After Playoff Hopes Swept Away, Atlanta Braves Should Focus on 2010

James HulkaAnalyst ISeptember 6, 2009

ATLANTA - AUGUST 23:  Chipper Jones #10 and Adam LaRoche #22 of the Atlanta Braves celebrate their 7-5 win over the Florida Marlins on August 23, 2009 at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The week got off to a great start, with the Braves winning the first two games in Florida.

The rest of the week showed that only a miracle would get the Braves into the playoffs in 2009.

To be realistic, the Braves would have to go 20-5 over the last four weeks of the season and have the Rockies go 13-12 or worse to even get a one-game playoff.

The Braves' offense showed over the past four days that the type of runs necessary to make it to the postseason this year just isn't there.

In the bigger picture, that may not be a bad thing.

Chipper Jones, as good as he was last year, has not been up to snuff this year. Kelly Johnson went from being a borderline All-Star at second base to a reserve. The offense's inability to produce meant Chipper and Brian McCann couldn't get more days of rest that they're bodies needed, and now it's showing.

However, looking forward to next year, there are some interesting decisions to be made, and ones that could put the Braves in excellent position to be even better in 2010 than 2009.

The starting pitching, for the most part, pitched as advertised. Kenshin Kawakami wasn't expected to be an ace, but he, along with new acquisitions Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez, put less of a burden on the bullpen than the 2008 starters by pitching deeper into games.

Tim Hudson's return this week gives the Braves potentially six quality pitchers under contract for 2010. Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson have pitched brilliantly this season and are only 23 years old. They aren't going anywhere.

Derek Lowe's ERA was inflated greatly by four awful starts. Of the 28 or so starts he made, 24 of them were fair or good, and his ERA during those starts was about 3.30. The four starts against the Mets, Yankees, Marlins and Orioles—his ERA was about 18.

The question seems to be who of the other three starters isn't in the starting rotation next year for Atlanta.

Tim Hudson has looked like the ace he was before Tommy John surgery last August. He's got a $12M option for 2010 that the Braves should absolutely pick up. The rotation is deep without him, but he's the epitome of an ace, which the team really didn't have this year.

Javier Vazquez had the type of season that many people wondered if he was capable of. Like Jurrjens, run support made his win-loss record misleading, because many times he didn't get any offensive support behind him.

If I'm GM Frank Wren, I might consider trading Vazquez, but would rather trade Kenshin Kawakami instead.

Both are about the same age, but Kawakami's contract is about $4M less per season than Vazquez's. I would keep the better pitcher, even though KK is signed through 2011 and Vazquez will be a free agent after 2010.

The Braves outfield for 2010 should be all set, but not as we saw it this weekend.

Nate McLouth and Matt Diaz will be back, and likely manning center field and left field as likely every day players in 2010.

The other two outfielders on the Braves in 2010 will probably be youngsters.

Jordan Schafer's offensive struggles persisted all year, and were likely a major product of the bone spurs in his wrist that began bothering him back in April. If healthy, I think he's ready to get significant playing time in the majors; some days in left, some days in center.

I also think Jason Heyward will show, both in the Arizona Fall League and in spring training, that he's the next big thing in Atlanta. I expect to see him starting the season as the Braves' right fielder.

I don't think Ryan Church or Garret Anderson will be back next season.

Why Greg Norton is still on the Braves baffles me. Brooks Conrad is younger, more athletic player and can actually play defense as well as be a switch-hitter off the bench when needed.

Omar Infante should play a larger role in the Braves offense next year, as long as Max Scherzer doesn't break his wrist with a pitch again.

Yunel Escobar stepped up his game this year, despite periods of lackadaisical play. Hitting .400 with RISP is no small feat. Martin Prado has done everything to keep the everyday second baseman's job.

Adam LaRoche looks much more comfortable in a Braves uniform, and should be offered a two or three year contract by the Braves in an otherwise weak market this offseason for first basemen.

Yes, the Braves will have a left-heavy lineup in 2010. However, there are platoons to get right-handed hitters like David Ross, Infante, Prado, and Matt Diaz in the lineup while giving Chipper Jones and Brian McCann some rest.

The biggest question might be, who of the two "closers" can the Braves afford to keep?

Rafael Soriano, with the exception of a week where he was overworked, has been phenomenal as the Braves' closer. I'm not sure if Mike Gonzalez would come back without a promise of significant closing opportunities and closer-type dollars.

Bobby Cox's management of the bullpen could go a long way in making the unit be better in 2010 than in 2009, which was still markedly better than 2008.

Garret Anderson, Ryan Church, Greg Norton, Kenshin Kawakami, Mike Gonzalez, and Javier Vazquez are current Braves who have more than a slim chance of playing with another team in 2010.

They all won't be back, but a couple of them might.

I don't see the Braves making a huge splash in free agency, but maybe acquiring a bat in exchange for one of their "surplus" starters would be the most likely acquisition. Otherwise, the only changes next year will come from within, as the youth movement continues.

The one thing I'm doing next year if I'm Frank Wren is drafting a college third baseman or making a trade for another team's top third base prospect who can be ready in a couple of years when Chipper is ready to retire.

Otherwise, from an organizational standpoint, the Braves don't have any major holes to fill. If Jordan Schafer and Jason Heyward can be as good as many scouts think they are, the offense will be much improved for years to come.


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