In this 2009 Atlanta Braves preview will ask the five big questions the Braves must answer to contend in the NL East in 2009.
1. How many games will Chipper Jones play?
Over the past few years any question about the Braves centers around how many games will Chipper Jones play in this year? Over the past five years Jones has not appeared in more than 137 games and twice has failed to appear in more than 110 games.
Last year Jones proved that when healthy he is still one of the best hitters in baseball by winning his first career batting title by hitting .364. If the Braves are to contend in 2009 they need Jones to play in more than 140 games.
2. Will Jeff Francoeur bounce back?
Last year Jeff Francoeur had his worst career season by hitting .231 with only 11 homeruns. Francoeur hit a career high 29 homeruns in 2006 and batted a career high .293 in 2007 with 19 homeruns.
And 2008 was suppose to be the year Francoeur put the two together but fell flat on his face. If the Braves are to contend in 2009 they will need Francoeur to bounce back and provide some pop in the middle of the lineup.
3. Will Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan bounce back from injuries?
Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan were expected to be major parts of the Braves bullpen in 2008 but both had major injuries and appeared in only 14 and seven games respectively.
Soriano started last year as the Braves closer but battled elbow soreness all year and finally had minor surgery in August. He is expected to be ready for Spring Training.
Moylan underwent Tommy John surgery in May and is expected to be back sometime this May. Both will need to be healthy to provide support to Mike Gonzalez at the back end of Atlanta's bullpen in 2009.
4. Will the Braves starting rotation live up to it's potential?
The Braves starting rotation was hit hardest by injuries in 2008. John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Tom Glavine, and Mike Hampton all missed major time in 2008. Smoltz, Hudson and Glavine all eventually underwent surgeries. Smoltz and Hampton are gone, signing with Boston and Houston respectively. Hudson is recovering from Tommy John surgery and could be back before the end of the season and it is still unknown if Glavine will be back in 2009.
The Braves traded for Javier Vazquez and signed Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami. Those three with the return of Jair Jurrjens, who finished third in the 2008 Rookie of the Year voting, give the Braves the chance to have rotation that eats up innings.
5. Who will round out the Braves starting outfield?
The Braves know Jeff Francoeur will be their starting right-fielder but center and left field are wide open. The Braves are said to be looking at Bobby Abreu, Nick Swisher, Xavier Nady, or Adam Dunn to fill their LF spot.
If they cannot get any of those guys Matt Diaz is the most likely candidate to fill that spot. Diaz hit .333 in 2006 and 2007 combined in part time play. When given a chance to play everyday in 2008 he struggled to a .244 average before suffering a knee injury.
The most likely candidates to fill the CF spot are Josh Anderson, Gregor Blanco, or Jordan Schafer. All three outfielders have similar skill sets. They all play good defense and have good speed. Anderson in limited time in 2006 and 2007 hit .315. Blanco during his rookie year in 2008 hit .251.
Jordan Schafer came under the microscope in 2008 for alleged HGH use and served a 50 game suspension. When he came back from suspension he struggled to a .269 average with 10 homeruns. Whoever wins the job will mostly likely serve as the team's leadoff hitter and be expected to set the table for the rest of the lineup.
If the Braves find solid answers to all these questions there is no doubt they will be in contention for the NL East crown come September.