Finished with the NL West, our debriefing tour around the majors jumps to the National League East. Since a reader requested the Braves and the Fan appreciates his readers, we'll skip out of order and start with the Atlanta Braves, who made a late run at the wild card before running out of time in 2009. Before 2009's review, a couple of early concerns appear about 2010. What effect will having Bobby Cox in a lame duck year have on the team? What does Chipper Jones do in his last year of his contract and what will happen to him after that? Okay, we brought up two major questions, let's look at a lot of bright spots 2009 showed us.
First, the Braves began building the next great pitching dynasty. Yeah, the could have handled the Smoltz and Glavine situations better as they gave the last remaining cogs of the last dynasty a couple of thankless boots. But whether the Braves handled that mess wrongly or rightly, they did the right thing. It's time for a new generation. The problem is that right now, there are only two of the four cogs in place. But man, those two are great!
Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson finished with a 160 and 144 respectively in ERA+. Jurrjens is 24 and Hanson is 23. Expect those two to be one and two in the Braves' rotation for a long time to come.
Keith Medlin has the ability to become the third. Ranked as only the 11th best prospect in the Braves' system going into 2009, Medlin has a good fastball that he spots well and a really good curve. He struck out 9.6 batters per nine innings in 37 appearances with the Braves (4 as a starter). There is concern about his small size and the amount of exertion he seems to need to deliver his pitches. But he is certainly worth a shot in 2010.
All the other top pitching prospects for the Braves are a couple to three years away, so that means augmenting with veterans. Javior Vazquez had by far the best year of his career. He seems to crumble in big stress match ups still, but he still finished with a 1.044 WHIP and an unreal 5.41 strikeout to walk ratio. Bobby Cox seems to have a knack for getting the most out of guys like Vazquez, and it would seem to behoove the Braves to give Vazquez the ball again in 2010.
Derek Lowe didn't really come through for the Braves despite his desperation signing after the Glavine and Smoltz fiascoes. He had a winning record, but a 1.515 WHIP and the worst ERA+ year of his career. He's going to be 37 next year, so it's hard to imagine him being a factor. Likewise, Kenshin Kawakami was just okay in his 25 starts. He's going to be 35 next year and shouldn't be counted on either.
Tim Hudson, on the other hand, is the wildcard veteran. Plagued by injuries of late, Hudson did come back at the end of the year and pitched effectively. If he can put a whole season together next season, then the Braves should have as good a rotation as anyone in the division and could possibly be far and above all the others.
The bullpen was the biggest improvement this year over 2008. What had been a brutal weakness turned into a strength as Soriano, Moylan, Gonzalez and O'Flaherty were terrific. Soriano had 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings as the closer and Gonzalez finished at 10.1. Those kinds of arms don't figure to fade next year. If Medlin does not make it into the rotation, he did great in the bullpen in 2009, so he could swing back there very easily and be as effective.
The Braves' offense in 2009 really started poorly. So poorly in fact that they had a .728 team OPS through the first half of the season. June was the worst month at .688. Ugh. Brian McCann had eye problems and started badly and Jordan Shafer, one of the team's most highly touted prospects failed miserably as the starting centerfielder for the first 50 games. Where Shafer goes from here is a mystery and it's unfortunate. But hey, if you don't produce when your ticket gets punched, what can you say?
The team also made a huge mistake in signing an aging and lumbering Garret Anderson and giving him 496 at bats. He ended with an 85 OPS+ and was a huge drain on the lineup. Another drain was second baseman, Kelly Johnson, who finished with the ungainly line of .224/.303/.389. It's uncertain of this was just a bad season for Johnson or if he is more like the player of 2007 and 2008 when he finished above league average.
But the Braves' offense clicked along better in the second half. Shafer was replaced by Nate McLouth, a great addition from Pittsburgh. McLouth didn't come close to his career numbers in offense, which is a bit puzzling, but he was a big improvement over Shafer. The Braves also improved dramatically when Jeff Francoeur was traded away to the Mets and Matt Diaz took his place in right field. Diaz was great with a 133 OPS+. He's going to be 32 next year, so it's hard to predict this long time minor leaguer can repeat himself.
The offense also got a boost when Adam LaRoche returned and clicked his heels repeating over and over, "There's no place like home, there's no place like home." He put a merciful end to the Norton/Kotchmann platoon over at that position. LaRoche is a solid performer who got lost out in Pittsburgh.
Yunel Escobar continues to get in and out of Bobby Cox's doghouse, but his overall batting numbers go up every year. Still only 26, Escobar is maturing into a really good shortstop with spectacular play at times. He is coming into his peak years and should continue to improve over the next three to four years.
Chipper Jones fell off from his 2008 numbers when he improbably led the league in batting. The aging veteran still put up respectable offensive numbers and ended up over league average by quite a bit. The problem is his defense. He made 22 errors this year and the question is whether the Braves can continue to tolerate that defense as Jones slowly fades out from his Hall of Fame career. There is no DH in the National League, which is where Jones should probably be. Look for him to have a diminished role in his last year with the Braves next year.
Martin Prado had an excellent year at the plate and filled in all over the infield. He's just a super guy to have on the club.
The Achilles Heel of the Braves is their defense. They finished 20th out of 26 MLB teams in defensive efficiency. Their catchers, while good offensively, are far from good in throwing out runners and they make a lot of errors. We've already discussed Jones at third. Having Garret Anderson in the outfield couldn't have helped and that problem should go away next year.
The Braves are in good shape for 2010. They have some big question marks, but if Kelly Johnson can bounce back, if uber-prospect Jason Heyward is given a shot in Spring Training and can run around the outfield better than Anderson, if Hanson and Jurrjens continue to blossom and Hudson can come back, if the bullpen does as well as this year, if the defense can improve, then the Braves should be above 90 wins next year. Their 14 game improvement in the win-loss column from 2008 was no fluke.