Saturday, October 21, 2006

Looking Ahead: Atlanta Braves

2006 W-L Record: 79-83
2006 pW-L Record: 85-77
Runs Scored: 849 (2nd in NL)
Runs Allowed: 805 (11th in NL)
2006 Free Agents: Danys Baez, Todd Pratt, John Thomson
Pending Options: John Smoltz

Projected 2007 Lineup:
1B -- Adam LaRoche
2B -- Marcus Giles
SS -- Edgar Renteria
3B -- Chipper Jones
LF -- Ryan Langerhans?
CF -- Andruw Jones
RF -- Jeff Francoeur
C -- Brian McCann

Proj. 2007 Rotation:
John Smoltz*
Tim Hudson
Chuck James
Kyle Davies
Horacio Ramirez?

Proj. 2007 Closer: Bob Wickman

The Good News:
The Braves have a young core of talent in their lineup which should keep them competitive in 2006. Despite issues in the corner outfield spots, the Braves still ranked behind only the Phillies in the league in offense. There's no reason to think that they will be any worse next year. The Braves will have some decisions to make, with Andruw Jones and Marcus Giles both entering walk years. It will be telling to see what, if anything, the Braves do with these guys in the offseason, be it sign them to extensions or explore trades. On the whole, the Atlanta lineup is in fine shape, with future stars like Jarrod Saltalamacchia on the horizon.

The Bad News:
The pitching staff stinks and it's not likely to get much better. The Braves have yet to exercise Smoltz's option, but you have to figure that they will if they want to contend in 2007. Smoltz turns 40 next year, but he's been pretty darn good the last couple years, so he's a better bet than anybody. Tim Hudson is as enigmatic as ever, following a disappointing 2005 with a dreadful 2006 (4.86 ERA, 79:141 BB:K ratio). It's possible that Hudson can still be a reliable starter, and while that would be comforting, it doesn't look like the Braves are going to see the ace they thought they traded for.
Behind Smoltz and Hudson, it's very uncertain and unpredictable. Both Chuck James and Kyle Davies are considered to be the Braves' closest thing to young major-league ready pitchers, but neither has been too thrilling in the majors. Both will likely have spots waiting for them in the rotation. James should be able to hold it down and may even manage something of a breakout season. Davies, on the other hand, has had a lot more trouble getting established and thus has a darker future. Stand-ins like Horacio Ramirez, and the possibly healed (but still exorbitantly expensive) Mike Hampton aren't going to offer much help.
The bullpen is much worse. As much good luck as the Braves have found in past bullpens, they were completely frustrated in their attempts to get anything out of their 2006 pen. The Braves have re-signed Bob Wickman as closer. Wickman is a bit tough to predict, as his numbers would indicate. He's also going to be 38 next year and is listed at a generous 240 pounds. He's better than nothing, and the Braves didn't have to pay a lot to get him. But don't believe everyone who tells you that he's Mr. Reliable in the Braves 'pen next year.

In the lineup, Chipper Jones' health is becming more unreliable every year. It would behoove the Braves to move him from third base, where his defense isn't doing anybody any favors. The problem is that they'd create a hole at third that no one can fill; Willy Aybar might be able to in the future, but no one can right now. Of course, the Braves did have a top-notch prospect at third base in Andy Marte, but decided they'd be better off with Edgar Renteria.
Other than the corner outfield spots, every other position is stable in Atlanta. And since the Braves are never going to demote Jeff Francoeur, that leaves left field as the position most obviously in need of an upgrade. The Braves actually re-signed Brian Jordan this season, for reasons that escape even the most generous analyst; let's hope they don't take similar moves to fill the gap this off-season. Because Jordan, or even a Cliff Floyd, would cost far more than they're worth on the field. As empty as left field is for the Braves, they're getting enough contribution from the skill positions that they can focus their dollars on pitching. Left field could be a spot for a unorthodox solution or a cheap platoon. Frank Catalanotto is available. But, as I said, if the Braves throw mid-level money at someone like Gary Matthews or Cliff Floyd, Atlanta fans can sit back and get familiar with 3rd or 4th place.

Off-season Game Plan:
The Braves are in a transition period right now. Not just in the obvious sense, moving from past winner to future winner, but in the literal sense, with the team being put up for sale. Outgoing executives are often reluctant to sign big free agents or make sweeping trades when a sale is impending. Don't look for the Braves, who will be spending conservatively this winter, to land any big-name help. And considering the talent pool this off-season, that may be for the best.
The best bet for Atlanta is to come up with some smart trades to support the pitching staff over the short term. As we've seen, the Atlanta offense is good enough to win; it just needs a better pitching staff behind it. That help would be too overpriced on the open market, which is why talking trade may be the most fruitful move the Braves can make.
With the Mets entrenched atop the NL East, the Braves join the Marlins and Phillies as the NL East teams chasing for 2nd place and a shot at the Wild Card. Each team has a realistic chance, but so do most NL teams. It the Braves don't act strongly to strengthen their pitching staff this off-season, they should be prepared for another 3rd-place finish.

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