Team Preview: Atlanta Braves

So in the spirit of Spring Training, it's time to start up with team previews. Teams will be previewed in approximately the same order as we like them. We try not to accord too much favor or bias around here, but...we like some teams more than others. This will only be reflected in the order of the previews. We promise. Sort of. Anyway, the general idea is that we'll talk a bit about the team to preface it all, mention how they did last year and what they've done to address the situation this year. We'll guess at what they will look like on the diamond, and who will log significant innings and/or saves in Around the Horn and From the Bump, respectively. Furthermore, we'll use PECOTA to help us predict what they'll each do this year. Should be great fun. Let's get going.

With that out of the way, let's break some real ground! First up, the Atlanta Braves - the favorite child around these parts. The glory days of the '90s are barely a speck in the rearview mirror now, especially with fan favorites and Braves legends like John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Rafael Belliard, Tom Glavine (present in person, but not in performance), and Eddie Mathews either retired or dead. Or both. Last year, the Bravos rolled up a stellar 72-90 mark, featuring the worst pitching (4.80 runs allowed per game) and most impotent offense (4.66 runs scored per game) this side of Washington in the NL East. GM Frank Wren has made steps to correct that this year, though, bringing in RHPs Derek Lowe (FA), Javier Vazquez (trade - CWS), and Kenshin Kawakami (FA, Japan), and LHPs Tom Glavine (FA, terrible) and Boone Logan (trade - CWS) to toe the rubber and LF Garret Anderson, C David Ross, and 2B "Big Bad" Brooks Conrad to carry the lumber. We are firm believers that Wren should have brought in LF Manny Ramirez to solve the team's power problem - they have the money, as evidenced by the failed AJ Burnett deal - or at least Adam Dunn. Alas, Braves fans will have to take solace in the fact that RHPs Peter Moylan (elbow surgery, Australian) and Rafael Soriano (elbow surgery) are ready to return, which, along with a full season of a healthy Mike Gonzalez should bolster a bullpen that has been a weakness in recent years. The prospects are looking good, too, with Jordan Schafer nearly ready, Jason Heyward progressing well, and Tommy Hanson looking like a Major League-ready world beater right now.

2009 Forecast

PECOTA projected record: 85-77, 3rd in NL East

KCSD projected record: 162-0, World Champions. Or, 81-81, 3rd in NL East. You choose.

Around the Horn:

C Brian McCann: 304/.378/.523, 25 HR. We love McCann. We hadn't heard much about him as a prospect, but OPSing .900 as a 22-year old certainly got our attention. He has been hindered slightly by the minor injuries that accumulate behind the plate, but hopefully he can fight through them and keep putting up outstanding numbers.

1B Casey Kotchman: .278/.342/.446, 12 HR. The "prize" of the Teixeira trade last July, Kotchman did little to endear himself to the Braves faithful, hitting .237/.331/.316 in his 152 second-half ABs. We don't think he'll ever fill Tex's shoes, though before that gentleman's arrival, first base was a black hole in Atlanta, so it's better than nothing. Coming into his age 27 season, hopefully he can build on some of the promise that he'd flashed at times in Anaheim.

2B Kelly Johnson: .289/.373/.474, 17 HR, 11 SB. Kelly is a KCSD favorite ever since he dropped a tetra tot (hi, WOW!) on Ramon Ortiz in Great American Ballpark a couple years ago at the one Braves game we saw. His power regressed a bit last year, but a scorching September and now a full year at his new position makes us think he can improve.

3B Chipper Jones: .348/.448/.581, 24 HR. The legend! KCSD's all-time favorite player, this hot corner HOFer has been a rock in the Braves foundation since his rookie year in 1995 - fondly known as the year the Braves won the Series. The question with him is, as it has been for years now, how many games he will play, but there's no doubt that he'll be a force for however many ABs you can squeeze out of his aging legs.

SS Yunel Escobar: .291/.362/.438, 8 HR. The Cuban product had a sensational rookie year, making it possible to trade away Edgar Renteria in order to bring in the one reliable starter the Braves had last year in Jair Jurrjens. His sophomore effort was not exceptional, but, especially for a shortstsop, it was perfectly acceptable. The Braves liked him enough that they were loathe to include him in a proposed deal for Padres RHP Jake Peavy, and we think he can reward their faith with a solid year.

LF Garret Anderson: .278/.324/.430, 11 HR, lots of games missed. The signing of Garret Anderson is not one that we at KCSD welcomed with open arms. The underwhelming slugger has had a good career, but has posted exactly one (1) season of an above-100 OPS+ since 2005. He's never had a great eye at the plate, and at his age, is a defensive and medical liability.

CF Gregor Blanco: .260/.363/.344, 3 HR, 13 SB. What the young CF lacks in power, he (sort of) makes up for in plate discipline and defense. Even for an up-the-middle guy, slugging less than .400 is...well, not good. That said, there don't seem to be any better options; Jordan Schafer needs another year in the minors, and Josh Anderson is not very good at playing baseball.

RF Jeff Francoeur: .277/.330/.450, 19 HR. Frenchy burst onto the scene as a rookie, hitting .400 for a stretch, making the cover of SI, etc. He lost power his sophomore year, and then lost all baseball ability last year. A brief demotion to AA did nothing to boost his performance; he was downright terrible before and after. But, he's still just 25, and showed an ability to have at least SOME semblance of a batting eye in his second year. If he can get back to those "patient" ways and muscle up on a few balls, he might could meet with some success.

From the Bump: Starters

RHP Derek Lowe: 180 IP, 3.54 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 120 K, 47 BB. The big free agent acquisition, Lowe is expected to provide an ace performance, with plenty of innings and quality starts. We don't doubt his ability to be a very good pitcher on a regular basis, but he is getting old, and even sinkerballers have to wear down sometime. Hopefully for the Braves, it does not become a pronounced problem over the course of his 4-year deal.

RHP Javier Vazquez: 201 IP, 3.10 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 195 K, 55 BB. We're more bullish on Vazquez, who for years has been an underappreciated guy. Statheads have been waiting for his breakout year for awhile now, but a problem with the long ball and inopportune breakdowns have inflated his ERA and stopped him from being the guy he can be. We think this year he figures it out.

RHP Jair Jurrjens: 170 IP, 3.94 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 115 K, 52 BB. Jurrjens was a gift last season, the one guy in the rotation that could really be counted on every time out. By midseason, he was the de facto ace - quite a feat for a rookie. We see some slight regression this year, as there's a full year of scouting reports on him now, but he still has the talent and will continue developing into a fine pitcher.

RHP Kenshin Kawakami: 160 IP, 4.60 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 100 K, 49 BB. We admit we really have no idea what to expect from Ken. An aging starter brought over from the Far East, he could be anything from great to Irabu and we wouldn't be surprised. A control freak in the line of Baltimore's import Koji Uehara, but not as good, Kawakami should be successful, though not dominant - if he can eat innings, that's a good 4th man.

LHP Tom Glavine: 100 IP, 5.50 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 42 K, 38 BB. Glavine represents a paradox in the Braves organization. They are at once sentimental and heartless; they bring him back on two consecutive one-year deals despite conclusive proof last year that he is washed up, and yet they let franchise icon - and effective pitcher! - John Smoltz go to the Red Sox for a mere $5 million. It's also worth mentioning, having spent lots of time reading the Atlanta Journal Constitution's coverage of the Braves, that they have a bizarre separation anxiety; there are almost always updates on Andruw Jones, and the same will probably be true of Smoltz this upcoming season. Anyway, we obviously think bringing in Glavine was a mistake and hope they won't be burned too badly by it. If anything, his inevitable failures will pave the way for Tommy Hanson.

From the Bump: Relievers

Closer Mike Gonzalez: 2.52 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 30 SV, 50 K. The closer man from Pittsburgh with the funky delivery, Gonzalez is a force to be reckoned with. We think he is more than capable of a fully healthy season now; he has had health issues in the past, but think those are behind him with the surgeries. He should be able to rack up the saves for a successful team without much punch.

Setup man Rafael Soriano: 3.46 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 56 K. The hard throwing Dominican has been an excellent addition since the Mariners shipped him south for Horacio Ramirez (hate that guy) when he's been healthy. We hope he can be just that this season, because Dave O'Brien (Braves beat writer) thinks he looks like a closer. And that's just good enough for us to like him!

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