Sunday, March 15, 2009

2009 Atlanta Braves Preview, Part 2: The Outfield

The world community is a little pre-occupied right now. But I hope that when things settle down, when the economy is on solid footing, that the International Criminal Court gives serious consideration to hauling Frank Wren and Bobby Cox to The Hague and bringing them to account for Atlanta's 2008 outfield.

The Braves produced only 27 home runs from their outfielders last year. They had no players who could be reasonably described as "good." Only two could be reasonably described as decent. One of those, Mark Kotsay, was traded mid-season, and the other, Josh Anderson, played only 40 games. Jeff Francoeur cratered, Matt Diaz scuffled and got hurt and Gregor Blanco played like he was trying to see how well one can hit if one refuses to swing until the count is 3-2. It's hard to see how the Braves could fail to improve in 2009.

And it's in that ambitious spirit that we turn first to Frank Wren's prize outfield acquisition, Garret Anderson. The 36-year-old had a fine career with the Angels, and the Braves desperately hope he has one more goo...sol...dece...acceptable season left in his bat. Anderson's coming off a year that saw him hit .293/.325/.433. On the plus side, that would have made him the second-best full-time outfielder on the 2008 Braves. On the downside, he was roughly as good as Omar Infante, so I'm not filled with warm tinglies.

There remains some mystery as to Anderson's role. A platoon with Matt Diaz would make the most sense; if you squint really hard you can almost see an Anderson/Diaz platoon working. But Cox and Wren made some noise after the signing that Anderson wasn't a platoon player, and if forced to guess, I'd bet that Cox uses Anderson against lefties more than is wise.

The Garret Anderson of 2008, while hardly bursting with dynamism, would be an acceptable addition. But 36-year-old corner outfielders coming off sub-100 OPS+ seasons don't have bright futures. The Braves are desperately hoping that they get Anderson's last "good" season. If, instead, they missed it by a year, they'll be fighting a war with the same set of rusted knives that so spectacularly failed them in 2008.

Matt Diaz, who will back-up and/or platoon with Anderson, has at least shown in the past that his blade has some bite. After consecutive solid seasons in 2006 and 2007, Diaz's production cratered in 2008. He played two months at a .250/.270/.311 level before injuring his knee in Milwaukee. He came back for the last game of the season, but 2008 was a lost year.

Analysts have always considered Diaz a candidate for the kind of season he put up last year. This is a man who makes Francoeur look patient and disciplined. His power comes from the occasional double and the even-more-occasional home run. He's a player who relies almost exclusively on his ability to slap bad pitches through the holes in the infield.

That sounds unsustainable. Thing is, he seems to have a real knack for it, last year notwithstanding. He hit at every level in the minors. He hit for two years in Atlanta. He's a career .328/.361/.508 hitter against lefties. You can never consider Diaz a "safe" bet, but there's every reason to believe he can be a useful part of a winning team.

This brings us to Atlanta's golden child, The Wonder Boy, Delta pitch man, Jeff Francoeur. I've always said that Francoeur's the kind of player to whom you give every reasonable chance to succeed. And once he exhausts those, you give him one more. He's that talented.

Well, Francoeur's exhausted the reasonable chances. 2009 is the "one more." When you put up a 72 OPS+ as a corner outfielder, play crummy defense and contribute nothing on the base paths, you place yourself in danger of falling out of the big leagues, regardless of past success. Francoeur's 2008 was so abysmal that, by itself, it calls into question his ability to play Major League Baseball.

It wasn't surprising that Francoeur had a sub-par season; after all, he posted an 87 OPS+ in 2006. But the ubiquity of his suck was staggering. He at least managed to slug better than the league average in '06. He did nothing well in 2009 besides look handsome. He didn't even handle his too-brief demotion to the minors particularly well.

What to expect in 2009? If you'll excuse the cop-out, I like him to roughly achieve his career line of .268/.312/.434. That's crummy for a corner outfielder, but I can't summon the optimism to predict an actually productive season. Francoeur is and always has been unforgivably undisciplined. There are too many holes in his game, even as a 25-year-old. He has enough power in his bat to save him from total uselessness, but that's about all I can say for him.

Those are the three players who are guaranteed spots in the Braves' outfield. Josh Anderson is slightly below that line, but only to the extent that he's just practically guaranteed the center field job. He's had a nice run of 203 Major League at-bats, but his career minor league numbers don't sing a peppy tune. It's more than a little distressing that Atlanta's best center field option is a guy with a career minor league line of .294/.340/.378.

But Anderson has some skills. He stole 42 bases for Richmond in 2008, 40 for Round Rock in 2007, 43 for Corpus Christi in 2006, 50 at the same stop the previous year. And he's swiped bases at an 80 percent success rate. He's been a good contact hitter at just about every stop. He has, in short, all the skills needed in a hyper-competent fourth outfielder. What he does not have is the skillset to be a starting center fielder on a championship-caliber team.

But that's going to be his job, because the second-best option is more of a curiosity than a real option. I like Gregor Blanco. I think he's a cool player. It takes an awful lot of pluck to draw 74 walks in 430 at-bats and post a .366 OBP while slugging only .309. It's really kind of an affirmation of the human spirit, for a given definition of "affirmation" and "of." I think he can be a useful bench player.

The problem is that he doesn't have the profile you'd expect and want from a player with his utter lack of power. If you're going to hit one home run in 430 at-bats, you need to hit more than .251. You can't strike out 99 times. You have to play defense better than Blanco does. In short, if you're as powerless as Gregor Blanco, you need to do everything else well. And he doesn't.

Jordan Schafer was Atlanta's Great White Hope this time last spring. After a huge 2007, the 21-year-old center fielder was the talk of the Braves' training camp. But Schafer tested positive for HGH and was suspended for 50 games by the commissioner's office. He came back to post solid numbers in 84 Double-A games (.269/.378/.471), but that line wasn't overwhelming enough to offset the bad press from his HGH suspension.

Schafer, now 22, should start the year at Triple-A Richmond, is one of Atlanta's best prospects but the team's best hope for an actually productive center fielder. The Braves are going to be reluctant to rush him, especially if it doesn't seem like they have a real chance at the division. He'll need to post a full, healthy, completely legal season to assuage any remaining doubts.

I should write up Brandon Jones, but the Braves don't like him, and he's not good enough for that to anger me. Screw Brandon Jones.

1 comment:

Louise said...

The Atlanta Braves have won more games at this point in the season than any other team in baseball. They also lead in Runs, having scored 4 times as many as the next-highest team, Philadelphia.

just read about them :

Yes, they are the winners of the Small Sample Size Sweepstakes after winning the first game of the season, 4-1, over the Phillies.