Atlanta Braves Outfield Must Produce to Compete In NL East

Matt ButlerContributor IMay 15, 2009

ATLANTA - APRIL 10: Outfielder Jeff Francoeur #7 of the Atlanta Braves follows a foul popup against the Washington Nationals April 10, 2009 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

The Atlanta Braves have proven to be a very puzzling team so far in 2009.  After coming out of the gates strong with a 5-1 start that had them at the top of ESPN's Power Rankngs after one week, the Braves proceeded to go just 6-14 over their next twenty games. 

Many fans of the Braves were concerned with the team now struggling at 11-15 and facing a daunting eight game road stretch against the top three teams in the NL East.

Then, something interesting happened.

The Atlanta Braves swept a two game set against Florida and took two of three in Philadelphia and in New York. The 6-2 road trip helped the Braves get back to .500 and currently leaves them just two games behind the division leading Mets.

Despite what should be a time of optimism heading into a ten game home stand, the Braves continue to face numerous obstacles if they want to contend in 2009, particularly on offense.

While the Braves infield and catcher Brian McCann seem to be holding up their part of the bargain, the Braves outfield has been dreadful so far early in 2009. Here is a look at the typical starting outfield that the Braves run out:


Jeff Francoeur, RF 

Jeff Francoeur and his skills have been hotly debated among Braves fans ever since his arrival in the big leagues in 2005.

Some have praised Francoeur's ability to drive in runs (208 in his first two full seasons) while others pointed out his mediocre OBP (.293 and .333 his first two full season), and average OPS (.742 and .782) as warning signs for the future.

The group in the second camp proved to be correct as Francoeur tanked last season, being briefly sent to the minor leagues before closing with a .653 OPS which was good for 142nd out of 147 qualified ML hitters last season.

Francoeur hardly helps his own cause. Obviously aware of questions and concerns regarding his plate discipline, Francoeur recently said "If on-base percentage is so important, then why don't they put it up on the scoreboard?", in a recent ESPN article. 

Francouer currently ranks 23rd in OBP (.273) and 23rd in OPS (.655) among the twenty-seven qualified rightfielders this season. 

With Francouer's salary continuing to rise ($3.4 million this year, arbitration again next year), the Braves will likely strongly consider shopping Francoeur in the offseason if not sooner and clearly need to start think about upgrading the position.


Jordan Schafer, CF

The Braves have used rookie Jordan Schafer exclusively in centerfield so far this season. Schafer, one of the Braves top prospects, started the season with a bang, hitting a home run in his first major league at bat against the Phillies.

Schaffer had three RBI's in the opening series against the Phillies and since then has gone 102 AB's without driving in a run.

For a rookie who is still just 22 years of age, Schaffer has had an interesting season at the plate. In addition to going almost a month without an RBI, Schaffer also ranks in the top 10 in MLB in both walks and strikeouts.

Due to this, Schaffer actually has an extremely respectable OBP of .353, good for 12th out of 25 qualified MLB centerfielders.  Unfortunately, Schaffer's poor slugging percentage knocks his OPS among qualified centerfielders to 22nd out of 25 qualified players.

Either way, Schaffer has shown enough promise to remain in the lineup everyday. At just 22, the Braves clearly view him as a big piece of the future. If Schaffer was getting better support from his fellow outfielders, his early struggles would be much less of a concern.


Garrett Anderson, LF

Just before the season started, the Braves signed Garrett Anderson to a one-year, $2.5 million deal in an attempt to solve their issues in leftfield. 

So far, Anderson has added to the problems if anything.

While he hasn't made enough plate appearances to qualify as of yet, rest assured that Andreson's OBP (.270) and OPS (.591) would both put him near the bottom of the ranks among all leftfielders.

What is even more puzzling is that Braves manager Bobby Cox continues to bat Anderson at cleanup when he's end the lineup instead of catcher Brian McCann or even first baseman Casey Kotchman.

In addition, Anderson's hustle has been questioned by many Braves fans after the way he jogged to a ball against the New York Mets in a game on Tuesday that allowed the Mets to get back in the game before eventually winning.

As you can see, the Braves have significant struggles and issues in their outfield.  While the team is getting solid production from the infield and catcher positions, the Braves simply must get something out of their outfielders if they wish to compete for the NL East title in 2009.