Saturday, February 28, 2009

2009 Atlanta Braves Preview, Part 1: The Infield

2008 In Review

Let's keep this section brief. I saw Coraline last week and I don't need to recap another horror movie in great detail.

Things went awry for the Braves last year, as a season that began with postseason aspirations ended with Atlanta posting its worst record since 1990. The 72-90 mark was fueled by an abysmal outfield and a resonance cascade that tore through the pitching staff and left few untouched. Tim Hudson went down with an elbow injury in the middle of an excellent season. John Smoltz contributed just 28 (excellent) innings before his arm finally exploded. Peter Moylan went down early and Rafael Soriano spent all year battling mysterious arm ailments that limited him to just 14 innings. Tom Glavine was awful, then he was injured, then he was awful and then he was injured once more, this time for good.

Of the healthy pitchers, the only bright spots were young Jair Jurrjens, fun journeyman Jorge Campillo and the since-departed Will Ohman. The offense had more going for it, and we'll start the 2009 preview by looking at the strength of the Braves.

The Infield

Atlanta's infield, and, in fact, the entire team, is anchored by two players at the opposite ends of their respective careers. Brian McCann enters the 2009 season as one of the most desirable commodoties in Major League Baseball.

McCann hit .301/.373/.523 as a 24-year-old catcher, earning him his second Silver Slugger award and third-straight All Star Game appearance. A career .297/.358/.501 hitter, McCann has few weaknesses as a hitter. He hits for average and power, draws a respectable number of walks, makes consistent contact and hits the ball to all fields with authority. He is, in short, a fantastic player, and if you'll excuse the cliche, the sky's the limit for Brian McCann. I doubt he'll ever consistently hit .333, as he did in 2006, but he absolutely has the swing and discpline to hit .310+ on a year-in, year-out basis. Considering both the number of doubles he hits (36 in 2006, 28 in 2007 and 42 in 2008) and his youth, it's not irrational to hope for an uptick in his power numbers. Should the Braves make a miracle run to the playoffs, McCann could easily find himself in the MVP discussion.

Cons? His defense is in the Javy Lopez mold: unimpressive, at times lackadaisacal, but not a serious deficiency. He throws out a respectable number of runners, but doesn't block the plate well. McCann's also painfully, glacially slow, and that's more of a concern. Ever since he hurt his ankle in 2006, McCann's lost a small chunk of his value because of his inability to run the bases. Stole five bases last year without being caught, which leads me to question the wisdom of the five different "Catch Leukemia, Catch In The Big Leagues!" promotions Braves' opponents held last year.

When your starting catcher is Brian McCann, the back-up backstop isn't very important. Still, Frank Wren did a nice job upgrading the position this winter. It probably wasn't a great idea to give Dave Ross a two-year contract, but he's about as competent as you can expect from the back-up catcher spot. Ross is a Gator, which means he contributes five or six wins worth of pure awesome every year. Beyond that, he's got excellent power and the ability to luck into home runs not infrequently. He's drawn 135 walks in 1124 career at-bats. So he has some skills. He also has trouble making contact and can't hit for average at all, which is why he's grateful for a two-year contract and the opportunity to back up one of the best catchers in the game and not starting somewhere.

Clint Sammons is the back-up catcher of the future, which is sort of like of being the dauphin in 1789. When he posts an OPS higher than .610 at AAA, he'll get a longer write-up.

First Base

Of the many humiliating aspects of 2008, the worst was probably trading Mark Teixeira for two unimpressive players a year after acquiring him in exchange for five prospects. (One of them, Neftali Feliz, was named by Baseball America as one of the game's ten best prospects) The important unimpressive player was Casey Kotchman, who went from mediocre in Anaheim to abysmal in Atlanta. (As an aside, "Abysmal in Atlanta" would make a great title for a hip-hop album)

It's a bad sign when you're praying for your first baseman to hit up to his career averages of .269/.336/.412, but then, it's a worse sign when your first baseman hits .237/.331/.316, as Kotchman did for Atlanta. Kotchman's only 26, and by all accounts he's a fairly slick defensive player. And shortly after he came to Atlanta, his mother suffered a brain hemorrhage, so a compassionate observer has to cut him some slack for his struggles with the Braves. Still, it's hard to imagine him truly being an asset at first base.

That won't matter much, because the Braves don't have a lot of options behind him. His primary back-up is Greg Norton, a personal favorite of mine who's 35 and pretty much a professional pinch-hitter at this point. He actually does that pretty well, all things considered. After the Braves acquired him in May, Norton was one of the few...well, let's not say "bright spots," since a 108 OPS+ from an old corner player isn't notably luminescent. But he was a useful bat off the bench, and he might have one more solid campaign left .

Second Base

Kelly Johnson's another of my personal favorites. Unlike Norton, this one still seems to have upside and the potential for greatness ahead of him. After all, you have to be pretty sanguine about an athletic second baseman coming off consecutive seasons with OPS+s of 117 and 108. He's got a nice swing, a good eye and a discplined approach.

But I can't shake the feeling that KJ is about at his ceiling. His numbers fell off a scosh last season, especially in the plate discpline category, but that doesn't concern me. No, he's simply a guy with obvious holes in his swing that seem difficult to fix. Johnson has serious issues with fastballs on the outside part of the plate. He doesn't make contact very often on those pitches, and when he does he's prone to weak pop-ups on the left side of the infield. Way too many P-5s and P-6s on Kelly's scorecard.

Still, if Johnson is what he is, his "is" is plenty good enough. He had the fourth-highest OPS among NL second baseman last year, third-highest in 2007. He's a competent defender and confident runner. Pitchers can keep the ball away from him, but even Major Leaguers make mistakes. They make enough of them, and Johnson hits them well enough, to make KJ a force for good in this world.

He has an able set of back-ups. Martin Prado is a career .307/.363/.432 hitter, albeit in just 329 carer at-bats. Mac Thomason over at Braves Journal rather spectacularly dinged his defense by describing a misplay that's scored a hit as "A Prado." Still, Prado can quasi-competently play three positions (second, third and first) and can start for a week or two at a time without killing the team.


Yunel Escobar's a funny little player. He consistently hits the ball hard and racks up good averages, but doesn't register a lot of extra base hits. (Just 36 last year) He's slow and grounded into 24 double plays in 2008. According to one of the sophisticated defensive measurements, he was the second-best defensive shortstop in the majors. It's kind of hard to believe a shortstop can be at once slow and slick, but Yunel seems to have pulled it off.

I'm interested to see where his career goes from here. He hit .288/.366/.401 last year, and combined with his sparkling defense, that's an excellent player. He's going to be 26 in 2009, and he's one of those players who seems to have a good command of the strike zone in spite of low walk numbers. There's still some upward mobility ahead of him.

Escobar's back-up is the versatile Omar Infante, who logged significant innings at third, short and second and in left field. He had a nice little season as Atlanta's utility player, but that .293/.338/.416 season seems unsustainable. Infante should remain a useful player, but if he's Atlanta's best left fielder (as he was for large stretches of 2008), the Braves are in serious trouble. Again.

Third Base

And so we come to the second infield anchor, a future Hall of Famer and one of the two remaining links to Atlanta's glory days. Chipper Jones remains one of the game's elite hitters, a potent combination of batting average, power and plate discpline. He has lost the speed of his youth, when he stole 25 bases in 28 attempts in the magical 1999 season. But aside from that, his skills remain undegraded.

Chipper won his first batting title in 2008 with a .364 mark and joined that average to his usual discipline and power. His .364/.470/.574 line was good for a 174 OPS+, actually better than 1999 (168) and 2001. (160) That figure was good for second in the NL, behind only Albert Pujols.

And 2008 was not a dead cat bounce for a declining player. His numbers in 2007 were similarly excellent, and 2006 wasn't much worse. (154 OPS+) All of this is a long way of saying that Chipper retains the talent needed to be an elite player. Any player at Chipper's age (he'll turn 37 on April 24) is in danger of a quick and lethal collapse, but this particular 37-year-old is as safe a bet as any to continue performing at a high level. He even seems to be playing defense better than he did in his young and callow days.

If that was the whole story, 2006, 2007 and 2008 would have been much more enjoyable for the Braves. Chipper was always prone to little injuries; he only once played 160 games. He used to have truly impressive recuperative capabilities; Chipper would get hit on the elbow with a pitch, make noises about going on the DL, then come back the next game and hit two home runs. These days, he tweaks his hamstring, sits out three games, declares himself ready to roll, then re-aggravates the injury in warm-ups and sits on the disabled list for three weeks.

Chipper hasn't played 140 games since 2003, and at this point you simply have to plan on him missing at least 25 games. The problem is not so much that he's suffering from Griffey-esque chronic ailments. He gets hurt in understandable ways (slipping on an atrocious field in San Francisco, getting upended by Jose Bautista while running the bases, etc.) and just can't recover in a timely fashion. There are rarely any lingering effects when he comes back from these injuries; he goes 3-for-5, gets hurt, sits out three weeks, comes back and goes 2-for-4 with a walk.

In its current state, Chipper's career is a battle between fragility and ability. When he plays, he's a Hall of Famer. Unfortunately, that "when" hasn't been happening often enough. Infante and Prado are decent utility players, but they can't replace Chipper Jones.

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