2010 Atlanta Braves: The End of the Bobby Cox Era

BaseballEvolution.com 2010 Spring Preview
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
March 23, 2010

After owning the NL East throughout the 1990s, the Atlanta Braves kept the party rolling into the twenty-aughts by winning the NL East from 2000 to 2005. After 2005, the Braves finally abdicated the NL East throne to the New York Mets and haven’t finished better than third in the division since.

This new decade will be one of significant transition for the Braves. Bobby Cox has already announced that 2010 will be his final year with the Braves, bringing to an end one of the great runs by a manager in major league history. Chipper Jones has made no such announcement, but the writing is on the wall for one of the greatest third basemen of all time; Chipper hasn’t played over 150 games since 2003, and last season was one of the two or three worst of his career. But it will also be the beginning of a new era in Atlanta Braves baseball, and the franchise appears to be pretty well stocked as it heads into this new era.

In fact, if you are looking for a surprise team in 2010, you may be well-advised to look no further than the Atlanta Braves.
Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Melky Cabrera OF
Nate McLouth OF
Troy Glaus 3B/1B
Eric Hinske 3B/1B
Billy Wagner RP
Takashi Saito RP
Departed Pos.
Javier Vazquez SP
Kelly Johnson 2B
Garrett Anderson LF
Jeff Francoeur OF
Casey Kotchman 1B
Adam LaRoche 1B

Reasons to Like the Atlanta Braves in 2010

1. Brian McCann

I sometimes think it must be very frustrating to be Brian McCann. With all the talk of Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez over the last few years, the baseball public seems to have ignored what McCann has accomplished from the age of 21 to 25 behind the plate. He’s good for 20 and 90 every year, he almost never strikes out while taking plenty of walks, his career OPS is .853, which is higher than Martinez (.837) and was essentially tied with Mauer going into last season (.856), and he hits doubles like they're going out of style. Meanwhile, Atlanta has had the third best ERA in the NL in two of the last three seasons.

Oh, and by the way, McCann had eye surgery this off-season and is currently hitting .500 this spring. The Braves have a special catcher in Brian McCann, and very few people know it.

2. Tommy Hanson and the Atlanta Braves Starting Rotation

I live in Philadelphia, and I liked J.A. Happ two seasons ago when he was in the minors. I was miffed in the spring when the Phillies gave their fifth spot in the rotation to Chan Ho Park, and I was thrilled when Happ finally got into the rotation and looked like the Phillies’ ace.

Tommy Hanson

Because I was so Happ-happy, I completely missed what was happening in Atlanta – Tommy Hanson was outperforming J.A. Happ by leaps and bounds. If you haven’t heard of Hanson, then listen up: he is a six-foot-six-inch righthander who, at the age of 22, went 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA, a K:BB ratio at 2.5, and 116 strikeouts in 127.2 innings. Selected in the 22nd round of the 2005 draft, Hanson has shredded his three-plus seasons in the minors, going 23-18 with a 2.52 ERA and 463 strikeouts in 389 innings pitched. In 2009, before his call-up, Hanson had 90 strikeouts in 66.1 innings pitched and a 1.49 ERA. If you look at Hanson’s makeup, you conclude that he is from Texas, and you’re close: he’s from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He’s one of those guys.

I am pretty sure Tommy Hanson could snap J.A. Happ’s neck like wishbone. And he may get the chance.

The Braves have Hanson listed at the top of their depth chart this season, but this isn’t a weak rotation. Jair Jurrjens established himself as a dynamite starter last season, going 14-10 with a 2.60 ERA in 215 innings pitched. Derek Lowe is a cagey veteran looking to bounce back from a career-worst year in which he still led the NL in games started, went 15-10, allowed only 16 homeruns, and almost pitched 200 innings. Kenshin Kawakami was deceptively good in 2009, going 7-12 despite a league average ERA; he was twice the pitcher Lowe was, but somehow ended up five games under .500 compared to Lowe’s five games over.

Finally, the Braves get Tim Hudson back in 2010. Hudson made seven starts in 2009 and looked essentially like the Hudson of old. If he returns to the form that he showed in his first three seasons in Atlanta, the Braves are getting a top-two caliber pitcher in a rotation that already has a top two. The combo of Hanson-Jurrjens-Hudson could give the Braves as formidable a front three as any in the National League.

3. No more talent-suck players

Part of the demise of the Atlanta Braves has been the failure of a whole crop of farm products to materialize into real major league caliber talent. From Ryan Langerhans to Jeff Francoueur to Adam LaRoche to Kelly Johnson to Wilson Betemit to Andy Marte to Pete Orr to Nick Green to Martin Prado, the Braves have had a slew of guys who were good enough to make a 40-man roster but weren’t good enough to be difference-makers at the major league level. The problem, of course, is that the Braves kept penciling these guys in to be starters at the beginning of the season. Then the Braves would mix in guys like Garret Anderson and Mark Kotsay, and the end result was a roster whose ceiling was very low.

Braves Team Capsule

Well, good news, Braves fans – the talent-suck players are now gone. Of the guys I just named, only Martin Prado remains, and he will be hitting low in the lineup and playing second base. Don’t get me wrong – I have my doubts about both Nate McLouth and Melky Cabrera, but the damage seems to be limitable.

4. Justin Heyward

He’s six-foot-four-inches and weighs 220 pounds. He’s a left-handed hitting outfielder.

Jason Heyward

This spring, he was ranked by Scout.com as the best position player prospect in baseball. Justin Heyward has a very exciting pedigree, but he also has the numbers to back up the hype.

Last season, Heyward played 99 games at three levels, from A+ ball to Triple-A. He hit .323/.408/.555 combined, including .364/.462/.364 in three games at Triple-A. He walked as many times as he struck out (51), he hit doubles (25) and homeruns (17), he stole bases efficiently (10 out of 11), and he scored more runs than he drove in (69 vs. 63). When people talk about five tool players, they’re talking about this guy. He is Braves' best looking prospect since Andruw Jones.

5. Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito

Holy Flying Under the Radar, Batman! The Red Sox had two of the best relievers in baseball on their roster at the end of last season and now both of them are on the Braves. Wagner had 26 strikeouts in 15.2 innings and posted a 1.72 ERA in his return from missing over a year due to injury. Elite fire-balling closers have turned into a commodity in baseball, and having Wagner back to his old self in 2010 would be nothing short of a coup for the Braves, and could be a major difference maker. Plus, I am sure that Wagner would love the opportunity to lead the Braves to a division title over his last two full-time employers. Saito has 83 saves and a 2.05 ERA in four seasons playing ball in the U.S., and while he turns forty in 2010, he still looks to be a dynamite set-up man for Wagner.

Reasons to be Skeptical of the Atlanta Braves in 2010

1. Nate McLouth and Melky Cabrera

I have never understood the Melky Cabrera thing, and I still don’t. The best that can be said for Cabrera is that he doesn’t strike out very much; his career high is 68, and he has only broken 60 once in four years. The rest of the story, however, is terrible. He has a lifetime .716 OPS, which reflects a career in which he has a career high of 28 doubles and 13 homeruns. As little as he strikes out, he walks even less, and after posting a .360 OBP as a rookie in 2006, he hasn’t come near to that since. He has the numbers of a defensive infielder, but a quick survey of all the defensive metrics indicates that he is right around league average in most defensive statistics.

Melky Cabrera strikes me as a league average player in almost every respect.

Nate McLouth, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. In 2008, he put up some outstanding numbers on offense for the Pirates and, of course, came away with Gold Glove as a result. Nevertheless, McLouth was one of the league’s worst defenders that season, finishing at or near the bottom of almost every defensive metric available. In 2009, for the Pirates and Braves, he was neither of those things – despite his 20 homeruns, 19 stolen bases, and 27 doubles, McLouth’s offense was lackluster, yet he improved his defense dramatically. Nevertheless, at the end of the day Nate McLouth gives you an overrated hitter who is only slightly above average on defense.

I think the Braves are thinking that two defensive-minded centerfielders in the outfield will be better than a defense-minded left fielder and a defense-minded centerfielder. We’ll see.

2. Where’s Shea Hillenbrand?

Shea Hillenbrand:
the only thing they seem to be missing.

For the purpose of filling the third base slot, the first base slot, and the backup to those two positions, the Braves have Chipper Jones, Troy Glaus, and Eric Hinske on the roster. It’s funny, because these guys are the Papa-Bear, Mama-Bear, and Baby-Bear of over-the-hill third basemen: Chipper Jones used to be a Hall of Fame caliber third baseman but can’t play everyday any more; Troy Glaus used to be an All-Star caliber third baseman but can’t play everyday anymore; and Eric Hinske used to be a starting-caliber third baseman but can’t play everyday anymore (actually, maybe they’re the three little pigs).

So what can the Braves expect from Jones, Glaus, and Hinske? Well, kidding aside, if Hinske is used to properly limit Chipper to roughly 135 games, and to spell Glaus when he needs to rest his surgically repaired right shoulder, then this could be a very effective trio. It could also be a hilarious failure.

3. Left-handed Pitching

Take a look around you, Braves fans. Not a lot of right-handed baseball mitts on this team. The Braves will be starting five right-handed pitchers in 2010, and that’s really the end of the story. You need left-handed pitching to get past the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Braves don’t have it.

Outlook for the Season

It is appropriate that in Bobby Cox’s final season with the Braves, it will be the pitching that dominates. As in so many of Cox’s glory years, the Braves rotation will have to be great for the Braves to succeed. The offense will be talented but will have some bumps in the road, but if the pitching staff plays towards their ceiling, it will be enough to carry the offense. This does not look like a big season in the NL East, so the Braves should be able to secure second place in the division and give the Phillies a run for most of the season. I don’t really see this team getting past the Phillies, but a wild card is not out of the question.

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