(NOTE FROM GREY: Last week I sent out feelers to the top baseball team blogs to see if they would be generous enough to write a quick preview for their favorite team. So over the course of the next two weeks, mixed in with your daily fantasy info, you will get some of the most astute, in-depth coverage of teams around the major leagues for the upcoming 2008 season from the people that know these teams best. Each post will include a link to their site, please take time to visit these bloggers’ sites, because these posts are truly the tip of the iceberg for their team knowledge. Now enjoy the 2008 Atlanta Braves preview.)
Although it’s been two seasons since the end of the greatest divisional winning streak in professional sports history came to an end the Braves still have hope of bringing another division crown home in 2008. Under new General Manager Frank Wren, Atlanta returns a core of veterans and a group of baby braves that aren’t so baby anymore.
Just as pitching lead the Braves to those fourteen divisional titles, they must count on their pitching to win games. With the return of longtime Atlanta favorite Tom Glavine (prediction 12-9 4.20ERA), the Braves have a trio of former twenty game winners at the top of the rotation. If Mike Hampton (prediction 4-6 5.20ERA) can return to his what seems like an eternity ago peak then that trio becomes a quartet. Early indications show Hampton looking strong, but as we have learned in previous seasons nobody is holding their breath. As long as Hudson (prediction 17-12 3.44ERA) and Smoltz (prediction 16-10 3.25ERA) can perform in the role of team aces and Glavine can just be relied on to eat up innings I believe he can still be very effective at this point in his career. Also the rejuvenated competition between longtime friend and teammate John Smoltz should help Glavine to dig down deep for that extra competitive edge. The remaining two slots in the rotation will be a very interesting battle to watch throughout the season. Of course Hampton will be given every shot and Chuck James (prediction 10-9 4.35ERA) also has an inside track on the other opening, you have to like the other young options that the Braves could turn to. Jo-Jo Reyes and Buddy Carlyle were given some chances last year with mixed results, but Jair Jurrjens who came over in the Renteria trade has looked fantastic in spring training. The dark horse candidate is Charlie Morton. Charlie is a relatively unknown who has already impressed manager Bobby Cox and I see him getting a call up and being a regular contributor by the end of the season.
Atlanta’s bullpen is anchored by Rafael Soriano (prediction 2.70ERA 38SV) who will be called upon to be the teams full time closer this year. Last year he showed flashes of brilliance and the ability to dominate games in the later innings. It is critical for him to be able to perform at this level the entire season. Peter Moylan (prediction 2.20ERA 5SV) will be asked to setup and a duty that if he struggles could share with the lefty, Mike Gonzalez, once Gonzalez returns from the DL midseason. Although the rest of the bullpen is young and inexperienced, there are many great arms and lots of potential. Manny Acosta, Will Ohman, Tyler Yates, Royce Ring, and Blaine Boyer will all compete for time in the pen.
The Braves infield is anchored by Mark Teixiera (prediction .305 39/119) and Chipper Jones (prediction .325 25/98). Teixiera and Jones are easily the most dynamic 3-4 combo in the majors. Never have two slugging switch hitters anchored a lineup like this before and they promise to wreck havoc on pitchers all season. Middle infielders Yunel Escobar (prediction .290 12/70) and Kelly Johnson (prediction .290 18/79) will set the table for the switch hitter mashers. In a partial season Yunel was very impressive at the plate and Kelly Johnson showed amazing plate discipline. Slugging catcher Brian McCann (prediction .295 25/95) at 24 is already one of the best offensive catchers in the game and his defense continues to improve.
Although Atlanta’s outfield looks like their biggest weakness fortunately it is where they have the largest wealth of prospects and talent. Gold Glove winner Jeff Francoeur (prediction .300 25/100) will again play RF and it looks like Matt Diaz (prediction .315 18/80) will be given the full time job in LF a job that I believe he fully deserves. Diaz is career .320 hitter (774 at bats) and his defense in the field is actual better than the league average. With the departure of longtime and perennial CF Andruw Jones taking his ten gold gloves to Los Angeles and no major free agent signing to fill the vacancy the center field position is wide open for this coming season. Mark Kotsay and Josh Anderson were brought in and will be given the initial opportunities to fill the void. Should either of them stumble, top prospect Jordan Schafer will be ready. It’s the universal belief that Schafer will be the long term solution and will be the starting CF by the start of the 2009 season. The Braves also have many other solid prospects should they need any additional outfield help. Jason Heyward who was Atlanta’s top pick in 2007 is believed to have superstar makeup and Gorkys Hernandez will both be ready if called upon.
Martin Prado and Scott Thorman are out of options so they will take up two slots on the bench. Tom Glavine isn’t the only former Braves all-star looking to make a comeback with the team. Javy Lopez is battling for a bench job as the backup catcher. His bat has always been his strength, but the reports have been very encouraging that he will win a bench spot with much improved defense. By breaking his hand Omar Infante has opened a temporary spot on the bench. Brent Lillibridge is a solid defender with plus speed who hopes to prove to the major league club that he will have long term value as a short stop. Upon returning Infante is an undervalued utility player who actually is a solid hitter and can efficiently play many positions.
Andruw Jones provided the Braves with gold glove defense in center field for over a decade. Any member of the pitching staff will tell you they benefited from having him effortlessly track down balls in the gap and turn extra base hits into outs. The combination of the Braves ability to adjust to this absence or a player being able to step up and fill the gap will be what can end the Braves drought and win another pennant. The lineup is strong and the pitching staff looks to be the best in the last few years, unfortunately the division hasn’t been this competitive in quite a while. The Phillies and Mets both are legitimate division winning challengers and the two having won a division title in the past two years only helps their confidence and validates their threat. The pitching staff staying healthy and effective will make or break Atlanta’s playoff and division chances. I wouldn’t bet against them, but the road will be long and challenging.