I've got very little love for the Atlanta Braves. I'll never be able to get past the abusive relationship they had with the early-'90s Pirates. They are a team from the Deep South who didn't have the good sense not to employ an unabashedly racist reliever (John Rocker). And, let's face it, the face of their franchise, Chipper Jones, falls somewhere between REO Speedwagon and offal on the likability scale.
That said, if this is in fact Bobby Cox's final season at the helm, I wouldn't be totally disappointed if the Braves made a somewhat unexpected playoff run on his behalf, with the caveat that it must end with the opposition beating them with a walkoff single by a backup infielder in Game 7 of the NLCS.
The Braves have positioned themselves to contend, if not for the AL East title, at least for the Wild Card. It's hard to believe, but it's actually been four years since Atlanta finished even as higher than third place. Granted, this stretch was preceded by fourteen consecutive division titles, so I don't feel terribly sorry for them, but it would befit Cox to go out on a high note.
Atlanta has a deep rotation, a solid retrofitted bullpen, and, assuming Jones and Troy Glaus stay healthy, just enough offense to be dangerous.
Garret Anderson (38) LF
Ryan Church (31) RF [Signed w/ Pirates]
Kelly Johnson (28) 2B [Signed w/ D-Backs]
Brandon Jones (26) OF [Signed w/ Pirates]
Adam LaRoche (30) 1B [Signed w/ D-Backs]
Barbaro Canizares (30) 1B
Michael Dunn (25) LHRP
Diory Hernandez (26) SS
Jason Heyward (20) RF
Luis Valdez (26) RHRP
Frank Wren was among the most active general managers this offseason, though not all of his activities fit with the Braves conventional approach. For one thing, Wren traded away their best veteran staring pitcher, Javier Vazquez, who was coming off probably the best season of his career. He also signed an expensive veteran closer, Billy Wagner - the first time during the Cox era that the Braves have done such a thing. And finally, perhaps most surprising, Atlanta outright released a pair of relatively young players, Kelly Johnson and Brandon Jones, who were once considered among the organizations top talents.
Put all this together and it was very difficult to tell whether this was a franchise prepping itself for contention or budgeting for the future. Based on the current roster, it would appear that the Braves will enter 2010 with their lowest payroll in ten years, somewhere in the vicinity of $83 Million, close to $20 Million less than they spent as recently as 2008. This could be evidence of belt-tightening (and attendance in Atlanta has dropped in each of the last two seasons), or Wren could be saving some of his budget for a big midseason acquisition (I'm thinking Adam Dunn or Lance Berkman could be good fits).
One of the biggest stories this spring will be the advancement of Jason Heyward. The 20-year-old right-fielder was recently rated the #1 prospect in baseball, ahead of Stephen Strasburg, by both ESPN and MLB.com, and Bobby Cox said candidly that when Heyward arrived in Florida, the starting job would be his to lose. Heyward is undoubtedly the most anticipated hitting prospect since Justin Upton, and the fanfare surrounding his arrival will be even bigger since it'll be happening during the story-starved spring, whereas guys like Upton, Ryan Braun, Evan Longoria, and Matt Wieters were all afforded the luxury of midseason call-ups. Scouts have raved about Heyward's "maturity." Hopefully, he won't wilt under the magnifying glass, as Delmon Young did.
Regardless of how it plays out, you've got to be amazed by what Heyward did in two minor-league seasons, advancing through four levels and mashing at every one of them (although, to be fair, he only played three games at AAA), accumulating these splits: .319 AVG, .393 OBP, .509 SLG. Heyward's future is very, very bright, but he would not be my first bet as NL Rookie of the Year, merely because of his youth.
Guys who break into the majors before they can even buy liquor rarely hit the ground running. Upton's OPS in 2007 was just 647. Ken Griffey Jr.'s was only 748 in his first season. A-Rod bounced back and forth between Seattle and Tacoma for a couple seasons, managing just a 609 OPS at the major-league level, before breaking out in 1996. I think Atlanta is doing the right thing by giving Heyward a full-time gig, because he's got nothing more to learn in the minor leagues, but it'll probably be a year or two before he blossoms into an All-Star. Bobby Cox, I'm sure, recognizes the learning curve. Hopefully, Braves fans will as well.
In 2010 I actually expect breakout seasons from a pair of Braves who won't get nearly as much press in the coming months: Melky Cabrera and Martin Prado. Wren liked Cabrera enough to make him the lynchpin in the Vazquez trade. Fickle Yankees fans had grown tired of "waiting for Melky to develop," but Melky just turned 25 and already has four full seasons under his belt, under the most extraordinary magnifying glass in American sport. Melky isn't a "toolbox" like Heyward. He's never going to hit for a ton of power or win an MVP, but he's a terrific defender and a switch-hitter with speed, great baseball intelligence, and good bat control. His skills have consistently improved every season and it will only take one more small jump to make him a premium centerfielder.
Martin Prado's development made Kelly Johnson expendable. The 25-year-old who had never gotten 250 ABs in a season before last year, very quietly hit .307 in his first full season. From June 1st on, after he'd solidified his starting position, he hit .319, with an 838 OPS. Like Cabrera, Prado has shown decent plate discipline and a low strikeout rate, a quality which Bobby Cox prefers. There's a good chance he'll begin the season hitting directly in front of Chipper Jones and Brian McCann.
In 2009, Atlanta led the league in starter's ERA, at 3.52, which was the best number an NL starting rotation had recorded since 2005. If they had retained Vazquez, they could've kept the entire group together, which was what made that trade so befuddling. There is certainly nothing wrong with what remains, but Vazquez was not only the staff Ace, but he remains one of the most durable and consistent pitchers in baseball, having made 32 or more starts in ten consecutive seasons. Derek Lowe is also a workhorse, having registered 32 or more in eight straight, but 2009 was among the worst seasons of his career, even though he won 15 games, and, at 37, he's no lock to rebound.
Behind Lowe, the Braves have a lot of talent, but not a lot of certainty. Tim Hudson missed over a season after Tommy John surgery. He looked good in the waning months of '09, but the Braves really took a risk re-signing him (for 3 yrs./$28 Mil.) before he'd thrown a full year's worth of innings. Tommy Hanson was downright nasty after his call-up, going 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA, and he looks like he could be headed towards a Cy Young someday. But, of course, with young pitchers, looks can be deceiving. For every Tim Lincecum or Felix Hernandez, there are a few dozen Francisco Lirianos and Zack Dukes, who can't rekindle the dominance of their rookie year.
The optimistic way of looking at the Braves rotation is to say that they have at least four pitchers who have been or will be Aces; one for every suit, as it were. But the pessimist will note that nobody on the staff has won a Cy Young, and they are merely a couple bad breaks from considering Jo-Jo Reyes their #3 starter.
The Braves major problem, besides being prone to injuries, is playing in a division which is clearly divided into two classes: the Phillies and everybody else. It would appear to be a foregone conclusion that Philadelphia, who perhaps even improved during the offseason, will win their fourth consecutive division title, which means the Braves road back to the postseason is fraught with obstacles, not only from their own division, where the Marlins bested them by a game in '09, but from across the league.
Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:
LF Nate McLouth (L)
2B Martin Prado (R)
3B Chipper Jones (S)
C Brian McCann (L)
1B Troy Glaus (R)
CF Melky Cabrera (S)
RF Jason Heyward (R)
SS Yunel Escobar (R)
SP Tim Hudson (R)
SP Jair Jurrjens (R)
SP Derek Lowe (R)
SP Tommy Hanson (R)
SP Kensin Kawakami (R)
CL Billy Wagner (L)
SU Takashi Saito (R)
SU Peter Moylan (R)
LOOGY Eric O'Flaherty (L)
MR Kris Medlen (R)
MR Mike Dunn (L)
SWING Jo-Jo Reyes (L)
C David Ross (R)
IF Omar Infante (R)
1B/3B/OF Eric Hinske (L)
OF Matt Diaz (R)
OF Gregor Blanco (L)