Over the coming days, I will write a short review about the performance the Braves received from different positions, as well as what to expect from the team in the future.
Up next, the outfield.
I am going to switch things up a little and not break this down between starters and backups because there were so many different people who got a chance to start for the Braves. Josh Anderson, Gregor Blanco, Matt Diaz, Jeff Francoeur, Omar Infante, Brandon Jones, Mark Kotsay, Greg Norton, Jason Perry, Martin Prado, and even Chris Resop all spent time patrolling the grounds in 2008 (Resop was in the outfield for only one batter, he is a pitcher).
I won’t be discussing the production of Infante, Prado or Norton, as they all saw time in the infield and were discussed in previous reviews/previews. I also will not be discussing Resop, because his contributions to the team came on the pitching mound.
The biggest surprise (in a good way) was Mark Kotsay, who hit .289 with the Braves before being traded to the Boston Red Sox. Although he lacked power, he exceeded expectations before the Braves realized that they weren’t going to be able to compete for the division crown in 2008.
The biggest surprise (in a bad way) was Jeff Francoeur. When he came to the big leagues, he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated with the title "The Natural." He came off a 2007 season in which he hit .293 and slugged .444. In the offseason, he gained about 15 pounds of muscle, and was ready to be a big power bat in the middle of the Braves lineup.
Needless to say, he looked nothing like "The Natural." He struggled through a season in which he produced a .239/.294/.359 line and was sent down to minors at one point to work on his swing. This next fact pretty much sums up Frenchy’s season: he slugged exactly 10 points higher than 5'7", 177 pound shortstop David Eckstein.
Josh Anderson played well in 2008. He hit .294 and stole 10 bases (which was third on the team) while getting caught only once in 40 games. This is coming after a brief Major League stint with the Astros in which he hit .358 in 2007.
Gregor Blanco saw significant playing time, but hit only .251 in 430 at bats. He did steal 13 bases, which led the team, but doesn’t have a lot of speed. He also slugged only .309, which was a lot lower than his on base percentage (.366). Matt Diaz played in only 43 games due to injury. He took huge steps back from 2006 and 2007 (when he hit .327 and .338 and had shown some power potential) by hitting only .244 when he did play. He also showed no power, slugging only .304.
Brandon Jones saw limited time in the outfield, and hit .267. He only saw playing time in 41 games, and is still a young player who should have a bright future. Jason Perry was called up when Frenchy was sent down to the minors. He stayed for only 4 games, managing to get only 2 hits in 17 at bats. He hit a combined .271 with 23 home runs in two minor league stops, but isn’t considered a prospect (he is already 28) and therefore didn’t get many chances.
To sum it up, the Braves really struggled to get solid production from the outfielders in 2008. The biggest problem was that there was absolutely no power coming from the outfield. Jeff Francoeur (who we already discussed as having an awful season for power numbers) led all Braves outfielders with 11 home runs. The next two full time outfielders hit 6 (Kotsay) and 3 (Anderson). Greg Norton did manage to hit 7, but did so more as a pinch hitter or first baseman.
The outfield has left the Braves with more questions than any other offensive position going into 2009. Right field appears to be the only filled spot, but that could quickly change if Francoeur is unable to find his stroke. Braves GM Frank Wren has already announced that he is pursuing a right-handed power hitting corner outfielder who could hit between Chipper Jones and Brian McCann in the lineup.
Assuming that Wren is able to achieve his goal, that would leave only center field open at the beginning of the year. There is a chance that the Braves will also look outside the organization to fill this hole, but I doubt it. I would love to see Josh Anderson get the job, because he has hit well in two major league stints and would give the Braves a legitimate base-stealing threat. Gregor Blanco will likely also get some looks as he has been a favorite of manager Bobby Cox.
Although the outfield situation seems dire now, the Braves still have a lot of young talent in the system. Brandon Jones is still young, and still has 20/20 potential. Jordan Schafer is one of the Braves top prospects, and could see playing time in center field as early as 2009. He finished the 2008 season strong after being suspended for performance enhancing drugs, and is now hitting .283 in the Arizona Fall League.
Jason Heyward is considered by some to be the Braves top prospect. The Braves first round draft choice in 2007, Heyward spent most of the year in Rome and made the All-Star team while hitting .323. Gorkys Hernandez, who was acquired from Detroit in the Edgar Renteria trade, struggled some at Myrtle Beach, but is still considered a top prospect.
Cody Johnson is a power hitting outfielder in Rome, but he has trouble with strikeouts.
Finally, the Braves have Luis Sumoza, who was acquired from the Red Sox for Mark Kotsay. He is also in A ball, but could have a bright future. Schafer and Jones should both see time in Atlanta in 2009, but the rest of the prospects still have maturing to do in the minors.
In conclusion, I see the Braves starting the season with a left fielder from outside of the organization (Ryan Ludwick’s name has been thrown into plenty of rumors), Josh Anderson in center field and Jeff Francoeur in right. Assuming Frenchy can regain his form (or at least part of it) and Wren is able to reach his goal of getting a power bat, the outfield should be much improved offensively in 2009.