Braves" title="Atlanta Braves"/>
SI Prediction: 3rd in NL East
When the Braves' front office gathered last fall to plan for the coming season, they identified several starting pitchers and a couple of hitters to go after. To the chagrin of general manager Frank Wren, their pursuit of them would play out in a very public manner.
Among the headlines in newspapers and across the blogosphere were these: report: JAKE PEAVY TO THE ATLANTA BRAVES; BRAVES EXPECTING TO INK FURCAL; BRAVES AWAIT DECISION FROM A.J.; and GRIFFEY WILL PLAY FOR BRAVES. Of course, no one in that group -- frontline starters A.J. Burnett and Jake Peavy, shortstop Rafael Furcal and outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. -- will be calling Turner Field home this year. "I don't think it ever helps to have anything public," says Wren.
The Braves players' hopes rose and fell with each rumor. While vacationing in Italy with his wife, Lauren, second baseman Kelly Johnson received an e-mail from a friend excitedly detailing the Peavy reports. "The news always finds you," says Johnson. "I got pretty excited about Peavy. It was one of those deals that, if it happened, was going to [reshape] the team."
The moves that will instead define Atlanta's '09 season generated fewer bytes: Wren's trade with the White Sox for starter Javier Vazquez and lefthanded reliever Boone Logan, and the signings of Derek Lowe and Japanese starter Kenshin Kawakami -- the latter acquisitions overshadowed by John Smoltz's stunning departure the week before.
The Braves Way has always emphasized starting pitching. In the team's glory days -- from 1991 through 2005 -- their starters were durable and dominant, their ERA in the majors' top three all but two years. But times have changed. Rarely has "innings-eater" been such a coveted commodity for this club. Consider last year's injury and performance woes: Seven Braves started at least 13 games; 11 started at least four; only one threw 160 innings. "It was real important that we [get] guys who not only had good stuff but also had a history of being durable," Wren says.
Lowe, since becoming a full-time starter in 2002, has not thrown fewer than 182 2/3 innings. For the last nine seasons Vazquez has averaged 216.0 innings. Kawakami won the equivalent of the Cy Young in Japan's Central League in '04 and has never had a major arm injury. The rotation's most productive holdover is second-year righty Jair Jurrjens (a 3.68 ERA in 188 1/3 innings).
The deal breaker in the Peavy negotiations was San Diego's demand for Tommy Hanson, a 22-year-old, 6' 6" righthander with command of four pitches, including a fastball that reached 99 mph in his first spring outing and a slider that's been compared with Smoltz's. The MVP of the Arizona Fall League -- he was 5-0 with a 0.63 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings -- Hanson is the Braves' top-ranked prospect (No. 4 overall) of their five in Baseball America's Top 100.
Pitching will be especially important, as this lineup will not outslug anyone. All eight regular position players should hit at least 10 homers, but there's no bopper who'll smack more than 25. "We may not have the best 3-4-5 combo in all of baseball," says rightfielder Jeff Francoeur, "but our 6-7-8 is going to be a lot better than most other teams'."
True, but a few more homers would be nice. Atlanta's outfield slugged just 27 home runs in '08; the other 15 NL outfields averaged 66. Francoeur is the wild card, a perfect blend of tantalizing potential and maddening inconsistency. Last year he had just 11 home runs and 71 RBIs after averaging 24 and 104 the two previous seasons. Newly signed leftfielder Garret Anderson should be more productive than Griffey would have been, and Chipper Jones expects to bear more of the power burden after winning last year's batting title with a .364 average but only 47 extra-base hits, the fewest of his career.
As the Braves wait for their prospects to mature, Wren can only hope that he's plugged his holes and that the old adage is true: Sometimes the best deals are the ones you don't make.
-- Joe Lemire
Issue date: April 6, 2009