One trip to the in-laws + two boring Final Four games + one sleeping baby + one sleeping wife = your 2007 B&B Braves Preview. This year, I've decided to group the Braves into players who will exceed expectations and players whom I fear will let us down.
(By the way, if I use any fancy-pants statistical terms like VORP or BABIP and you want an explanation as to what I mean, try here or, if you like a little comedy at the expense of John Kruk, here.)
Michael Feels Huggy about:
Brian McCann - As Chipper starts to fade into the twilight of his career and Andruw is almost certain to be wearing a new uniform in 12 months, if not sooner, this is going to be McCann's team. It's unfortunate for him that a truly outstanding 2006 season (54.8 VORP, .320 EQA, .333 BA with 24 homers and 93 RBI if you're old-fashioned) was a footnote to the "the Braves have fallen and they can't get up!" Gotterdamerung.
Chipper - The narrative on him has been "still a quality hitter, but brittle as age catches up with him" for the past several years. Call this a straight from the recesses of my colon hunch, but I think Chipper will be relatively healthy this year. Maybe I'm comparing him to Junior Griffey in my head and assuming that he'll have a similar "remember me?" year this season. Maybe I'm assuming that he's pissed that the Braves didn't win the division last year and is going to punish the rest of the division for their sins. Maybe I'm a hopeless homer. I just have a sense that he's going to provide his .400+ OBP this year over 600 plate appearances instead of 450.
Andruw - One of the topics on which I remain a luddite despite research to the contrary is that of the contract year effect. I suffered through the Jeff Blauser era for far too long to not believe that players play harder and often better when money is at stake. (If I were a pure free market believer, this sense would be even stronger.) Andruw is in a contract year, he saw what is available with baseball's increased revenue this past off-season, and Beelzebub is his agent. Prepare for a big year.
The Bullpen (other than Wickman) - By mid-season, the Braves are going to have a bullpen similar to that of the Detroit Tigers: a portly, shaky, goateed closer fronting for a bunch of young, flame-throwing studs who should be getting higher-leverage innings. Mike Gonzalez's numbers were simply ridiculous in Pittsburgh last year. Ditto for Rafael Soriano before he was brained by Vlad the Impaler. I also liked what I saw from Blaine Boyer and Macay McBride over the past two years; they are a step above the normal reclamation projects that populate most bullpens. Finally, I'm still holding out hope that Roger McDowell, who was an excellent reliever in his day, will produce an excellent bullpen. Does that seem unreasonable?
Kelly Johnson - I love the idea of a patient hitter leading off. I also like that the Braves thought outside the box when they dumped Marcus Giles and moved Johnson to second base. They're also thinking outside the box by putting a guy with average speed in the leadoff spot.
Scott Thorman - BP is not very high on him, but there's an encouraging pattern to his numbers. Upon promotion to AA, AAA, and then the majors, he struggled in each instance. In the case of AA and AAA, he came back the following year and posted excellent numbers. Last year, he struggled when he was called up to the big league team. I know that mastering major league pitching is a different animal to mastering the AA and AAA levels, but if Thorman shows the same progress, then the Braves are going to make out like bandits on the LaRoche deal. I don't see Thorman setting the world on fire, but I do feel like he'll give the team good enough production that we won't have a gnawing feeling of 'yes, but..." when Mike Gonzalez is flaming through the 8th inning.
Bobby Cox - It's hard to imagine a Braves team without him, but we should appreciate him for the next two years, because we're going to miss the hell out of him when he's gone.
Michael Feels Anxious about:
The Starting Rotation - Last year, this was the true weakness of the team. Yes, the bullpen was also atrocious, but the 'pen was bad for about three innings every game and it was supposed to be the weak link of the team since there was so little invested into it. For G-d sakes, what did we expect when we went into the season with Chris Reitsma as the closer? In the final months of the season, the Braves were not out of the running for a wild card spot, but there was no way they were going to get hot enough to make a run with only Smoltz and Chuck James providing anything close to reliable pitching. The staff simply had too many injuries and disappointments to keep the team afloat.
This year, I would like to think that the staff will be better. After all, we're coming out of spring training with six starters after Lance Cormier pitched so well all spring, Kyle Davies found the flaw in his delivery, and Mark Redman appears set to provide solidly average pitching as the #5 starter. When Mike Hampton returns, the Braves will go seven deep at starting pitcher, which is a real luxury and a surprise for a team with a static payroll. However, when you dig a little deeper, the Braves have a ton of question marks after Smoltz (and that assumes that John stays healthy).
Tim Hudson, as has been noted in this space, has seen his peripherals decline in his two years in Atlanta and is dependent on infield defense, but the Braves' infield defense is likely to take a step back this year with an untested youngster at first, a converted outfielder at second, and two guys who are one year older at short and third. Like Cormier and Davies, Hudson allegedly found the magic bullet in Florida: the splitter that he used so effectively in Oakland. If the net result is that Hudson becomes a good pitcher again but misses time by putting more stress on his body, then we'll take that trade, but it's not ideal.
Mike Hampton, assuming he can be healthy and avoid risky activities like swinging a bat or throwing a ball, couldn't strike out '92 NLCS Barry Bonds when last he had a tomahawk on his chest. He is going to have to have pinpoint control when he returns from his latest injury to have a good shot at retiring major league hitters. Is anyone else nervous that someone who hasn't pitched in two years is going to struggle to hit his spots when he comes back?
Chuck James is being counted on by many Braves fans because when we last saw this team, he was 50% of its decent starting pitching. However, he has problems keeping the ball in the park and his success last year was bound up in a .250 BABIP, a number that is unlikely to repeat itself. James did have an almost 2/1 K/BB ratio last year and he's only 25, so we can assume that he'll get better over the next 2-3 years, but he's going to have to be very lucky again to duplicate his 11-4, 3.78 season last year.
Lance Cormier had an almost 1:1 K/BB ratio last year operating predominantly out of the bullpen. I'd like to believe that his new curveball has unlocked vast, heretofore unseen potential, just like I'd like to believe that Jeff Francoeur has a new, more patient approach to hitting, and just like I'd like a toilet made of solid gold. When Leo Mazzone was the pitching coach, I believed in irrational miracles like a previously average pitcher suddenly found a new pitch that will make him an above-average starting pitcher, but my inner skeptic doesn't allow those sorts of flights of fancy anymore. Similarly, I'd like to believe that Kyle Davies's new delivery is going to allow him to fulfill the vast potential that the Braves see for him. In Davies's case, there's a tad more reason for optimism because he does have an excellent arm and he's young, but the guy has been a batting practice pitcher ever since major league hitters started to figure him out after ten starts or so in 2005. I'd like to think that the difference between his 8.39 ERA last year and success this year is a healthy groin and a tweak in his delivery, but...this is getting repetitive.
Mark Redman reminds me way too much of Horacio Ramirez: a lefty who can't strike anyone out, but still gives up a fair number of homers. Anything south of a 4.75 ERA from Redman will be a massive boost.
Overall, I'd much rather have one excellent starter and six ifs than one excellent starter and four ifs. That said, I'd also rather not have so many junk-ballers who can't force swings-and-misses on my team's pitching staff. The starters are going to be the team's achilles heel; it's a matter of whether the bullpen and offense can compensate.
Bob Wickman - There's simply no way he's going to pitch as well as he did after the Braves acquired him last year. The only question is how steep the decline will be. Fortunately, the Braves have Soriano and Gonzalez waiting in the wings.
Jeff Francoeur - Anyone want to re-read the section of Moneyball that describes how a batting eye is typically unchanging; either a hitter has it or he doesn't? (Michael, did you perhaps miss Jose Reyes's career? - ed.) Francoeur is the Braves's Michael Vick: he has all the physical tools to be a star and if you look at the wrong numbers, it's possible to conclude that he is a star. However, he lacks an intuitive skill that is underrated by scouts, but that is critical to success as a ballplayer. Francoeur will have a better average this year because he isn't a .260 hitter, but even if he hits .285, he'll still be nothing more than a .320 OBP guy unless he gets a lot better at working counts.