See also: 2008 National League Preview
The more things change in Atlanta, the more they stay the same. Yes, John Schuerholz is no longer calling the shots here in the ATL. Yes, the Braves have missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1990. Yes, Andruw Jones and his spectacular CF play will be in Dodger blue this year. Yes, the Philadelphia Phillies are the defending NL East champs, and yes, the New York Mets added über-ace Johan Santana over the offseason. But you still can't sleep on the Braves, who have one of the best offenses in the National League and possibly an improved pitching staff. So if Tom Glavine can find the fountain of youth in his old haunt, don't be shocked if the Braves put up a serious fight to take back the East, if not just for old times' sake.
Catcher: Because of a season-long ankle injury, Brian McCann had a down year in 2007, with both his on-base and slugging percentages falling dramatically. Over the offseason, the Braves' medical staff decided against surgery on McCann's bone spur, instead recommending rest, and it seems to have worked -- McCann says he's feeling as good as new going into the '08 season. When McCann is on his game (as he was in 2006), he's one of the game's best catchers, a solid defender & game-caller, as well as a powerful hitter with a decent eye who can spray line drives all over the field. With improved health, expect a bounce-back season from McCann in 2008.
Behind McCann on the depth chart are Brayan Pena, Javy Lopez (that's a blast from the past), Clint Sammons, and Corky Miller. Pena is still theoretically the primary backup, but that job could eventually belong to Sammons (a superior defender) if Pena doesn't deliver at the plate.
First Base: With Adam LaRoche in Pittsburgh as a result of the Mike Gonzalez/Brent Lillibridge trade, Atlanta's first base gig was left in the relatively incapable hands of Scott Thorman at the start of 2007... and his .216/.258/.394 line really hamstrung the Braves' offense for the first four months of the season. To shore up this gaping hole in the lineup, Schuerholz sent backup C Jarrod Saltalamacchia and several other prospects to Texas for Georgia Tech alum Mark Teixeira, one of the best first basemen in the game. Tex responded by OPS-ing 1.019 for Atlanta down the stretch, and you can definitely expect similar production (meaning a .920+ OPS) from him going forward as he enters his prime years. In November he had arthroscopic knee surgery, but he's back to full playing form now that spring training is coming to a close.
There is the tricky matter of Teixeira's contract, however. He will be a free agent after the 2007 season, and you can be sure that his agent (Scott Boras) will fetch him top dollar on a market in which he should be the best hitter available. So, as I wrote in my NL Preview, Frank Wren is going to face the ultimate "fish or cut bait" decision at the trade deadline with regard to Teixeira: if the Braves are in the playoff mix in July (and, frankly, they should be), Wren almost has no choice but to hold on to Tex and see the rest of the season through. However, given the increasingly penny-pinching ways of Atlanta's Time Warner and now Liberty Media ownership groups, that course of action will almost certainly result in Teixeira's departure over the offseason via free agency. And sure, they'll get compensatory draft picks if that happens, but it probably won't compare to the prospects Atlanta would receive if Wren deals Tex at the deadline. In all honesty, it's a tough call that I'm glad I don't have to make.
On the backup front, while Thorman made for an underwhelming starter, he's not a bad left-handed power bat to have on the bench. Shockingly, ageless wonder Julio Franco is no longer on the Braves' roster (or any roster, for that matter), but I'm pretty sure they still have his number in case of emergency.
Second Base: Going into 2007, one of the Braves' major question marks was whether or not Kelly Johnson could handle second base well enough to make it as an everyday player. One year later, consider that question nothing if not answered -- Johnson not only showed the natural athleticism to easily handle the transition to the middle infield, but he also impressed with the bat, hitting .276/.375/.457 with good power & terrific patience, and showed surprising speed. Just 26, Johnson is slated to be Atlanta's leadoff hitter in 2008 and should be a mainstay in their lineup for the next few years. Not bad for a converted OF who missed almost all of 2006 due to injury, eh?
The Braves plan to use utilityman Omar Infante as their backup 2B (and have him occasionally spell Johnson against southpaws), but Infante broke his hand in winter ball and will be out until late April or early May. In the meantime, Martin Prado will be behind Johnson on the depth chart; he's a pretty solid fielder at second, but his total lack of patience, power, and speed make him a career reserve at best.
Third Base: One-half of the Braves' dynamic "Jones Bros." duo may have departed Atlanta over the winter, but old standby Chipper Jones is still around for a 15th year in the ATL. Chipper was uncharacteristically healthy in 2007, amassing 500 AB for the first time in 4 years, but he's a good bet to be among the NL's best at the plate even if he has one of his typical injury-shortened campaigns. Jones' OBP has dipped below .400 just once in the last 10 seasons, and he's just a phenomenal all-around hitter from both sides of the plate; watching him swing the bat is like watching poetry in motion. He's also still a capable fielder at third, although his range is slipping. The only question at this point is whether Chipper has a few more healthy seasons like '07 left in the tank, which would probably be required if he wants to make a serious bid at the Hall of Fame.
Upon his return, Infante will also be the primary backup here; his primary asset is his defensive versatility as an infield reserve, but he also has some pop and isn't a bad baserunner. Prado is also capable of playing third in a pinch.
Shortstop: Although Edgar Renteria enjoyed a great season in 2007, hitting .332/.390/.470, the emergence of Yunel Escobar a year ago ultimately made Renteria expendable -- so over the winter Wren dealt him to Detroit for a pair of prospects. Escobar is still raw, and he's a very strong candidate to regress to the mean in his second big-league season (a small 355-PA sample and a .364 BABIP say he's not hitting .326 again), but he's still a decent contact hitter and he does take a good approach to the plate for a 25-year-old. He also has a strong arm and plays decent (if inconsistent) defense at short.
Besides, if Escobar proves to be a one-year wonder, there's always Brent Lillibridge. Lillibridge isn't quite as far along as Escobar in terms of plate patience and contact skills, but he's arguably the better long-term prospect because of his speed & defense. He's not exactly the next Rafael Furcal, mind you, but Lillibridge could pass Escobar on the depth chart and become an everyday player by 2009. In addition to their other infield duties, Prado and Infante round out the backups at SS.
Left Field: This position has definitely been a revolving door for the Braves ever since Chipper Jones moved back to third base in 2004, having been manned in the interim by such luminaries as Charles Thomas, Eli Marrero, Ryan Langerhans, a washed-up Brian Jordan, current Atlanta 2B Kelly Johnson, current backup 1B Scott Thorman, Willie Harris, and now Matt Diaz, who hit a BABIP-heavy .338/.368/.497 last year and is penciled in to start in 2008. An extremely impatient hitter with mediocre speed, merely average contact & power skills, and a poor understanding of the strike zone, Diaz isn't really anyone's idea of a permanent solution at LF. However, he is a surprisingly solid defender in left with a decent arm, and could be a bargain in the short run if he can somehow keep up that ridiculously high average on contact (he makes just $1.225 million in 2008).
If not, toolsy prospect Brandon Jones could make an impact here at some point during the 2008 season. Jones needs to work on his patience and pitch recognition skills (who doesn't?), but he has burgeoning power and loads of range, and is just 24 years old. Watch for him as an in-season call-up.
Center Field: For the first time since Kenny Lofton was roaming the outfield at Turner Field, this position doesn't belong to the incomparable Andruw Jones (for a retrospective on Jones' Atlanta career, click here). As of now, his replacement is 32-year-old Mark Kotsay, a former Oakland A whose chronic back problems have prevented him from being a productive hitter since sometime during the 2004 season. Kotsay's only skill at this point is making contact, but it's weak contact (he has subpar power and doesn't hit line drives anymore), and his speed is shot. Also, his defense in center, once a Kotsay specialty, is in steep decline. In other words, unless his back suddenly and miraculously improves, Kotsay is a huge downgrade from Andruw Jones.
Which brings us to the backups, who will invariably see more than their share of action this season when Kotsay is injured. Ex-Astro Josh Anderson is their primary CF reserve, which is bad news for the Braves, because he's not very good. Yes, he hit .358 in extremely limited action last season, but it was a fluky performance driven by a .393 BABIP -- in reality, he's a one-tool player (a burner) with no patience, no power, and merely passable defensive skills. Atlanta also has Gregor Blanco in center, and they would do well to pencil him in ahead of Anderson on the depth chart. Blanco doesn't quite have Anderson's speed, but he's a more mature hitter who will take a walk every now and then. Of course, Kotsay, Anderson, and Blanco are all placeholders for Jordan Schafer, Andruw Jones' heir apparent in CF. Schafer is still probably a year away from The Show (he's only 21), but like Jones at that age, he is already a top-flight defender, has good speed, and is developing patience and power at an early age. He projects to be Atlanta's long-term answer in center starting in 2009 -- which is good, because the outlook isn't very good for this position in the short-term.
Right Field: Ladies and gentlemen, Jeff Francoeur is about to make "The Leap". Once overrated by tools hounds who fixated on his cannon arm and raw strength while ignoring his lack of patience and whiff-happy tendencies, Frenchy seems like he's finally on the verge of becoming a legit star in 2008. Why? It's simple: the 24-year-old's approach at the plate continues to improve every season. Last year, he sliced his K rate while maintaining his power, increasing his walk rate, and seeing more pitches than ever. The indicators for a breakout are there, and he is at an age where it wouldn't be surprising at all for the proverbial "light bulb" to suddenly turn on, resulting in a big season. Expect 30+ HR with little decline in batting average and increased walks.
Behind Francoeur are Anderson and Jones, as well as Marlins castoff Joe Borchard, a righty-mashing Three True Outcomes type who can't even hit righties anymore and whose contact rates make Adam Dunn look like Tony Gwynn.
Rotation: Staff ace John Smoltz is back for his 20th ML season, and he has shown no signs of slowing down so far -- he's tossed 200+ innings every year since returning to the rotation full-time in 2005, and had a vintage Smoltz season last year: 8.6 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, and a 3.11 ERA. Of course, Smoltz is also 41 years old and has complained of shoulder tightness during the spring, so there are definite risk factors associated with him being your #1 starter and rotation anchor. But if he stays healthy, Smoltz's deep repertoire of pitches (including a great slider and a nasty splitter) and tremendous command make him one of the best starters in baseball.
Number 2 in Atlanta's rotation is Tim Hudson, who, after a pair of "off" seasons (by his standards), seemed to finally find his old Oakland form last year. Hudson had spent the past two seasons hampered by oblique problems, but last year his velocity returned and his trademark sinking FB was back to inducing groundouts right and left. One warning sign going forward is that he allowed an abnormally low number of HR per fly ball, but aside from the inevitable regression that will come with a few more of those flies finding the stands, Hudson ought to be one of the NL's best starters in 2008.
Here's where the questions begin... Atlanta's 3rd starter is beloved prodigal son Tom Glavine, who returned this offseason after a 5-year stint with the rival Mets. Glavine's 2007 was a typical year for him -- until the season's final week, that is. Glavine gave up 6 ER in 5 innings vs. Washington on 9/25, and infamously capped off the Mets' historic collapse on 9/30 by allowing 7 runs in 0.1 IP (that's one out, folks) against Florida. Considering those performances, his advanced age (42), and his falling K-rate, Glavine could be totally washed up at this point. On the other hand, Glavine's gotten by with barely any stuff for years now, and he still has pinpoint control, great feel, and superb command of his three pitches (fastball, change, curve). In short, Glavine could be a disaster, but he could just as easily be one of the better 3rd starters in the league. We simply won't know until the season starts.
Mike Hampton is allegedly the 4th starter, but nobody's really expecting anything at this point from a guy who hasn't pitched in an ML game in more than two years. If he's healthy, Hampton is not a bad pitcher; he's a sinkerballer who induces tons of grounders and helps himself out by fielding and hitting better than the typical pitcher. But how much will rust be a factor? And can he even stay healthy for any amount of time? Because of these concerns, chances are that Hampton won't be much of a factor ever again. Anything Atlanta gets out of him this season is gravy.
So, realistically speaking, Chuck James will be the fourth man in the rotation. James is coming off of his own injury problems (a rotator cuff tear), but he's coming along nicely this spring, and could even be in the rotation at the start of the season. James is a flyball pitcher, pure and simple, a fastball-changeup guy whose ERA largely depends on how many balls he can keep in the park. On the plus side, James is due for a HR/FB% correction, which should help a lot. On the minus side: no more Andruw Jones shagging flies in CF. All things considered, if James can show some durability and go 6 innings more than he goes 5, the Braves will be happy.
The final starting slot will probably go to Jair Jurrjens, who came over in the Renteria trade. Jurrjens is a finesse type who probably could use more seasoning in MiLB, but Atlanta's situation will likely dictate that he starts the year with the big club. He's got solid control over three average pitches -- a low-90s fastball, a curve, and a changeup -- and did reasonably well for himself last season as a 21-year-old seeing his first MLB action. If Jurrjens does in fact start the year in AAA, the battle for the final spot in the rotation will be between Jo-Jo Reyes (who showed adequate stuff but no command en route to a 6.22 ERA last year), Jeff Bennett (a groundballer who hadn't pitched since 2004 before the Braves used him in '07), and Buddy Carlyle (a swingman whose decent stuff and control have always been betrayed by his flyballing tendencies).
Bullpen: After the erratic Bob Wickman was released, the electric Rafael Soriano was named Atlanta's closer down the stretch -- and he performed well in the role, allowing zero HR and just 3 walks in almost 16 innings to close the season. Heisted from Seattle in a particularly one-sided 2006 trade, Soriano is a dominant pitcher with elite stuff, aside from his unpleasant tendency of allowing home runs (1.5/9 IP last year). HR/FB% says he'll rebound in that department, but there are still lingering concerns about his arm after elbow and shoulder problems in the 3 years prior to his arrival in Atlanta. If he's healthy, though, Soriano has the potential to be a great closer, which could make the Braves bullpen (who finished 2nd in relief ERA a year ago) even better in '08.
Setting up Soriano will be Peter Moylan, a sidearming Aussie who was simply lights out in 2007 (1.80 ERA). His trick delivery makes him a nightmare for righthanded hitters, especially when it comes to his nasty slider, and he gets great velocity (90-94 MPH) on his fastball as well. Clearly he's not going to put up an ERA in the ones again, but he has the command and heavy stuff to keep on groundballing and be a real asset in the Braves' pen.
Beyond those two, it's anybody's guess as to who will step forward and assume important relief roles for Atlanta. Tyler Yates has good stuff and pitched better than his ERA would indicate (BABIP and strand rate were rough on him) last year. Lefty Will Ohman is a decent (albeit wild) arm, provided he can overcome his shoulder problems of a year ago. Royce Ring is another southpaw with good stuff but control and durability concerns. Manny Acosta has a serious wild streak, but could be useful if he improves his command. Blaine Boyer, who was a solid option for the Braves in 2005 but has lost 2 seasons to a shoulder injury, is also in the mix here, provided his command returns. Finally, would-be setup man Mike Gonzalez, a power lefthander who lost most of 2007 to TJ surgery, could be back after the All-Star break -- although his trademark control problems will probably make a full comeback before the rest of his stuff does.
The New York Mets are the team to beat in the 2008 NL East, that much became clear the moment they acquired NL Cy Young favorite Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins in January. But if 2007 proved anything, it was that the NL playoff race is wide open -- excluding the three division leaders, no fewer than six other teams were still in the Wild Card picture entering the final week of the regular season. That parity should be the NL's defining characteristic again in 2K8, as the same nine teams (New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Diego, Arizona, Los Angeles, and Colorado) look to fight over the league's four playoff spots for the second straight season. And aside from New York, there's no real dominant team which jumps out at you, which means that Atlanta has just about as good a chance as anybody to capture that coveted wild card berth. Yes, starting pitching is a problem area for the team, and yes, there are some holes in the lineup. But the Braves also possess a legendary manager, a top-notch offense, and a solid bullpen, so they could be very dangerous if Glavine has just one good season left in the tank. In short, look for Atlanta to put up 85-90 wins and be right in the thick of the playoff race come September... just like the old days.