Atlanta Braves 2011 Preview
Injuries to key personnel — especially Martin Prado — hurt the Braves last year.
As you wait for the next cheat sheet in the 2011 RotoRob MLB Draft Kit, we offer up another team preview. We’re going to stick in the NL East, today putting the Atlanta Braves under our microscope.
After bottoming out in 2008 with just 72 wins, the Braves made nice strides in 2009, winning 86 games. Last year, they consolidated those gains by upping their win total to 91, good enough to win the National League Wild Card and a trip back to the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
Of course, it’s not that long ago that a postseason without Atlanta was as rare as a Halley’s Comet sighting.
And it sure didn’t look like it was going to happen last year when the Braves dropped nine straight games in late-April to drop to 8-14. However, Atlanta turned things around with a 20-8 May followed by a 17-11 June, and wound up spending 99 straight days sitting atop the NL East.
The 2010 Braves clearly had a flair for the dramatic, earning over half (46-of-91) of their wins by coming from behind, and 25 times earning the W in their final at-bat – over half of those being of the walk-off variety.
Newcomer Troy Glaus went on a tear for about six weeks, fuelling the Braves’ turnaround, but by the second half, injuries and ineffectiveness had rendered him a non factor.
In mid-August, the Braves made a move to help inject some life into the lineup by acquiring Derrek Lee as a rent a player. He hit well over the final few weeks of the season, but like most of the Braves, Lee stunk it up in the postseason (2-for-16) before buggering off to Baltimore as a free agent, leaving the first base job in 2011 to rookie Freddie Freeman.
Injuries to several key players (Chipper Jones, Martin Prado, Kris Medlen and Jason Heyward) hampered this club, and a rough September left Atlanta having to settle for the Wild Card, which it clinched on the season’s final day.
Yes, the Bobby Cox era came to an unfortunate end as the Braves went down in four games – with all three losses being one-run affairs – in the NLDS to eventual World Series champion San Francisco.
It will be a strange sight to watch the Atlanta Braves this season and not see Cox sitting in the dugout. A few words need to be devoted to one of the greatest skippers ever, a man that had a rep as a player’s manager.
Where do we start? How about the 2,504 regular season wins Cox racked up – good for fourth highest all-time? Then there was the 1985 season in which he guided the Blue Jays to their first ever playoff appearance. And in 25 seasons as Atlanta’s manager, Cox steered the Braves to 14 (consecutive!) division titles, five NL championships and one World Series title. Oh sure, his detractors will point to the 16 trips to the playoffs with just one championship, but if Cox doesn’t get into the Hall of Fame, there should be revolt.
At any rate, new manager Fredi Gonzalez sure has some damn big shoes to fill. However, considering that Gonzalez worked under Cox for five seasons, this should not usher in a radical change in managerial philosophies. Still, it’s a concern that Gonzalez has never guided a major league team to a playoff berth before, so it bears watching how he handles the pressure and it will be fascinating to see how much – if any – he deviates from running the team the way Cox did.
We’d rather not dwell on the negatives, especially considering Atlanta has been a team on the rise the past few seasons. But shockingly, Atlanta is now 0-8 at home in playoff games with the series on the line since 1997 – the year it opened Turner Field. Overall, the Braves have now dropped six straight playoff series, tying them for the fourth longest such streak in baseball history. Clearly, this team has had a problem doing more than just getting to the dance in the past few years.
Of course, the fact that both Jones and Prado were missing during the NLDS weakened what was already a suspect offense. But even worse, their absence forced Brooks Conrad into action, and we all remember how that went from a defensive perspective. He was finally yanked in the final game so Atlanta could trot out Glaus at third – a man that could barely move.
Overall, Atlanta stunk it up with the gloves, committing eight errors – which tied the record for a four-game series.
Some of the players left standing that Atlanta counted on to produce failed to make an impact, such as Heyward, as the Braves only mustered 24 hits in four games against the powerful San Francisco staff.
Overall in 2010, the Braves’ offense was middling at best, although they did manage to post the fourth best on-base percentage in the majors, so at least Billy Beane would have been proud. As mentioned earlier, Glaus helped carry the offense for several weeks, and Prado enjoyed another fine season, scoring 100 runs before succumbing to injuries.
Certainly the addition of Dan Uggla provides this lineup with a much-needed jolt of right-handed power – something this team has lacked in recent years.
The pitching, on the other hand, was very strong, recording the third lowest ERA in baseball (3.56). In his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, Tim Hudson was phenomenal, some long ball issues notwithstanding.
Derek Lowe, who struggled badly in his first season in Atlanta (despite winning 15 games), enjoyed somewhat of a bounceback fuelled a strong second half – particularly in September when he looked like an ace, going 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA and 29 strikeouts against a mere three walks in 30 2/3 IP. Lowe continued his brilliance in the NLDS, losing both his starts, but looking superb in both outings. Atlanta will need to see that Lowe on a more consistent basis in 2011.
Atlanta will again boast a very fine rotation this season, and the continued progress of Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens and Mike Minor may mean that this staff won’t be as inferior to Philly’s as most people expect.
The bullpen specifically – despite the loss of both 2009 co-closers (Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez) — was tremendous in 2010, recording a 3.11 ERA. It has again suffered key losses with the retirement of closer Billy Wagner and the release of Takashi Saito, but with plenty of internal options emerging as potential closer candidates last season (including righty Craig Kimbrel and lefty Jonny Venters), the Braves should again have a fine relief corps. If neither Kimbrel nor Venters can get the job done, newcomers George Sherrill and Scott Linebrink both have plenty of experience pitching in late-inning situations.
Yes, it’s a mostly raw bullpen, but the fact that the Braves have a stacked farm system means that if they need to plug holes, they have the talent available to trade.
But clearly, this team needs to maintain its pitching prowess and beef up its offense if it has any hope of closing the gap on NL East favourite Philadelphia and its four aces. In fact, duplicating last season’s 91-win total may prove challenging.
However, regardless of whether they can catch Philly, the Braves should still be in the mix for a playoff spot this year, and with plenty of talent soon to arrive – especially on the mound, where the Braves’ seemingly never-ending pipeline of pitching prospects keeps churning them out — this club is poised for another long run of contention.
LF Martin Prado: Assuming Chipper Jones does in fact come back (and reports of his progress this spring have been mostly positive), Prado is shifting to the outfield, a place where his numbers don’t profile nearly as well from a Fantasy standpoint. Fortunately, he remains 2B/3B eligible for 2011, but it’s unlikely he’ll get selected to the All-Star game unless he takes a major step forward. With Prado having played just five career games (minor and major league) in left field, it’s going to be a bit of a learning curve for him, so let’s hope that doesn’t affect his offense too much.
RF Jason Heyward: Heyward generated a ton of hype with his performance in Spring Training last year, earning the starting RF job for the Braves in the process. He enjoyed a very strong rookie season, displaying a batting eye that belied his tender age (20) and I’m expecting a big spike in his extra-base pop this year.
3B Chipper Jones: Coming off another devastating knee injury and subsequent surgery, Jones is expected to be ready for the start of the season. But he will be 39 in April, and while he’s best suited to be a DH at this stage of his career, that’s not an option in Atlanta, so I’m worried about his ability to bounce back. Atlanta is certain that Jones will be fine, but I don’t share that optimism. I admire the fact that he didn’t want fans’ enduring last image to be of him being helped off the field, but as far as how much he has left – well, that’s definitely in doubt.
2B Dan Uggla: Acquired from the Marlins for super sub Omar Infante and reliever Mike Dunn, Uggla gives the Braves a right-handed power hitter and one of the top second basemen in the game, offensively that is. The Braves were able to sign Uggla to a five-year extension and he’ll look to build on the career year he put up in 2010 when he smacked 30 homers for the fourth straight season – making him just the second second baseman to ever do that.
C Brian McCann: McCann slipped a tad offensively last year, but he took home MVP honours for his All-Star game performance and reached 25 doubles for the fifth straight season. After he slimmed down by 15 pounds this offseason, I’m expecting him to return close to his 2008 level this year.
SS Alex Gonzalez: The Braves opted to exercise their $2.5-million option on Gonzalez for 2011 despite the fact he struggled to a .240 mark after arriving in a mid-season deal from Toronto. At any rate, he’s an acceptable short-term solution; Atlanta is stacked with shortstop prospects in the minors, so it should have no problem finding Gonzalez’s replacement in time.
CF Nate McLouth: McLouth was a serious enigma last year, as he seems to forget how to play the game. Regardless, he’s slated to be the starting centrefielder and could even wind up leading off depending on his performance (there’s little doubt that when McLouth is on, he’s the best lead-off option the Braves have). But first he’ll have to bounce back from the worst season of his career, one marred by a concussion and a demotion to Triple-A. And any chance that Atlanta has of being a measurably better offensive team this year hinges on McLouth’s return to prominence. Remember that this guy was an All-Star and Gold Glove winner for the Pirates, but ever since arriving in Atlanta midway through 2009, he’s been awful. Still, if you’re looking for a sleeper in this lineup, McLouth is it. Once he came back from Triple-A, he enjoyed a solid September, sparking hopes that he’s ready to turn it around.
1B Freddie Freeman: After enjoying a superb season at Triple-A where he was named the International League Rookie of the Year, Freeman was sent to the AFL where he unfortunately had to shut down with a thumb injury. The injury was no big deal, and this kid will take over as Atlanta’s first baseman this year. Freeman will be under close scrutiny to see how he adjusts to the majors, and while I expect him to experience some slumps, I love his long-term potential as a high-average, decent power-hitting first baseman.
Key Bench Players
C David Ross: Ross enjoyed a fine offensive season last year; in fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a better-hitting back-up catcher in the NL.
IF Brooks Conrad: Everyone will remember the ugliness that was Conrad’s glovework in the playoffs, but injuries thrust him into an everyday role. As a pinch-hitter/utility infielder, he got the job done, smacking plenty of extra-base hits, slugging almost .490 in the process.
IF/OF Eric Hinske: The Braves re-signed Hinske after he put up another solid season. His strikeout rate is rising, but he supplies left-handed pop off the bench and backs up both first base and left field and, in a pinch, could man third as well. Besides, Hinske’s presence ensures that no food ever gets wasted from the post-game buffets.
IF Diory Hernandez: Hernandez hit .319 in limited action at Triple-A, but has shown nothing offensively in his brief time with the Braves the last two seasons.
Projected Starting Rotation
RHP Tim Hudson: Hudson’s first full season back from Tommy John surgery was nothing short of remarkable, earning him NL Comeback Player of the Year honours.
RHP Derek Lowe: Lowe is arguably only the fourth-best starter on this team, yet he makes $15 million and is expected to be the No. 2 man in the rotation. He was better last year, but hasn’t exactly wowed since arriving in Atlanta two years ago.
RHP Tommy Hanson: Okay, so in his first full season Hanson wasn’t as dominant as he was during his rookie effort, but the fact that he sharpened his command and improved his WHIP are both great signs. He’s gained muscle this offseason, which should help his durability. Coming off a losing record and a season in which his ERA rose almost half a run, Hanson will be available cheaper this year, and that should be music to the ears of bargain hunters.
RHP Jair Jurrjens: We’re willing to give Jurrjens a mulligan in 2010 based on his injury woes. In 2009, he was one of the NL’s best starters, and while I have my doubts about him doing that well this year, he’ll certainly be much better than he was last year. The fact that Jurrjens trimmed down significantly this offseason should help him stay healthy.
LHP Mike Minor: Minor forced his way onto the Braves’ rotation last August, and for the most part did quite well, really only having two bad outings out of eight starts. Consider him a big-time sleeper this year as his command was impeccable last year and there’s plenty of upside in Minor’s game.
Closer RHP Craig Kimbrel: Despite some serious control issues, Kimbrel was untouchable in his first taste of the majors last year. Forty strikeouts in 20 2/3 IP? Are you kidding me? He excelled as the closer at Triple-A last year, and this year he’ll get the first crack at earning saves for the Braves. The youngster certainly has the confidence – and the stuff – to the get the job done, and his success, or lack thereof, will go a long way towards determining if Atlanta returns to the playoffs this season.
Set-up LHP Jonny Venters: Don’t count Venters out as the possible closer for the Braves – in fact, manager Gonzalez has suggested that he and Kimbrel could share the job. Sure, lefties don’t always make the best closers, but the reason the Braves need a new closer this year is because of the retirement of Wagner – the best southpaw closer ever. Venters enjoyed a brilliant rookie campaign last year, and his 95 mph sinker can overpower hitters.
Set-up RHP Peter Moylan: This veteran has proved quite durable since coming back from his Tommy John procedure a couple of years ago. The sidearmer makes a crapload of appearances, but tends to average much less than an inning per outing, which limits his value to deep NL-only leagues or ones that track holds. Moylan has taken off nearly 25 pounds this winter, so hopefully he can continue to avoid the Eric Hinske Buffet Diet plan.
Middle LHP Eric O’Flaherty: Mono sapped him in the second half, but O’Flaherty looked great while healthy, as he again trended more towards being a groundball specialist and recorded a career-best 2.45 ERA.
Middle RHP Scott Linebrink: The White Sox dumped a bunch of salary when they dealt Linebrink to Atlanta even though the veteran righty enjoyed a decent year. Given his experience as a late-inning reliever, Linebrink could move into a more responsible role should either Kimbrel or Venters falter.
Middle LHP George Sherrill: Sherrill struggled with the Dodgers last year, but remains nasty against left-handed hitters. What’s most intriguing here is that no one on the Braves has as much closing experience as Sherrill, so if the youngsters don’t pan out, he could be quite valuable.
On the Horizon
The Braves spent last year’s draft trying to correct the imbalance of pitching prospects vs. hitting prospects, but that effort will take a couple of years to come to fruition. They are very strong at shortstop, but arms continue to dominate their top prospect list.
Julio Teheran, SP: Just 20, Teheran has already tasted – and had success at – Double-A. He’s starting to fill out and add strength and some are comparing his physical stature to a young Pedro Martinez. Teheran is confident, as has already developed that top prospect aura. If he continues to tear through the minors this season, there’s a good chance we’ll see him in the majors at some point this year, and his upside is higher than any of the Braves’ current starters.
Freddie Freeman, 1B: As discussed above, Freeman has been cleared for takeoff at the major league level after putting up a spectacular season at Triple-A at the age of 20.
Randall Delgado, rhp: Based on his control issues after a late-season promotion to Double-A, Delgado probably needs at least another year of minor league seasoning. But in looking at how he dominated High-A to start the season, there’s a chance we could see Delgado in September if he can make the adjustment to higher levels. Either way, he’s part of the next great wave of Atlanta pitchers that will soon be making their mark in the majors.
Mike Minor, SP: As discussed above, Minor has the inside track on the fifth starter job for the Braves this season, and once he establishes a bit more consistency, he’s going to be a very valuable Fantasy asset.
Craig Kimbrel, RP: Another of the Braves’ 2011 rookie class, Kimbrel was so dominant in his time in the majors last year that he’s the odds-on favourite to close this year. Atlanta has never been shy about giving rookies important roles, and this year’s squad continues that tradition.
Brandon Beachy, SP: Beachy (along with recently acquired Rodrigo Lopez) is a candidate to win the fifth starter job should Minor falter. After proving he can dominate Triple-A pitchers last year, Beachy should get a chance to strut his stuff in Atlanta at some point this season.
J.J. Hoover, SP: Hoover is another starting pitching prospect that’s getting close to Atlanta. Last year he held his own in a late-season trial at Double-A, although he’ll need to show the same level of control he did at High-A before he’s ready for another move.
Allowed 1B Troy Glaus to become a free agent: With Freeman ready for prime time, there was no need to bring back the brittle Glaus. He remains unsigned, but if Texas is able to deal Michael Young, Glaus could be the answer to the Rangers’ DH need. Then again, Glaus said he plans to sit out at least the first part of the season, leading to speculation that he might be done.
Allowed 1B Derrek Lee to become a free agent: Lee was in the same boat as Glaus — no longer needed because of Freeman’s emergence. He has since signed a one-year deal with the Orioles.
LHP Billy Wagner retired: Wagner was one of the greatest closers in big league history, but the Braves have plenty of internal options to replace him.
Released OF Melky Cabrera: Cabrera was awful in his one season with the Braves, so Atlanta relieved itself of this disaster rather than go to arbitration with him. He has since signed with the Royals.
Released RHP Takashi Saito: Saito had a decent year in a set-up role with the Braves, but his aging arm and his shoulder problems – plus the fact they have so many good young relievers — prompted the Braves to release him. He’s signed with Milwaukee.
Declined club option on OF Rick Ankiel: After arriving in a trade deadline deal from KC, Ankiel did next to nothing for the Braves, except of course, smoke one of the most majestic homers anyone has ever seen into the San Francisco Bay. He’s since signed with the Nationals.
Declined the club option on RHP Kyle Farnsworth: Farnsworth was enjoying a nice comeback season in KC, but that all ended when he arrived in Atlanta at the trade deadline, making the choice to not bring him back much easier. He has since signed with the Rays.
Claimed IF/OF Joe Mather off waivers: Mather didn’t see much action in St. Louis last year, spending most of the season at Triple-A. He’ll compete for another back-up gig this year, but there are better options already on the Braves (Hinske, for instance).
Traded IF/OF Omar Infante and LHP Mike Dunn to Florida for 2B Dan Uggla: This was a great move by the Braves, as they sold high on Infante and were able to swoop in and grab a marquee player in Uggla because Florida wasn’t willing to pony up the cash necessary to extend his contract.
Re-signed IF/OF Eric Hinske to a one-year deal: Hinske will continue to provide a veteran presence and left-handed power off the Brave bench. It doesn’t hurt that he seems to continually wind up on playoff teams.
OF Matt Diaz non-tendered: A thumb injury cost Diaz several weeks, and when he was healthy, he was mostly ineffective – especially compared to his superb 2009 campaign. Somehow he earned a two-year deal with the Pirates, where he’ll be a platoon player against southpaws. Remind me again why Pittsburgh has struggled for years?
Traded RHP Kyle Cofield to the White Sox for RHP Scott Linebrink and cash: The Braves have a plethora of high-level pitching prospects and Cofied wasn’t one of their better ones, so this was a smart move to add a veteran reliever with late-inning experience.
Signed LHP George Sherrill to a one-year deal: Sherrill had a crappy year in LA, but as a veteran lefty with closing experience, he could be useful in a young Brave bullpen.
2011 MLB Previews