2006 W-L: 79-83 (3rd place)
2006 Pythag: 85-77
Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, Craig Wilson, Chris Woodward, Willie Harris, Tanyon Sturtze, T.J. Bohn, Brent Lillibridge, Mark Redman
Adam LaRoche, Horacio Ramirez, Marcus Giles, Todd Pratt, Daryle Ward, Ken Ray
The Braves In a Nutshell:
For a team with a pythagorean record well over .500, the Braves sure did a good imitation of a bad team last year. They had to improvise to keep the rotation full and the bullpen was a problem from day one. On the other hand, the offense was the second best in the league, and that's even with an underwhelming performance from Marcus Giles.
This year, the bullpen shouldn't be a problem, while the rotation still leaves plenty to be desired. The offense remains strong, with a possible upgrade at second base and a likely decline at first. It's not hard to see this team reaching 85 real wins, but with the Mets remaining strong, a return to the top of the division seems like a stretch.
It's been the story for the last few years: after all of those pitching-first seasons of the Schuerholz/Cox reign, the Braves are now an offensively-oriented team. Of the ten players who got the most plate appearances for Atlanta last year, only Jeff Francoeur had an OBP under .340, and four starters slugged over .530.
Especially with last year's emergence of Brian McCann and Adam LaRoche, this unit meant business. LaRoche is gone, but McCann ought to anchor the offense for years to come. Replacing LaRoche will be Scott Thorman and--to some extent, anyway, Craig Wilson. Thorman was death to right-handers in Richmond, hitting 301/360/546 against them; if he platoons with Wilson, it's possible that the pair will come close to LaRoche's performance last year.
Most of the starting lineup is remaining the same: in addition to McCann, Francoeur, Chipper Jones, Edgar Renteria, Andruw Jones, Ryan Langerhans, Matt Diaz will all be back in similar roles. If anything substantially changes, it's likely to come from Francoeur or the one position where there is a personnel change, second base.
PECOTA likes Francoeur to ramp things up all the way to 280/322/496. That'd still probably be the lowest OBP on the team, but it represents a substantial improvement from the dark side of 300. The power is promising too; PECOTA counts Andre Dawson, Albert Belle, Dave Winfield, Dale Murphy, and Frank Thomas (oh. not that Frank Thomas.) among his top comparables.
So, mark down an extra win or so from right field, and turn your attention to second base, where Kelly Johnson is the projected starter. Johnson missed all of last year due to injury but had a solid rookie season in 2005. PECOTA forecasts Johnson to improve as well, to a whole different level entirely: his weighted-mean projection is 291/374/495.
That's solid production from a corner outfielder; if he sticks in the infield and puts up numbers like that, he'll be the Dan Uggla of 2007, but without the near-certain sophomore slump. While Giles's career year in 2003 was better, Giles didn't perform that well in '05, and he got MVP votes. There's plenty of uncertainty here--nobody really knows how Johnson will handle the position switch over the course of the season--but the offense alone could be a three-win improvement over Giles.
Good thing I'm behind schedule: I didn't get to this until after Mike Hampton went down. Hampton is quickly becoming the Juan Gonzalez of the mound; buy your tickets now for the 2009 Long Island Ducks home opener! Filling in, at least for now, is Mark Redman, who isn't very good, but is way better than the Braves had a right to expect to sign as a free agent in early March.
Some of the faces in the rotation have changed, but the performance won't differ too much. John Smoltz will stop being great eventually, but barring an injury, I don't see that happening this year. Tim Hudson doesn't have another Cy Young award in his future, but he should be good for 30+ starts and it seems reasonable to put him down for something closer to a 4.16 ERA than 4.86, as he accumulated in 2006.
The question marks come after that pair, as they so often do. Chuck James is a lock for the third spot; he appears to be able to get major league batters out with a shaky K/BB ratio and worrisome batted-ball ratios, but in his second trip around the league, 4.78 seems like a more likely outcome than a recap of his '06 3.78. I figure his step back will be a wash when combined with Hudson's return to decency.
For the last 60-70 starts, it's tough to be worse than the Braves were last year; this year, anyway, there seem to be more credible options. Redman is nothing special, of course, but he can probably manage a 4.75 ERA in the National League. Davies is still young, and after his dreadful 14 starts last year, he'll be on a short leash. I don't have anything insightful to say about Lance Cormier, other than the fact that I'd rather have him as my #7 than my #6.
The main way in which this rotation can substantially improve is if Hampton comes back in May and pitches anything like his old self. Even a league-average performance from him would be huge; it would push Cormier or Davies or Redman out of the rotation, and possibly even take some pressure off the middle of the bullpen. However, I'm not counting on him any more than I'm expecting Roger Clemens to lead the Milwaukee Brewers to the World Series; it's fun to think about, but irresponsible to project.
Ah, the good news. When a team underperforms their pythagorean record by six games, fingers usually wag toward two culprits: the manager and the bullpen. I'm not ready to blame Bobby Cox for anything but excessive awesomeness, and the bullpen certainly deserves the blame.
Oddly enough, the year-end statistics don't tell the story very well: of the seven pitchers who made the most relief appearances, here are their respective ERA+s: 121, 97, 139, 111, 122, 109, 424. (424 is Wickman, and is one of the examples of why ERA+ is of limited value for outliers.)
That, of course, doesn't count Jorge Sosa. Or Chris Reitsma. On the other hand, virtually everyone who was below average last year is gone, and most of the above-average relievers are still around. And, oh yeah, there are some reinforcements.
Reinforcement #1A is Mike Gonzalez, who came in trade from the Pirates. I wrote about that deal when it happened, and it would be a winner for the Braves even without the inclusion of middle-infield prospect Brent Lillibridge. Gonzalez has some health questions, but when he's on the mound, he's one of the most dominant relievers around. If Bob Wickman is closing, Gonzalez will be the best lefty set-up man in baseball, hands down.
Reinforcement #1B is Rafael Soriano, another trade acquisition, this time in exchange for Horacio Ramirez. Incidentally, Mark Redman will probably be as good as Ramirez would've been at The Ted, so no loss there. Soriano has also had his share of health problems, but he put those behind him last year, making 53 appearances with a 2.25 ERA. And that was in the good league.
There's still some uncertainty surrounding the last few spots, but any bullpen with Gonzalez and Soriano is a winner. If Tyler Yates and Chad Paronto can match their 2006 performances and Bob Wickman stays within 300 points of his 424 ERA+ from last season, the Braves will have taken a complete 180 from the worst bullpen in the league to the best.
All Together Now
As I usually do in previews, I've focused on the optimistic side of things. I haven't addressed the possibility that Brian McCann will regress to merely very good, or that Chipper Jones will miss even more time this year. But for nearly every bit of negative spin, there's upside to match: Chipper could play 155 games; Scott Thorman could be the next Adam LaRoche; Kyle Davies could live up to his potential.
Doing the math, I figure the bullpen improvements, at the least, ought to erase the difference between the actual W-L record and pythagorean W-L record. That puts the Braves at 85 wins. Dock the offense a bit for losing LaRoche, but add a couple of wins for Francoeur's development and Kelly Johnson's re-appearance, and you can get up to 87 or 88. If the back of the rotation is anywhere close to league average, you can make a case to move that number up to 90.
Is 90 wins enough to win the East? I doubt it. It will, however, give the Braves a very good shot at the wild card. And when Schuerholz plays with house money by flipping Brent Lillibridge for an impact [starter? first baseman?] at the deadline, that move might just push the Braves well into the postseason.