2011 Pre-Season Preview: NL East â€“ Atlanta Braves
The Braves begin the new season without long-time manager, Bobby Cox, who stewarded the team to a succession of fourteen consecutive division titles (from 1991-2005, absent the strike-shortened 1994 season), five World Series appearances and a world championship in his 20+ years at the help. The 2011 season will usher in the Fredi Gonzalez era in Atlanta.
The Braves failed to make the playoffs from 2006-09, but returned to the post-season last year as the NL Wild Card in Coxâ€™ final year, losing to the SF Giants in the ALDS. The roster underwent considerable change this past winter, as the club bid adieu to its starting first baseman, its closer and three other members of its bullpen. In exchange, the front office added a slugging second baseman (Dan Uggla), who it pilfered from the Florida Marlins, along with two veteran relievers.
Notable additions: RHP Scott Linebrink, LHP George Sherrill, 2B Dan Uggla
Notable subtractions: LF Matt Diaz, LHP Mike Dunn, RHP Kyle Farnsworth, UT Omar Infante, 1B Derrek Lee, RHP Takashi Saito, RP Billy Wagner
Catcher: Brian McCann
Infield: Freddie Freeman (1B), Dan Uggla (2B), Alex Gonzalez (SS) and Chipper Jones (3B)
Outfield: Martin Prado (LF), Nate McLouth (CF) and Jason Heyward (RF)
The offense rated fifth in the league in runs scored (4.56/g) last year despite enduring the pro-longed absence of 3B Chipper Jones and a highly disappointing season from CF Nate McLouth. Over the winter, the front office converted a utility player (Infante) and young reliever (Dunn) into a middle-of-the-order power bat (Uggla). He will pair with rookie 1B Freddie Freeman (the organizationâ€™s top prospect) to form a new right side on the infield.
The ballclub would obviously benefit from a healthy and productive Jones, 38, who has been the straw that stirs the drink in Atlanta since 1995. His productivity has declined in each season since 2007â€¦ and while last yearâ€™s drop-off can be tied to his health issues, the same cannot be said for 2008 or 2009. Yes, I realize he hit .364 in â€™08, but his HR, RBI, and slugging percentage were already dropping by that point, and they have been in free-fall since.
The de facto leader of the offense for the last couple of years has been C Brian McCann, who led all NL catchers â€“ and the Braves â€“ in HR (21) and RBI (77) last season. He won his fourth Silver Slugger Award in five years, but his batting average and RBI total have fallen in each of the last two seasons. His contact rate has fallen from 87% to 80% during those two seasons, suggesting his days of batting .300 may be over â€“ and, with that, some of his rbi production will be lost, as well.
Looking ahead, the mantle of offensive cornerstone will pass to young right fielder Jason Heyward â€“ the blue-chip prospect who hit 18 HR and knocked in 72 RBI while finishing second in the Rookie-of-the-Year balloting last year. His contact rate (75%) is less than you would like to see from a middle-of-the-order slugger, and his upside could be limited due to his propensity to hit the ball on the ground (55% GB rate).
Dan Uggla had a nice bounce-back season in 2010, but it is likely his batting average will regress towards .250 in the upcoming campaign as last yearâ€™s performance was driven by a slight increase in his contact rate and a significant spike in his hit rate (from 28% up to 33%). His power metric remains stable, so another 30 HR and 90+ RBI season is very likely.
Martin Prado spent the 2010 season splitting time between second and third base, and heâ€™ll be asked to shift positions once more in 2011â€¦ shifting to left field with Uggla in town and Chipper healthy again. He makes excellent contact (86% career contact rate), but it is unlikely his home run total will increase in the future as his ground ball rate has been on the increase. Still, his overall skill set is solid, so expect another .300 batting average and 12-15 home runs in 2011.
The rest of the lineup is chock-full of question marks. What caused McLouthâ€™s horrific start last season? Will he be able to rebound from whatever those issues were, and from his mid-season concussion, to become the kind of offensive contributor he was in 2008? He looked better after his return from the minor leagues in September, but it remains to be seen which player will show up in 2011.
Alex Gonzalez got off to a tremendous start last year in Toronto, but struggled once he arrived in Atlanta after a mid-season trade. For the most part, he is a .250 hitterâ€¦ but is he the guy who hit 8 HR in 2009 or the guy who hit 23 HR last year?
Freddie Freeman, 21, will inherit first base from Derrek Lee. He is still learning the game and discovering what works best for him. He rode a roller-coaster in the batterâ€™s box over the last couple of years in the minor leagues. The question is whether he is the kind of hitter who scuffled in 2009 (.282 / 8 HR in 400 AB) or the guy who pushed his way to the top of the Bravesâ€™ prospect list last year (.319, with 18 HR and 87 RBI in Triple-A).
The pitching staff:
Rotation: RHP Tim Hudson, RHP Derek Lowe, RHP Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, RHP Mike Minor
Closer: RHP Craig Kimbrel
The starting rotation is certainly good enough to win most divisions in baseball, and if the Phillies continue to be bit by the injury bug, itâ€™s conceivable the Braves could prevail in the eastern division.
The teamâ€™s top four pitchers â€“ Hudson, Lowe, Hanson and Jurrjens â€“ match up with most rotations in the game, and are all capable of winning 15+ games. Hudson returned from Tommy John surgery to pitch 229 innings â€“ his highest total since 2003. He was in the Cy Young discussion for awhile, before ultimately finishing 17-9, 2.83, in 34 starts. He benefitted from an extremely low BABIP (.253) and hit rate (25%) last season, so the Braves should expect regression in the upcoming season â€“ possibly, a lot of regression.
Things are looking up for Derek Lowe heading into the 2011 season. After a rough 2009, he struggled through the first half of last season before re-discovering his effectiveness in the second half. He finished the year strong, going 5â€“0, with a 1.17 ERA, in five starts in September.
Last season was a tale of two halves for Tommy Hanson. He posted an 8-5 record, with an elevated 4.19 ERA in the first half while demonstrating elite strikeout rates. Then, in the second half, he went just 2-6 â€“ but his ERA was more than one-and-a-half runs lower (2.55). Surprisingly, the improved ERA corresponded with a lower strikeout rate and an increase in his ground ball rate (45%).
Jurrjens missed nearly half the season due to hamstring and knee (torn meniscus) issues last year. His ERA was elevated last year due to a 68% strand rateâ€¦ his peripherals were solid otherwise. If healthy, I expect he will win 12-14 games and post an ERA in the high-3.00s in 2011.
The fifth spot in the rotation will likely go to Mike Minor, the Bravesâ€™ top draft pick in 2009. For fantasy baseball aficionados, there is solid value here â€“ donâ€™t be fooled by his elevated ERA (5.98). He suffered from the combination of a brutally-high hit rate (40%) and a miserable strand rate (64%). Those trends will even out, enabling owners to take advantage of his elite strikeout rate (9.8 K / 9 IP).
There should be a heated competition for the closerâ€™s role in spring training, with young Craig Kimbrel (14.1 K-rate) the leader in the clubhouseâ€¦ but he walks too many batters (5.7 BB / 9 IP in his minor league careerâ€¦ 5.8 BB / 9 IP for Atlanta last year) and could find himself relegated to a set-up role. Sherrill, a former closer, could win the job though fellow southpaw Jonny Venters, who struck out 93 batters in 83 IP last season, could wrest the job from both of them.
Prediction for 2011: 2nd place (92-70)
The additional offense provided by the arrival of Uggla and expected improvement of McLouth will be largely offset by a regression on the mound by Hudson and anticipated struggles at the back end of the bullpen. Itâ€™s possible they could compete for the division title, but I expect they will qualify for the post-season as the NL Wild Card.
Top Five Prospects:
1. Julio Teheran, RHP
2. Freddie Freeman, 1B
3. Mike Minor, LHP
4. Craig Kimbrel, RHP
5. Randall Delgado, RHP
Teheran was signed as an international free agent out of Columbia in 2007, signing for $850K. He was actually offered more money by the NY Yankees, but he spurned the Bronx Bombers in large part because his cousin, Miguel, was one of the Braves scouts who signed him for Atlanta.
He struggled with shoulder tendinitis in 2008, but pitched well enough in 2009 to rank as the top prospect in the Appalachian League. Last year, he pitched well enough to advance from Lo-A to Double-A and earn designation as the top prospect in the Carolina League.
His fastball grades a â€œ65â€ on the scoutsâ€™ 20-80 scale. It regularly sits in the mid-90s and he has proven capable of maintaining his velocity throughout the game. He has a pair of above-average off-speed pitches, a changeup and curve ball, both of which he can throw strikes on a consistent basis. He keeps all of his pitches low in the strike zone and works the corners. Physically, he is slightly of stature, but as a 19-year-old he has plenty of time to mature. He should start the year in Double-A and progress to Triple-A by mid-season. Look for him in Atlanta sometime in 2012.