Jim & Bob's Palatial Baseball Blog

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Atlanta Braves 2008 Preview: Don't You Forget About Me

2007...the year that sucked/was groovy (pick one)

Since 1991 the Atlanta Braves have become very accustomed to reaching the postseason. No team has ever had a streak like that of the 1991-2005 Braves: at no time during that span was there a postseason played in which the Braves did not participate. All good things come to an end, and the Braves streak ended in 2006. They came into 2007 hoping to revive it and frequently looked like they were almost to the top of the hill only to go falling back again. Although frustrated, the Braves did finish five games better than the previous season. They also made an in-season trade which will benefit them for some time, but did lose both their centerfielder and shortstop over the winter.

They can put it on the board, yes! no! maybe!

Despite a very disappointing season from Andruw Jones and playing a first baseman with a dismal .652 OPS for two thirds of the season, the 2007 Braves were quite proficient at scoring runs. Chipper Jones led the way with a tremendous season, one of the best of his career. Pretty much everyone in the lineup contributed, including reserves Willie Harris and Yunel Escobar, and Mark Teixeira was everything that the Braves hoped for after his acquisition.

SS Yunel Escobar
CF Mark Kotsay
3B Chipper Jones
1B Mark Teixeira
RF Jeff Francoeur
C Brian McCann
LF Matt Diaz
2B Kelly Johnson

Escobar's performance made Renteria expendable. Johnson and Kotsay should swap places and probably will; back problems have made Kotsay a shadow of his former self and Johnson is by far the better hitter. The three through six hitters are as good as any similar group in the game, although Jones can be expected to miss 20-30 games every year with injuries. I expect that the Braves will continue to be among the better scoring teams in the NL.

Pitchers, or belly itchers?

The days of the greatest starting rotation in history are long since over, but the Braves are still fairly effective at run prevention. John Smoltz showed no signs at age 40 of slowing down, going 14-8, 3.11 and striking out 197 batters. Tim Hudson rebounded from a poor 2006 by adding another fine season to his career. Chuck James was league average but the rest of the rotation struggled.

SP John Smoltz
SP Tim Hudson
SP Tom Glavine
SP Chuck James
SP Mike Hampton (yeah, right)

CL Rafael Soriano
RP Peter Moylan
RP Will Ohman

Anyone think that the Braves will really get anything out of Hampton this year? Let's see a show of hands. No, me neither. It's much more likely that rookies Jair Jurrjens or Jo-Jo Reyes will wind up filling the back spot in the rotation. Smoltz and Hudson remain a fine tandem at the top of the rotation. Glavine was effective for the Mets in 2006 until the final two weeks and is still capable of turning in league average work and bitching about Questech. Soriano is often unhittable, but leaves some balls up in the zone, leading to some long game-ending homers.

Witnesses for the defense

The Braves are an above average defensive team. Although Andruw Jones is not the centerfielder he used to be (who is?) he will be missed; Kotsay was once a fine centerfielder himself but isn't any more on most days. Francoeur has a cannon arm and covers ground well in right. Escobar has a fine arm himself but must show better range at short. Johnson was a work in progress as a second baseman but should at least be average. Teixeira is a fine defensive first baseman.

Farm aid

The Braves have an outstanding scouting and development program and have more potential stars in the farm system than almost any other team. Brandon Jones will at the very least platoon with Diaz in left field this year. Jurrjens and Reyes will get chances in the rotation and should at least be league average as rookies. Shortstop Brent Lillibridge will start the season at triple A and is available as either a backup plan if Escobar fails or as a trade chit if Escobar succeeds. Most of the rest of the talent is still at lower levels but keep an eye on centerfielder Jordan Schafer, who has the abilities to be everything Andruw Jones was. He could move up fast.

Watch out for that tree!

Most of the Braves key performers aren't any guys who are in danger of total collapse. Glavine's season ending fade in 2007 is worrisome, especially since his strikeout rate fell way off. He's the Brave most likely to hit the wall. Kotsay is 32 with a bad back. That can't end well. Smoltz and Jones may miss time with injuries but are still very effective when they can play.

I can make a hat, or a broach...

The general consensus in the media and in some opposing clubhouses is the Mets and Phillies will be the teams competing for the NL East pennant. That may well be true, but the Braves can't be counted out. This is a good ballclub with a solid lineup and a deep pitching staff with a number of options. I can't see any reason why the Braves can't finish ahead of either or both of the other contenders over the long haul of the season.

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