It’s safe to say that there were fewer more pressing needs for the Braves this offseason than to shore up the starting rotation. With Tim Hudson on the shelf until late 2009 and precious few others actually under team control (Jurrjens, Campillo, etc.), I was starting to view 2009 as very much a rebuilding season for Atlanta.
Trade talks heated up early this offseason involving players who will soon be more expensive, such as 2B Kelly Johnson. The Mets were poised to remain formidable in the NL East, not to mention that the defending World Series champs also reside in the division, so I thought it was actually smart to plan not to compete in 2009 and instead build for 2010 and beyond.
The problem with that strategy was that the Braves do still have one of the best (older) hitters in the league with Chipper Jones, and until John Smoltz signed with Boston, they appeared to have the upper hand in retaining his services for another season. If the Braves played their hand right, 2009 wouldn’t have to be a rebuilding year, per se.
Obviously, there have been some changes since October. The Braves traded a few prospects to Chicago for Javier Vazquez, signed a decent backup catcher (a brilliant move for McCann’s long-term development, if you ask me), and participated in a lot of drama over Jake Peavy, Rafael Furcal, and Smoltz that ultimately amounted to nothing. (For more on Smoltz, check out Luke’s post, where I chimed in a couple times in the comments.)
Entering this week, the team’s biggest offseason hole was virtually the same as in October. The 2009 rotation appeared to be Vazquez, Jurrjens, Campillo, and whatever else the Braves could scrounge up (maybe Charlie Morton and Tom Glavine). That’s not enough to compete in the same division as two of baseball’s best lineups, but at least Frank Wren and his staff weren’t done.
Today’s report is that the Braves have finalized their deal with 33-year-old Japanese starter Kenshin Kawakami and appear very close to a deal with 35-year-old former Dodgers’ starter Derek Lowe. The financial terms of the Kawakami deal are somewhat uncertain, although I’ve read it’s 3 years/$24 million. The offer to Lowe is reportedly 4 years/$60M.
These moves will drastically change the Braves’ outlook in 2009, not only because the Braves got good pitchers, but also because these pitchers appear to be somewhat durable, at least relatively speaking.
Patrick at NPB Tracker (Nippon Professional Baseball, the Japanese league) profiled Kawakami last year and projected him as a solid mid-rotation starter and the Japanese pitcher with the best current MLB prospects. He won the Sawamura Award (the Japanese Cy Young) in 2004, but his best season came in 2006. This signing is pretty much unprecedented for the Braves, and it will be interesting to see how a Japanese player works out in the Atlanta market.
Derek Lowe is a little easier to project. He’s averaged over 200 innings since 2002 and settled into the mid-threes in ERA since his introduction to the NL in 2005. Granted, Dodger Stadium is a pitcher’s park, but he still projects to have several good years left in Turner Field, even at age 35. 4 years and $60 million is pretty much right on the nose for what his value was perceived to be entering the offseason.
So now the rotation looks like this: Lowe, Vazquez, Kawakami, Jurrjens, Campillo. The Braves could entertain a number of other options if Campillo is ineffective or if Jurrjens suffers a slump after being overworked in 2008. Charlie Morton and Jo-Jo Reyes will bide their time at Gwinnett, possibly as teammates of the Braves’ top pitching prospect, Tommy Hanson. The pressure will also be off Tim Hudson to return to form later this year, which would have been an unrealistic expectation.
Perhaps there will be reason to cheer in 2009 for me and my fellow Braves fans?