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February 18, 2009

Team Health Reports

Atlanta Braves

by Brad Wochomurka

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ATLANTA BRAVES
Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart

Head Trainer: Jeff Porter
Player Days Lost: 1,286
Total Dollars Lost: $41 million
Injury Cost: $40.4 million

Trend: Neutral. Based simply on the large increase in days lost in '08 over the previous year, the Braves took a step backward, but I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt on a few points. First of all, Chipper Jones had no business being on the field on many of the days that he played, yet Porter and his staff not only kept him healthy enough to play through his nagging hurts, they got him out there often enough for him to win his first NL batting crown in the process. Secondly, Mike Gonzalez' successful return from Tommy John surgery in just a year's time was a big plus. Finally, many of their days lost were due to older pitchers like John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Mike Hampton dealing with significant injuries very late in their careers. This year's challenges are many, and they include keeping the three bullpen arms mentioned in today's "Big Question" healthy, monitoring Tim Hudson as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery, making sure that Jones is on the field so he can defend his batting crown, carefully monitoring Jair Jurrjens' workload, and the (possible) impending duty of trying to keep Ken Griffey Jr.'s 39-year-old body intact. With that many large concerns, Porter and his staff actually have enough work on their slate that they could still have a successful year even if the Braves end up with another high number of days lost to injury.

The Shape of the Season:

graph

The Big Question: Braves TV Broadcaster Jon Sciambi asks, "How effective will the bullpen be with three of the team's best relievers-Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, and Peter Moylan-all coming off of major injuries?"

All three pitchers have had outstanding seasons as well as significant injuries in the past few years. If the trio can stay healthy and effective, the Braves will have shored up a major weakness from last season. Moylan may be the most interesting case, and he's the biggest question mark of the three. He underwent Tommy John surgery last May and was expected to miss at least a year, but this week he threw to hitters for the first time since the procedure and now hopes to be ready by Opening Day. Gonzalez returned a year after his own Tommy John operation, so that should be a positive sign for Moylan. Soriano dealt with elbow soreness all season long, but as detailed below, no structural damage was found and his off-season surgery should, theoretically, alleviate that pain. Is it realistic to expect all three players to be completely healthy in 2009? Probably not, given their histories and the significance of some of those injuries, but if they can, this trio could give the Braves a much needed bullpen boost this year.

Fantasy Tip: Brian McCann and Chipper Jones are the obvious studs here. McCann has thus far been about as worry-free as a catcher can be as far as injuries are concerned, but what about Jones? To me he's the type of player you can't just "impulse buy" at your draft. Having a round and/or price in mind for him ahead of time is a must, but the smart owner will go one step further and consider how much they're willing to pay for insurance on Jones. If you're high on Jones, consider going after players like Cabrera, Youkilis, Atkins, or Huff, basically guys that qualify at more than just third base and are capable of delivering big numbers for you in their own right, because you can find an additional first basemen if you need one to replace those guys when Jones gets hurt. If your strategy is to load up on pitchers or corner power options while passing on the top tier middle infielders, you could do much worse than Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar as late picks. On the pitching side, Javier Vazquez joins the Braves without any major health concerns. His return to the NL may also mean a return to the 2007 numbers that made him a solid second starter.

3B Chipper Jones: Red light What didn't Jones hurt in 2008? Knee, hamstring, quad, shoulder, and back injuries all combined to limit him to 128 games last year, yet all he did when healthy was hit, winning his first NL batting title with a .364 average. There's no question that Jones is one of the best hitters in baseball, but will his run end with more frequent injuries that finally lead to a cliff-dive for his career? It's clear that he has learned how to play through pain, and even to adapt his style to deal with multiple injuries. You know the risks and the rewards; enjoy Jones while he's healthy, but have a back-up plan ready to go.

SP Jair Jurrjens: Red light Jurrjens burst onto the scene in his first full big-league season by finishing third in NL Rookie of the Year voting and cementing the Edgar Renteria trade as one of the most unbalanced deals in recent years. Despite the success, it's hard to ignore the big jump in workload and how it might affect the 23-year-old Jurrjens in year two. He's already had issues making it through an entire season, having dealt with shoulder tendonitis late in 2007, and having slowed down significantly in the second half last year, and he's a prime Verducci Effect candidate this season.

CL Mike Gonzalez: Red light Projecting Gonzalez for 2009 is difficult. He returned from Tommy John surgery in June and quickly regained his excellent strikeout numbers with 44 K in 33 2/3 IP (11.8 K/9). Still, his history of smaller issues (shoulder and knee) contributes to Gonzalez being a bit of a tough read for '09.

LF Ken Griffey Jr.?: Yellow light Since this signing appears imminent as of this writing, we're going to go ahead and throw Junior into the mix here. You may be surprised that he's not red, but Griffey might be able to turn back the clock a bit as a platoon player in left. His legs are certainly a concern, and he will put more pressure on a Braves' training staff that was already far too busy last year, but outside of the "general soreness" thing, he was relatively healthy last year and had a reasonable workload. If he gets hurt? The team has other options, and will just move on after enjoying whatever extra marketing bump is provided by the future Hall of Famer. What will be interesting to see is whether Bobby Cox will use a standard platoon, or if he'll get creative and balance out the playing time to help Griffey and his platoon partner find success.

C Brian McCann: Yellow light One of the top two catchers in almost every league, McCann is as low of a yellow as you'll see for a young catcher without a real backup. In addition to his numbers, that's what makes McCann so appealing. There's going to be some risk with every catcher, but with a solid track record of health, and '09 projections that are nearly identical to his '08 numbers, feel free to run this yellow light as if it's still green.

CF Gregor Blanco: Yellow light Blanco played through a bone spur in his right ankle during the final three months of his first season in the bigs last year. His health will likely depend on his playing time. The system sees him as more of a fourth outfielder, but he'll have the chance this spring to win a regular spot in the Braves lineup.

OF Matt Diaz: Yellow light Similar to Blanco above, the unsettled outfield situation in Atlanta makes it hard to predict how much Diaz will see the field. He's the initial leading candidate to form the other side of a left-field platoon with Griffey. A torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last May limited Diaz to just 43 games. He's more risky than Blanco as a starter, but he's a another decent option for a fourth outfielder.

SP Kenshin Kawakami: Yellow light Kawakami already carries some risk; he's 33 years old and coming off of a back injury that sidelined him twice last year in Japan. In addition, first-year Japanese pitchers tend to bring a history of high workloads with them by the time they arrive in the US, and Kawakami is no exception, with seven seasons of 160 or more innings pitched in Japan. He certainly could be useful, but don't expect production along the lines of fellow Japanese pitchers like Daisuke Matsuzka or Hiroki Kuroda, both of whom have dealt with their own nagging injuries since arriving stateside.

SP Jorge Campillo: Yellow light Campillo was a pleasant surprise for the Braves last season before fading badly down the stretch. Braves officials admitted that he probably suffered from a heavy workload in just his second season removed from Tommy John surgery. Does that mean he's now ready for more innings in '09, or will the Braves try to find him some extra days of rest? Regardless, there is enough of an injury history here to both celebrate his successful run last year and remain cautious moving forward.

RP Rafael Soriano: Yellow light Soriano made three trips to the DL last season due to a sore pitching elbow, and he never really established the rhythm that made him one of the game's better relievers in '06 and '07. That was the bad news. The good news is that there didn't appear to be any major structural issues with Soriano's elbow, just lingering pain. To alleviate it, Dr. James Andrews removed a bone spur and performed nerve transposition surgery in August. Think of it as moving your funny bone (which is actually a nerve) from the lateral side of your elbow to the medial side, and you'll get the idea of how it might relieve his chronic pain.

1B Casey Kotchman Green light

2B Kelly Johnson: Green light Johnson was once considered a major injury risk, but his good health since making the full-time transition to second base two years ago earns him the green light here.

SS Yunel Escobar: Green light This should probably be a yellow, but Escobar's ability to somehow stay off of the DL likely ticked the system. In his first full season, Escobar showed classic signs of wear as the year progressed. His most significant injury was a nagging shoulder problem that led to cortisone shots and was eventually diagnosed as an inflamed rotator cuff. Though he never landed on the DL, a bruised finger, bruised shin, hip flexor, and hamstring also kept him out of the lineup at various times during he season. None of the injuries are cause for long-term concern for now, but let's think of Escobar as a green/yellow combination as we wait to see how he holds up in his sophomore year.

RF Jeff Francoeur: Green light How bad was Francoeur's collapse last season? Bad enough for the system to think that he was injured and should be yellow. The problem is, he wasn't hurt, and never has been during his three full seasons in the bigs. He has the potential to either be one of the game's best turnaround stories, or just another in a long list of players that couldn't quite put everything together.

SP Derek Lowe Green light

SP Javier Vazquez Green light

Brad Wochomurka is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Brad's other articles. You can contact Brad by clicking here

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