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October 4, 2009

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Atlanta Braves

by Baseball Prospectus

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Baseball Prospectus' Pre-season Projection: 87-75, second place
Current record: 86-75, second place

The Braves look ready to make another run-but folks have been saying that for four years now.

Buster Olney of ESPN.com's Take

What went wrong: We saw in September how good the 2009 Braves could be. Their potential was there all along, built on Bobby Cox's strong starting pitching. But it simply took too long for Atlanta to generate consistent run support-partly because of the struggles of Kelly Johnson and Jeff Francoeur (before he was traded), partly because Nate McLouth didn't come over in a trade from Pittsburgh until June, and partly because Chipper Jones had the worst season of his career. The future Hall of Famer is batting a mere .263, with 18 homers and 71 RBI in 142 games; he has talked about walking away from the game if he has another season like he did in 2009.

Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: Atlanta needs a bopper, as that may be the one missing ingredient. For 2010, the Braves appear poised for a breakthrough season, in what Cox says will be his last year as the team's manager. They're flush with starting pitching, from Javier Vazquez to Tommy Hanson, and has some excellent young prospects expected to rise into the major leagues-outfielder Jason Heyward, most notably. A 20-year-old slugger with exceptional plate discipline, Heyward reminded his Double-A manager of Darryl Strawberry. Atlanta is expected by rival GMs to be very aggressive in its search for a right-handed hitter, whether it be a left or right fielder or a first or third baseman. "That's a team that has the pitching to run down the Phillies next year," a longtime NL scout said.

The Baseball Prospectus Take

The Braves are pretty much where PECOTA predicted them to be, right around 87 wins and just a few games out of the playoffs. How they got there is a little more surprising, though, as the team has both scored and allowed significantly fewer runs than PECOTA had expected. On the offensive side, Johnson was a huge disappointment, falling almost 40 points short of his projected EqA (.287 to .250), while Jones finally showed some signs of slowing down. His average has fallen nearly 100 points despite an increase in playing time. The pitchers have given them a much happier story, though. While Derek Lowe has had a bit of a down year (by his standards, at least), and Jair Jurrjens' so-so peripherals don't quite match his minuscule ERA, they've been counterbalanced by the resurgent Javier Vazquez-who had the best year of his career-along with the in-season additions of Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson.-Shawn Hoffman, Baseball Prospectus

Key stat: 2.84

That is Javier Vazquez's QuikERA, which is tied with that of Tim Lincecum for the best in baseball. Vazquez has been the best of a very good bunch, as Atlanta's revamped rotation and quietly outstanding bullpen has led them to the best team QERA in the major leagues (although the Yankees would be first after adjusting for park and league). Lowe was merely solid in his first season in Atlanta, and Kenshin Kawakami was a couple of rungs below that, but Vazquez, Hanson and Hudson have been outstanding. Meanwhile, Rafael Soriano, Mike Gonzalez, Peter Moylan, Kris Medlen and Eric O'Flaherty have combined for over 300 innings out of the 'pen, with outstanding peripherals and-aside from Medlen-solid ERAs. All in all, the Braves will end up allowing almost 150 fewer runs this year than in 2008, despite a mid-pack defense that actually took a few steps back this year.-Shawn Hoffman, Baseball Prospectus

ESPN.com Rumor Central

Free agency: Atlanta is abuzz with word that the Braves will take aim at a big right-handed bat. How about Dan Uggla or even Miguel Tejada? Outfield offers big targets like Matt Holliday and Jason Bay, but you'd think the Braves would stay cheaper. Hello, Gary Sheffield? We'll see, but a bat is surely in the equation.

Money: The Braves face an intriguing decision as to whether they will exercise Hudson's $12 million option for next season. David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution noted this week that the Braves could end up keeping Hudson even if they decline the option. Why? Well, the right-hander has built his dream house in nearby Auburn, Ala., and might take "quite a bit less" to stay with the Braves.

Who 2 Watch 4: Jason Heyward, OF

As a 19-year-old who played most of his previous season at Low-A, Heyward stayed with the big-league club for a surprisingly long time this spring; it was later relayed to me that the primary reason was that manager Bobby Cox just liked watching him play so much. He may get that opportunity much more often after Heyward hit .322/.408/.555 in the minors, including a .352/.446/.611 mark for Double-A Mississippi. He's the best position-playing prospect in the game, and despite his youth, he'll be given every opportunity to win a big-league job this coming spring.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

Draft recap
Signed: 24 of 49
Spent:Not enough. Atlanta gave the seventh overall pick (pitcher Mike Minor) $2.42 million, and then failed to give any other selection more than $405,000. That's a sign that the organization went cheap, although it's worth noting that the club did not have a second-round pick.
Hit: David Hale, RHP (87th overall): Despite rarely wowing anyone with numbers, Hale has some upside with his raw stuff-a low-90s fastball and potentially plus slider.
Miss: Mike Minor, LHP (Seventh overall): Anytime you use a top 10 pick to take a college pitcher with an best-case upside as a third starter, you probably went cheap. Either that, or your scouting department spent too much time in the sun.-Jason A. Churchill, ESPN.com

The Bottom Line

The Braves are obviously disappointed to be going home early for a fourth season in a row, but all things considered, 2009 was a massive improvement on 2008, and they could easily be the favorites to win the NL East going into 2010 if they can improve in a couple of spots. The outfield, for one, wouldn't be a bad place to start; Garret Anderson's .257 EqA leaves a lot to be desired, and the Braves would be hard-pressed to find someone who will give them less value in left field next year. As for right field, 2010 will likely be the start of the Jason Heyward era in Atlanta, which should give them a boost over this year's Jeff Francoeur/Ryan Church/Matt Diaz triumvirate. If the rotation can hold some of its gains, and Chipper Jones can at least maintain his current level, the Braves could be very, very tough.-Shawn Hoffman, Baseball Prospectus

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

Related Content:  Atlanta Braves,  Prospectus

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Premium Article Kiss'Em Goodbye: Cinci... (10/04)
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It Ain't Over 'Til It'... (10/04)

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