NL East Preview: Atlanta Braves

ATLANTA BRAVES

2009 Record: 86-76, 3rd in NL East
Pythagorean Record: 91-71 (-5)
Current PECOTA Projection: 84-78(2nd in NL East)
BDD preview (by yours truly) will run on March 20

Armed with arms, the Atlanta Braves made an impressive push in the NL East in 2009. They had won only 72 games in ’08 and were expected to flounder again, but the emergence of Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, along with Cy Young candidate Javier Vazquez, propelled the Braves to an impressive 86-76 record, finishing just one game behind the second place Florida Marlins. However, a disappointing season from third baseman Chipper Jones and a weak-hitting outfield made it hard for the Braves to get on a roll. It wasn’t until the end of the season, when they won seven consecutive games twice in less than three weeks (15-2 from September 10-28), that they really made a push.

The 2010 Braves will be very different than the squad that opened up the ’09 season. Out are Casey Kotchman, Kelly Johnson, Garrett Anderson, and Jeff Francoeur. In are Troy Glaus, Martin Prado, Eric Hinske, Melky Cabrera, and — likely — rookie phenom Jason Heyward. They also sent Vazquez and hard-throwing relievers Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano packing.

Are the Braves better than they were in 2009, when they finished five games below their Pythagorean record? It’s hard to tell. That’s why I talked with Peter Hjort of Capitol Avenue Club and Beyond the Box Score, hoping he could tell me why I should fear the Braves in 2010.

. . .

1. In your estimation, who’s going to have a better 2010: Tommy Hanson or Jair Jurrjens?

Oh, man, Tommy Hanson by far. Both statistically and from other talent evaluation perspectives Tommy Hanson is a much better pitcher. We all love Jurrjens, but he’s more of a really good complementary player or weak star type, whereas Hanson is pretty much already super-star good. In terms of value, I expect a fully healthy Hanson to be worth about 5 wins and a fully healthy Jurrjens to be worth about 3 and 1/2 wins.

2. About half of the Braves’ roster has injury concerns. Does this dampen your enthusiasm, considering how poor health derailed the Mets last year?

We only have to look back *two* years to see how poor health derailed the Braves, when the rotation they broke camp with made only 84 starts, they got only 53 and 1/3 innings out of their three best relievers, and their starting center fielder played only 88 games.

Honestly, though, it doesn’t really do much to temper my enthusiasm. The Braves did their homework on all of the players they acquired this off-season. Even if they may look like injury concerns, I don’t think most of them are any more of an injury concern than a typical free agent. The two exceptions may be Troy Glaus and Takashi Saito, those guys do seem very risky. Losing either of those guys is something I feel like the organization could overcome, though.

3. Which team has the better #5: the Yankees with Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes, or the Braves with Kenshin Kawakami?

Hmm. That’s tough. Those three have combined to throw just over 630 MLB innings, which is about 1/4 of the sample size I’d like to answer a question like this.

Obviously Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain are younger, cheaper, have a lot more upside, and throw a lot harder. So I’d rather have one of them on my team than Kenshin Kawakami, especially both. But I don’t think the production the Braves get out of their fifth starter will be all that different from what the Yankees get out of the same.

4. Chipper Jones said that he will have to “rebound” or else he will retire. Exactly how good does he have to be to talk himself out of it?

Last year was a disappointment for Chipper Jones, for sure. What he’s basically said is, if he isn’t playing the game as well as he’d like to, he’s not going to play. It’s anyone’s guess what that really means, but I think he’ll be a 4-win player in 2010. Normal BABIP and defense regression puts him in the 4-win range, and I don’t see any reason why a 4-win player would walk away from the game for performance reasons.

5. With Melky Cabrera, Matt Diaz, Nate McLouth, Eric Hinske, and Jason Heyward, is the glut of outfielders a blessing or a burden?

Honestly, it’s a burden. They’re all unpredictable and standing in the way of Jordan Schafer making an impact. They all have fairly similar skills at this point, some on base skills and doubles power without much home run potential. They all hit right handers better than left handers except for Matt Diaz. It’s not a particularly good defensive group without Schafer in the mix.

In 2011, if the Braves keep all of their outfielders (except Hinske), they’ll have committed about $800,000 to center field and right field (Schafer, Heyward), and $14 million to Matt Diaz, Nate McLouth, and Melky Cabrera–all vying for one spot (LF) plus center against LHP. Rather than trying to pick which tweener you want to keep, I’d prefer they just blow up left field–getting rid of McLouth, Diaz, and Cabrera–and acquire a real power hitter to play left.

Regardless of how much quality depth they’ve got, they’re still a good outfielder away from being above average. Bobby has lots of options, but not the greatest track record in extracting wins from outfields.

Predictions

MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie/Manager of the Year winners

NL MVP: Troy Tulowitzki
AL MVP: Alex Rodriguez
NL Cy Young: Tim Lincecum
AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez
NL ROY: Jason Heyward
AL ROY: Brian Matusz
NL MOY: A. J. Hinch
AL MOY: Ron Washington

Braves regular season win total

87

Place in NL East

2nd

. . .

A hearty thanks to Peter for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions. Bookmark Capitol Avenue Club to keep tabs on the enemy during the season, and stop by Beyond the Box Score to read more of Peter’s excellent analysis.

That wraps up the NL East previews. If you missed any of the others, here’s a run-down:

Stay tuned tomorrow for a thorough preview of the Phillies with a bunch of different Phillies bloggers from across the Internets. And make sure you vote for me in The Phield, the NCAA-style tournament for Phillies blogs.