Atlanta Braves - 2007 Team Preview
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
March 28, 2007
2006 Record - 79-83, 3rd Place NL East, 18.0 behind the MetsHere is my problem with Brian McCann - last season, he put up a stud year in his first full major league season at the age of 22. He posted a .333 average and 960 OPS with 24 homeruns and 93 RBI in only 130 games. Truly one of the great seasons by a catcher not named Piazza in the last 30 years. But - these numbers exceed anything he ever did in the minors. In four minor league seasons, he never hit .300, he never posted an on-base percentage over .359, or a slugging percentage over .494. He did hit 35 doubles in 111 games in 2004 and 31 doubles in 115 games in 2003 - but those were both at single-A.
2006 Runs Scored - 849
2006 Runs Allowed - 805
Pythagorean Projection - 85-77
The Atlanta Braves' 2005 National League East division title was probably the most impressive of the Braves 14 straight division titles. With a huge crop of youngsters and the least impressive rotation the Braves had sported in a decade and a half, the Braves rebounded from being in last place after 63 games to win the division. Because this was so improbable, 2006 was the year that baseball experts somewhat unanimously decided that it was time to stop betting against the Braves and pick them to win the NL East until the Braves proved otherwise.
That only took a year.
The 2006 Braves learned a lot about why their franchise had been so successful for 15 years, and if they are to return to the top of the division, the 2007 iteration will have to show what they have learned.
2006 Starter - Brian McCann
Projected 2007 Starter - Brian McCann
Much has been made of the lack of attention given to McCann compared to the attention given Joe Mauer. Mauer posted a .332/.407/.426 for his minor league career.
McCann put up studly numbers last season, and he and Mauer would seem to be two elite young catchers. I just think McCann is more likely than Mauer to regress from his numbers of last season.
2006 Starter - Adam LaRoche
Projected 2007 Starter - Scott Thorman, Craig Wilson
The Braves shipped Adam LaRoche to the Pirates for Mike Gonzalez, sacrificing a good young bat for a good young arm. Neither team should regret the trade.
Scottie Thorman takes over at first this season, the latest example of Bobby Cox's fearlessness towards playing untested players. Thorman was unimpressive in his debut last season, but is well seasoned after six seasons in the minors. Look for him to hit 18 homeruns with 80 RBI and a BB/K ratio of 50/120. If he should struggle, Craig Wilson may come in as a somewhat reliable, experienced bat.
Braves Trivia - Craig Wilson (28/122) and Jeff Francoeur (23/132) had remarkably similar BB/K ratios last season. The only difference is JF's performance reflects 651 at-bats, while Wilson's reflects only 359.
2006 Starter - Marcus Giles
Projected 2007 Starter - Kelly Johnson
Speaking of fearless, Kelly Johnson will be starting at second base and batting leadoff after converting from left field. The leadoff position clearly hurt the Braves last season - after 15 years with Otis Nixon, Marquis Grissom, Kenny Lofton, Walt Weiss and Rafael Furcal setting the table for the Braves, an uncomfortable and unhealthy Marcus Giles performed poorly in the role last season. If the Braves are going to win in 2007, Kelly Johnson will have to be more effective as the leadoff hitter. That should not be too difficult, since he is replacing a .262/.341/.387 batter, and Johnson's career minor league OBP was .363. But Johnson was a prolific strikeout artist in the minors, and that could hurt him with the big club.
The Braves have an interesting thing going on between second base and left field. While hotshot prospect Martin Prado appears ready for action, the team is going with a converted leftfielder. While Matt Diaz has looked good in limited action with the Braves last season and in Triple-A in 2004 and 2005, the team is going with Ryan Langerhans, who has had an underwhelming career thus far. It seems as though Bobby Cox has picked the most awkward and unproductive combination in which to use these players.
2006 Starter - Edgar Renteria
Projected 2007 Starter - Renteria
After a rough year in Boston, Edgar Renteria looked like his old self last season for the Braves - through the end of July. On July 27th, he was hitting .322 with an OPS of .876. Renteria is still a very good run scoring shortstop, but his best years are behind him.
2006 Starter - Chipper Jones, Wilson Betemit, Willie Aybar
Projected 2007 Starter - Jones
In my opinion, there are two players in major league baseball who seem perpetually young - Chipper Jones and Craig Biggio. Biggio may never lose his Opie Taylor boyish looks, and Chipper Jones - well, how can you take anyone named Chipper seriously.
Craig Biggio has reached the point in his career where he should have retired but is hanging on to achieve career milestones, and Chipper turns 35 this year, which is usually the death knell for third basemen. Where has the time gone?
In truth, Chipper is beginning to look like one of those hitters who may lose the ability to walk before he loses the ability to hit. Injuries have limited him to 109 and 110 games in the last two seasons, but from a rate-statistic standpoint he has been very good. In fact, 2006 was one of his three or four best seasons, rate stat-wise.
The Braves would be dreaming if they thought Chipper could make it through the season un-injured.
2006 Starter - Andruw Jones
Projected 2007 Starter - Andruw Jones
The only thing that has been consistent about Andruw Jones over the last three years has been his batting average - .261, .263, .262 in the last three seasons. Last season, he hit 10 fewer homeruns than 2005, when he hit 51, but still 12 more than he hit in 2004. In truth, despite the fact that he hit almost 20% less homeruns last season, Jones actually improved as a hitter last season, cutting down on double plays, from 19 to 13, while taking his on-base percentage from the .330s to the .360s. Coming into 2007, at the age of 30, Andruw Jones appears primed for his most well-rounded season yet.
Possible Andruw Jones Warning Sign - His four outfield assists in 2006 were his fewest since 1996 - when he was 19 and played only 32 games.
2006 Starter - Ryan Langerhans, Jeff Francoeur
Projected 2007 Starter - Langerhans, Francoeur, Craig Wilson, Matt Diaz
Who is the more valuable player, Jeff Francoeur or Ryan Langerhans?
| Player || G || AB || R || H || HR || RBI || BB || K || SB || CS || AVG || OBP || SLG || OPS |
| Jeff Francoeur || 162 || 651 || 83 || 169 || 29 || 103 || 23 || 132 || 1 || 6 || 0.260 || 0.293 || 0.449 || 0.742 |
| Ryan Langerhans || 131 || 315 || 46 || 76 || 7 || 28 || 50 || 91 || 1 || 2 || 0.241 || 0.350 || 0.378 || 0.728 |
Easy, right? Francoeur ate Langerhans for lunch last season, with almost four times as many RBI and over four times as many homeruns.
But what about that base-on-balls advantage? In less than half as many at-bats, Langerhans walked over twice as many times as Francoeur, which means that if Langerhans played as much as Francoeur, he would have walked over 100 times. Just for fun, lets project out Langerhans stats over 651 at-bats:
| Player || AB || R || H || HR || RBI || BB || K || SB || CS || AVG || OBP || SLG || OPS |
| Jeff Francoeur || 651 || 83 || 169 || 29 || 103 || 23 || 132 || 1 || 6 || 0.260 || 0.293 || 0.449 || 0.742 |
| Ryan Langerhans || 651 || 95 || 157 || 14 || 58 || 103 || 188 || 2 || 4 || 0.241 || 0.350 || 0.378 || 0.728 |
Whoa! Given the same number of at-bats, suddenly Ryan Langerhans looks like a light hitting Adam Dunn. Obviously 188 strikeouts would be a concern, but I think any team would welcome the strikeouts in exchange for 100 walks.
But what about the homeruns and RBI, right? Francoeur still has over twice as many homeruns, and almost twice as many RBI.
Plenty has been said about both the value of a walk compared with a homerun, and the subjective value of RBIs, so I won't repeat that here. But I will make reference to four stats which tend to show the overall value of a player independant of runs and RBI - OPS, OPS+, runs created, and batting runs. Let compare the two players again:
| Player || OPS || OPS+ || RC || BR |
| Jeff Francoeur || 0.742 || 89 || 83 || 7 |
| Ryan Langerhans || 0.728 || 90 || 41 || 8 |
The at-bat difference distorts the analysis somewhat, so we convert these numbers to rate stats:
| Player || OPS || OPS+ || RC/27 || BR/PA |
| Jeff Francoeur || 0.742 || 89 || 4.42 || 0.011 |
| Ryan Langerhans || 0.728 || 90 || 4.41 || 0.018 |
As it turns out, depending on which statistic you place your faith in, Francoeur is either only slightly better than Langerhans (OPS), almost exactly the same as Langerhans (OPS+ and RC/27), or significantly worse than Langerhans (BR/PA). And oh by the way, Francoeur joined the 500 outs club last season.
But what about defense, right? Francoeur is a stud rightfielder, while Langerhans is a so-so leftfielder. John Dewan hasn't come out with a new Fielding Bible yet, so we will have to rely on conventional stats:
| Player || Innings || A || E || FP vs. league || RF vs. league |
| Jeff Francoeur || 1421.2 || 12 || 9 || .973/.980 || 2.03/1.75 |
| Ryan Langerhans || 706.0 || 2 || 1 || .994/.982 || 1.52/1.54 |
Francoeur has the obvious advantage in terms of both range and outfield assists, while Langerhans makes significantly fewer errors.
In the end, despite his power and RBI production, Jeff Francoeur is at best only marginally more valuable than Ryan Langerhans, and most of that value advantage comes from the fact that he plays everyday. Given equal playing time, Langerhans would likely be at least as valuable as Francoeur, if not more.Yet Francoeur is now firmly entrenched as the Braves rightfielder while Langerhans fights for a job with Matt Diaz and Craig Wilson of all people. Francoeur is younger (22 vs. 26) and would seem to have more upside with his athleticism, but frankly I would rather have faith that Langerhans will develop a power stroke when he plays everyday than have faith that Francoeur will be able to learn plate patience. The former happens all the time, while the latter rarely happens at all.
Braves Fun Fact|
Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur were both six years old the last time the Braves failed to win their division
Look for Langerhans on the Oakland Athletics in three years.
2006 Front Three Starters - John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Chuck James
Projected 2007 Starters - Smoltz, Hudson, James
John Smoltz keeps on ticking. You know what to expect from him - 13-18 wins, 200 innings, 3.00-3.50 ERA.
After slightly declining for several years, Hudson bottomed out last season, losing over 10 games and posting an ERA below league average for the first time in his career. Hudson has allegedly worked on some things and looked good this spring, but Hudson's demise was so obviously coming last season that it is hard to believe he will be significantly improved in 2007.
After an impressive debut, the Braves hope 25 year old Chuck James is ready for a full season as the number three starter. The six foot 170 pounder wouldn't seem to have the same major league starter credentials of fellow Braves prospect Kyle Davies, but at this point it is James who has been impressive. Apparently, the lad is both crafty and scrappy.
2006 Rest of the Rotation - John Thomson, Kyle Davies, Horacio Ramirez
Possible 2007 Starters - Mark Redman, Davies, Lance Cormier, Mike Hampton
In 2006, the front of the Braves rotation was solid while the back end had major difficulties. This situation has not been rectified.
The worst thing that could happen to Leo Mazzone's Hall of Fame chances would be a turn around year for Mark Redman. Mazzone got a lot of credit for pulling one pitcher after another off the trash heap and resurrecting their careers with the Braves, but if Redman has a resurgent season (resurgent might be the wrong word, because it implied that the player had once surged before), then it would appear the credit was not rightfully Mazzone's.
I don't think Redman gives Mazzone anything to worry about.
Davies got lit up last season, to the tune of an ERA over 8.00. The Braves believe in him nonetheless, and may wind up with the fifth spot in the rotation. Davies hasn't pitched good ball since 2004 with Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Greenville, which makes the Braves' faith in him somewhat questionable.
Lance Cormier is simply not a major league caliber pitcher. He has had a very good spring, which should fool the Braves into a few starts, but in three seasons of major league experience, his K/BB ratio is 130/107.
It almost seems hard to believe that Mike Hampton is going to return in 2007. He was solid in 2005 in only 12 starts, but has always been legitimately overrated. Remember, his best season came in 1999 with the Astros, a year in which Jose Lima went 21-10 with 187 K and 44 BB. Anyone could have succeeded on that Astros team. Hampton has never shown that he could replicate that success since then.
2006 Relievers - Bob Wickman, Macay McBride, Ken Ray, Chad Paronto, Tyler Yates, Oscar Villarreal, Chris Reitsma
Projected 2007 Relievers - Wickman, Mike Gonzalez, Rafeal Soriano, Villarreal, Paronto, Yates, Tanyan Sturtze
The Braves biggest upgrade from last year is definitely the bullpen. In Soriano, Wickman, and Gonzalez, the Braves have a middle relief-setup-closer combo that could legitimately end games after the sixth inning. The good news is that if Wickman, who will be 38 this season, falters, the Braves have two guys who can step in for him.
Outlook for the Season
The outlook for the season can be best summed up by four questions which have to be answered in the affirmative for the Braves to compete for the division crown:
The answers to those questions will be no, no, maybe, and no, and the Braves will not be able to compete with the Phillies or Mets in 2007.
- Can Chipper Jones stay healthy and hit the way he did last season?
- Will Jeff Francoeur continue to develop as a hitter?
- Will Kelly Johnson perform better as the second base/leadoff man than Marcus Giles did last season?
- Will Tim Hudson rebound from his worst season to be a solid number two starter?
Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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