Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Braves Offseason Series: Part 4

Editor's Note: This finishes up the guest writing series on the Braves off-season progress from resident Braves historian, Taylor... Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 from the previous posts (right toolbar)...

One of the major strengths of the 2010 Atlanta Braves was pitching. It's a familiar theme if you are a Braves fan, but without a doubt the Atlanta Braves pitching was the main reason why meaningful October baseball returned to Atlanta in 2010. Now, in the final installment of the offseason primer, we will take a look at what to expect for the 2011 Atlanta Braves pitching staff.

First we will start with the starters. In 2010 Tim Hudson led this group with 17 wins and was in the Cy Young conversation up until August. Derek Lowe finished strong, posting a 16-12 record and winning the NL Pitcher of the Month award for September when he single-handedly kept things together just long enough to win the Wild Card. Tommy Hanson had a great year as well. From there the list of guys that made starts include: Jair Jurrjens (who battled with injuries all year), Kenshin Kawakami (sigh…), Mike Minor, Kris Medlen, and Brandon Beachy. So, what can you expect in 2011? Well, five of the guys above will be the starting five for the Atlanta Braves. The only player who most likely won't be in the organization is Kenshin Kawakami. The Japanese right hander could just never perform in America. I don't expect him in a Braves uniform next year at all. Hopefully we can get something back in return for him (even if it's just a bit of salary relief on his $6.67 million guaranteed salary), but either way it's time to cut our losses and move on. Another person from above that shouldn't expect pitching in 2011 for the Atlanta Braves is Kris Medlen. He underwent Tommy John surgery in July of 2010 and will likely miss the entire 2011 season. When healthy he was one of the better starters for the Braves in 2010 so let's hope he can get a full recovery and be back in 2012. From there you have 6 guys and 5 starting spots.

The top 4 guys will be: Hudson, Hanson, Lowe, and Jurrjens. From there the 5th spot will be decided in Spring Training between Minor and Beachy with the odd man out in AAA at Gwinnett ready to come up if necessary. That's it. Simple as that.

I will add that, like any offseason situation, there is a small chance something drastic could be done and one of our starters could be a piece of a package to acquire something else. I don't see it happening, just because the two most likely pitchers we would deal are the two most undesirable to others at this point (Lowe because of his contract and JJ because of his injuries), so I believe this is what we will have to work with come Opening Day. I expect big things from these guys, though, and am happy with the rotation.

Next we will take a look at the bullpen. The bullpen was a huge strong point for the Atlanta Braves in 2010. Billy Wagner returned to mid-career form and was, for all intents and purposes, lights out. Jonny Venters was a pleasant surprise as a rookie. Peter Moylan, Eric O'Flaherty (EOF), Takashi Saito, Craig Kimbrel, and Michael Dunn all pitched well as well. Unfortunately for Braves fans, Billy Wagner is retiring and won't be back next year. Saito won't be back either, but that's probably not the worst thing in the world given his age and price tag.

As you are probably already wondering, who will assume the closer role in 2011? Luckily for the Braves, we have two cheap, internal options that can assume the role in Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel. I expect Kimbrel to get the job out of Spring Training. His stuff is unbelievably electric. In terms of stuff, he has a chance to become one of the best closers in the game. The problem? His command. He walks far too many hitters at this point in his young career. If he can get that fixed, I expect a great year as the Braves closer. In Venters you have someone who is already a bit more proven. He had a phenomenal rookie campaign even with being a bit overused and tiring out near the end of the season. Venters could assume the closer role if Kimbrel struggles, but I expect him to maintain the same role he had last year as the primary 8th inning guy.

From there I expect EOF and Michael Dunn to return. EOF is more of a lefty specialist, but he's very good at what he does when he's healthy. Dunn has a bit of a command issue as well, but he has tons of upside, can pitch well against righties and lefties, and is cheap. That's 4 bullpen spots accounted for with 3 spots remaining. I think it's safe to assume those 3 spots will be occupied by right handed pitchers and one of them will be a long reliever (someone capable of pitching multiple innings (3+) in an appearance). Likely candidates that are currently in the organization are Peter Moylan (if he gets offered arbitration), Scott Proctor (Ed: the Braves already signed him inexplicably IMO), Christian Martinez, and Stephen Marek. I also wouldn't be surprised to see Frank Wren go out and get a veteran, high-leverage right handed relief pitcher to take up one of those spots as well.

That covers everything a Braves fan should keep their eye out for during this offseason. I hope you've enjoyed my roster reconstruction analysis and look forward to the hot stove months ahead.

Before I call it a blog, I'd like to take a moment to go over a few "Manager Musts" for Fredi Gonzalez in his first season as manager for the Atlanta Braves.

1. Move Chipper Jones from the 3rd position in the batting order: You might think I am crazy, but I think he should actually move UP in the order (Ed: Well done). His ability to get on base should not be overlooked, so I wouldn't mind him in the 2nd spot in the order at all. You could even bat him leadoff. Yes, leadoff (think/google Brian Downing). With that said, I also wouldn't be upset to see him drop to 5th or 6th in the order either. The key is, get him out of the 3-hole and get someone else in there (preferably Heyward).

2. Manage the bullpen better: Bobby liked to use his 3 or 4 favorite guys out there until their arms fell off. If Fredi can manage the bullpen better we can expect healthy, lively arms down the stretch when it really matters. Use your bullpen depth, Fredi!

3. Don't sacrifice bunt in horrible situations to sacrifice bunt: If there are runners on first and second and nobody out and I see Prado square around to bunt I am going to throw something (this happened this past season)! (Ed: Generally don't bunt your best hitters in RBI spots)

4. Use your bench depth: Bobby was notorious for keeping at least one position player available just in case someone got hurt or the game went 13+ innings (I assume that was his logic). This is the reason Brooks Conrad was on the field for defense in the 9th inning of Game 3 of the NLDS. It makes no sense. I'd much rather see a pitcher playing LF in the 13th inning or Omar Infante catching in the 14th than seeing the Braves not give themselves the best chance to win when they can. Essentially, if you have high leverage defensive replacements on the roster, use them!

5. Don't give everyone a day off at the same time: How many Sundays (or any day game for that matter) did we tune in and see all the backups starting with Bobby? I get that it's tough to play a night game and then a day game, especially for a catcher. So, how about we use some foresight and give a guy the night game off so he can play the day game when McCann won't be in the lineup.

Thanks for taking the time to read! I'll be back in March (if Brad allows it!) with an analysis of all the offseason moves made, and a prediction for the season.


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