Are the Braves better off now than before?

Now with the winter meetings over The Braves Show's Bill Shanks tries to answer a very important question: Are the Braves better off now than they were heading into the 2007 season?

It's easy to look at a team and see how the improvements they make over the course of an offseason might impact the team. But it's often more productive to look and see how much better a roster might be compared to how it started out the previous season on Opening Day.

So that's what we're going to do here. We'll look at each roster and see how the team might look on Opening Day next season compared to what it had last April.

And we'll answer the question, position-by-position: Are the Braves better off now than they were last year on Opening Day?


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FIRST BASE

There is no doubt that the first base situation is much better going into the 2008 season with Mark Teixeira as the returning starter. Yes, there are questions about how long ‘Tex' might be there after the season, but there's no doubt that for six months the former Georgia Tech star will be the Braves' starter at first base.

Coming into 2007 the Braves were hoping Scott Thorman would be able to replace Adam LaRoche, who had been traded to Pittsburgh. Thorman did okay in April, hitting .288 with 3 home runs and 11 RBI, but then he struggled mightily from May 1st through the end of July (.206, 7 HR, 23 RBI in 199 at bats).

Teixeira was acquired from Texas and went nuts, hitting .317 with 17 home runs and 56 RBI in 54 games (a third of a season). So now the situation is remarkably better heading into next year. While the questions about his future will remain, there is no doubt that Tex in the lineup for a full season is going to be much better and make the Braves' a stronger team at first base.

RESULT: BETTER


SECOND BASE

There is no change in the personnel here, with Kelly Johnson still the second baseman (at least for now). Johnson had a good first season as the starter at second, hitting .276 with 16 home runs and 68 RBI.

Johnson's big weakness defensively was going to his right and the backhanded play at second base. He needs to improve that, and knowing his work ethic the Braves are convinced Johnson will work hard (after he gets married in January) to do just that. Expect Johnson to start working with Glenn Hubbard soon so that big glaring red mark against him from last season will be erased.

The Braves believe Johnson is only going to get better at second base with more playing time. Therefore, while the player is the same, the situation should be even better next season now that Johnson has at least a full year under his belt at that spot.

RESULT: BETTER


SHORTSTOP

Anytime you replace an experienced and effective veteran (Edgar Renteria) with a young player (Yunel Escobar), there are going to be questions. But the Braves and the fan base probably saw enough of Escobar to know there should not be much of a downgrade at the position next season.

When Escobar was drafted in 2005 scouts compared him to Renteria. And there's no reason to believe Escobar will not be able to put up Renteria-type numbers with a full season in 2008. This is a 25-year-old kid who is only going to get better, and the Braves could have an All-Star at the position for years to come.

RESULT: NEUTRAL


THIRD BASE

Is Chipper Jones going to be in the lineup? Well, that's always going to be a question. He played in 134 games last season, the most since his 137 games in 2004, which was the first season he started having injury problems.

The guy can still hit, as evidenced by Jones almost winning the National League batting title. Chipper is a career .307 hitter, and he's still a huge threat in the lineup. Yes, he'll be 36 years old next season, but Jones has almost gotten to where he's like John Smoltz. You have to continue to count on him until you can't anymore.

And therefore, third base is still in good hands for next season.

RESULT: NEUTRAL


LEFT FIELD

Ryan Langerhans and Matt Diaz were all set to split time in left field last season, but Langerhans' horrid month of April resulted in him being traded to Oakland (who then sent him to Washington a few days later). Willie Harris more-or-less replaced Langerhans in the platoon. Harris added speed and energy to a lineup that desperately needed it. The veteran journeyman hit .342 before the All-Star Break with 14 stolen bases, but then Harris struggled after the break hitting only .214 with three steals in seven attempts.

Harris was non-tendered this week. It was mainly due to his struggles, but it also had to do with the presence of Brandon Jones, a prospect who had 100 RBI last season split between Mississippi and Richmond. Is Jones a better player than Harris? Well, his potential will tell you he should be an upgrade over Harris.

As for Diaz, he did what he's done since he first put on a Braves' uniform: he hit. Diaz hit .338 with 12 home runs and 45 RBI in 358 at bats. He deserves a chance to play everyday, especially after hitting .356 against left-handed pitchers and .318 against right-handers.

But with Jones around, it's likely Bobby Cox will once again use a platoon. Therefore the question must be: Does a platoon of Diaz and Jones have the potential to be better than what was in place last year with Langerhans and Harris? While Jones has to prove himself, scouts believe his talent is far superior to that of either of the other players.

The production out of left field will be crucial since center field will be a question mark next season, but expect Diaz and Jones to provide decent numbers in a platoon.

RESULT: BETTER


CENTER FIELD

Even though Andruw Jones had a horrible offensive season in 2007, no one is going to be able to replace his defense – at least not right off the bat – next season. Jones has ten straight Gold Glove Awards, and his defense will be missed for years to come.

The Braves have high hopes for Jordan Schafer, and you can expect him to take over at some point, maybe even later on in 2008. But until then the team will have a stopgap situation.

The team will make do and be okay, but there's no way we can expect anyone to step right in and be as good as Andruw Jones.

RESULT: NOT BETTER


RIGHT FIELD

Jeff Francoeur made tremendous strides this past season, and his development will continue as he matures and simply ages in the game. He was more patient at the plate, with more walks (42 in 2007, 19 more than the previous season) and more quality at bats.

Francoeur's power was down a bit (19 home runs compared to 29 the year before), but he just looked so much better at the plate than in his first two seasons. That improvement should continue.

Defensively Francoeur won his first of what should be many Gold Glove Awards. He's a threat in the field and people that test his arm usually wind up regretting the decision.

The one thing about Francoeur people forget about is his age. He'll turn 24 next month, so he's still a very young player. There is no reason to believe Francoeur will not get better next season and for many more years to come.

RESULT: BETTER


CATCHER

Like Francoeur, Brian McCann turns 24 before the start of next season. So his youth inspires you to believe that he's only going to get better. McCann's average was down 63 points in 2007 from the previous season, so there's no doubt he needs to get back to that level next year.

McCann also needs to stay healthy, which will probably result in his defense improving a bit. He struggled throwing runners out a bit, but the Braves' pitchers still love throwing to McCann, which is extremely important to Bobby Cox.

McCann is now a two-time All-Star, but he more than anyone knows that he needs to make a few improvements in his game. He's already one of the best catchers in the game, and the Braves believe he can only get better.

RESULT: BETTER


STARTING ROTATION

Last spring the Braves didn't know if Tim Hudson would ever revert back to his Oakland A's form. They did not know if Mike Hampton would come back from missing a year and a half. They did, however, believe that Kyle Davies and Chuck James would be huge pieces of the rotation.

While Hudson did become the Tim Hudson everyone was waiting to see, the other problems made the rotation the black hole for the 2007 Atlanta Braves, which has not been said in a long time. Hampton got hurt in March and never pitched at all, causing the Braves to bring Mark Redman out of his basement in Oklahoma.

Davies never got on track and was traded in late July, and James never got his manager to have complete faith in him. The Braves had to turn to journeyman Buddy Carlyle and bring up Jo Jo Reyes before he was completely ready.

But now Tom Glavine is back to join his old friend John Smoltz, who remains a stalwart and the ace of the rotation. They will join Hudson to try and mimic the success the two veterans had with Greg Maddux in the 1990s. It might not happen, but there's no doubt the return of Glavine is an improvement on the circus that went on last year anytime Smoltz and Hudson were not on the mound.

James is perhaps the biggest enigma on the staff. His numbers were decent last season, but there's room for him to be so much better. If he can throw his slider a bit more, James will have a chance to be a decent piece to the rotation. But right now it's unclear if the Braves believe he'll realize his potential.

The Braves got Jair Jurrjens from Detroit in the Edgar Renteria trade. While most people seem to be underestimating Jurrjens, the Braves believe he could be a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy by midseason.

There is a sincere hope Mike Hampton can show something before his contract ends after next season. He's missed two and a half years, so at this point anything Hampton could provide would be a plus. His pitching looked good before he strained his hamstring in Mexico on Thanksgiving Day, so the Braves hope if his hammy heals Hampton will be able to give them something next season.

Jo Jo Reyes is now a pitcher with 10 starts in the big leagues, so he'll go to spring training in the competition for the fifth starter's spot with Jurrjens. The Braves, and especially Bobby Cox, feel that Reyes can be a solid number two or three starter in the big leagues.

New GM Frank Wren made fixing the rotation a priority this winter, and the additions of Glavine and Jurrjens make it a much better group on paper compared to the start of last season. Hampton is a key, however. If he is back, the Braves' rotation could be one of the best in the game. But if Hampton does not return, the team will have to count on youngsters Reyes and Jurrjens to pick up the slack.

RESULT: BETTER


RELIEF PITCHING

At the start of the 2007 season the Braves have Bob Wickman, Rafael Soriano, and lefty Mike Gonzalez. By the end of the season, Wickman was sent packing, Gonzalez was hurt with Tommy John surgery, and Soriano had taken over as the closer.

Of the four other relievers, only Tyler Yates and Oscar Villarreal remained at the end of the season. Macay McBride struggled and was traded in June, while Chad Paronto got hurt and never got back in the Braves' good graces.

But overall the bullpen was effective. Australian Peter Moylan became a star with an outstanding season (1.80 ERA). Yates and Villarreal both did their respective jobs adequately, and after Wickman left Soriano was extremely solid as the closer in September.

So now, Soriano gets the full-time job next season. The stuff is there, and Soriano has the mentality of a closer, but he's just got to go out there and prove himself over the course of a full season.

While the Braves wait on Gonzalez to return (hopefully in midseason), they'll turn to Royce Ring and Will Ohman to handle the job from the left side of the rubber. Ring was practically perfect (0.00 ERA) in eleven late-season games, while the Braves can't wait to see how Ohman does away from Wrigley Field.

Moylan should be the team's top right-handed set-up man. Cox will probably give Moylan more responsibility after his impressive rookie season. Villarreal was traded to Houston for outfielder Josh Anderson, so former Brewers' reliever Jeff Bennett will probably assume the long-relief role next season.

Yates will be back, and as long as he's not overused should be reliable. The bullpen will have more depth next season, with Manny Acosta, Blaine Boyer, Joey Devine, and Zach Schreiber getting a chance. Plus, former Marlins' and Angels' reliever Chris Resop will be in the mix after getting picked off the waiver wire.

There is no reason to believe the bullpen will be worse than last season, but there are several questions that need to be answered. The depth, however, gives the team hope that it will be an effective group.

RESULT: NEUTRAL


BENCH

This is a bit more complicated, since the Braves are still looking for a backup catcher and perhaps another outfielder. But since Craig Wilson was released and Chris Woodward was horrible, there's a good chance next year's bench is going to have an advantage once we know for certain who is on the roster.

Pete Orr is now gone, so Martin Prado and Brent Lillibridge will fight it out for that role. Woodward will be replaced by Omar Infante, acquired this week from the Cubs. There is no doubt Infante will be an upgrade.

With Teixeira starting at first, last year's starter Scott Thorman is now the backup. He should be an improvement over Craig Wilson, who struggled and didn't make it through May.

The backup catcher spot is very much up in the air right now. Brayan Pena started off there last year, but the Braves soon determined to be a backup catcher you must be able to adequately catch. Pena will be in the mix again next spring, but Clint Sammons will be a much better option. Corky Miller will return and is not a bad alternative if another veteran is not acquired.

RESULT: NEUTRAL


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The Braves won 84 games last season. On paper, right now, how many games do you think they can win next season with the improvements they've made since Opening Day last year?


Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.



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