Atlanta Braves' Offseason Gives Reason To Expect Contention in 2009

Kevin MarkumCorrespondent IFebruary 4, 2009

Jeff Francoeur and the Braves look to make a return to prominence in 2009 after a  disappointing campaign in 2008.


Baseball fans are warming for the 2009 season as pitchers and catchers are scheduled to meet up to begin the preparation for spring training.  Football season is virtually over now that the Pittsburgh Steelers have clinched the Super Bowl Championship with their triumphant victory over Larry Fitzgerald and the Arizona Cardinals.


While it is nice to see our families again after missing them for the few months of the football season, the good news is that baseball season is about to get underway.  After a very much eventful offseason for the Atlanta Braves, Braves’ fans have a lot to look forward to in 2009.


Last season was full of disappointments for the Braves.  Injuries to key pitchers (ex. Tim Hudson), the departure of superstar first basemen (Mark Teixeira), and a slumping right-fielder (Jeff Francoeur) caused for a long season.  The good news is that the Chicago Cubs motto of: “There’s always next year”, holds truth.


The 2008 MLB season is gone.  2009 is here.  This offseason, the Braves front office has given fans a reason to believe in their team once again.  Here are few changes the Braves have made as of today that will cause for a definite change in comparison to 2008.


1)      Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami, and Javier Vazquez will eat innings to save a tired Braves' bullpen.


Remember the days of Smoltz, Glavine, and Maddux?  Those days are gone.


Derek Lowe is not our ace of the future, but he will be a great place holder for Jurrjens, Hudson, or Tommy Hanson to fill when their time comes for whatever reason.  Lowe is a proven innings eater that has a sinker that is comparable to many top MLB pitchers.  Will he win a Cy Young?, I doubt it, but chances are he will finish the season with 30+ starts.


Kenshin Kawakami's arrival has risen a lot of questions.  The Braves don’t have much experience with Japanese talent, but he’s definitely worthy of filling the fourth or fifth starter’s role.  How do you say World Series in Japanese?


Vazquez is a proven veteran.  He isn’t an ace, although some projected him to be one early in his career.  Javier has never pitched in a good setting either.  Whether it be the drowning Expos, the tough New York crowds, or the drama filled Chicago dugout next to manager Ozzie Guillen.  Bobby Cox’s influence might help Vazquez meet his potential.


2)      Jeff Francoeur did not play like Jeff Francoeur in 2008.


The fact is that Jeff is quite honestly more of a .300 BA, 25 HR, 100 RBI type of hitter than what his stat line of .239, 11 HR, and 71 RBI he displayed in 2008.  The talent that got him his nickname, “The Natural”, is still there.  His approach to hitting and his attempt to add power by bulking up, hurt that talent.


This year, Jeff is taking a new approach to hitting.  His approach will include more solid contact, more patience at the plate, and not so much trying to kill the ball every time he makes contact.  Having Chipper Jones as a hitting mentor does not hurt either.  On top of that, he’s shed his excess weight which will improve his bat speed greatly.


Jeff Francoeur will come back in 2009 to be “The Natural” he truly is.  2008 was a wake-up call, and in 2009 he will answer that call and help the Braves get back to the postseason.


3)      Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, and Peter Moylan will makeup one of the most underrated bullpens in the majors in 2009.


Hopefully in the next week or so we can add Ohman to this list as well.  Mike Gonzalez has self proclaimed that he feels 20 again after his surgery.  With his experience as a closer and his refreshed arm, he could be dangerous in 2009.


Soriano could potentially be the Braves’ closer in waiting, but right now he is a fairly solid setup man.  Moylan is the surprise from down under that, until his injury early in 2008, has been a gem coming out of the bullpen.  If these three stay healthy, there will be few better bullpens in all of baseball.


4)      By not trading Yunel Escobar, Tommy Hanson, and Jason Heyward this offseason, the Braves have set themselves up for a good stretch.


Many were upset with Frank Wren for not pulling the trigger on Jake Peavy early this offseason.  Many wondered what could be better than an ace in the form of Jake Peavy. 


The answer is the Braves' top prospects.  Hanson is going to be a monster of a prospect overshadowed only by David Price of the Rays (if you still can count him as a prospect).


Yunel Escobar will be a household name within four years.  I almost guarantee that.  He had an above average year in 2008, but he will improve dramatically here soon.  The Braves’ decision not to trade him for a pitcher this offseason was the smartest thing they ever did.  Now…if I could only get the nickname “Eskimo” to catch on.


Heyward staying in the organization is also a huge decision for this offseason.  He alone could have attracted a solid veteran arm or a decent run producer to play left field, but Wren practiced patience.  This strategy will certainly pay off in the long run.


5)      While the Braves are no longer on TBS, they have Don Sutton back in the broadcast booth for 2009.


Now, why did I include this even though it won’t help the Braves on the field?  One reason is because five is a better number than four for a list like this.  Two is because this season feels different than the last.  I get the feeling the Braves are trying to win this season, and I haven’t felt that in the past.


Loosing Skip last season hurt.  As they replayed his famous “Braves win! Braves win!” that we heard for years, it hurt as I thought about just how far we’ve gotten away from the fan friendly organization we used to know.  Then, losing Pete Van Wieren was just too much.


Don Sutton coming back signifies that the management is trying to get back to pleasing first and foremost, the fans.  Hopefully, a decent season for the Braves could lead back to the TBS era where the Braves will be able to reach all their fans like they once did.


All in all, the Braves can only look up next year.  The decisions (or lack thereof) from this offseason have set up the Braves to win an NL East title even with stiff competition from the Phillies and the Mets.  Neither team can boast a better rotation than the Braves and Atlanta’s hitting won’t be far behind in 2009 either.