Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"What Would the Outsider Do" - Atlanta Braves

The Atlanta Braves are in uncharted territory. This is a club that, as you all know, did not miss the playoffs for 14 consecutive seasons. In 2007, the club emptied its prospect bank and brought aboard highly coveted first basemen Mark Teixeira.

Despite finishing with an 84 and 78 record, the Braves failed to make the playoffs that year, and took a substantial step backwards in 2008, falling to 72 and 90 in a very winnable National League East.

Teixeira's career with the Braves came to an end at this year's trade deadline, while things couldn't have turned out worse for the Braves and this acquisition, that is all now in hindsight.

However, looking back, we see that the Braves traded an outstanding core of prospects to the Texas Rangers, and have now come out with Casey Kotchman, Stephen Marek, and indirectly, Brett DeVall. In hindsight, we're looking at what could possibly be one of the worst trades in recent memory. A trade that parralel's the likes of Scott Kazmir to the Rays, and Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips, and Cliff Lee to the Indians.

It was the desperation to make the playoffs that led Atlanta to trading away five of its best prospects, including, the top 3 as listed by Baseball America that previous winter. Unfortunately for the Braves, each of the prospects traded have continued to develop and are major reasons behind the Rangers having such a stocked farm system.

This trade also marked what is bound to be a lengthy down time for the Braves. While the farm system is replenishing itself with two excellent drafts, many of the players are still at least 2 years away. When one looks at what the Braves have at the Major League level, it becomes clear that they are in for a very long road at rebuilding.

In addition to the Teixeira 'blunder', the Braves have been rather misfortunate staying healthy. Pitchers Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, Tim Hudson, and John Smoltz all missed substantial time in 2008 due to injuries. Of which, Hudson and Smoltz's injuries will carry over to the 2009 season, further handcuffing this franchise.

There is, however, a silver lining for the 2009 Braves. The club has an estimated $45M in available cash resources, that money could make Atlanta into a big player this offseason. It wouldn't hurt to take $10-15M of that money, and look at signing Kelly Johnson, Jair Jurrjens, Mike Gonzalez, and Yunel Escobar to contract extensions. It may be a little early on Jurrjens and Escobar, but the time is certainly now for Johnson and Gonzalez.

Thus, with a developing system, and a surplus of cash, I will begin looking at what the Braves should, and should not do this offseason.

What the Braves don't need:

Infield help. The Braves have one of the best hitting infields in all of baseball. In addition to this, they have some substantial Major League ready depth and a good amount of high upside Minor Leaguers. Clearly if there is a way to cheaply upgrade any of their infield positions, the Braves should jump at that, but that would certainly be near the bottom of their wish list.

Relief pitching. This isn't a bad situation to have despite what is a fairly nice free agent relief core. Much of this is dependent on John Smoltz resigning and being ready, as well as Soriano's availability. Between those two, and Gonzalez, the Braves should have no problem finishing games. In addition to some nice depth at the Major League level, there are a couple arms in the system that could make their debut in 2009-Tyler Wilson and Luis Valdez.

Prospects. Everyone can always use prospects, but the Braves aren't in a position where they need to sell, simply to acquire youth. In fact, there is an argument to be made where the Braves may look to sell, simply to open up spots for their youth.

What the Braves need:

Pitching! Although, the club has a handful of very attractive and two of which could certainly be ready for Major League action by June of this season. Righty Tommy Hanson is a name everyone will all soon become familiar with, as he will be in the center of any trade discussions the Braves enter this offseason. Kristopher Medlen is another prospect that is fairly close to beign Major League ready. Although at this point, I'm not certain if he projects out as a starter or reliever.

So what do the Braves do here? For starters, I don't advocate signing CC Sabathia. He will simply cost too much for too long. I'm even in the minority that aren't worried about Sabathia's long term health and I would stay away from him.

Ben Sheets isn't a bad idea, but my worry is that he comes at a high cost despite his current unknown injury status, so I'll steer clear of him for now. Oliver Perez? The walks frighten me. Randy Wolf? He's a beneficiary of home ballparks.

How about Ryan Dempster? While he is 32 years old, he has as many Major League innings on his arm as the average 30 year old. Four years out of the bullpen helped harness that innings total. Dempster would also be a nice replacement for Tim Hudson, who is all but done as a Brave. Would 4 years at $12M work for Dempster?

In addition to Dempster, I would look at signing a pitcher that would accept a minor league assignment, maybe Matt Clement fits the bill? Someone who is looking to jump-start their career. There are plenty of these types of pitchers that are more organizational depth then an arm that is heavily relied on.

Outfield help! There are a few options on the big league roster, however, those players are beginning to look like quad A type players and 4th/5th outfielders then everyday players. With three highly touted prospects, and Jeff Francouer at the Major League level, its hardly a position that requires a long term solution, thus, a player such as Adam Dunn, and his presumed 5+ year contract demand is a guy the Braves should avoid.

Any trade posibilities? Coco Crisp wouldn't be a bad idea, but I doubt the Sox do that trade for anything less then Mike Gonzalez. What about Eric Byrnes of the Diamondbacks? Health permitting of course, however, without an obvious spot in the lineup for Byrnes, the DBacks may be happy to simply be free of Byrnes' contract.

The Braves could package Martin Prado (who could start for Arizona) and Jeff Locke. That's a little on the cheap side, but I'm banking that the Diamondbacks would be happy with the salary relief as well as adding two youngsters to what is looking like a dreadful system. If they demanded Lillibridge, that would just mean a lesser pitching prospect-which might be preferrable.

Chris Shelton, recently became a free agent. If the right handed hitter has any ability to play a position other then first base, I'd bring him aboard giving him hacks against left handed pitchers once or twice a week.

A lot of writing with very few additions. I do, however, feel as though these minor changes would mean big things for the Braves. Not 'playoff' big, but at least some direction, which is something they ended the 2008 season without. Here's how the Opening Day hitters would look:

SS - Y. Escobar
2B - K. Johnson
3B - C. Jones
C - B. McCann
1B - C. Kotchman
CF - E. Byrnes
RF - J. Francouer
LF - J. Anderson/M. Diaz

Not a lot of changes here and potentially the only lineup with it's infield as the first five, and subsequently strongest hitters on the team. The big issues with this lineup, development and a return to form. Escobar, Johnson, and McCann all need to continue their development, Kotchman needs to take some major steps forward, and Byrnes and Francouer have to prove they can return to the form that made them solid Major Leagues during the 2006 and 2007 seasons.

This lineup isn't incredibly different then the one that right around league average in 2008. The improvements I expect do not seem incredibly unrealistic, so the loss of Teixeira, while it will be felt, won't completely ruin this team.

The bench does not offer much promise, with Clint Sammons, Chris Shelton, Omar Infante, Brent Lillibridge, and the remaining half of the Anderson/Diaz platoon. However, it also leaves the door open for some almost ready prospects to step in in the case of an injury or underperformances.

The rotation could very well be a Drekyl and Hyde situation. The top two will form a very solid duo, while the next three will be obvious question marks. Here's how I would put together the 2009 Braves rotation:

R. Dempster
J. Jurrjens
J. Campillo
JJ Reyes
J. Parr

Even with Ryan Dempster, CC Sabathia, or Jake Peavy, this Braves rotation is not pretty. It is relying on Jurrjens and Campillo to show little to no regression. It is relying on Reyes and Parr to live up to at least some of their potential. If anything goes wrong, the Braves are not only in for a long season, but a very ugly one!

Even with Hanson and Medlen nearly ready, the Braves must keep their fingers crossed that their misfortune from the 2008 season does not carry over into 2009.

Looking at the bullpen and rotation, as well as a couple of the arms that are nearly ready in the Minors, it might be a good idea for the Braves to shop Gonzalez if they can't come to terms on a deal with him. Possibly the Braves could move Lillibridge and Locke to the Pirate for Paul Maholm and give the Gonzalez to the Sox for Crisp trade a try. Their bullpen would take a hit, but not one they couldn't withstand.

However, I would prefer to try to extend Gonzalez and work on his back up plan if that doesn't work. So here's how the bullpen shakes out with Gonzalez:

CL - M. Gonzalez
SU - J. Smoltz
RP - R. Soriano
RP - M. Acosta
RP - B. Carlyle
LR - J. Bennett

The major issue here is health. If Soriano and Smoltz are not healthy and cannot pitch, or are ineffective, the Braves bullpen will look drastically worse. However, if that is the case, Gonzalez is on his way out, and the bullpen's youth movement will begin with the infiltration of the aforementioned Wilson, Valdez, and Marek.

Playing GM is typically an enjoyable task. Doing so has one looking deep into a clubs farm system attempting to build the best team for the near and short term. I am typically a big picture guy and would be fine losing 4 out of 5 years if it meant that the 5th year was going to be a wild success. The problem with baseball, however, is that everything needs to work out perfectly in order for that 5th season to be successful. The Braves went into the 2008 season with what looked like a very solid team, a possible playoff team. 6 months later, a handful of major injuries, and a major trade has the team way on the outside looking in.

For Braves fans, another year or two of looking from the outside is going to have to be tolerable. Hopefully 2011 can be a season in which the Braves give Chipper another championship to add to his Hall of Fame resume.

In the meantime, who is the next Chipper? Who am I looking out for in 2009 and beyond? Frederick Freeman and Jason Heyward are the Braves two cornerstone offensive prospects, essentially everyone knows about them. Tyler Flowers posted another quality season in the minors to add reason to believe in his future.

The hitters I will be keeping a close eye on are soon-to-be 23 year old second basemen Travis Jones. While playing at a relatively low level compared to his age, Jones has posted a strikeout to walk ratio that simply cannot be ignored. The power Jones has displayed is also a positive from a future middle infielder.

Third basemen Eric Campbell also makes my watch list after posting an equally as impressive strikeout to walk ratio coupled with a solid power stroke. His isolated power (ISO) is similar to that of Edwin Encarnacion a of the Cincinatti Reds and Mark Reynolds of the Arizona Diamondbacks. If the power continues as well as Campbell's sound eye, developing into one of those two hitters is not a stretch.

Lastly, Erik Cordier. The 22 year old has what is described as a plus fastball, and a plus plus change. Erik also has a solid curveball that he has struggled to control this season. Keep in mind, however, that the kid is coming back from Tommy John surgery. 2009 should be the season where we see Cordier put it all together and vault up the pitching prospects list.

Another guy to watch, 17 year old Julio Teheran. While still about 3 or 4 years from the Majors, Teheran is a guy to keep your eyes open for.

FYI, I didn't 'forget' Schafer, Ka'aihue, or Hernandez, they are just a little below the players I mentioned.

Up Next - Oakland Athletics (what was Mark Ellis thinking?!?)

BallHype: hype it up!

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