Five questions: Atlanta Braves

What comes around goes around. Will 15 years of NL East famine follow 15 years of feast? Six months ago many would have uttered yes. But this past offseason, GM Frank Wren has tried to reconstruct the Braves’ once-feared rotation. Add to that the perception among analysts that the farm is the best in the business and the drought may be over in 2009.

1. Will it?

In all honesty, probably not.

In my book (well, the THT Season Preview) the Braves project as an 84-win team this time around;a large dollop of luck is required if they are to challenge the Phillies and Mets for the division. That gives the team a 20 percent chance of winning the division and a further 10 percent shot of making it via the wild card.

However, a look around the interweb suggests that, if anything, those THT numbers are a little conservative. CHONE, which was probably the best performing projection system of all last year, rates the Braves as an 86-win team—even with the Phillies and a game behind the Mets. PECOTA, interestingly, has the Braves as an 87-win team, which is tied with the Phillies but lags the Mets at 92 wins.

Prognostication is a fraught science and must be taken with a pinch of salt. At the start of last year many thought the division was a three-horse race, but the Braves lagged, finishing with only 72 wins, 12 games behind the Marlins. However, with the Mets significantly upgrading by adding two of the best in baseball to their bullpen, closing games shouldn’t be a problem.

The only question is whether they can get into position to close games, with Daniel Murphy, Fernando Tatis and Ryan Church patrolling the outfield corners and Luis Castillo taking charge of the middle infield. There is hope.

2. Will the rotation work as advertised?

If the Braves are to challenge, the rotation needs to come good. Wren ripped apart last year’s excuse for a pitching staff and rebuilt from the ground up. Please welcome: Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Tom Glavine, Javier Vasquez and Kenshin Kawakami as your starting five.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect on paper is its depth—Atlanta hasn’t had a staff this good for half a decade. Let’s start with the old. Jurrjens, who was acquired from the Tigers, was one of the bright spots for the Braves last year. He notched 13 wins and a 3.68 ERA in 188 innings. He’s the real deal, too, with at least four pitchers and a fastball that clocks 94 on the gun.

Glavine is the other returnee from last year, although his 2008 was truncated by injury—he hurled only 63 innings. At 43, Glavine must be close to retirement, so let’s hope he can sign off in style. If healthy there is no reason why he can’t register a league average ERA.

Look up Derek Lowe in Merriam-Webster:

Derek Lowe: noun, workhorse.

Lowe, the sinker ball specialist, has averaged 15 wins a year over the last seven seasons and the last time his ERA was over 3.90 was in 2004, when he was pitching at Fenway. At the very least he should give the Braves innings, which they desperately need from a front-line starter. The only question mark is that his strong recent years were recorded in Dodger Stadium—yes, a pitcher’s park.

Vasquez is another workhorse, albeit one with a slight limp. While he has pitched more than 200 innings in each of the last four years, he has had a sub 4.00 ERA only once, in 2007. Throughout his career he has been spotted as a breakout candidate, but the man is 31, for goodness sake. Knowing the Braves’ luck, what are the odds that neither Vasquez and Lowe hurls 200 innings? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Kenshin Kawakami is the biggest unknown. So …. um …. what do we know about him? Well, he’s Japanese (ed: c’mon, you can do better than that) … oh, okay, … and in Japan he has a 112-72 record with a 3.30 career ERA. It is always difficult to translate Nippon success to the majors, but Kenshin figures for a league average starter in the bigs. The only issue I suspect is that it may take him a while to settle in—let’s hope there are some decent translators in the dugout.

3. Will Frenchy look better than a Double-A hitter?

With each passing season, this question gets easier to answer. Jeff Francoeur was nothing short of horrific last year, recording .239/.294/.359—and he is a corner outfielder from where you’d expect some pretty decent production! We can discount small sample size. Despite being relegated to the minors, the kid (he’s no longer a kid, really) played in an eye-popping 155 games.

Walks and strikes remain a big problem—he swings and misses too much and entering his fifth year of big-league baseball many feel this is his last chance to rescue his career. Here’s a quote from Frenchy in late 2006:

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

“I learned I’ve got to give up something … if I’m covering out over the plate and he throws it inside, I’ve got to spit on it (take the pitch). You can still be a free swinger, but you need to be more selective. You just learn as you go. You learn to realize that’s not a good pitch to swing at … I want to keep learning and get to the point where the team can totally depend on me, like they do Chipper (Jones) and Andruw (Jones).”

And this is what Bobby Cox said shortly after:

“(Francoeur) can sit on pitches now. He’s sharp kid. He is still working. He is not going to walk an awful lot, which is fine with me where he is hitting in the lineup. And I think if you took his aggression at the plate away from him, I don’t think he’d be as good.”

Oh, ****.

4. Can Chipper win the batting title again?

yes I said yes I will Yes (to quote perhaps the famous ending of any English language novel).

After missing out on the last day of the 2007 season to Colorado’s Matt Holliday, Chipper Jones stormed to the batting title last year with a career best .364 average. That belies a season of two halves. For the first half, Chipper was going like a jet and batted over .400 until mid-June. In the second half, he tailed off but still managed to hit over .300. Let’s not forget that all this was at the tender age of 36! Impressive.

Given the providence of luck, a repeat is unlikely. But based on recent form expect Chipper to hit over .300—he’s rapidly building a Hall of Fame resume.

5. Will the bullpen finally come good?

Although the Mets have loaded their bullpen with arms, the best and most cost-effective strategy is usually to fill the pen with middling pitchers bookended by a couple of relief aces for those high-leverage innings. The Braves have tried this strategy for the last couple of years but failed miserably

How do the Braves of 2009 fit with this model?

On paper, not badly. However, on paper, the Braves’ pen last year wasn’t bad and then Rafael Soriano goes and gets hurt pitching only 14 innings. Atlanta’s other putative relief ace, Mike Gonzalez, has pitched fewer than 50 innings in two years. Ouch. Peter Moylan, another potential bright light, tossed fewer than six innings in 2008. Two out of those three need to remain healthy for the Braves to lock down close games.

Behind these three Jorge Campillo, Blaine Boyer, Manny Acosta and Jeff Bennett are usable relievers. Once more it’s not a bad relief corps … on paper at least, anyway.

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