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October 14, 2010
Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fade—whether in September (or before), the League Division Series, League Championship Series or World Series. It combines a broad overview of this season from Buster Olney, a take from Baseball Prospectus, a look toward a potential 2011 move courtesy of Rumor Central and Kevin Goldstein's farm system overview. You can find all the teams on one page by going here.
Now, it's time to kiss the Atlanta Braves—the third playoff team to exit—goodbye.
The Braves appeared to be running away with the NL East in August, but a series of injuries—most notably to Chipper Jones and Martin Prado—greatly diminished their offense by the time the postseason began. Despite a tremendous pitching staff of starters and relievers, the Braves went into their playoff series with almost no margin for error because of their offensive shortcomings, and time and again in the series against San Francisco, they kicked the ball around.
Jason Heyward broke into the big leagues and turned out to be everything that scouts thought he would be, and more; his defense and baserunning skills turned out to be even better than expected. Jonny Venters was switched from starter to reliever and became a dominant set-up man, and at season's end, Craig Kimbrel demonstrated the kind of skill set needed to close games. Tim Hudson was named the National League's Comeback Player of the Year, pitching at a Cy Young caliber for most of the year, and at year's end, Derek Lowe had his best month, posting a 1.17 ERA in September. Prado ranked among the majors' leaders in hits until he was taken down by injuries late in the season. Braves GM Frank Wren did excellent work in piecing together a solid bench for his manager, in Bobby Cox's last year.
The playoffs illuminated the reality that the Braves need another bopper for their lineup. Maybe that could be Jones, who intends to come back from a knee reconstruction, or maybe Heyward will evolve from an on-base machine into a Albert Pujols-like threat next year. But what Wren might need to do, for Fredi Gonzalez's first year as manager, is to add an impact bat, perhaps in the outfield. With Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Lowe and what should be a good bullpen—assuming that either Kimbrel or Venters or somebody else can replace Billy Wagner—the Braves might have the pitching depth to consider trading Jair Jurrjens for the hitter that they need.—Buster Olney, ESPN Insider
Baseball Prospectus' take
What went right: Despite injuries, the Braves finished third in the National League in True Average thanks to good years from rookie Heyward (.303), catcher Brian McCann (.294) and Prado (.286). Jones, that old standby, was productive in his 381 plate appearances, and Omar Infante performed well at multiple positions while filling in for the various injured infielders. The bullpen was deep, with off-season acquisitions Wagner and Takahahi Saito supported by rookies Venters and closer-of-the-future Kimbrel. Hudson (3.70 SIERA), Hanson (3.74) and Lowe (3.74) formed a potent top of the rotation that made up for instability at the backend and helped the club reach the postseason for the first time since 2005.
What went wrong: Jurrjens was put on the DL early in the season and never recovered his 2009 form on the mound. Kenshin Kawakami also failed to stick in the rotation and posted the highest ERA and SIERA of any Braves starter with a minimum of 50 innings pitched. Jesse Chavez cost the bullpen with a sub-replacement performance, and the reliever he was dealt for, Kyle Farnsworth, performed just as poorly for Atlanta. Injuries to Jones and Prado thinned the team's depth and forced Brooks Conrad to pick up more playing time than he should have, given his glove that cost the Braves dearly in their loss to the Giants in the National League Division Series. Alex Gonzalez (.240/.291/.386) failed to make an impact after his summer acquisition, and both middle infielders that the Braves disposed of (shortstop Yunel Escobar and second baseman Kelly Johnson) performed well with their new teams. Center field was a vortex of awful all year long, with the Braves getting a .232/.329/.339 line from the position.
The key number: 5. The number of starters the Braves attempted to fill fourth and fifth rotation slots with during the season. Collectively, Jurrjens, Kawakami, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy cost the Braves around three wins below replacement. That's no small thing for a team that did not clinch in the wild card until the final day of the season.
What won't happen again: It will be difficult for the Braves to perform worse in center field than they did in 2010. Nate McLouth should rebound somewhat from an awful season, and keeping Melky Cabrera away from the position would also help.--Marc Normandin, Baseball Prospectus
Rumor Central: 2011 options
King of the hill: One reason Cox stuck around as long as did was consistent starting pitching, and the new skipper will inherit a solid staff. All of the current starters are under control for 2011, a list that includes Hudson, Lowe, Hanson, Jurrjens and either Minor or Beachy. Jurrjens is scheduled to undergo knee surgery and be healthy by spring training. The Braves are not afraid to shake things up—they openly shopped Lowe and ended up shipping Javier Vazquez to the Yankees last winter. If GM Frank Wren is daring, he could get a top-notch center fielder in exchange for one of the young arms. With Lowe's contract down to $30 million, the Braves should be inclined to keep him, unless another team is willing to absorb a bulk of the deal. Kawakami is owed $6.67 million for 2011 and the Braves would be ecstatic if the ineffective right-hander would return to Japan.
The center field issue: All is well in right field, even if Heyward experienced some growing pains in the NLDS. Who plays next to the star rookie is an open question. Braves center fielders ranked 29th in majors in batting average (.232) and 28th in RBI (48). McLouth, a 2008 All-Star, looked better late in the season after a dismal start. The Braves could be in the mix for the Cardinals' Colby Rasmus, who may have worn out his welcome in St. Louis, particularly if Tony La Russa decides to come back. As for third base, Jones is hinting that he will be healthy again in 2011. The Braves will look for some veteran insurance so Prado, coming off an injury, can return to second. One option is Geoff Blum, who will not be back in Houston.—Doug Mittler, ESPN Insider
While injuries hampered the Braves' rotation down the stretch and into the postseason, it should not be an issue in the long term. Few organizations can match Atlanta when it comes to potential starting pitchers. The biggest prize of all is Colombian righty Julio Teheran. Signed in 2007 to an $850,000 bonus, the 19-year-old entered the year with just seven full-season starts under his belt, and finished the season at Double-A, compiling a 2.59 ERA across three levels while striking out 159 batters in just 1422/3 innings. The scary part? Some think he's just scratching the surface of his potential. While he already has a low-to-mid 90s fastball, plus curve, solid change and above-average control, there's enough projection that some feel he's the best pitching prospect in the game.—Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .