Five straight losses, with this pitching staff? Three against the Reds? I suppose that’s one way to say you’re ready for the offseason.
The Braves started packing early this week and all but ended their playoff hopes. They’re now 70-67 and in serious danger of finishing under .500 for the third time in four years. The Phillies have lost four in a row themselves, but the Braves are at least 7.5 games back in both playoff races.
Poor offense was the culprit this week. Wednesday’s loss at Florida was the last time they scored more than three runs, and it was also the last time a starter gave up more than three.
I’m not going into the detail on the stats this week. With the playoffs essentially out of the picture, I’d prefer to look at the season as a whole. This week, I’ll discuss the position players.
Yunel Escobar has probably been the Braves’ most valuable position player in 2009, although it’s been a close race between Yunel and Brian McCann. Escobar has improved throughout the year, hitting for more power since mid-July, and turning in a solid performance in the field despite battling injuries most of the year.
Regardless of Escobar’s performance this year, I still think Brian McCann is the team’s most valuable position player overall. Escobar is almost certainly a better defender at an equally important defensive position, but McCann is a bigger power threat and a better all-around hitter. A recent slump has pushed his average down to the .275 range, but I think his true talent is closer to .290-.300 with some walks and power.
Chipper Jones comes in a close third on the team, and he loses points for subpar defense in ’09. Chipper’s extended slump puts his season line at .272/.394/.446, which is fine in the on-base department (though below his recent standards), but well below what we’ve come to expect in average/power. UZR doesn’t care much for his fielding, although he’s been close to average in recent years. Subjectively, I think he’s lost a step on both his range and reflexes. Perhaps that has carried over to his offense as well; if so, the Braves may have seen the last of his days as an elite hitter. I’m hoping for a resurgence in ’10, but I think it’s still going to be hard for him to stay healthy, which might accelerate his decline.
One white-hot month has made Matt Diaz the fourth-most productive Braves hitter in 2009. His success has been driven by a high batting average on balls in play (BABIP), but he may be a player who defies conventional wisdom and can put up a .392 BABIP on a semi-regular basis. Diaz’s 2008 season is the outlier in his recent performance, which would peg him as a legitimate .320 hitter with some power, but with very little patience. His lack of walks and average defense drag down his overall value.
A valuable player because of his versatility, Martin Prado has been the Braves’ fifth-best position player in 2009. He’s not the all-world hitter he seemed to be at the All-Star Break, but Prado does have the ability to hit for average, and he has enough power to be a good hitter for a second baseman. Prado has some gap power and will take some walks, but he lacks speed and is not a terrific defender, at least in the middle infield. As a fill-in corner infielder, his bat is solid and he defends fairly well. I feel a lot more confident in his ability to succeed as an everyday player after this year, but as long as the Braves have Chipper Jones, they’re going to need someone else who can play second while Prado fills in at third.
Garret Anderson comes in sixth among position players primarily because he has been on the team since the start of the season. At this point in his career, Garret has a reputation as an average hitter who isn’t going to drag down your offense, but he’s no longer a good power threat. The problem with that theory is that he’s never walked much, and he only had plus power in his very best seasons, from 2000-2003. He has no speed, and thus very little range defensively, so I think it’s safe to call him a below-average defender (at one of the easiest positions on the defensive spectrum). His bat still has value because he can still turn on an NL fastball and occasionally hit one out. He’ll catch on somewhere in 2010, but probably not for a contender unless he’s willing to be a pinch-hitter. He’s been worth the $2.5 million the Braves spent on him, but not much more than that.
After Garret, we’re looking at part-time contributors and mid-season acquisitions. The most significant of these was Nate McLouth, who came over from the Pirates in June. As a Brave, he’s had a solid .345 wOBA, but he’s miscast as a Gold Glove-winning center fielder. Unfortunately for the Braves, that award has given him a defensive reputation that outpaces reality. McLouth has only average range despite his speed, which should be a fact that is more evident to Braves fans, who had gotten used to Andruw Jones’ Hall of Fame-level defense over the years. McLouth does leverage his speed well on the basepaths and is one of the league’s elite runners in terms of stolen base success rate, although the Braves haven’t seen as much of that ability due to his hamstring injury. He walks enough to be at least passable as a leadoff hitter. He also has good power and would be a decent corner outfielder defensively. If Jordan Schafer is deemed “ready” again in 2010, I’d say there’s a chance he does move to LF. Otherwise, he’ll play center once again.
Adam LaRoche has continued his odd career trend in 2009, exploding offensively in the second half of the season. For his career, his best month in the first half of the season is June, with a .798 OPS. His worst month after that is July, at .908. This was a fortunate trend for Atlanta in ’09, since he came over in a deadline deal for Casey Kotchman, although I’m not sure what the plan for LaRoche is beyond this year. The Braves still had Kotchman for a few more years, which might have given Freddie Freeman some additional time to develop power. Now they’ll either have to rush him along or sign a stop-gap, or possibly pony up the money to sign LaRoche, who likes Atlanta but may be the best free agent 1B on the market. At any rate, Adam has been amazing in limited ABs as a Brave, hitting .342/.420/.575, which is great even for a first baseman.
Ryan Church has given the Braves some value since coming over for Jeff Francoeur, who was an offensive black hole, and that’s putting it nicely. Frenchy has been decent as a Met, but I’m not fooled, and you probably aren’t either. Church has hit in the .270s for four straight years now with an OBP around .350 and moderate power. Thankfully, the power seems to be back up to his “normal” level for the first time since last year’s bout with concussions reduced him to a virtual slap hitter. He’s not going to hit a lot of home runs, but his 28 doubles in 341 PAs demonstrate some real gap power. He’s an average defender on the corners and passable if he has to play center. I think the Braves fleeced the Mets in this deal, even if Church isn’t a starter next year. The outfield is going to get crowded with Jason Heyward’s arrival in 2010, though.
Now we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. The Braves got a typical Casey Kotchman season, which wasn’t enough to make them feel comfortable about their offense at first base. Jordan Schafer was awful as the regular CF until the McLouth trade, and the Braves would have been better off if he’d let on how bad his injury was. He’s lost a year of development now and probably needs to start 2010 in Gwinnett. The Braves will have that luxury with McLouth manning center, although they may not choose to take advantage of it.
David Ross has been surprisingly outstanding as Brian McCann’s backup, and the Braves have him under contract for 2010, so they’ll hope he can do it for at least one more year. Brooks Conrad has been a small-sample-size hero, although I don’t really see where he fits on the major league club going forward. I doubt he’s inspired enough long-term confidence for the Braves to move Kelly Johnson, but I suppose that would be a possibility. Johnson’s poor season is going to dampen his trade value, anyway. Omar Infante has been an adequate utility player, and I would think he’ll get the chance to keep filling that role in the future.
The injuries to Escobar and Infante really hurt for a while, because that left Diory Hernandez in a starting role. His bat looked at least a little promising coming into the year, but his glove carried a poor reputation through the minor league system. Hernandez actually wasn’t terrible defensively, but he showed no life on offense, posting a meager .410 OPS in 93 PAs.
Greg Norton is the only other player who stayed with the team very long this year, and the Braves would probably prefer to forget his contributions. Norton has played a total of 18 innings defensively (all at 1B), so he’s been a pinch-“hitter” almost exclusively, “hitting” to the tune of .145/.330/.174. That’s not a bad on-base percentage, but the lack of average and power have made it abundantly clear to everyone but Bobby Cox that he doesn’t add much value with the bat anymore. Norton does have a very low BABIP (.200), but even with average luck, we’re talking about a .240 hitter. I’m not expecting him back for 2010.
Adam LaRoche is easily the biggest question mark for next year. He and Garret Anderson (and Greg Norton) are free agents at the end of the season, while everyone else on offense remains under contract or team control. The Braves won’t have much breathing room financially, especially if they pick up Tim Hudson’s option, so I would guess that a big free agent acquisition is unlikely. The Braves might be able to afford LaRoche, but they might not. Freddie Freeman may get some consideration if they don’t resign LaRoche, but I’m not convinced that his bat will be good enough, at least not next year. LaRoche likes Atlanta a lot, and right now I’m hoping he’ll re-sign at a discount so that he can keep playing across the diamond from his buddy Chipper.
The situation in the infield, with the exception of first base, appears pretty solid. Chipper will return to play third when he’s healthy, and hopefully he’ll rebound offensively. Escobar looks great at SS, and Prado would seem to be entrenched as the 2B starter.
Questions remain for the outfield, although Nate McLouth has a pretty firm hold on one of those slots. He’ll play center unless Jordan Schafer has an impressive spring training. Matt Diaz and Ryan Church have similar value despite their different approaches at the plate, and they would probably form a solid left-field platoon, given their career splits.
This scenario assumes that Jason Heyward will play right field from day one in 2010. He probably should be in Atlanta already, but the fact that he’s not means that the Braves will have some incentive to leave him in Gwinnett to start the year, so that he doesn’t become a Super Two and get an extra year of arbitration. I don’t think the Braves can afford to take such a chance with their offense next year, though.
The Braves actually have had a league-average offense in total for 2009, but their inconsistency has them (once again) playing five games worse than their Pythagorean projection of 75-62. Hopefully they can improve on that projection in 2010 and last longer as a contender than the first week in September.