Part One of Two: Pitching
With less than two weeks left in spring training, Atlanta Braves fans have so far been dealt a myriad of fortuitous assurance for the upcoming season.
The starting staff is pitching exceptionally well, the bullpen is starting to finally come together, the lineup has shown that they can be in top form early, and the next generation of Braves are making an impact at a major league level.
After looking at a list like that, you would think the Braves have the best record in the always-mighty Grapefruit League or something. Well as it turns out, they do.
Currently the Braves are sporting a 16-5 record, which is second only to the Cactus League Anaheim Angels (they have a similar list), who are at 17-5-1, in leading the entire MLB.
To go along with the lofty record, the Braves have given up the least amount of runs (79) of ANY team in the Majors this spring training, and are third in team batting average (.303). That is a pitching-hitting combo that managers dream of.
The only question is: Can the Atlanta Braves carry this momentous force into the regular season?
If there was another key to the Braves success throughout the '90s and early '00s, other than divine pitching, it was getting off to a meteoric start that not only set the tone for the rest of the season, but also helped relieve any sort of slump that the team might encounter throughout the year.
Getting off to an early start is essential for this Braves team in 2009. What is even more essential though, is determining who it is that will guide his tribe to that early season success and beyond.
The Starting Rotation
The Braves 2008 starting pitching was the most questionable quandary coming into this season. And as we all know by now, the Braves were unsuccessful at landing Jake Peavy and A.J. Burnett at their desired price.
But Frank Wren’s indisposition to give in to opposing teams/players demands is where the solace in that situation lies.
Instead of throwing in the towel on the season and turning this team into rivals with the Washington Nationals this year by developing younger talent, Frank Wren did something that turned this team into rivals with the New York Mets and World (or U.S.) Champion Philadelphia Phillies.
Both Derrick Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami were signed to contracts that will continue to make their lives more comfortable than mine, and Wren traded rather expendable players to the Chi Sox for Javier Vazquez, making the Braves rotation very top heavy (which is a good thing).
Here is the breakdown of current spring training stats through 21 games for each known starter so far:
Derek Lowe: 2-0, 3.94 ERA, 4 GS, 16 IP, 17/2 K/BB
Javier Vazquez: 3-0, 1.36 ERA, 3 GS, 13.2 IP, 11/3 K/BB (Includes WBC stats)
Jair Jurrjens: 1-0, 2.66 ERA, 5GS, 20.1 IP, 12/5 K/BB
Kenshin Kawakami: 2-1, 1.86 ERA, 3 GS, 10.0 IP, 4/4 K/BB
Combined that is: 8-1 with a 2.69 ERA and 44/19 K/BB in 60.1 IP!
If those numbers don’t arouse a Braves fan’s pitching needs, then you need to get your pulse checked. If the top four pitchers that make up the Braves staff keep up that production into the first half of the season, then the Braves WILL be in the playoff hunt come seasons end.
And now for the unknowns. Here are the current spring training stats for the Braves potential fifth starter this year:
Tommy Hanson: 1-0, 2.45 ERA, 4 G, 3 GS, 14.2 IP, 14/6 K/BB
Jo-Jo Reyes: 2-0. 2.08 ERA, 4 G, 3 GS, 13.0 IP, 6/3 K/BB
Jorge Campillo: 1-1, 6.76 ERA 4 G, 3 GS, 13.2 IP, 5/5 K/BB
Tom Glavine: 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 1 GS, 3.0 IP, 1/0 K/BB
What is interesting, and definitely needs to be taken into consideration with this list, is the age of the names that appear on it. Hanson is a well-revered top prospect and is still only 22. He can easily be slated into the AAA rotation and continue to progress at his own pace (which is ideal).
Reyes is another guy that could spend some more time in AAA and do no detriment to his progression, or he could be traded for more depth in the minors at the middle infield positions.
Campillo is an interesting option as well, but he might be more suited for the Braves bullpen. He is also a trade option, but players are really starting to figure out his arm motion and they are sitting back on his pitches. Not a good sign.
Everybody who knows baseball knows Tom Glavine’s story thus far. He is signed to a $1 million contract with plenty of incentives. So this leads me to slot him into the fifth spot as long as he is healthy.
But, since I do not believe Glavine can stay healthy and effective all season long, I think the Braves will use Glavine in that fifth spot to start the season.
Then as the season progresses and Glavine starts to break down, the Braves will bring up Hanson for the fifth spot, which would truly put this rotation over the top (a la David Price with the TB Rays).
There is not a better manager in the MLB today at utilizing what he has in the bullpen more than Braves manager Bobby Cox. He has been a pioneer in bullpen usage and continues to set the standard as to when it is appropriate to use a reliever.
Coming into the 2008 season, the Braves expected to have one of the premier bullpens in the league. But a number of the impact relievers went down due to various injuries, which left the Braves searching for emerging relievers who can take over for the lost talent on the fly.
Luckily for the Braves, a few relievers did emerge and really showed that they can be of value to the Braves, if not any club. Combine this aspect with the fact that all of those original impact relievers are back in form, and the Braves now have a stronger bullpen then ever.
My projected 2009 Atlanta Braves bullpen is as follows:
CL: LHP Mike Gonzalez
Set-up: RHP Raphael Soriano and RHP Peter Moylan
LHP Boone Logan, RHP Blaine Boyer, RHP Buddy Carlyle, RHP Manny Acosta, LHP Eric O’Flaherty
Of course, both Gonzalez and Soriano are being paid closer money, so they will be key pieces to the bullpen. And Moylan showed great ability to induce the groundball and proved to be extremely effective when healthy.
As long and all three of these last year injury concerns perform up to expectations, then the Braves can count on a dominant bullpen.
The rest of the bullpen has proven to be useful in a number of situations and they should round out to be a nice makeup of mix and match guys that can come in and save the day in a given situation.
Carlyle would be considered the long innings reliever/spot starter, but I can also see the Braves filling this spot with Campillo as well. Both can be considered trade bait at this point and either one can fill in for the other and prove to be adequate.
2009 Atlanta Braves Opening Day Roster – Pitchers (13)
Hopefully tomorrow or the next day I will have my projected 2009 Atlanta Braves Opening Day Roster expectations for the hitters.
After going through what I think the Atlanta Braves pitching staff should look like, I have garnered a whole new presumption of what this squad can do.
Frank Wren has done a terrific job in turning around this past offseason to the point where fans have chosen to instantly lose recollection of what a trying time it really was for everybody.
If this staff can stay together and fend off any sort of injury calamity then the Atlanta Braves certainly have a, dare I say, ‘90s vibe to them.