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December 23, 2010

Expanded Horizons

Just Stick to the Plan

by Tommy Bennett

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This offseason, the Philadelphia Phillies have grabbed most of the NL East headlines. Their signing of Cliff Lee was undoubtedly the biggest free agent acquisition of the offseason. But the attention paid to the newest member of Philadelphia's rotation has obscured the potential that the Atlanta Braves will improve on their strong 2010 season. Winners of 91 games last season, the Braves sport a young offensive core, increased roster flexibility and at least six viable starting pitchers. Between the lure of the wild card and the uncertainty of the 162-game season, the Braves have at least two good reasons to resist the temptation to overreact and instead focus on adhering to the plan that got them to the postseason last year.

Atlanta already made moves to shore up uncertainty in its infield. They made one of the first big moves of the offseason when they shipped utility infielder Omar Infante and reliever Mike Dunn—both viewed as bench players a year ago -- to the Florida Marlins for slugging right-handed second baseman Dan Uggla. The Braves view Uggla as a member of the infield for years to come and are currently in talks to extend his contract. Uggla's defensive limitations will pair well with slick-fielding Alex Gonzalez, who has been retained after being acquired in last July's Yunel Escobar trade.

The Braves also believe they have solved their long-term question mark at first base. Since briefly acquiring Mark Teixeira for parts of 2007-08, Atlanta has struggled to find a slugging first baseman who can hit in the middle of the lineup. Lefty-hitting rookie Freddie Freeman, who posted an impressive line of .319/.378/.521 in Triple-A last season, will be 21 years old and in the starting lineup on opening day. With Chipper Jones hoping to return in a significant capacity next season, the Braves have addressed the area where injury hampered them the most in 2010. With Martin Prado (and his career .810 OPS) still in the fold, the Braves can deploy him at third if Jones isn't healthy or in left field if he is.

Atlanta also took significant measures to add veteran presence to an extremely promising young bullpen, which was one of the most entertaining in baseball in 2010. The 22 year-old right-hander Craig Kimbrel inherits the closer role from a retiring Billy Wagner. Despite the extra pounds Kimbrel has on Wagner, and the fact that Wagner was a lefty, Kimbrel's high-90s heat may give hitters flashbacks to Wagner's big No. 1. And Kimbrel won't be the only one bringing heat out of the Atlanta 'pen: Jonny Venters can match him pitch for pitch. Venters was the horse of the staff last season; he was just two appearances short of pitching in half the team's games. Eric O'Flaherty, the team's top lefty specialist until he succumbed to symptoms of mononucleosis last year, is healthy and poised to return. O'Flaherty won't have to shoulder the left-handed burden by himself, as the Braves signed Los Angeles Dodger pariah George Sherrill as a free agent for $1.2 million earlier this month.

The Braves also return the top four of their starting rotation, which last year posted a combined 3.80 ERA. Those four—Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens—will be joined by one of either Mike Minor, who dazzled between Double- and Triple-A in his first full season, or Brandon Beachy, who is just a year older and was perhaps even better in 2010.

All of that is without yet mentioning the most hyped prospect in baseball last season, Jason Heyward, who became the first 20 year-old to have an OBP over .390 since Alex Rodriguez. That is by design. The Braves have been doing what all good teams do: acquiring the players they need, and keeping only those who are truly worth it. It's hard to identify a position at which the Braves will decline from 2010 to 2011. When last year's team won 91 games and the NL wild card, such a state of affairs can only be counted an unqualified success. It's true that other teams will do their best to win games, but that doesn't necessarily affect the way the Braves should go about planning for the future.

Consider how the Braves could handle their trio of promising young international starters (Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, and Arodys Vizcaino), each of whom spent significant time in Single-A this year. They could ship them off to acquire a player who is approaching free agency. Undoubtedly, they had minor league talent to match or exceed the package sent by the Milwaukee Brewers to the Kansas City Royals to acquire Zack Greinke. But doing so would have required a significant increase in salary and the loss of at least one of their electric arms. By not doing so, the Braves ensured that they will have plenty of options when Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson become free agents after the 2012 season.

The ultimate question, then, is whether the Braves should change their strategy to reflect the new landscape of the NL East. It's hard to see the argument that they should. Consider that the Phillies were the oldest team in baseball—on both sides of the ball—last season, meaning the Braves' chances to win will only go up as the years pass. It will be hard, but by no means impossible, for a 90-win Braves team to make the playoffs in 2010. But if the Braves stay the course, as it appears they plan to, they'll get better as a team as the competition declines. That's a formula not just for a single year's playoff berth, but for a run of success that could make the NL East exciting for several years to come.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Related Content:  Atlanta Braves,  The Who,  Braves,  Year Of The Injury

6 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Richie

This read like an ESPN article. Sorry it was so hard for you to find a positon at which the Braves will drop off, but I can help you there.

Gonzalez will be a bit worse. Prado will be a bit worse, and without supersub Infante to cover, there will most certainly be an overall dropoff at those two spots.

Hudson will fall off some. Lowe will fall off some. Kimbrel, even if he does hold the job, will certainly not be as good as Wagner was. Given the volatility of bullpens, the bullpen as a whole can reliably be forecast to fall off some.

Jurrjens is a medical risk, will undoubtedly miss some starts, at which time you're counting on TWO? rookies to reliably fill into the rotation?

Dec 23, 2010 11:05 AM
rating: -3
 
Mr. Cthulhu

Gonzalez will be worse than the .244 TAV he put up in Atlanta last year? THey didn't get the benefit of his hot start in Toronto.

Dec 23, 2010 13:57 PM
rating: 2
 
kantsipr

And the .242 TAv they got from Escobar. And I think Prado has some room to regress before he becomes a downgrade over what the Braves got from LF last year.

I do agree the pitching staff, especially the bullpen, could see some regression.

Dec 23, 2010 17:33 PM
rating: 1
 
Matthew Avery

Lowe will fall off some? If anything, he found his form at the end of last year. I would expect improvement if anything. And the 5th starter spot was a revolving door last year. I have no problem counting on some combination of Minor, Beachy, and post-TJ Medlen for that role. Jurrjens is a medical risk, but he lost time last year, too. Some regression from Hudson wouldn't surprise me, but neither would improvement from Hanson. I think you're looking at a scenario where the rotation most likely treads water with serious breakout potential in the form of Mike Minor.

Gonzalez should have no problem replicating the pitiful production from SS the Braves got last year, and even if you think Prado is due for a regression (I don't), he's not the 2B next year. That'll be Dan Uggla, and I don't think Prado should have any trouble out-hitting Melky Cabrera in LF.

If you want to identify a position where regression is possible, I would look at RF. Heyward had an outstanding rookie year, but you could make an argument that a sophomore slump is possible. Given that his power was sapped for a couple months from a wrist injury, I think him adding some value in the form of a better BA and more HRs is more likely, but an argument can certainly be made the other way.

Personally, I'm less optimistic about the bullpen (if Venters or Kimbrel falters and Linebrink doesn't return to San Diego form, you'll be looking at a mediocre pen rather than an elite one), but overall, this team could really go somewhere. I mean, just imagine how good a lineup they'd have if McLouth wasn't awful!

Dec 23, 2010 14:11 PM
rating: 1
 
Hoff

typo: you say in the last paragraph that it will be tough for a 90 win braves to make the playoffs in 2010.

Dec 23, 2010 15:52 PM
rating: 0
 
dREaDS Fan

While touching on most every player on the Braves, somehow McCann (highest WAR amongst all catchers last year) and the hole that was CF (McLouth/Cabrera - lowest 2 WARs amongst all CFs last year) didn't make the cut.

If there's a 2011 decision to be explored, isn't it whether or not to trade pitching for a CF?

Dec 24, 2010 07:15 AM
rating: 1
 
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