Atlanta Braves 2009 Season Preview

Tom FroemmingCorrespondent IFebruary 25, 2009

*From Protect the Plate

After winning 14-consecutive division titles, the Braves have been left looking up the past three seasons. Last year, Chipper Jones led the majors with a .364 batting average, but it was pitching that prevented the Braves from contending in the National League East. With a new-look starting rotation, the Braves are hoping to catch the defending World Series champion Phillies in 2009.

Atlanta is hoping new acquisitions Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez can anchor a rotation that was plagued by injuries a year ago. While he's never been given credit as a true ace, Lowe's 106 wins since 2002 ranks third in all of baseball. Vazquez is still a dominating strikeout pitcher, as evidence by his back-to-back seasons of 200 or more Ks. The pair is a seemingly perfect fit for a team looking for innings eaters, as Vazquez had made 32 or more starts in nine-straight seasons and Lowe has started 32 or more in seven straight.

The Braves also added former Japanese Central League MVP Kenshin Kawakami to their rotation. Over his 11-year career, Kawakami is 112-73 with a 3.22 ERA. The 33-year-old lacks an overpowering fastball, but has good command of all four of his pitches.

Former wonder kid Jeff Francoeur is tinkering with a new stance this spring, and for good reason. After looking like a potential future Hall of Famer, pitchers figured him out last year, as his average dropped from .293 to .239. His power production has also slipped, as he's fallen from 29 homers in 2006 to 19 in '07 and just 11 a year ago. All together, Atlanta outfielders hit just 27 home runs in '08. Francoeur, veteran Garret Anderson and a slew of young outfielders hope to improve that number this year.

Three of the Braves' top relievers all suffered elbow injuries during the '08 season. Mike Gonzalez (36), Rafael Soriano (14) and Peter Moylan (7) combined to make just 57 appearances, and the Braves recorded an MLB-low 26 saves. Gonzalez, who has 44 career saves, will start the season as the closer with Soriano setting up while Moylan may be forced to start the year on the DL.

Last season, rookie Jair Jurrjens led the Braves with 13 wins, a 3.68 ERA and 188 1/3 innings pitched. While Tommy Hanson isn't expected to break camp with the big club, he has a chance of making serious noise as a rookie in '09. Hanson, the fourth-best prospect in the game according to Baseball America, began last year with a 28-inning scoreless streak and would later pitch a 14 strikeout no-hitter. If a spot opens up in the rotation, expect the 22-year-old to take the opportunity and run with it.

He hasn't played 140 games since 2003, but Chipper Jones has had a 1.000 OPS each of the past three seasons...Second baseman Kelly Johnson hit .398 with a 1.071 OPS in the final month of 2008...Garret Anderson hasn't played more than 94 games in the outfield the past three years...Brian McCann leads all catchers in doubles (114), homers (65) and RBI (272) since 200...The Braves ranked third in the NL with a .270 average...Their 5.55 team ERA after the All-Star break was the worst in the NL.