Monday, March 22, 2010

2010 Year In Preview: Atlanta Braves

As the season draws nigh, our march towards previewing every major league team continues.  Today, we look at the Atlanta Braves, the "always the bridesmaid, never the bride" team of the 1990s.  They're one of my favorite National League teams, and I thought they had a real chance at winning the NL East in 2009.  Can they improve in 2010?  Let's get to it. 

2009 Record: 86-76, 3rd place in the NL East, 7GB of the Phillies, 6GB of the Wild Card.  Did you know that the Marlins came in second last year?  I did not know that until right now.  Odd. 

Key Additions: Billy Wagner (signed as a FA for 1 yr, 7M), Takashi Saito (signed as FA for 1 yr, 3.2M), Melky Cabrera (trade with Yankees), LHP Mike Dunn (trade with Yankees), 1B Troy Glaus (signed as FA for 1 yr, $1.75M), UTIL and good-luck charm Eric Hinske (signed as FA), RHP Jesse Chavez (trade from Rays), RHP Scott Proctor (signed as MiL FA). 

Key Departures: RHP Javier Vazquez (trade with Yankees), LHP Boone Logan (trade with Yankees), LHP Mike Gonzalez (free agent, signed with Orioles), RHP Rafael Soriano (traded to Rays), 1B Adam LaRoche (free agent, signed with Diamondbacks), 2B Kelly Johnson (non-tendered, signed with Diamondbacks) , RF Ryan Church (non-tendered, signed with Pirates), OF Brandon Jones (claimed off waivers by Pirates), RHP Jorge Campillo (released, signed minor league deal with Royals), RHP Buddy Carlyle (released, signed with Japanese team), LF Garret Anderson (free agent, signed minor league deal with Dodgers), INF/OF Greg Norton (free agent, unsigned), RHP Vladimir Nunez (free agent, unsigned).

Snap, yo.  That's a lot of turnover.  The biggest move of the offseason for the Braves has to be the trade of Javier Vazquez to the Yankees.  In this trade, the Braves sent Vazquez and LHP Boone Logan to the Yankees in exchange for Melky Cabrera, LHP Mike Dunn, RHP Arodys Vizcaino and $500,000 in cash.  I'll profile Vizcaino below in the Talent En Route section.  This trade was about Atlanta clearing some payroll for the ostensible purpose of signing a power bat.  As you can see, they never quite got around to doing that. 

Honestly, the Braves continue to baffle me.  Javier Vazquez was the second-best pitcher in the National League last year, with apologies to Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.  He had a reasonable contract at $11M in 2010, and he will be a Type A free agent at the end of the year.  They traded him for one good prospect and a bunch of spare parts.  Then they signed Tim Hudson, who is coming off TJ surgery, to a three year, 28M extension.  From the Braves perspective, I would much rather have seen them deal Derek Lowe, who is signed to a horrific deal, Kenshin Kawakami (2nd year of a 3yr, 21M deal) or simply decline the club option they had on Hudson.  From what I understood, they couldn't find any takers on Lowe and seem to be stuck with him for the foreseeable future. But had they declined the option on Hudson, their rotation would have been fantastic in 2010: Vazquez, Hanson, Jurrjens, Lowe and Kawakami.  

So, I don't get it, and it's frustrating.  But this frustration is mitigated by the force that is Jason Heyward.  Without further ado: 

Talent En Route

Jason Heyward.  If you haven't heard of him, you've been hiding under a rock for the past few months, so let me update you on the news: healthcare blah blah blah, Tiger Woods sent a bunch of nasty sexts, and Parks and Rec is the best show on TV right now. 

Heyward was ranked the #2 prospect in baseball by Baseball Prospectus, and some outlets have him as #1, ahead of Strasburg.  Whether he's 1 or 2 is immaterial; what's important is that we all step back and marvel at the greatness of Jason.  

Drafted straight out of high school with the 14th pick of the 1st round, Heyward put up a .854 OPS as an 18 year old in his first full season of professional ball at Low A and High A, showing the ability to hit for average and power while swiping 15 bags in 120 games. The following year, 2009, Heyward began the year in High A and earned a Double A callup midseason after posting a .296/.369/.519 line with 10 HR and 4 SB in 49 games.  Heyward apparently found Double A more to his liking, though, putting up a punishing .352/.446/.611 line with 13 homers and 5 SB in 47 games.  That boy be crazy. 

Braves fans and experts everywhere know that Heyward is special.  Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus lists his perfect world projection as a "game changing superstar".  He has the ability to hit for average, to take walks and get on base, and to absolutely crush the ball when he wants.  He has good speed, and a plus-plus arm.  Heyward is the full package. 

Heyward spent a ton of time in big league camp this year, which has some Braves fans clamoring for his inclusion on the major league roster at the outset of the season.  Honestly, it makes sense for the Braves to keep him in Triple A for the start of the year, minimizing his service time and maximizing the amount of time they'll have him as a cost-controlled talent.  Players like Heyward don't come around very often, and when they do clubs should hang on for dear life.  Regardless of what Atlanta decides, and I think they'll send him to AAA, we'll see Heyward in the bigs this year. 

Now it's time for me to hate on Baseball Prospectus for a moment.  As I noted above, Arodys Vizcaino was the major trade chip in the Vazquez deal with the Yankees.  Vizcaino was a favorite of mine when he was on the Yankees.  He was a raw product out of the Dominican Republic, and put up very good numbers in his first full year of work in Low A ball, albeit in a small sample of 42 innings.    

Yet, when Vizcaino was a Yankee, Goldstein ranked him a 4-star prospect on 12/22/09. Jesus Montero topped NYY's list with a 5 star ranking.  Then, a mere four weeks later though, after his trade to Atlanta, Goldstein ranked him a 5 star prospect, right next to 5 star Jason Heyward.  Additionally, Goldstein ranked Vizcaino the top pitching prospect in the Yankees' system, but put him behind Julio Teheran in Atlanta.  So, I'm a bit confused.  If Heyward is #2 on the top 101 list and Montero is #5, and if Vizcaino is the best pitching prospect for NY but only the second best for ATL, shouldn't he be, at very least, a 5-star in both?  Or, if "stars" are contingent upon organizational depth, wouldn't it make more sense to rate Vizcaino as a 5 star in NY's system, and a 4 star in Atlanta? Doing it the way Goldstein has done it, though, makes it look like Vizcaino became a better and more valuable prospect simply by virtue of getting traded to the Braves. 

That's the end of the rant on Vizcaino, but I think it's clear that Goldstein and BP need to come up with a better methodology for this arbitrary "star" ranking system.  Either make the number of 5 star rankings in the MLB static, or make them vary team-by-team and based on depth, or...something.  Seeing it fluctuate like this, seemingly with no reason, makes it hard to trust the reliability of the system.  

2011 Salary and Free Agency Outlook
I noticed that the projected 2010 payroll for the Braves is somewhere in the $80-85M range, which is noticeably lower than the payroll in 2009 and 2008 ($96M and $102M, respectively).  I asked Peter Hjort of Capitol Avenue Club whether it was reasonable to expect 2010 payroll to sit at around $85M, which is markedly below previous levels, and this was his response: 

The short version: 2009's payroll will be in the $85-90 million range and they should have at least a little bit of financial flexibility to add a piece mid season if needed
We may have more from Peter on Thursday about the Braves payroll, and if so, I'll write up another piece about the Braves and free agency then.  Suffice it to say for now that the Braves have managed to cut some salary and are positioned well for 2011.  They become even more flexible if one Chipper Jones retires, as he's scheduled to make $13M apiece in 2011 and 2012.  If that happens, their payroll (not including arbitration raises) drops to $43M. Budgeting around $7M in arbitration raises to Jair Jurrjens, Martin Prado, Yunel Escobar, Melky Cabrera and Matt Diaz, and the Braves payroll should be somewhere around $65M with Jones or $50M without him.  This could mean that the Braves become major players in free agency in 2011.

All five current members of their rotation are under contract for 2011, so I don't expect them to pursue a starter.  Even if Lowe is dealt or Kawakami or Hudson go down with injury again, the Braves have Kris Medlen and Jo-Jo Reyes waiting in the wings.  The Braves should also be set with their catcher (McCann), SS (Escobar), CF (McLouth) and RF (Heyward) in 2011.  Possible areas of improvement include LF, 3B (if Jones retires) and 1B.

Here's a wild idea: how about swinging a midseason trade for Lance Berkman?  As I noted in my 2010 Year in Preview: Houston Astros, the Astros may make Berkman available if (when) they fall out of contention and decide to cut costs and rebuild.  Assuming the Astros dealt him at the deadline, Atlanta would be on the hook for about $7M of his contract in 2010, and then could decide whether to keep him for 2011 for $15M or decline his option and see him leave via free agency.  Berkman does have a no trade clause, which complicates the picture a great deal.  He might want an extension, or he might want Atlanta to guarantee that they'll accept, or decline (I suppose) his option.  It's a long shot, but I love the idea for both teams, especially if Jones retires after 2010.  As an FYI, CHONE projects Berkman to a .277/.378/.500 line in 2010 with 27 HR.  This would be the highest OPS of anyone on the Braves.

The Future of the Braves
As always, I'm bullish on the Braves.  I'm absolutely crazy about their homegrown talent, and I think they've managed to position themselves well for free agency in 2011.  I wish they had dealt Lowe or Kawakami instead of Vazquez, but they'll still field a competitive team in 2010, one that should compete for the second spot in the division and be a wild card contender.  I thought 2009 was the year of the Braves in the NL East, and while I won't make the same prediction in 2010, I will say that most of the pieces are there for the Braves to continue to be a threat in the National League.  Which is more than I can say for the Cubs.

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