Rather than signing high profile free agents, the Braves have made strategic additions designed to solidify the weaknesses exposed during their 72-90 campaign of a year ago.
The Braves 2009 pitching staff will never be confused with their dominant rotations of the mid-1990s, but they have upgraded from a year ago.
Though longtime Braves’ faithful will miss the presence of John Smoltz, the reality is that the move by Smoltz to Boston was probably the best thing for both sides. The Braves needed a reliable starter capable of giving the team 200 innings of service, while Smoltz is better off in a situation where he can rehab his surgically repaired shoulder without the pressure of being ready to contribute in April.
Ironically, the Braves have turned to a former Red Sox hurler, Derek Lowe, to fill the pitching void. Lowe earned 42 wins in 100 starts for the Los Angeles Dodgers over the last three years and hurled eight shutout innings in winning his first start as a Brave in the season opener against Philadelphia.
Newcomer Javier Vazquez (12-16, 4.67 ERA in 2008 for the White Sox) and second-year starter Jair Jurrjens (13-10, 3.68) are solid middle of the rotation starters. Former Japanese League pitcher Kenshin Kawakami will also be given an opportunity to earn a regular spot in the rotation.
Future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine (2-4, 5.54) started the season on the injured reserve, but should be ready to pitch soon. If the Braves are still in the playoff hunt when perennial ace Tim Hudson is expected to return from Tommy John surgery in July or August, then the staff could be loaded for a final playoff push.
The bullpen was a significant weakness for the Braves in 2008 as they blew 40 percent of all save opportunities. They already have gotten off to a shaky start in 2009 by blowing a seven run lead to the Phillies in the first loss of the season.
Mike Gonzalez (14 saves, 4.28), Rafael Soriano (three saves, 2.57) and Peter Moylan (1.59 ERA) lead the bullpen. Jorge Campillo (8-7, 3.91) provides Cox with flexibility as he can serve as both a starter and reliever.
The Braves finished sixth in the league in runs scored in 2008 despite having injuries and inconsistency hamper a number of regulars. Those numbers should improve in 2009, as the Braves will send out a talented starting lineup that includes a good mix of veterans and rising stars.
While every other spot in the lineup has turned over multiple times since his arrival in 1995, Chipper Jones (.364 BA, 22 HR, 75 RBI) has remained a steady rock at third base and in the middle of the lineup for the Braves.
There is little question that the success of the Braves is in large measure tied to whether Jones can withstand the rigors of an entire season. He has not played more than 137 games since 2003 and has driven in 100 runs only once in the last five years.
The remainder of the infield is solid and capable of getting better with experience. First baseman Casey Kotchman (.272 BA, 74 RBI for Angels and Braves) will look to improve his production in his first full season in Atlanta. Second baseman Kelly Johnson (.287 BA, 69 RBI) and shortstop Yunel Escobar (.288 BA, 60 RBI) have the potential to be one of the best middle infields in the league.
Sometimes the best deals are the one you didn’t make. After being rebuffed at the last minute by Ken Griffey Jr., the Braves instead ended up with veteran Garret Anderson (.293 BA, 84 RBI). Anderson provides veteran experience in leftfield and is a proven run producer.
After hitting a home run in his first major league at bat, rookie centerfielder Jordan Schafer will carry the burden of expectation with him throughout the season. It is a burden known all too well by rightfielder Jeff Francouer (.239 BA, 71 RBI), who will look to regain the form he showed while driving in more than 100 runs during both the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
Given the potential he has displayed in his first four seasons, 25-year-old catcher Brian McCann (.301 BA, 23 HR, 87 RBI) could become the next face of this franchise. He is quietly emerging as the top catcher in the National League and it seems to be only a matter of time before he has a breakout season that puts him in the discussion for MVP honors.
Because of their history over the last 20 years as one of the most consistent winners in baseball, there is a general expectation that the Braves will be battling with the Mets, Phillies and Marlins until the end. They certainly have the talent to contend, but will probably have to shore up the bullpen if they want to return to the postseason for the first time since 2005.
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