MLB Team-By-Team Previews 2009: After A 3-Year Playoff Drought, Can The Braves Start A New Streak?
If the Braves stand a chance in the stout NL East, the starting rotation has to (1) stay healthy and (2) gel together. It's nice when you redo your entire pitching staff and add some reliable arms, but they have to get a feel for their new team, new coach, and each other. If these guys can get things going without missing much time, they can pile up some wins with an offense that will put plenty of runs on the board. They have a solid bullpen that has proven the past two seasons that they are very effective until they start getting overused, which was a result of horrible starting pitching and injuries. If our new "innings eaters" hold form, we're going to see the team ERA drop a good bit, and see the Braves in the thick of things come August.
John Smoltz (took an offer from the Red Sox, and pissed off every fan in Atlanta)
Mike Hampton (picked up all of his broken pieces and headed to Houston)
Hampton kind of pulled the wool over the Braves' eyes. He wasn't expected to be a Cy Young winner this season, but when he decided to leave, he left the Braves in a bigger pickle than before. The Braves were in desperate need of pitching at the time, and could have used Hampton for a #4 or #5 starter. After all of the patience that the Braves had with Hampton over the past 3 seasons with his injuries, the least he could have done was give them one season and helped them out. I know he's a walking biology experiment, but he finished last season fairly strong for a man that had miissed the past 2 and a half seasons. The least he could do was to help us out.
When Smoltz left Atlanta, it was pretty detrimental to Braves fans. He had been there for almost 2 decades, been the face of the team, and always bounced back from his injuries. A dispute over money (he felt the GM Frank Wren wasn't showing him any respect with the offer he was given, and I agree) pushed him out the door and on his way to Boston, where he got a much more respectable offer for a man in his shoes. Atlanta was ready to ambush Frank Wren's home over this departure, so he had to do something quick to smooth over the situation
Derek Lowe (SP)
Javier Vazquez (SP)
Kenshin Kawakami (SP)
Garrett Anderson (OF)
David Ross (C)
Eric O'Flaherty (bullpen)
Boone Logan (bullpen)
The Braves missed the boat on a few aces that were out there (Peavy and Burnett were pursued aggressively). This was right after Smoltz left, so Wren had to do something to patch things up with the fans. So he quickly added Lowe, Vazquez, and Kawakami. Neither of these guys are considered ace material, but Lowe and Vazquez both are innings eaters. With the way they pitch, it should go hand-in-hand at Turner Field, a pitchers ballpark. I see no reason why either of these guys can't get at least 15 wins this season. Kawakami was signed from Japan and has some proving to do. But he has looked good so far in spring training and should have 10-15 wins in him. He has a real advantage in the fact that no one has seen him yet. So the first season at least should be a good one for him.
In past seasons, if Brian McCann got hurt or just needed a day off, the Braves were screwed. No catcher on the bench was good enough either offensively or defensively to fill a backup role. It was a huge hole in the lineup whenever McCann was out. In comes David Ross. He's not a top-of-the-line guy, but he is a solid defensive catcher and has a pretty decent bat. He is going to help tremendously this season giving Heap some time off.
The Braves searched long and hard for a new outfielder. They almost got Griffey. Contemplated trades for players like Nady and Swisher. But eventually landed veteran Garrett Anderson. Anderson will platoon in left field with Matt Diaz, until one of them steps up and shows he can play everyday. I love Anderson. Always have. But he has played his entire career with the Angels and in the American League. Making the transition to the NL is going to be something to keep an eye on. If he can do it successfully, that's good news for the Bravos. If not, this one year deal could be a disaster.
Josh Anderson/Jordan Shaefer/Gregor Blanco (CF)
Yunel Escobar (SS)
Chipper Jones (3B)
Brian McCann (C)
Jeff Francoeur (RF)
Kelly Johnson (2B)
Matt Diaz/Garrett Anderson (LF)
Casey Kotchman (1B)
Tom Glavine/Jo Jo Reyes/Tommy Hanson
Mike Gonzalez (CL)
Peter Moylan (setup)
Rafael Soriano (setup)
For the first time in about 4-5 years, the Braves' strength will finally be it's pitching again. Like I said above, this won't be a dominating staff in terms of aces, but quality pitching is definitely there. If this squad can stay healthy and push hard into June/July, Tim Hudson could return by then making the rotation even stronger. That's a big "IF" since he is coming off of surgery, but if he does, then it will be huge. And with the starters hopefully staying healthy and eating some innings, the bullpen will stay fresh and dominate the way they have for the first half of the season the past 2 years.
I know what some of you are thinking: "That rotation doesn't really look all that strong." Well, that's because it's missing a member. To start the season, phenom Tommy Hanson will start the season at AAA just to "hone his skills". That's what is being said at least. Translation: the Braves are giving all of the guys competing for the #5 spot a chance to prove themselves. Whoever fades first, gets replaced by Hanson." Hanson has been tearing it up in the minors for the past 2 seasons and has looked great in spring training. He has an above average fastball and Cox has compared his slider to Smoltz's. He will be in Atlanta very soon, and he is going to make that rotation pretty freaking good.
I hate to say it, but the entire outfield is a weakness right now. We don't know who will be in centerfield yet, but it will be someone young for sure. That is always scary. RIght now Josh Anderson probably has the inside position to start. But hopefully, Jordan Schaefer will be starting out there before long. He has been the "stud on his way up" for a couple of years. If he can prove he is ready, Cox will have him in Atlanta before it starts getting warm. But he still has to prove himself. As I stated above, left field will be a toss up until Diaz and Anderson prove they can play everyday and make the transition. Francoeur has been a head case in right field for over a year now. He absolutely has to bounce back this season for Atlanta to have a chance.
Players to watch
The entire pitching staff. But to be specific, Tommy Hanson. How quick can he get to Atlanta? Will he have to wait? The sooner he gets in the rotation, the sooner I'll be excited about the rotation.
I'm going to do this from two points-of-view:
(Homer pick) The Braves, despite all of the key quesiton marks, have what it takes to win the NL East. Solid pitching from top to bottom and a lineup that will put up some runs has this team in position to make a run. Why not? The Mets like to self implode and the Phillies are due to crash and burn. Who else is going to take the division? Washington?
(Realistic) Until we see all of the pieces gel together and give us some confidence, the Braves have to be picked to finish third in teh division. They have a chance to make a run, but next season might be a more logical time to predict them going to the post season.
Time to end this rant
The Braves finally have a team that will boost some confidence in it's fans to start the season for the first time in a while. Pitching is definitely there. Hitting is there with some holes, but I'm going to be a good homer fan and assume those pieces will fall into place. From top to bottom, the NL East is pretty solid, IMO. It's going to be a dog fight and I don't think anyone will run away with the division. What will make or break the Braves this season? Youth. If they have a hard time adjusting, it will be a long season. If they can step in and provide the punch that they have displayed in spring training and in the minors, this is going to be a good season for Braves fans.