Five Under-the-Radar Reasons the 2009 Braves Will Be Much Improved

James HulkaAnalyst IFebruary 23, 2009

Most people have noted the big reasons why the Atlanta Braves will be much improved in 2009 as compared to their lackluster and injury-riddled 2008, that saw them finish 72-90, and in fourth place in the National League East.

The acquisitions of durable pitchers (Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami, Javier Vazquez) as well as finding an outfield bat (Garret Anderson) were holes the Braves needed to fill in order to be a competitive team.

They filled what were some of the biggest weaknesses of the Braves last year. The starting rotation was near the bottom of the NL in innings pitched and ERA. The domino effect meant the bullpen was overworked and the Braves collapsed, going 32-49 in the 2nd half after starting the season 40-41.

So here are five big reasons why the Braves will be in the hunt for a playoff spot in 2009 - just not the ones you've been hearing the past few weeks.

5) Bench

The Braves, for all they did wrong in 2008, did one thing really well. Martin Prado, Ruben Gotay, and Greg Norton were all in the top 10 in the majors in 2008 in pinch hits. Gotay may be gone, but Norton and Prado are back as well as Omar Infante.

Corky Miller was a black hole when it came to offense last year, so David Ross won't be the automatic out that Corky was when Brian McCann needs a day off. Josh Anderson looked good at the end of the season, but a healthy Matt Diaz will be a nice addition against lefties in a platoon with Garret Anderson and as a pinch-hitter off the bench.

Look for solid contributions from everyone all year round. Norton will get a few chances to relieve Casey Kotchman at first against lefties, and Martin Prado will get his chance to give Kelly Johnson a rest at 2nd without losing any offense.

A healthy Diaz is dangerous against lefties, and will let Garret Anderson's 36 year-old legs rest once or twice a week. Infante will be a fill-in at multiple spots including third base and in the outfield where he'll spell Chipper Jones and whichever lefty usually plays center.

He's good enough to be an everyday player and should continue to make the most of his opportunities.

4) Peter Moylan and Rafael Soriano

These two righties had very good seasons in 2007 before their elbows failed them in 2008. Their absence at the back of the Atlanta bullpen made life a lot more difficult at the end of games where the Braves eventually lost after being tied or ahead earlier in the game.

Moylan will miss at least the first month recovering from Tommy John surgery, but Soriano should be ready to go by Opening Day, after having ulnar nerve transplacement last year.

After getting only four saves, no wins, and 19.2 innings out of this pair in 2008—look for 120+ innings, a combined ERA around 3.00, and about 10 total saves when giving closer Mike Gonzalez a day off here and there in 2009.

By midseason, this trio could be the best in the entire majors at pitching the last three innings and closing out games. A bold statement, yes, but all three pitchers have closer quality stuff.

3) Yunel Escobar

The young shortstop who burst on the scene hitting .326 in 2007 when Edgar Renteria went down with injury hit a bit of a bump during his sophomore season in 2008. While his 2008 numbers were pretty good, there's no doubt a healthy Escobar can contribute even more in 2009.

He missed 26 games last year, as he injured his left shoulder trying to avoid a pickoff about halfway through the season. He played well in August, but it was obvious at times that he was favoring the shoulder, especially in July—the only month of the season he didn't hit a HR or hit at least .279. 

In 150+ games, a healthy Escobar could see numbers even better than his .288-10-60 line from 2008. Look for a .300-15-75 season with a few more steals in 2009.

2) Jeff Francoeur

How a guy with all the tools that Jeff Francoeur has can go from .277-24-104 (his 2006-07 averages) to .239-11-71 is baffling not just to me. Sure—I'd love to see Jeff put everything together from his 2006 and 2007 seasons and bust out with .300-30-110 with 40+ walks and 40 doubles.

But that's asking a lot. I don't see how he could be as bad as he was last year.

Look for numbers about .265-23-85 for 2009. That might not be the Jeff Francoeur we're capable of seeing, but it'll be a big improvement over 2008.

1) One-run games

The Braves in 2008 had the worst record (11-30) in one run games and set a major league record for the most consecutive one-run losses on the road. I'm not sure of the number but I believe it was about 24 straight before they finally beat the Mets at Shea Stadium.

Yes, that includes the Seattle Mariners (61-101: 18-30), Washington Nationals (59-102: 20-29) and San Diego Padres (63-99: 16-28); three teams who were offensively inept in 2008 all had better records in one-run games than the Braves.

The law of averages has to balance out. I don't expect the Braves to finish 30-11 in one-run games in 2009. But winning half of them is realistic, and somewhat expected especially due to reason No. 4.

A 12 or 15-game improvement isn't unlikely in 2009. If you examine the Braves' expected wins and losses from 2008, they should've been seven games better, which is based on runs scored versus runs allowed.

The paltry record in one-run games would cover half of a 15-game improvement. The other factors mentioned—as well as the big ones in the acquisitions, should account for the other half.

I'd expect the Braves to be in the hunt for the wild card in the National League as the last week of September arrives in 2009, and 85-88 wins a distinct possibility.