|Busy Offseasons might give Cox a Winner|
Written by David Wagner (Contact & Archive) on March 29, 2010
For Atlanta Braves GM Frank Wren, the last year and a half has been busy. The offseason prior to the 2009 season was a rocky one as the Braves were involved in a handful of rumors (Jake Peavy, Rafael Furcal, A.J. Burnett, Ken Griffey Jr.), none of which panned out. Other deals, like the trade for Javier Vazquez and free agent signings of Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami, helped to solidify the rotation. By midseason, it was evident that upgrades were needed, and the trades that brought in CF Nate McClouth, 1B Adam LaRoche, and OF Ryan Church (who platooned with Matt Diaz) turned out to be an improvement over Jordan Schafer, Casey Kotchman and Jeff Francoeur.
The Braves have continued to restructure their roster this offseason. Aging free agents Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito have replaced Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez as the back-end relievers in the bullpen. In an effort to bring in a power-hitting right-handed bat, the Braves have asked Troy Glaus to move to 1B rather than trying to bring back Adam LaRoche. The Braves signed Tim Hudson to a three-year extension, which effectively forced Wren to trade Javier Vazquez to the New York Yankees for Melky Cabrera, lefty reliever Mike Dunn, and prospect Arodys Vizcaino, who could prove to be the prize piece of the deal.
While it's true that every team needs to have their players healthy in order to compete, the Braves really need this to be the case for their chances in 2010. They have several key players whose health is vital to the Braves' playoff hopes. The lineup is far better with Chipper Jones in it, so he needs to remain healthy and productive. They're counting on Troy Glaus to bring power to the middle of the lineup, but if he's hit by injuries -- as he often has been before -- then there aren't many others in the lineup who can bring the same power potential.
For Billy Wagner to effectively take over the closing duties he needs to prove that he's fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. Other players on this club with potential health questions are setup man Takashi Saito, No. 4 starter Tim Hudson, and No. 2 starter Jair Jurrjens.
There are also a couple of players that need a bounce-back year. Chipper Jones, a .307 career hitter, hit only .264 in 2009 after an extremely disappointing second half. It was a pleasant surprise that the rest of the team performed very well despite Chipper's struggles, but if they're to be a serious contender this year, Chipper needs to play like he normally does. Derek Lowe was so bad in the first year of his four-year contract that the Braves couldn't trade him, despite wanting (and needing) to do so. He's bounced back from bad years before -- he went 12-15 (due in part to a low 4.53 run support) with a 3.61 ERA in 2005 after going 14-12 (thanks to a high 6.30 run support) with a 5.42 ERA in 2004 -- so he can do it again, and the Braves need him to. Nate McClouth's numbers slipped a bit in 2009 (.257 avg/.352 on-base percentage/.436 slugging with 20 HR, 70 RBI in 2009 vs. .276/.356/.497 with 26 HR, 94 RBI in 2008), so they would like for him to revert to his All-Star 2008 form.
Having had a longstanding reputation for having bright young talent, 2010 will be no exception for Atlanta. A core group of catcher Brian McCann (26 years old), shortstop Yunel Escobar (27), 2B Martin Prado (26), starters Jair Jurrjens (24) and Tommy Hanson (23) and the talk-of-baseball rookie RF Jason Heyward (20) will share the responsibility of leading this team in the right direction. Jurrjens and Hanson are exactly the kind of young pitchers that any team would covet, and McCann is already a four-time All-Star with three Silver Slugger awards in his four full seasons of ball. Escobar, who has one of the strongest arms of any shortstop in the game, seems poised to have a big season as a key RBI man in the lineup, and Prado finally gives the Braves a strong option at second base since the Kelly Johnson experiment finally proved to be futile last year. This kind of talented youth is what helps teams without $200 million payrolls win championships, so these kids need to continue to play up to their potential.
The Braves' chances in 2010 are good -- they have very good pitching, both in their starting rotation and bullpen; they have some great hitters, as well as a strong bench that consists of veterans Omar Infante, Eric Hinske, and David Ross; and they have a strong intangible: the chance to give one of the greatest managers in baseball history a chance to end his career with another championship ring. If all goes right for the team and they're able to minimize the amount of time their players spend on the DL, expect big things from them in 2010.