I understand the season is not over yet and the Braves still have a small chance, to get in the playoffs in 2009. However, there is no way to improve the current team, so I think it is fair to write an early review for the 2009 Braves and their weaknesses and possible improvement from free agency and trade in 2010.
I did not believe they had a chance to get in the playoffs in 2009, but their strong starting pitching performance gave me slight hope.
Unfortunately, there are various reasons that even one of the best and deepest rotations could not salvage the Braves postseason hopes. At this point, they are four games above .500.
I expect them to be around 8-10 games above .500 at year's end considering they will face sub-.500 teams towards the end. That, of course, will not be enough to take them into the postseason, but it is already a big improvement from last year. And it will get them a third or second place finish in NL East, which is also an improvement.
However, the team should have a much better result than this considering they are a reasonably solid all-round team compared to other teams have a similar W-L record.
The rotation is the obvious strength for this Braves team, and that will not change next year.
They are in the top three of MLB in both ERA and quality starts. And for the most of their five-inning starts, they gave up three runs or fewer as well.
Thanks to Frank Wren’s blunt decision to make big trades and deals and promote the young right-hander Tommy Hanson, the Braves will have one of the best rotations in the NL for years to come.
Wren will still face two problems with this rotation:
1. There are too many arms in the rotation. They have six quality starters right now and three former starters who may or may not come back next year in Kris Medlen, Buddy Carlyle and Jorge Campillo.
2. The rotation is way too expensive. Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, and Javier Vazquez’s contracts occupy more than 40 percent of the Braves payroll. That limits the Braves financially, particularly in the free agent market. And the sum of Kawakami, Soriano and Gonzales’ salaries next year may be over $20 million.
Those two problems can be solved in one stone, by making those expensive pitchers available to the market.
First of all, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrijens are not going anywhere. That is for sure. So that is two spots in the rotation that are settled.
I think the Braves should hold on to Tim Hudson’s contract until the market for the starter is clear and then decide if they can pick up his option.
Other than that, every single member of the pitching staff should be made available to the market—especially Kawakami, Lowe and Vazquez. If they can unload two of those contracts, they will have the resources to improve other areas of the team.
My idea is to promote Kris Medlen to the rotation. He is getting more confident with his stuff and his control, his strike out ratio is actually better than Hanson's, and he costs next to nothing.
Then try to keep two of the four starters with big contracts. The ideal scenario is getting rid of Lowe and Vazquez and keep Hudson and Kawakami.
In reality though, the Braves will probably stay with Lowe and Kawakami and let Vazquez and Hudson go, which is still fine. Lowe and Kawakami will still win games with better run support.
Surprisingly, I hardly think the bullpen is a major problem. They are not elite but they should do a reasonably good job. Unfortunately, based on the team stats, they are the weakest link in this Braves team.
Many people may think that poor management from Bobby Cox is the reason for the pen's troubles, and I can see their point. However, I think based on his experience and understanding of the team, I don’t believe different managing will change the result.
In my opinion, the cause of that situation is because the back end of the bullpen is weak. Bobby has resources that fans don’t have. I believe he must see that other pitchers can't possibly do a better job than the relievers on the front line. That is why he keeps using the same arms over and over again.
What Frank should do is completely make over the bullpen. The whole bullpen should go.
The main reason is that the good pitchers are already way too overused and they all have injury history. Both Soriano and Gonzales are going to be way too expensive anyway, so both of them should go.
The other relievers were bad, and I don’t see them doing any better next year.
Of course, this does not include Luis Valdez and Kris Medlen. Kris should be inserted into the rotation and Luis should stay and gain MLB experience.
Once the old members are gone, Frank really should get more proven, solid relievers from winning teams. The Braves tried to steal cheap pitchers and rejuvenate their career under the magic of Leo Mazzone. Well, Leo is not here any more and the trend continued, and it has resulted in a lot of failure in the pen.
The investment in Soriano and Gonzales were good moves, but the results were not great because of their injuries. But the approach was correct. Frank should try to do it again and get good arms and rebuild the bullpen.
The Braves have scored 614 runs this season to place them at ninth in NL. That ranking is better than their bullpen ERA ranking, by the way.
I personally think the lineup is actually not bad. I would pick that lineup over that of a lot of other teams. There are hardly any holes by inserting Infante or Church in eighth spot. They could both easily be No. 2 hitters in another team’s lineup.
Both McLouth and Diaz are not true leadoff men but they have the mentality and speed to do it.
Prado, Chipper, McCann, Yunel, LaRoche—none of them are easy out. However, they are doing really badly right now, and I cannot think of a reason to explain it. All I can say is that they are underperforming, which is such a lame explanation.
I don’t believe good hitters will underperform forever and I believe using the same lineup, the Braves should score enough runs. However, the Braves can still get upgrades for some the positions.
McLouth is a good player. He has average power and above average speed, and he can improve both area since he is young. I am not sure he is a good lead off man, but when he learns more about the strike zone, he will be more selective. I would personally continue to use him leading off.
The only consistent hitter is Yunel Escobar and I am glad Frank did not trade him for Peavy. His power is also improving.
Brian McCann is not as consistent, but he should be. He got too much weight on his shoulders because Chipper has not been playing well. Providing Chipper with protection is putting him under too much pressure.
Still, he is the best hitting catcher in NL, so he is a “none-mover” as well.
Chipper is Chipper. With his history and his contract, Frank would not move him. And no team would want him either.
Every other position should be available to upgrade. I think Adam LaRoche is a great pick up, but I am not going to say no to Adrian Gonzales if the Braves are able to trade for him.
Adam is a free agent as well, so he is not much cheaper anyway even though the Braves might get a discount for him.
Freddie Sanchez might be a free agent this year if the Giants do not pick up his option, and he would be an upgrade over Prado. Prado is a good player and he has generated a lot of fans but an upgrade is an upgrade.
There are a few good free agent outfielders available in 2010. Vladimir Guerrero, Xavier Nady, Matt Holliday, Magglio Ordonez, and Jermaine Dye, are almost all upgrades over Anderson or Infante.
Infante is probably the best utility man in the league, so he is not going anywhere. But I doubt he will start next year.
I loved what Anderson has done for the Braves. But I think it is time for them to invest a heavy (not extremely though) contract in the outfielders because Braves outfielders have been a bust for three straight years.
Since Andruw Jones let there has been no power generated from outfielders. The Braves should sign a big free agent in the offseason and give Jason Heyward to chance to platoon with Diaz.
The current lineup looks fine to me but what if it looks like this in 2010?
Nate Mclouth, Freddie Sanchez, Chipper Jones, Adrian Gonzales, Vladimir Guerrero, Brian McCann, Yunel Escobar, Jason Heyward.
This is a crazy, dream like lineup but I don’t think it is impossible to build one like this if Frank can fully utilize the resources freed from the pitching staff.
It is unlikely Braves will be able to afford it though, but it should be the goal for Frank to achieve.
What Wren should do is get resources by sparing the pieces from pitching, and I believe he will make the blunt decisions again, like he did to Smoltz and Glavine.
It might not be the most desirable, but it will do well to the team.
From the recent minor league moves, I believe Heyward is about to be ready for the Majors. The outfield should definitely be better in 2010.
How Frank will play his cards in the offseason to improve the bullpen or the lineup is unknown at the moment, but I believe he will make good decisions and make the Braves an even better team.