Wednesday, January 16, 2008

What's Missing: Atlanta Braves Edition

Atlanta Braves - Healthy Mike Hampton, Healthy Mike Gonzalez, RH hitter off the bench, Hope that Andrew Jones’ defensive value was highly overstated.

With their recent acquisition of Mark Kotsay to patrol centerfield, the Atlanta starting lineup appears to be set. We can quibble with the top of the order a bit, as we're not quite sure how Yunel Escobar will perform in his first full year, but aside from that, it’s a more than solid crew. Chipper Jones had a very underrated 2007 campaign, Mark Teixeira gets his first fulls season in the National League, and Matt Diaz turned some heads as well, especially against lefties. Despite the absence of Andrew Jones - let’s face it, Jones wasn't that much of an offensive asset in 2007 anyhow - the Braves offense looks strong enough to duplicate their success from last year, when they scored 810 runs (3rd in NL). They could use another right-handed bat off the bench (no, Omar Infante doesn't count), however, as Scott Thorman, Brandon Jones, and Josh Anderson all bat from the left side.

However, Mark Kotsay himself will never be able to replace Andrew Jones, especially with the glove. And it’s the all-important preventing of runs that may pose to be a problem for the Atlanta Braves in 2008. Their top-two starters, John Smoltz and Tim Hudson have the ability to match up with pretty much anyone aside from the Arizona duo. After them, however, it’s completely a crap shoot. By the end of 2007, Tom Glavine had nothing to rely on aside from his famous change up, and even that was losing effectiveness since his fastball had dipped to the low 80s. I'm also not sold on Chuck James yet either, as his rather successful year was largely due to the defense behind him. The ultimate wild card, however, is the status of Mike Hampton. The far-too-often-injured lefty had yet another set back in his continued recovery from elbow surgery after straining a hamstring on a rehab assignment down in Mexico in November. The Braves did, however, have the foresight to gain some solid pitching depth, as Jair Jurrjens remains a viable option.

The Atlanta bullpen has some questions as well. I think Rafael Soriano will do just fine in the closer role, but who will bridge the gap? Can Peter Moylan duplicate his surprisingly effective (1.80 ERA over 90 IP) 2007 campaign? How effective will Mike Gonzalez be following Tommy John surgery and how soon can he return?

Moving forward, I'm interested in seeing how much of an impact Andrew Jones had on the Atlanta pitching staff. It’s been over a decade since the Braves had this to worry about, and although Kotsay has been a capable defender in the past, his recent back surgery and age (32) could affect the pitching quite a bit. Smoltz, Glavine, and James are all fly ball pitchers, and are the most likely to miss a top flight center fielder they could rely on.