The Atlanta Braves have added two significant arms—Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito—to a bullpen that was solid last season but was losing two of its top three pitchers. However, they have failed to address their most glaring issue: offense.
The Braves ranked sixth last season in runs in the National League, not altogether terrible, but not enough to make the playoffs. The bigger issue for the Braves’ offense is the lack of power from a lineup that relies almost entirely on the home run. Atlanta finished 10th in the National League with 149 home runs on the year.
The Brave's leading home run hitter was Brian McCann with 21, despite missing time with eye trouble early in the year. The Braves' next highest home run total by an individual was 18 from Chipper Jones. Jones saw his batting average drop 100 points in the process and is very unlikely to remain healthy at age 37.
Adam LaRoche hit 12 homers for Atlanta after coming over via trade from Boston on Jul. 31. LaRoche is a free agent who may not return to Atlanta next season.
All those power numbers come from a team that finished 15th in the league in stolen bases and 11th in stolen base percentage. The Braves’ leaders in stolen bases were Nate McLouth and Matt Diaz with 12 apiece. The Braves under Bobby Cox have never been known for manufacturing runs. It is well-known that Cox prefers the Earl Weaver style game of waiting for the three-run homer.
That strategy was fine when Jones was young and surrounded by McGriff, Klesko, and Andruw Jones. However, the Braves' offense lacks the power to pursue that offensive strategy at the current time.
Atlanta not only struggled in home runs, but finished eighth in the National League in total bases with 2246. Atlanta managed to tie for third in the league in doubles with 300, but finished last in triples with 20—less than half of first place Colorado’s total.
The Braves’ offense has to manufacture runs to be successful, or the front office has to bring in an elite power bat. Unfortunately for the Braves and their fans, both options seem unlikely. Atlanta has already let its biggest potential offensive upgrade go without so much as a whimper of interest.
Chone Figgins would have provided the Braves’ offense with their first legitimate leadoff hitter in nearly a decade; plus he is homegrown, from Leary, Georgia. He posted what would have been team-highs for Atlanta in 2009 in on-base percentage (.396), stolen bases (42), and hits (183) to name a few.
Figgins could have manned third base, allowing an aging Jones to move to first and perhaps remain healthier over the course of the season. Figgins could also play center field -should the Braves re-sign LaRoche- and allow McLouth to move to left field where he is better suited defensively.
Instead, the Braves’ front office ignored Figgins. He is exactly the type of player the Braves offense could have built upon. He would have provided stability at the top of the lineup and allowed others to hit in more conducive spots in the order for their abilities.
(Projected lineup with Figgins playing center)
7. LaRoche (assuming he re-signs)
That lineup would have provided Atlanta with the depth and ability to manufacture runs that they lack at the current time. I see little chance of the Braves’ offense, as currently constructed, matching last years’ run production—even if LaRoche does return for an entire season.
It is unlikely Jones' production will increase at his current age and state of health. McCann, Escobar, and McLouth have likely peaked and will produce seasons similar to 2009. Prado should see a slight surge entering his first season as a full-time starter. No other member of the lineup is likely to increase production, and several may see drops in production.
The young Braves in the pipeline—mainly Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman—are either not ready or not likely to be that big a boost this season.
The youngest player most likely to contribute is Heyward. Heyward is likely ready, according to industry experts, to help out in 2010. But if you are the Braves can you really afford to pin your hopes on a 20-year-old outfielder, who you envision as the future of your franchise, to lead the offense in his first season?
The last time the Braves tried to put the franchise on the back of their “future star,” it failed miserably, and that player—Jeff Francouer—is now with the rival Mets trying to revive his career. That is not to say that Heyward is going to fail, but the Braves cannot expect him to be the lone fix to their offensive woes. It is too much pressure for almost any youngster—Albert Pujols aside.
All that said, the Braves are not going to spend what it would take to bring in Matt Holliday or Jason Bay to help the lineup, but Figgins they could have afforded. It is also likely that Figgins would have added more offensive production than either of the above, because he would have allowed Atlanta to re-shuffle its lineup.
Now, the Braves are forced to either find a suitor for Derek Lowe—a suitor who not only wants Lowe and his current contract, but is also willing to give up an offensive piece for him—or trade arguably their best pitcher last season in Javier Vazquez. In the end it is likely that they will trade Vazquez for somebody like Corey Hart from Milwaukee or Ryan Ludwick from the Cardinals. Hart will remind Atlanta fans of departed outfielder Jeff Francouer.
Hart strikes out too much, especially on breaking stuff away, and fails to make adjustments. Last season Hart struck out 92 times in just 419 at-bats while hitting just 12 homers. He has posted on-base percentages of .300 and .335 the last two seasons respectively. His career-high in home runs (24) came in 2007, and all of his offensive numbers have declined since that season. Seem familiar?
Ludwick is a solid offensive player, but hardly the young power bat the Braves’ offense needs or should want for a pitcher of Vazquez’s caliber. Ludwick did hit 37 homers in 2008, but then dropped to 22 last season. Prior to 2008 his career-high was 14 homers in 2007, and he is 31 years old.
While Ludwick or Hart would certainly upgrade a pathetic Braves outfield that hit a total of 46 home runs through all of 2009, neither seems likely to offset the loss of Vazquez (15-10, 2.87 ERA). If the Braves refuse to move Vazquez and insist on trading Lowe it is likely the best they will do is a salary dump, and little offense is available through free agency at a price Braves ownership will pay.
What this means for the Braves and their fans is that 2010 could be a very frustrating year. Coming off a season in which Braves’ pitchers allowed the fourth-fewest runs in the National League (641) and posted the leagues’ third-best ERA (3.57), the Braves failed to produce enough offense to make the playoffs. In 2010 the pitching staff may struggle to maintain those numbers, and even a slight drop-off could spell doom for the Braves’ postseason hopes.
Either way even staying at those numbers may not be enough, as the Braves’ front office seems unlikely to produce any meaningful offensive additions to this lineup. Braves ownership seems content to put the present hopes on their brightest star of future and just hope that he can provide the boost they need. More importantly that he can do so while not succumbing to the fate that befell his predecessor in the role of Braves’ franchise savior. But that is quite bet to put on a 20-year old, no matter how talented, as history has shown Atlanta once.