Brent Blackwell’s 2008 Season Preview

After a decade and a half of owning the NL East, spending two years watching playoff baseball on TV has seemed like an eternity for Braves fans.  While the most current edition is no lock to return to past glory, it does appear to be Atlanta’s best team since the 2005 squad that last reached the postseason.  Returning a phenomenal offense and vastly underrated defense, Atlanta is hoping that through free agency and some rehabilitation, the pitching staff will be improved enough to once again be considered a strength.

Atlanta has conventional stars, like most teams, but it is production from the players at the non-traditional offensive positions that makes this offense so special.  That all begins with catcher Brian McCann.  After an outstanding 2006, McCann came back to earth in 2007 but still was quite helpful in the offense.  Expect a slight rebound in 2008, and there’s no reason McCann can’t hit near or higher than .300 this year.  Moving around the infield, 2007 mid-season acquisition Mark Teixeira is primed for his first full season in Atlanta.  Last year Teixeira hit roughly .800/.933/1.350 for two months in Atlanta – I kid, but doesn’t that seem strangely accurate?  Given that Teixeira, who besides being an ideal #3 or #4 hitter is also a Gold Glove candidate, is only guaranteed to be a Brave through the end of this season, the pressure is on the organization to take advantage of this great window of opportunity.  Across the diamond, team leader Chipper Jones returns for his 14th full season in Atlanta after leading the majors in EqA in 2007.  With Chipper, it’s never a question of whether he will produce, but whether he’ll be on the field enough to produce.  While Chipper has announced quite a lofty goal of 150 games, Braves fans will be happy with 130, a total he’s reached only twice in the 4 years since he returned to 3B.  Lost somewhere in Jones’ chase for the NL batting title last season was Chipper’s sudden and surprising improvement on defense.  Never a favorite among defensive analysts, Chipper upgraded his game last year, which was a huge help to Atlanta.  According to Revised Zone Rating, Chipper was among the league leaders in Out of Zone plays.  Up the middle, Atlanta will rely on 2B Kelly Johnson, an on-base machine who could approach 20 HR and who should be much improved defensively in his 2nd season at the position.  In 2007, coming off Tommy John surgery, Johnson played plus defense and was a quiet offensive force.  If he gets any better, he arguably becomes Atlanta’s most valuable player.  His double play mate will be SS Yunel Escobar, a solid defender whose best offensive attribute is his ability to make consistent contact.  While unlikely to match last season’s impressive stats, Yunel should still be reliable .

Anchoring the outfield will be RF Jeff Francoeur, who spent 2007 working on his biggest problem – plate discipline.  It’s rare to see players try to reinvent their hitting approaches and much rarer to see them have such success in doing so.  Granted, a cursory glance at Francoeur’s ’07 season might indicate a loss of power, given that his HR count dipped from 29 to 19.  However, Francoeur cut his strikeout rate, doubled his walk rate, and got more loft in his swing, increasing his fly ball and line drive rates.  In 2008, Francoeur should finally put it all together, and I’m calling for a .300/.350/.500 season with 30 HR.  Given that he has added 17 pounds of muscle this offseason and considering the natural progression of offensive growth, that could be quite a realistic forecast and possibly even a modest one.  In CF is newcomer Mark Kotsay, who hasn’t been healthy since Mike Hampton was simply an overpaid pitcher rather than an overpaid injured pitcher.  Kotsay’s back problems are unlikely to go away for good, but if he can rediscover his youth just a bit in Atlanta, he should be at least league-average offensively.  His defense won’t remind anyone of his predecessor, Andruw Jones, but it won’t be as big a drop-off as might have been expected when Atlanta announced Jones’ departure.  Since Kotsay comes extraordinarily cheap, Atlanta is hoping he can be on the field for 125 or so games, and contribute a line somewhere in the vicinity of .275/.325/.400.  In left field, Atlanta returns Matt Diaz, who will continue to be the quietest .300 hitter in the game.  Despite Bobby Cox’ natural instinct to platoon Diaz, he has the ability to hit right-handers at a .300+ clip and his defense was ranked 5th among Major League LF according to fielding guru John Dewan’s +/- ratings.

While the offensive optimism is unbridled, a look at the pitching staff encourages more optimism, but with a dose of caution.  Leading the way is John Smoltz, who returns for another season as Atlanta’s ace.  While his increasing age is of course a red flag for injury concerns (which we’re already seeing with his shoulder), Smoltz is one of the 5 most reliable pitchers in the game in terms of predictable performance.  He’s probably not going to go 1996 on us anymore, but we can trust that he’ll pitch like the ace he’s counted on to be.  Atlanta also returns #2 starter Tim Hudson, who in 2007 finally put an end to his National League struggles.  The groundball pitcher should be due for an even better 2008 considering he’ll have a full year of Mark Teixeira and Yunel Escobar in the field, both of whom are vast improvements over last year’s combo of Scott Thorman and Edgar Renteria, and Huddy will also benefit from Kelly Johnson’s defensive progression.  Sliding into the third slot is the familiar face of Tom Glavine.  Let’s not get too nostalgic about this signing – Glavine isn’t the pitcher he used to be, we don’t need him to be the pitcher he used to be, and we’re not paying him to be the pitcher he used to be.  That’s important to remember when we take a look in June and see an ERA closer to 4.50 than what we’re used to from him, which is about half that.  42 year olds without strikeout capabilities don’t tend to age as gracefully as the John Smoltzes of the world, so let’s not expect too much.  With that being said, what Glavine will lose by moving from pitcher-friendly Shea to neutral Turner Field, I think he’ll make up for in happiness.  Glavine will be more at home in Atlanta, and that will play a part, even if it’s a small one.  Next is the young Jair Jurrjens, acquired in the Edgar Renteria trade.  His impressive spring made it impossible to leave him in Richmond to begin the season, and to be quite honest, I think he might be the 3rd best pitcher on the team.  Jurrjens won’t blow you away with ability, but his pitch selection and pitch location are his biggest strengths, and that’s something we’ve been missing in Atlanta.  The fifth starter will be – and I can’t believe I’m actually typing this sentence in late March – Mike Hampton.  The last time Mike Hampton threw a major league pitch, Darren McFadden was entering college and hoping for some playing time as a freshman.  As McFadden prepares for the NFL draft, one can’t help but think that even if Hampton is truly healthy, and I really hope he is – won’t there be some rust after so long?  His spring has looked decent enough to make me think he might actually be able to help.  If Hampton can defy critics, Father Time, and Mother Nature, he’ll be a great boost for this team, possibly enough to push them well past the Mets.  If he can’t, don’t worry – Atlanta will still be in the race.  If the old guys get hurt, Jurrjens struggles, or Hampton remembers his true identity, Atlanta has several other options for the rotation, and it’s that sort of flexibility that I do love about this year’s pitching staff. In the mix is Jo-Jo Reyes, off a disappointing rookie year, Jeff Bennett, winner of this year’s “I Pitched 5 Dominant Innings In A Spot Start So I Automatically Get To Be Mentioned In The Rotation Battle Like Oscar Villarreal Award”, Buddy Carlyle, and Cox favorite Charlie Morton.  Being a Cox favorite doesn’t mean much, though – I guess Morton can start a bowling team with Trey Hodges, Anthony Lerew, Chris Brock, and Travis Smith.  In all seriousness, though, at least Cox has finally targeted a real prospect with his affection.  Morton seems like a real future asset.

The 2008 bullpen will be unheralded but solid.  Closing is Rafael Soriano, who has dominant stuff and should be very solid in the role, as long as he can put last summer’s home run struggles behind him.  Considering that despite those struggles, he still ranked as one of the NL East’s best relief pitchers last year, he should be very valuable, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Soriano become the NL’s best closer in 2008.  Setting him up will be Peter Moylan who, according to the Win Probability Added stat available at FanGraphs (a wonderful tool/toy), was the most valuable reliever in the division in 2007.  Moylan sets batters up with a mid 90’s sinker and devastates them with a slow, sweeping slider.  Due to his side-arm delivery, it creates an unfavorable effect from the hitter’s perspective.  It’s no surprise that right handed hitters were helpless against Moylan, batting .183/.244/.290.  Atlanta is looking forward to a mid-season bullpen boost when Mike Gonzalez is slated to return in June.  Until then, the lefty duties will go to either Will Ohman, a talented youngster who posted a 4.95 ERA in limited duty with the Cubs last year, or Royce Ring, acquired at the trading deadline last year.  Also available is Jeff Ridgway, picked up from Tampa Bay this offseason.  All three are adept at getting out lefties, and it’s likely that’s all they’ll be asked to do.  The final spots will be duked out in spring training and most likely will be some combination of Chris Resop, Manny Acosta, Jeff Bennett, and Blaine Boyer.  There is great uncertainty with such an unproven pen, but also great potential.  The bullpen most certainly holds the key to Atlanta’s season, because the unknown is such a major factor here.

All in all, Atlanta should be improved from 2007’s 84-78 record, but the roster adjustments were slight, so don’t expect a huge improvement.  Still, there’s some room for optimism.  Last year’s team probably underachieved a little bit, and was good enough to have won close to 88 games.  If Atlanta improves by a few wins thanks to upgrades here and there, 90 wins isn’t out of the question.  I’m a loyal fan, but I’m also a realistic fan, and I know the Mets are improved and hungry.  Guess what?  That’s fine.  Atlanta is my favorite to take home the NL Wild Card in 2008, and that’ll make this Braves fan very happy.  After all, the last 6 World Series have all featured at least one Wild Card team, and to me, that goal is much, much bigger than simply beating the Mets.

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