Saturday, March 21, 2009

2009 Atlanta Braves Preview

Are the Atlanta Braves ready to return to prominence in 2009? That is the big question surrounding an Atlanta team with a decent batting order, but a shaky pitching staff this season.

The Braves were desperate for pitching help during the off-season after they suffered a dismal 72-90 season, as their best starting pitcher in 2008 was Jair Jurrjens, of all people, with his 3.68 ERA. So the Braves went out and overpaid for Derek Lowe, who automatically becomes the team's new ace.

Lowe is a reliable right handed pitcher who won a World Series title with the Boston Red Sox in 2004, and led the L.A. Dodgers to a berth in the 2008 NLCS last year. Lowe went 14-11 with a 3.24 ERA with Los Angeles, and his best attribute is his ability to eat innings. Over his career, Lowe has averaged 215 innings a season. That is important for a team like Atlanta that lacks a deep bullpen.

The Braves went out of their way to add a virtual unknown in Japanese pitcher Kenshin Kawakami. This could be a good addition if Kawakami is anything close to Dice-K Matsusaka of the Boston Red Sox. If not, Kawakami will join the long line of Japanese pitchers who were busts in the U.S.A., i.e. Hideo Nomo, Masata Yoshi, Hideki Irabu, and Kei Igawa.

To show how desperate Atlanta was this off-season, they felt a need to sign shaky Javier Vazquez. Vazquez hasn't been the same pitcher who was the ace of the Montreal Expos earlier in the decade for a very long time. He bounced around from the Yankees to the Diamond Backs and the White Sox, failing miserably at each stop. Last season, Vazquez went 12-16 with a 4.67 ERA for Chicago.

Atlanta even brought back Tom Glavine for one more season. Why? Other than getting Met fans to boo him, this move makes no sense. Glavine is 43 years old, and is washed up.

There are two things that need to happen for Atlanta to be successful in 2009. First, they need Tim Hudson to return from right elbow surgery. A one-two punch of Lowe and Hudson could be enough to win a division or wild card since there are not many teams with two excellent starting pitchers.

Second, the Braves need a closer. Mike Gonzalez closed down 14 games for Atlanta down the stretch last year, but he had an ERA over four and may not be the best option coming out the pen. It is shocking that the Braves failed to address the closer's role during the off-season.

Offensively, the Braves should be okay, as long as Chipper "Larry" Jones doesn't begin to show his age; he is 37. Last season, Jones won a batting title, hitting .364 with 22 homers and 75 RBI. He will need to stay healthy for all 162 games if the Braves have any intention of catching the Phillies and Mets in 2009. Jones is a killer of Met and Phillie pitching, and with their small ballparks, Jones could do some damage when Atlanta visits New York and Philadelphia.

Brian McCain has turned out to be the next-great hitting catcher in the majors, batting .301 with 23 home runs and 87 RBI.

Still, there are concerns in the Braves lineup. Outside of McCain and Jones, the Braves don't have a legitimate number five hitter, unless Jeff Francoeur stops striking out and becomes more patient at the plate, and light hitting Casey Kotchman discovers how to swing a baseball bat.

In short, don't listen to the experts tell you that the Braves are ready to make a big move in the NL East. They are a average team at best, with little lineup depth and virtually no pitching unless Hudson returns and the bullpen pitches better than average. Amazing considering this was a franchise that prided itself on pitching for almost 20 years. Expect Atlanta to compete through June but fade by last July into August.

PREDICTION: BRAVES 4th place 77-85.

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