John Smoltz were starters on the team last season. Neither sniffed 100 innings. Tim Hudson managed to make 22 starts. Attrition put the onus on Jorge Campillo, who performed well, and Jo-Jo Reyes, Charlie Morton, and Chuck James, who did not. This year’s model features 3 guys (the first 3 on this list) who would seem to be capable of each going 200 innings. If that does happen, the bullpen won’t have to work so hard and the whole team ought to be the better for it. Duh.
(I was all set to put a great drunken Lowe/Arroyo pic here, but it is no longer on the internet. God damned lawyers.)
1. Derek Lowe- In the offseason, they brought this dude into the fold for horse duties to the tune of $60m/4 years. He is definitely durable, having tossed 200 innings in six of the seven years since he’s become a full-time starter (if you’ll allow that 199+ in 2007 is close enough). He will turn 39 in his final contract year, but having thrown less innings as a reliever earlier in his career may prove beneficial to his staying power. His career ERA+ is a quite respectable 122, but this is aided (at least in small part) by 2 consecutive monster years in relief. Anecdotal evidence would suggest Lowe is the owner of an unclean sinker. Diagnosis: definitely a legitimate front-end starter.
2. Javier Vazquez- Vazquez was acquired from the ChiSox along with lefty reliever Boone Logan for four prospects, including promising catcher Tyler Flowers. JV is a lifetime .500 pitcher (I think even decisions are telling with his sample size) with a 105 ERA+. Some innings will surely be eaten on his watch; he’s reached 200 in every year but one since 2000. His top comps are the Livan’s and Sydney’s of the world, which ain’t likely to endear him to the metric crowd.
3. Jair Jurrjens- You may have observed this young chap (he’s 23) on the bump last year. I mustn’t have been the only one who thought he looked more than a little like Johnny Cueto. The numbers say he looked better. He threw more innings and his conventional ERA started with 3 (3.68). However one may feel about the validity of that archaic stat, one must concede that a 3 something ERA on a starter unequivocally correlates with success. Jurrjens certainly wasn’t as susceptible to the dinger as Cueto was, though few were (I’m confident logarithmic analysis would lessen the discrepancy). On top of all that goodness, has there ever been a more fun name to say than Jair Jurrjens?
4. Kenshin Kawakami- This will be his first go-round in the MLB, at the ripe old age of (soon to be) 34. I am not about to try to find advanced Japanese stats, so yall’s is gonna have to deal. Since we lost our national innocence (sorry, sorry), Kawakami’s ERA has started with 2 or 3, and that fateful year was his last losing season. When I fake add up two columns, and fake divide them (putting in a career line at the bottom must have been too onerous), it looks like his strikeouts to innings is about 0.7, though it has been on the rise lately. This would indicate to me that Kawakami is not overpowering. Even if all his numbers were to drop off somewhat significantly, which is what generally happens on a trip East across the Atlantic, he still projects to be a serviceable 4th starter, at least according to my lackluster analysis. The Braves must have thought so too.
5. The Braves have some dude under contract named Tom Glavine. Perhaps you have heard of him? 300 wins? Throws with his left hand? Both of these things distinguish him from everyone else on this list. I think he might have played for the Braves at some point in the past. Tom’s birthday is later this month, and he’ll be turning 43. He is coming off shoulder surgery. He hasn’t thrown an inning in ST, but he’s slated to make his debut on Saturday. It’s doubtful that Tom will be ready to answer the starting bell, but he figures to fill this spot eventually. Until then, one of the fellows mentioned in the intro to this section will probably get the fifth starter nod.
In the pipeline:
The Braves are in possession of a young stud named Tommy Hanson, on whom they are very high. He is only 22, and apparently he throws very hard. The plan is to start the clock on him a couple months into this season. There are many other young pitchers to be enthused about in the Braves farm system.
Pitchers who don’t start:
Closer: Lefty Mike Gonzalez missed the first half of last year (recovering from Tommy John), but pitched acceptably in terms of converting save opportunities. His career ERA+ is a very respectable 168, but he has only pitched a little over 200 total innings in 6 seasons, which, apart from being a questionable sample size, casts aspersions on his durability.
Everyone else: There could be a few decisions to be made with this group, but it seems mostly set. Young starters may press the older relievers listed here for bullpen jobs. Campanillo (who may start if Glavine can’t), would figure to make the team regardless. Logan, 24, will probably be there, despite being kicked around pretty well in his first three campaigns with the White Sox (career 80 ERA+). Being left-handed helps his cause, and a switch of leagues may marginally help his stats. The side-armer Peter Moylan is a lock (195 ERA+ in 110 career innings). Rafael Soriano will certainly break camp with the team as well; in 257 career innings over 7 seasons, he has posted a 148 ERA+. Blaine Boyer was mediocre last year (72 ERA+ and a high 5 conventional one in 72 innings), but he figures to be there. As does Jeff Bennett, who does serviceable work out of the pen and can make a spot start if needed (115 ERA+ in 97 innings in 2008 with 4 starts sprinkled in). LAST MINUTE UPDATE: Talking Chop predicts Manny Acosta and Buddy Carlisle to make the team rather than Bennett and Campanillo.
Likely Starting Eight
1. Yunel Escobar, SS. The Braves organization got their collective panties in a bunch this offseason when Rafael Furcal jilted them to resign with the Dodgers. I don’t know why they were so hot for a Furcal return, because the numbers say Escobar is a pretty good leadoff hitter (perhaps they wanted their center fielder to lead off). His OBP over two seasons stands at .373, and he hits his share of doubles (in contrast to another leadoff hitter I could name). His defense seems decent, a .974 fielding percentage at short is hardly atrocious (I am not going to even act like I understand defensive metrics). For a leadoff hitter, he is no havoc practitioner; he went 2 for 7 on steal attempts in 2008 (the percentage is havoc-y, but not the frequency).
2. Kelly Johnson, 2B. Kelly burst onto the scene in 2005 with a strong performance at the end of Clerks 2. Wait, I am confused again. This Kelly is a boring second-basemen who is competent but not overpowering in any and every offensive category. He is down to play every day and I’m sure more than ten PBP men have described him as a "gamer". ‘Nuff said.
3. Chipper Jones, 3B. Larry is not feeling well now. He got all hepped up to play in the WBC and had to shut it down and come back to camp because he is old and he cannot just crank it up at a moment’s notice. Maybe he will be ready to go on opening day, maybe not. When he is on the field, he’s an offensive force. He almost hit .400 last year! Please, please note the sarcasm. Do I have to go through his numbers? It is obvious he is a beast. At his advanced age (37 in April), though, Larry will likely suffer more health problems and shouldn’t be relied upon to play more than 120 games.
4. Garrett Anderson, LF. This offseason, the Braves and their fans were pining for a right-handed power-hitting left-fielder to plug into this slot. Sound familiar? They were even willing to compromise on the handedness issue; they flirted with Dunn and Griffey (not that the latter is a cleanup candidate). Anderson is the lefty they ended up with. He has spent the last 15 years in California/Anaheim/Los Angeles and in 8480 plate appearances he is OPSing .796. He seems to have at least weathered his presumable steroid withdrawal (total speculation on my part); only losing 10 or so homers and 25-35 RBI off his peak four years (the spike comes between ages 28-31, so it could just be a decent hitter cresting at the typical prime). He has never been a masher, but he is a professional batsman who has consistently delivered .290/18/85ish numbers of late. He does not walk as much as one would like, his career OBP (.327) is only 31 points higher than his average. Also, he has a hurt hamstring and has not gotten hisself into an ST game yet. Matt Diaz will likely start in left on Opening Day. It has to be a concern when your 3 and 4 hitters are both turning 37, and neither can get on the field for an exhibition game.
5. Brian McCann, C. A young, average backstop with a plus bat. McCann does not have a particularly great defensive reputation; his career CS% is 22%. But the man’s offensive production is prodigious in a position where mediocrity is the norm. For his career, the OBP is .358 and the OPS+ is 122. He has come very close to one hundred steaks for each of the last three years; I would like to see that from any Red this year, let alone the catcher. McCann is also durable, he has well over 500 plate appearances in each of the last two seasons, so presumable backup David Ross should not expect too much playing time.
6. Jeff Francoeur, RF. Originally, discussion of Francoeur here was going to be about one line long. I think just about everyone is aware of his free-swinging, terrible, terrible approach. But the Braves blogolytes put me on to something: apparently Frenchy is changing his ways. Only yesterday (Monday), he struck out for the first time all spring. Apparently he has been taking walks and getting one-base hits. If this continues, opposing teams will be forced to rewrite the book on him. One more thing: don’t run on this player. He brang his piece to work ery day.
7. Casey Kotchman, 1B. There are some things in this world that I will never understand. One of them is how, in the 21st century, someone can get away with having a career 96 OPS+ and playing every day at the least taxing position. Look at the first-basemen in the NL Central (Pirates excepted): they are all monsters. How can a team justify putting this scrub out there—hitting seventh—every day? Great year, Casey, thanks for the 14 homers and 70 RBI! If your first baseman is hitting seventh, that in and of itself is a major issue.
8. Josh Anderson/Gregor Blanco, CF. This is the only starting job up for grabs in Atlanta. Probably the reason the Braves wanted Furcal was insurance for Larry (Escobar would sit until it was time to play third), and to free up the leadoff spot for one of these gentlemen. Neither have much of a major league track record. Anderson looks to be the more talented of the two, and he got the havoc in him, but you have to be impressed by Blanco’s patience at the plate. 74 walks for a rookie with no pop? That is flat out gettin’-er-dunn.
Five dudes who might get a start every now and again to keep them sharp:
Matt Diaz is finta make the squad and prolly start in left until the Garrett is buttressed. Look for the loser of the center field sweepstakes to break camp with the big boys as well. Omar Infante is no slouch at the dish for a lil’ tyke and he can play around the horn. Greg Norton can spell Case-dog at first and is an ideal pinch hitter, in that he swings both ways. As for the back-up catcher, we’ll get to him in the next section.
What’s all this gotta do with us? (Xenophobic xection)
Reds/Braves was once quite a rivalry in the Western Division, before realignment. In the 70’s the Reds were dominant, neither team had a decisive edge in the 80’s, and the Brave’s owned the 90’s.
Erybody knows sMarty called Hank Aaron’s 714th on his first day on the job.
Unless I am missing something, the only ex-Red in the fold is Bronson’s boy David Ross, who we released last year. He looks like a lock to make the team as the backup catcher. If Bronson and D. Lowe are as close as they say, perhaps Dross can swing a gig as Lowe’s personal catcher.
I am giving short shrift to this section for a few reasons. This is no longer a divisional rivalry. Neither team is stocked with veterans that have extensive experience against the other team. A look at the splits reveals that Larry is no more dangerous against the Reds than he is generally. The same holds true for D. Lowe. None of the veteran Reds have noteworthy stats against the Braves, either. I tried, alright?
According to Baseball Prospectus, which is probably smarter than me (at least in this regard), the Braves will finish third in their division with a respectable 85-77 record. I think that they will do at least that well if (a big if) Jones and G. Anderson can stay reasonably healthy. The Mets and Phillies both have suspect pitching. The Braves pitching should be much improved. Their young talent is a year older. The onus really falls on the offense. If that group can match its 2008 tally of 753 runs scored, the Braves will play in October. Even if the Braves lose the injury battle or are outclassed by the big spenders of the N.L. East (don’t count the Fish out either), they are an organization on the ascendancy. In researching them, I discovered many parallels to the Reds; deep starting pitching and position players that are perhaps too raw to carry a team to the playoffs. If either team is in contention at the deadline, they both have the pieces to deal to obtain the veterans that may put them over the top.
A-town, Chunk Ya Deuce Up:
I wanted to put this up top, but I also wanted people to read this preview. The 404 is a hotbed of rap talent. Here comes a list. The bolded dudes are lesser-known beasts. Outkast, Goodie Mob, Lil’ Jon, Ludacris, Pastor Troy, T. I., Arrested Development, Young Jeezy (blech), the Ying Yang Twins, Jermaine Dupri, Killer Mike, Kriss Kross, Field Mob, Gorilla Zoe, Chingy, BoneCrusher, Slim Cutta Calhoun, Young Dro, Bubba Sparxx, Young Joc, Soulja Boy and my personal favorite, Gucci Mane. How can you not love this dude?
CHYEEEEEEEEEEEEEAH!!!!!!!! (No sarcasm.)!
Props are due to baseball-reference.com, braves.com, baseballprospectus.com, and most of all the fine folks at our sister site, talkingchop.com. Here is the particular Fanpost I used to elicit their aid. Above all else, I would like to thank parentheses, without whom this preview would not have been possible. Numbers lovers, don’t fret, no actual numbers were crunched in the making of this preview. Much love, RRers!