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October 14, 2010

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Atlanta Braves

by Marc Normandin, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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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 overview

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

Organizational future

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 Insider.

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

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

BP Comment Quick Links

bflaff1

We probably need to know the Braves payroll situation and willingness to spend money. Can they chase a big name(s) or are they going to have to try to get lucky in the leftovers bin?

Oct 14, 2010 08:37 AM
rating: 0
 
Nick Carter

I'd estimate about $9m plus anything they can save on Kawakami for 2 bullpen slots and left and center field, which will probably mean they aim for one of the seemingly discontented young outfielders (Kemp, Rasmus, Ellsbury) with Infante and a young pitcher or two not called Teheran.

I don't think the Braves have the starting pitching depth to be trading Jurrjens this winter, as Medlen is out for most of 2011, but next winter, when Medlen is back and Teheran is on the verge of the majors, I think he'll be traded.

Oct 14, 2010 14:30 PM
rating: 0
 
Josh Engleman

Not sure I'd describe Escobar's Blue Jays performance like that. He performed better (it's hard to be worse), but I wouldn't say that he performed well.

Oct 14, 2010 09:29 AM
rating: 1
 
fantasyking

Agreed. It's hard to tell Gonzalez's second half apart from Escobar's. The deal was statistically a wash, and it upgraded the mood in the clubhouse. So I wouldn't fault Wren for that one.

Oct 14, 2010 15:20 PM
rating: 0
 
jmoore

Anyone know how likely the A's are to excercise their option on Coco Crisp, or what type free agent he would be? Could be an upgrade for Atlanta without the hefty price tag of a Crawford or Werth.

Oct 14, 2010 09:32 AM
rating: 0
 
xBrandxBlandx

It doesn't seem right to lump Medlen in with the rest of the back-end starters. He pitched well for us, and losing him certainly hurt.

Oct 14, 2010 09:57 AM
rating: 2
 
Nowhereman

Completely agree. That was sort of glaring when I read it.

Oct 14, 2010 10:48 AM
rating: 1
 
gtgator

I agree as well - not to mention I also think including Minor and Beachy is unfair as well. We're talking two rookies who had great minor league seasons but, already having passed career highs in IP, simply ran out of gas. Had Jurrjens or Medlen stayed healthy and Kawakami been halfway decent, they'd have never even graced the roster in any meaningful role.

Plus, who really cares if the clinched on the last day or 3 days prior? Even getting replacement level still puts the team in the WC spot since 3 games isn't catching the Phillies for the division. Poor 4th/5th SP did not doom this team - a weak offense predicated by injuries and non-production at 1B, LF and CF is what doomed this team.

Oct 14, 2010 12:38 PM
rating: 1
 
NYYanks826

It's even unfair to say Beachy was ineffective. He only made a few starts in the Majors, but for a guy who had already been extended quite a bit in the Minors, he more than held his own in his first taste of big league ball, especially in the middle of a pennant race. Don't forget that he put up the numbers he did despite facing the Phillies in two out of his three starts.

Oct 14, 2010 15:35 PM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

Look...write it down. The Cardinals are NOT going to trade Rasmus. That is a ridiculous rumor and I'm tired of reading it.

Oct 14, 2010 10:48 AM
rating: 0
 
fantasyking

What are the odds KK would consider a return to Japan? Is this even a real possibility?

Oct 14, 2010 15:21 PM
rating: 1
 
mejinc

The main problem is the offense. Left field, center field and 1st base. So the question becomes what can the braves due to improve play and production at all three positions? 1st base will be fine with Freddie Freeman playing everyday. First season I think he hang around .260 - .275 with maybe 15 - 20 HR's. The bigger question are the two outfield slots. I don't think it's possible for Nate McLouth to play any worst than he did this season. So if we can't sign a free agent or trade for anyone worth a damn it looks like once more with Nate. A platoon of Diaz and Hinske will not work and of course you don't want either one as your full time left fielder. So this is where we will see frank Wren earn his money as a GM.

Oct 14, 2010 17:31 PM
rating: 0
 
niffoc4

Geoff Blum as a backup 3B? How is that an upgrade at backup 3B? If the Braves are going to work at the 3B position, what they need is someone with the upside to possibly start 1-3 years from now, and that would probably come from the draft...

Oct 15, 2010 03:06 AM
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bravejason

What little bit I saw of Freeman in the majors was not impressive. Where does the optimism that he can handle the job full time come from?

A backup 3B is not what the Braves need either. They need someone who can play full time. Chipper, assuming he is healthy enough to comes back, he may or may not be productive next year. At his age, he isn't getting any less likely to get hurt. He's done an impressive job of holding off Father Time, but really struggled a lot more this past year than previous seasons.

Oct 15, 2010 07:06 AM
rating: 0
 
mejinc

The optimism comes from his fantastic season at Triple A where, I believe, rookie of the year. And for the most part did not look particularly over matched at the major league level. Will start out slow but second time through the league he will begin to put up some numbers. I really don't see the Braves signing Derek Lee and if they do let's not forget that he is 34 years old.

Oct 15, 2010 10:26 AM
rating: 0
 
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Premium Article Changing Speeds: A Bri... (10/14)
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