Atlanta Braves: Rebuilt and Gearing For Another Run at the Wild Card, or More?

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Atlanta Braves: Rebuilt and Gearing For Another Run at the Wild Card, or More?
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Bobby Cox stepping down after 24 seasons (in two stints) as Braves manager was the story of the 2010 season in Atlanta.

The Braves’ lineup is chock full of talent this year, from young guys ready to emerge as productive every-day players to proven veterans familiar with the long grind of a baseball season.

The bullpen will be virtually unrecognizable to people who last paid attention to this team when they were perennial contenders, and the rotation is as strong as it has ever been in the post-Maddux/Smoltz/Glavine years.

In many ways, the current Braves team is a model of successful rebuilding.

It took less than half a decade, and during those four years, they even fielded a couple of competitive teams.

The offense was hit by injuries to key players at various points last season. The lineup will be stronger in 2011 by virtue of several new additions to the team and (hopefully) full seasons from guys like Nate McLouth, Jason Heyward and Chipper Jones.

 

Rotation

The Braves’ most successful starters are returning.

They will replace Kenshin Kawakami—who was all too easy to hit—with Mike Minor and/or Brandon Beachy.

Kris Medlen will return to the bullpen full time, and this rotation will be about as good as last year, if not better. I don’t think this staff is that much worse than what they have in Philly, and it will give the team a chance to keep up with their rivals.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Tim Hudson will lead a typically-strong Braves rotation.

Tim Hudson’s fantastic 2010 virtually guarantees he will get the ball on opening day.

There is a lot to like about Hudson, primarily his ground-ball rate. Over the last four seasons, his lowest ground-out/ fly-out ratio was 2.17, which is phenomenal.

The walks are a little on the high side, at least for a guy who gets between five and six strikeouts per nine innings, but the potential for a double play is always there.

He’s going to be worse than he was last year, because he is likely to allow more hits, so fantasy GMs should beware of the temptation to draft him in the first couple of rounds, but there is no reason to believe he won’t be good enough to win a whole lot of games for this team.

Tommy Hanson has shown us a lot of good things, with good strikeout numbers, decent control, and an ability to limit the home runs.

He has an incredibly effective fastball-slider combination.

I could see him allowing a few more home runs in the future, simply because he isn’t really a ground-ball pitcher, but I don’t see that ERA climbing much higher.

He finished last year with a streak of 18 consecutive starts of five innings or more (and only four of them were just five innings). I expect him to continue to be successful and turn in a performance comparable to most team’s aces.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Mike Minor is just one of the youngsters who could play a big role in 2011's Braves team.

With nine seasons in a row of 32+ starts, 12+ wins, and no ground-ball rate below 56 percent, dependability is the name of the game for Derek Lowe.

An ERA around four is likely. He wont get hit as hard as he did in 2009. In 2010 he made the nice adjustment of replacing a bunch of sliders with change-ups, and it worked. We’ll see how that continues next year, but Lowe is a guy who will give the team a reasonable chance to win each time, even as he turns 38 this June.

Jair Jurrjens' 2009 was an aberration. To me, Jurrjens is a decent starter, but not an ace-caliber guy. I don’t see another 2.60 ERA from a fly-ball pitcher with average K/BB ratios.

Injuries remain a concern as well. I anticipate a number of quality starts and a more-than-adequate performance for a third or fourth starter.

Mike Minor won't get anywhere near 200 innings, so I think he spends no more than about two-thirds of the season in the rotation but this year he will get a chance to make a name for himself at the big-league level.

While he got hit in his 40.2 innings last year, he showed some impressive peripherals and I like the way he hides the ball and delivers it quickly to the plate.

Brandon Beachy made three starts last year, hardly enough to judge him on.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Craig Kimbrel's raw strikeout power will take care of the ninth inning in close Braves wins.

I love his curveball, and his changeup has incredible movement. In the clips I’ve seen of him (on MLB.com) he did a fantastic job of keeping his fastball low in the zone. I look forward to seeing more of what he can do.

 

Bullpen

They aren’t lamenting the losses of Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito in Atlanta because of the impressive crop of young talent in the bullpen.

Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters should be taking over the last two innings, and the Braves’ bullpen depth eclipses what their division rivals have going on in the late innings.

Craig Kimbrel spent his minor league career and his first season in the majors striking out about half the guys he faced.

He throws a fastball around 95 mph and a slider in the low to mid 80s. He walks a lot of guys, however, with 16 in 20.2 innings with the Braves last year and 39 in 57.2 innings in AAA.

When guys made contact, they hit the ball up in the air about twice as often as they hit it on the ground, which could be a problem with slim leads.

He threw more pitches in the zone than your average pitcher, but the problem was that when he missed, guys did not swing. He’s only 22 years old, and 5'11'', and if he can develop his incredible stuff, he might start to resemble the guy he’s replacing as closer.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Brian McCann is one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball.

Jonny Venters turned in an incredible rookie season in 2010 with 93 strikeouts in 83 innings.

The left-hander was outstanding against lefty hitters and good against righties.

However, he wasn’t much of a strikeout pitcher in the minors and his control is not exceptional.

He posted a ridiculously fluky ground-ball rate that is sure to rise in 2011. Bill James is projecting him for a 4.14 ERA compared to last year’s 1.95, but I think Venters will be somewhere around the middle of that range.

Peter Moylan is the veteran of the bunch.

He just turned 32 and walks too many hitters but gets plenty of grounders. His sidearm delivery is deceptive and he’s coming off three straight seasons of 80 or more appearances.

Eric O’Flaherty is a 25-year-old who came up with the Mariners and has been decent for the Braves over the last two seasons. He’s an effective lefty-specialist.

Scott Linebrink was brought over from the White Sox for a year in exchange for an unimpressive prospect, Kyle Cofield.

Linebrink should be better off in the NL, where his home run rates should fall (even in the NL East). He still has solid stuff, with his fastball reaching 94 mph, and he threw six different pitches last year, though none were especially good. He’s a textbook middle reliever.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Now a Brave, Dan Uggla brings 30 HR power to a team that hasn't had that since 2006.

George Sherrill has been very inconsistent in his career in terms of control, home runs allowed and ERA.

His strikeout rate has dropped over the last two seasons and he was awful in 2010.

He has an interesting delivery, barely moving his legs as he winds up but that’s really all that is interesting about him.

Righties have pounded him in his career. His K/BB ratio against them is 106/99, and he should only be used against lefties even though the Braves have better options for that role.

Kris Medlen looked good last year with an excellent walk rate until he tore a ligament in his elbow.

He should be ready for 2012, if not late 2011. He should be a key part of the Braves’ bullpen for years to come if he doesn’t become a starter at some point.

He may become a starter when Lowe or Hudson call it a career.

Other guys who could get a chance include Juan Abreu, who has had some control problems but strikes guys out, Eric Cordier, who also has control problems but doesn’t strike as many guys out, Scott Proctor, who was once one of Joe Torre’s favorite relievers but has become an afterthought after allowing too many home runs in too many seasons, and Christhian Martinez, who looks to be a good control pitcher who pitches to contact.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Jason Heyward showed his immense talent as a rookie in 2010 after an offseason of immense hype.

 

Catcher

Brian McCann is still one of the best hitting catchers in baseball.

He doesn’t have the hardware of Joe Mauer or the hype of Buster Posey, but he compares quite favorably to that duo. It’s hard to believe he is only turning 27 this month, with five consecutive all-star games under his belt.

Pitched around a ton in 2010, McCann’s usually-impressive plate discipline carried him to a .375 OBP despite a .269 batting average.

The strikeouts spiked too, but I think he’ll get that under control as he sees more pitches in the zone. McCann should hit for better average in 2011, with his usual 20 home runs. I think he makes a run at 100 RBI as well.

David Ross will return to spot McCann as he has done since 2008. Ross takes his walks but strikes out a ton. The .289 average of 2010, as well as 2009’s .273, were luck-inflated, but he is a good backup.

 

Infield

Freddy Freeman will take over first base.

The 21-year-old was a September call up after an impressive season at AAA. Most projections have him improving on what place-warmers Troy Glaus and Derrek Lee did in 2010.

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He is expected to hit somewhere between 15 and 20 home runs (Glaus his 16, Lee hit 19) and should hit for better average than Glaus’ .240. He may not walk as much, but the season will be something of a learning experience for him.

Dan Uggla gives the Braves a huge boost to the middle of their lineup. While his batting average should fall back to somewhere close to .260, tons of walks and 30 HR are reasonable expectations.

Chipper Jones’ health is iffy, but we are all familiar with what he can do and has done.

He hasn’t been driving the ball the way he used to, or the way he was just a few years ago, and thus has seen his BABIP fall.

He still walks enough to survive a .260 average, and probably could hit .220 and still get on base at an above-average rate.

The pop that still exists in his bat only adds to his value if healthy, and that’s to say nothing about his character or clubhouse value. If he isn’t able to play, Martin Prado and Brooks Conrad will be at third base.

Alex Gonzalez should see his power decline slightly, though a double-digit home run total is likely, especially considering his tendency to elevate the ball.

Hitting for power is the only thing he does well with the bat (he plays good defense), as a sub-.300 OBP is a safe bet. Only nine hitters have walked less often than Gonzalez over the last two seasons and each of those nine has hit for better average.

 

Outfield

Martin Prado made himself known outside of Atlanta last year, and three seasons of hitting .300 is impressive.

His 90.5 percent contact rate was fourth in the NL last year and he swung at a lower-than-average percentage of pitches out of the zone.

He is absolutely capable of repeating his .307 average from 2010, though 15 HR is probably his ceiling. If he hits in front of Uggla, Heyward and McCann, another 100 runs will be as easy as staying out of the trainer’s room.

Jason Heyward was talked about a ton this time last year, and rightfully so.

He showed impressive plate discipline in his rookie campaign, though if anything, he should probably swing more often as he laid off of a rather high percentage of pitches in the zone.

He hit more than two grounders for every fly and saw 16.8 percent of fly balls leave the yard (a high percentage but not ridiculously so), so I think he’s probably headed for something like 25 home runs at most.

I agree with the folks calling him a five-tool stud and think he will only get better, starting with 2011.

Look for Nate McLouth to rebound this season.

He isn’t going to hit .190 again; he’s more of a .260 to .270 hitter with good speed. Hopefully, he can make good on the promise of consistent 20-20 seasons, as he won’t turn 30 until after the season ends.

Jordan Schafer is in the mix as well.

The 24-year-old played 50 games for the big league club in 2009 when he hit .204 with neutral luck.

He strikes out a ton and will have to hit for more power to be of value. Joe Mather, who spent a decade in the Cardinals’ system, also has a chance for a backup outfielder role.

Eric Hinske, once a rookie of the year winner, now a backup outfielder and first-baseman, will return as well, giving the Braves a good power bat off the bench.

 

Expected win total: 90-95

I do believe these Braves are better than 2010’s Braves.

The young players will have another year to settle into their roles, several important players have had time to heal, and the lineup is stronger.

I think they will play second fiddle to the beast in Phillie, but another Wild Card run is very likely.

This Braves team is well-balanced, lacking only speed. McLouth and Heyward could each steal something like 20 bases, if healthy, but last year’s club swiped only 63 bases (fourth-worst in the majors).

They have the offense to survive that, however, and the pitching to win them plenty of games in which they may only score three or four runs.

This team led the NL in OBP last year, and were fourth in the majors, and the emphasis they place on that stat is wise.

 

See also my articles on the Reds, Yankees, Phillies, Giants and Twins.

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