Atlanta Braves Roundtable: Pre-Season Predictions

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Atlanta Braves Roundtable: Pre-Season Predictions
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With the 2010 regular season just a week away, and many people coming out with their previews for 2010, I decided to ask four fellow Braves writers seven questions about the Atlanta Braves to give everyone some different views on the 2010 season.

I would like to thank the contributing writers: Joel Barker, Cameron Britt, Ben Duronio, and Adam Cubbage.

 

What offseason grade would you give the Braves?

Joel Barker: (B-)

I thought the Braves could have done better than Troy Glaus for their "big bat" acquisition. But he appears healed from his injuries and Jason Heyward's emergence appears to be the main offensive spark the Braves need. 

 

Cameron Britt: (B)

The Braves made a couple of risky moves with the signings/re-signing of Glaus, Wagner, Saito, and Hudson.

The two relievers I mentioned aren’t much more of a risk than the former fillers of their respective roles, but they still have an “air” about them that has turned many “experts” off, while Glaus and Hudson both have high expectations to live up to following the performances of their predecessors (essentially replacing LaRoche and Vazquez).

The swing of the performance (be it approaching their ceilings or scraping rock bottom) of these low-risk, high-reward guys could make the grade swing from either a C (they didn’t lose too much in their investment) or an A (they could be monster cogs)…that’s why I went with a B.

The only thing I may have preferred would have been to see D-Lowe depart or maybe Johnny Damon arrive—but you really can’t complain too much since the Braves seemed to have been under budget restrictions this offseason.

 

Ben Duronio: (A-)

Many wanted Vazquez or Lowe to be traded for the big bat. We ended up with a potential future ace, a backup center fielder, a left-handed reliever with potential, and roughly eight million dollars for Vazquez.

The money gave us the opportunity to go after Glaus and Hinske, as well as having a few bucks left over midseason for any potential trades we may need to make.

The trade with the Yankees may not have made this team significantly better this year (in fact it may have made it worse), but in the offseason you have to judge how well the front office prepared the team for the future.

In addition, the acquisitions of Hinske, Glaus, Chavez, Saito, and Wagner are all very solid moves for guys who can help this year and provide some added depth by allowing others to move to less important roles.

 

Adam Cubbage: (A-)

Considering the means they had to work with and the actual talent in the free agent market this winter, the Braves did an excellent job of pouring over medical and scouting reports to find the best available players for their buck. Not to mention improve the team chemistry in the process.

Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito will provide great veteran leadership to the younger relievers (namely Medlen, Kimbrel, and Chavez) and I think we should watch the progress of Jo-Jo Reyes in particular to see the type of influence Wagner, as a lefty, will have on him.

Consider me one of the skeptics on Reyes, but this will be a test of whether or not he takes the mature approach and realize it is time for him to develop a secondary pitch and take it to a new level. Or he could take the approach he has been taking, ignore counsel from two future Hall-of-Famers (Glavine and Wagner) and go about it his own way.

I also expect Troy Glaus to have a bounce back year considering he seems to have found his stroke at the plate and has developed a comfort level in the clubhouse that seems to have helped him adjust quickly to the Braves' culture.

 

Brett Kettyle: (B)

I love the Troy Glaus signing—I think the Braves got him at a great bargain and he really has no risk this year. However, I don’t love that he was the Braves' “big” bat. I think he is a great complimentary player, not the player to be relied heavily on.

The Braves had a couple salary cutting moves (Vazquez and Soriano) but given the circumstances I think that the return was good. All the players we acquired from the Yankees will prove valuable, and if Vizcaino pans out he alone could be five times more valuable to the Braves than one season of Vazquez.

Billy Wagner is my favorite offseason move. I think he has plenty left in the tank, and will be the best closer the Braves have had since Smoltz.


Chipper had a down year in 2009, what can we expect from him in 2010?

JB: I really think Chipper will continue his decline. He won’t be as bad as last year, but he won’t be as good as in the past either. Look for .287/15 HR/75 RBI in 2010.

 

CB: Chipper as we knew him in the '90s and the early 2000s is gone.

However, I do think that 2009 will end up being a bit of an anomaly in Chipper’s career. I’m looking forward to a .290 to .310/20 to 25 HR/.380 to .400 OBP season from ol’ Larry.

 

BD: Chipper Jones’ days of winning batting titles and having an OPS above 1.000 are over, but he still has the ability and the hitting knowledge to be a productive major leaguer.

Over the past few years Chipper’s biggest problem has been lack of power. He still has a great eye at the plate but he has been hitting fewer home runs as he ages. Chipper played in more games last season than he had since 2003, so injuries cannot be attributed to his lack of success.

This season I think you can expect Chipper to rebound, at least a little bit. He should hit around .290 with 23 homers and 76 RBI. I expect his on base and slugging to be at or around .405 and .485 respectively, good for a .890 OPS. These are not normal Chipper numbers, but he will still be productive if he is on the field.

 

AC: Chipper Jones sure had an awful last 95 games. His overall numbers were down across the board and we all know his famous proclamation of this being his last year if it doesn’t get better.

So what does he do? He goes out this spring and proceeds to hit .391, and when he decided to take his most aggressive cuts he hit a moon shot this past week. Chipper Jones will be fine. Throughout the struggles he still saw the ball well and took his walks. It’s no wonder that his OBP was still .388 and his walks were the most since 2002.

Did we also mention his 143 games played were the most since 2003 which is a sign he is taking a lot better care of himself in the offseason.

His lefty swing got long (a product of age and for an example see one Ken Griffey Jr.) and he corrected that with a more direct path to the ball which was evident in the Phillies spring training game when he ripped an inside heater from Roy Halladay back up the middle.

I predict a line of .330/25/91 from Chipper this year, especially considering the protection he now has behind him and the quality men in front of him to start the line-up.

 

BK: Chipper’s days of leading the Braves in just about every offensive category are over.

But he will rebound some, at least batting average wise, in 2010. I doubt that Chipper can stay healthy for an entire season, so optimistically I am thinking 130-140 games this year.

In around 500 total plate appearances, I see Chipper producing a .285/15/70 line.

 

Should Jason Heyward be the everyday right fielder? What will his stat line look like in 2010?

JB: Absolutely, he should. The kid appears to be everything the Braves hoped he would be. He will be Rookie of the Year in 2010.

Expect a .308/18 HR/80 RBI line.

 

CB: To answer the question as simply as possible: yes.

The dude’s maturity and patience off the field and at the plate, respectively, are remarkable for his age and his stature makes anyone who’s never seen him drop their jaw.

There is absolutely zero doubt in my mind that J-Hey is ready for the show and I look forward to a year highlighted by a .270-.280 season with 15-20 homers and something in the neighborhood of 15 steals, a ton of doubles, stellar defense, and a Rookie of the Year Award.

 

BD: Absolutely.

Heyward is the best option and he gives the Braves the best chance to win. Last year the Braves saved money by keeping Hanson down past the Super-Two deadline. The Braves were in the race until the last week of the season. A month and a half worth of starts from Hanson could have been the difference.

With this being Bobby’s last season managing the Braves you cannot expect them to keep Heyward down. He wants to win and he wants the best players out there.

From another angle, the Braves have struggled with attendance and if they want to get back to selling out games regularly, Heyward gives Braves fans something to look forward to and be excited about. He would certainly help, along with Hanson, in getting fans to the stadium at the beginning of the season.

For Heyward’s 2010 season: .297 AVG, .373 OBP, .476 SLG, 18 home runs, 77 RBI.

 

AC: Let’s be clear about one thing. Jason Heyward is the most impressive player to come through the Braves' system in a long time. This includes Tommy Hanson, who I am a huge fan of.

That being said if Heyward isn’t in Atlanta on opening day then there will be a huge uprising in the city. Heyward is not just the future, he is the present, and the more I watch and see him do everything it takes to win a game (even when they don’t count) the more I think in my head how exciting it’s going to be to watch him and McCann terrorize pitchers for years to come.

Tempering my excitement a bit I can see a line of .302/17/71 for Heyward. Once he develops the knack for the home run ball his power numbers will take off. Clearly I see that happening particularly in the second half where I predict he will not only help the Braves make a playoff push, but will make his own push for Rookie of the Year.

 

BK: Yes, Jason Heyward should be the everyday right fielder.

Last year, keeping Tommy Hanson in the minors to start the season may have kept the Braves out of the playoffs, and there is no reason to make the same mistake again this year.

Following his great spring training, Heyward is undoubtedly ready to play in the majors, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins Rookie of the Year.

In a full season of at-bats, Heyward produces a .300/15/85 line with 10 stolen bases.

 

What are the strengths and weaknesses of this 2010 Braves team?

JB: Strengths—Starting rotation, middle of the batting order, late relief (potentially).

Weaknesses—leadoff spot, late relief (potentially, if injuries creep up).

 

CB: One through five, you may be looking at the best rotation in baseball—Hanson and Jurrjens are emerging studs, Hudson is a proven (albeit coming in with a few question marks in ’10) veteran, Lowe is bound to rebound at least a little (right?), and Kenshin Kawakami is a guy many teams would love to have as a No. 3.

The biggest weakness lies in the injury risks in all areas of the team.

The aforementioned Hudson makes a few people shake; Saito, Wagner, and Moylan are all less than two years (going back to ’08) removed from significant time missed; and the three and four hitters (Jones and Glaus) both have experienced recent (and the former long-reaching) issues with their physiques.

But, overall, the team has a ton of upside with few drawbacks (provided everyone can survive the season).

 

BD: The strengths have to be the rotation, the lineup's upside, and the overall depth and flexibility of the bench. The Braves led the league in starter’s ERA last year and with Hudson back, Hanson in for a full season, and expected improvements from Lowe and Kawakami, you have to expect them to remain near the top in most starting statistics.

The lineup 1 through 8 has tremendous upside. Each player, aside from Heyward, has had productive seasons in the past and they all have great on-base skills. The lineup is definitely underrated and although they do not have the type of power that the Phillies have, they do have enough talent to make the playoffs.

The depth the Braves have now is highlighted by the acquisition of Eric Hinske. He has the ability to post decent numbers for both corner infield spots and has power unlike any of the players on the Braves’ bench.

Jesse Chavez was a solid acquisition for the bullpen and although he is only expected to be a middle reliever, he should provide some depth behind Moylan and Saito as a right-hander in the bullpen. He has struggled this spring but he and Scott Proctor both have the potential to be productive in the middle of the rotation.

The weaknesses have to be the injury risks and depth in the rotation. Kris Medlen is a solid sixth starter but after Medlen there are not many experienced pitchers to replace any type of injury that could occur to the starting staff.

I have given up on Jo-Jo Reyes as a starter and although there are some good prospects on the rise, it is hard to rely upon any rookie pitchers being rushed to the majors to succeed in a playoff race. 

The injury risks in the back-end of the bullpen and the corner infield spots are definitely things to worry about throughout the season. The three and four hitters as well as the closer and set up men are all injury risks. I believe Wagner’s elbow will hold up, but at that age any type of lingering injury could affect him throughout the season. Chipper and Glaus remaining healthy will be extremely crucial to the Braves'  chance to make the playoffs. Hinske gives them depth and will be a decent replacement, but only for short periods of time.

 

AC:
Strength: Pitching.

Obviously the starting pitching is a huge strength for this Braves team. They have a starting five, even after dealing Vazquez, that rivals any in either league. Led by young guns Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens and anchored by Hudson, Lowe, and Kawakami this team is well armed to make a run at the Phillies who by the way, they took 11 of 19 from in 2009.

Weakness: Uncertainty.

The one glaring problem I see is a slight uncertainty to how some players will bounce back after injury (Glaus, Wagner, Hudson, and McClouth with the eye issue) and how some players will perform in certain roles (Chavez and Reyes in the bullpen, Heyward as a rookie, and Glaus as a first basemen).

 

BK: The biggest strength, barring injury, will be the starting rotation. Derek Lowe might be the worst member of the rotation, and his numbers would be pretty good for a fifth starter.

The Braves bench will also be strong. With Melky, Infante, Hinske, and Ross on the bench, the Braves have four players who are borderline starters waiting in the wings should anyone go down to injury. 

As for weaknesses, I still think the Braves could use a power bat from the right side of the plate. While I like what Troy Glaus brings to the team, I don’t think that he is the power bat that the Braves would have liked to acquire.

Durability also could be a concern. With an aging combo at both the corner infield and back of the bullpen, the Braves will need some luck to get through the season unscathed.

 

Who is your “sleeper” prospect in the Braves organization?

JB: P Kyle Cofield—6'5" 220 pounds—The guy is a beast and has the stuff to either become a major part of the bullpen now and/or a starter once D. Lowe and Tim Hudson's contracts are finished.

 

CB: For the record, this is my top 10: Heyward, Freeman, Teheran, Vizcaino, Kimbrel, Salcedo, Delgado, Bethancourt, Spruill, and Minor.

With that in mind, my big-time sleeper is left-hander Scott Diamond.

This soon-to-be-24-year-old had a well-above average 2008 with 85 Ks and 28 BBs in 100 innings (with all but two appearances as a starter) at A+ ball in Myrtle Beach.

His 2009 wasn’t world-beating while at Mississippi as he posted a 3.50 ERA with a K:BB of 111:53 in 131 innings.

The 152 hits allowed are a bit concerning, but he has descent stuff that could turn him into a Javier Lopez-like reliever down the line (thus far, his MLB H/9, HR/9, K/9, and BB/9 are all better thus far)—a very valuable lefty that can do a little of everything.

 

BD: Brett DeVall would be my sleeper prospect. He started 10 games last season in low-A ball and posted a 3.52 ERA with a 1.19 WHIP. DeVall struck out 41 batters in 53.2 innings and walked only 14.

The K/BB numbers are my favorite part about DeVall, and although he does not project to be much of a strikeout pitcher, you can expect him to keep the walks down.

Brett was able to avoid TJ surgery and he will be ready to go this year.

It is kind of hard to count DeVall in as a sleeper as he was the first round pick in 2008, but with all of the talk around guys like Heyward, Freeman, Minor, etc., you can rely on DeVall putting up another good season in high-A ball this year. I currently have him as the 12th-best prospect but after this season I would not be surprised if he wound up in the top five.

 

AC: A sleeper prospect I would look out for in the Braves farm system is Mike Dunn who was acquired from the Yankees in a Vasquez trade. The Braves do an exceptional job of developing pitchers and the stuff this guy has is absolutely filthy.

Look for the Braves to tap into the potential of this young lefty and take him to new heights within the organization.

 

BK: For a sleeper prospect, I like Brett Oberholtzer. Originally taken by the Mariners in 2007, he was the Braves' eighth round pick in 2008.

After pitching as a reliever in 2008, he started 12 games in Danville in 2009, and the results were fantastic.

In 67 innings, Oberholtzer posted a 6-2 record and 2.01 ERA. But the most impressive thing was that he walked only six batters while striking out 56. That’s a 9.33 K/BB ratio.

While Oberholtzer still has a ways to go up the minor league ladder, I think he will greatly rise on prospect lists if he posts another impressive state line in 2010.

 

What is the biggest key to the Braves returning to the playoffs in 2010?

JB: A healthy pitching staff. If those guys are healthy the rest should take care of itself.

 

CB: In order for the Braves to have success in 2010, I think you have to see the guys I’ve been talking about the whole time (Glaus, Hudson, Saito, and Wagner) step up and perform.

If they can avoid the injury bug, then I think the Braves are a near Wild Card lock.

 

BD: The key, as mentioned before, is health. If the back-end of the bullpen remains healthy as well as Wagner and Saito it is hard to imagine the Braves not at least being in the race towards the end of the season.

This team is mixed with veterans who are burning for a last chance at a title, young guys who have yet to experience playoff baseball, and a Hall of Fame manager in his final season. This is a dangerous mix for the rest of the National League and you can bet most teams don’t like seeing the Braves on their schedule.

 

AC: The most important factor to the Braves returning to the playoffs is the health of its starting rotation. While the quality of their one through five is excellent, they need sustained health in order to stay competitive in the deep NL East. An injury to any of their top five could take this from a very solid rotation to one that could see problems with its depth depending on who fills in for said starter. 

Another important piece to the puzzle is Troy Glaus. If he performs to his usual standards over a full season the Braves should have a very potent lineup. If not, then it could be tough for them to find production and protection for Chipper Jones, etc.

 

BK: For me the key is the rotation staying healthy. Sure, the lineup is improved, but this team is still going to rely on pitching more than anything else.

If the Braves lose one starter, they will be ok, but if the rotation has a couple injuries, I don’t think that the lineup is good enough to propel the Braves into the playoffs.

 

Predict the NL East finish

Joel Barker:

1.  Phillies—No one is going to catch these guys. Hamels and Halladay at the top of that rotation will be filthy. The lineup is even filthier.

2.  Braves—The Braves will win the Wild Card this season on the strength of starting pitching and a rejuvenated lineup.

3.  Nationals—Yep, I'm crazy. Crazy enough to believe the staff that the Nats put together is good enough to make some real noise in 2010.

4.  Mets—There will be quite the house cleaning after another disappointing season for the Mets.

5.  Marlins—Ladies and gentlemen, the new manager for the Atlanta Braves...Freddy Gonzalez!

 

Cameron Britt:

1.  Philadelphia Phillies—They lost nothing by trading in their Cliff Lee for a fancy Roy Halladay and the offense is still one of the most potent in baseball—I have total respect for the reigning NL Champs.

2.  Atlanta Braves (WC)—Yes, I do have some homer in me.  But, this team’s weaknesses (I’m assuming that some people stay at least kind of healthy) are few and far between.  Stout pitching staff, competent offense, high-ceiling ‘pen—all three sections for success (oh, and a very strong bench highlighted by Infante, Hinske, and Diaz/Cabrera) are accounted for.

3.  Marlins—A full year of Coghlan?  Han-Ram?  Josh Johnson?  It’s really hard to put this team in third—but I still think their upswing is active—until they mature a little more as a team (i.e. patience at the plate, where they ranked 26th last season), I still can’t voice my full confidence in them.

4.  New York Mets—Let’s see, Beltran and the Mets are at odds, Minaya failed to address the rotation and opted to sign Jason Bay (to play in a terrible hitter’s park), Jose Reyes has a thyroid issue.  Yep, welcome to the New York Mess.

5.  Washington Nationals—I’ll be honest, I love the offense.  Zimmerman, Dunn, Willingham, Morgan, and Guzman make a nice base for this ever-developing organization.  However, I’m not completely drowned in the Strasburg hype (let him throw a few MLB innings) and hate the defense and staff that have been thrown together.  However, with a full year of Riggleman-Rizzo should make the team a lot better both this year and in the future.

 

Ben Duronio:

1.  Philadelphia Phillies—At this point, their lineup is just too solid and with Halladay at the head of the rotation they should be able to get back to the playoffs. It is just hard to pick against a team that has had as much success as the Phillies over the past few years.

2.  Atlanta Braves (WC)—I have the Braves finishing as the Wild Card recipient. With a rotation as strong as the Braves they should be able to win a number of low scoring games throughout the season and they should also finish with the Rookie of the Year in Jason Heyward.

3.  New York Mets—The bottom three of the NL East will all have similar records in my opinion. The Mets still have a talent roster with the likes of Reyes, Wright, Beltran, and Santana. Depth is their biggest question and if one of the aforementioned misses any more time than expected (Beltran already out) they could end up as the bottom feeders.

4.  Florida Marlins—The Marlins finished second in the NL East last year and have not lost much nor gained much this offseason. Josh Johnson is a great young starter but depth in the rotation is the Marlin’s biggest problem at this point.

5.  Washington Nationals—The Nationals may be the most improved team in the division. The additions to their rotation and the wild card in Stephen Strasburg give them an opportunity to turn some heads this summer.

 

Adam Cubbage:

1.  Braves—I really think this is the year the Braves overtake the Phillies with the right mix of youth and experience and a rotation that can shutdown any lineup. They will also avoid the lulls that plagued them at the wrong times against teams they surely should have played better against.

2.  Phillies—Yes they have that offense. Yes they have Roy Halladay. But they also have questions concerning their 2-5 in the rotation, and a question at closer involving Brad Lidge’s psyche and the oncoming Ryan Madsen lurking behind him for the role of closer.

3.  Marlins—While the future is bright in South Florida, the rotation has problems after Josh Johnson, even with returning number two Nolasco who needs to prove he can stay healthy. The offense should score runs, but look for the top two teams to figure out the fastball hungry Marlins.

4.  Mets—Is there a more dysfunctional ball club than the New York Mets? Okay, maybe there is. But bottom line this is a ball club with injury problems to stars (Beltran and Reyes), an ace looking to return from elbow surgery (Santana), an overpaid starter trying to justify his contract (Oliver Perez), and a front office that still hasn’t determined a direction for this franchise that just opened a gorgeous new stadium a year ago. That doesn’t even include the Bernie Madoff aftermath. Let’s see how Jason Bay enjoys his experience in flushing.

5.  Nationals—Yes they made strides in DC to better their situation and could be rewarded with a fourth place finish instead of fifth. I still pick them to finish last, based on a rotation that only has Marquis, a closer who has seen his numbers go the wrong way each of the last two seasons, and poor choices in free agent signings (see prior article about that one).

 

Brett Kettyle:

1.  Philadelphia Phillies—Halladay makes the rotation stronger, and the lineup is one of the best in baseball. The only thing that could keep this team from winning division is the bullpen, which has a ton of possible issues.

2.  Atlanta Braves (WC)—The rotation will be great, and I think the Braves will be in the division race down through the final week of the season.

3.  Florida Marlins—I love that the team has started to spend money, but I still don’t think the Marlins are ready to return to the playoffs. The team is still really young, and should continue to make strides.

4.  New York Mets—The rotation is a mess, and even if Reyes, Wright, and Beltran return to form, the Mets will struggle to compete.

5.  Washington Nationals—If things break right, I could see them finishing fourth. But I really see this team getting better in 2011 when the top four starters will be Steven Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Jason Marquis, and John Lannan.

 

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