It's my annual State of the Braves review - a look at how the Braves look heading into the new calendar year. The best part about the new year coming Tuesday is that we can now say ‘this year' when discussing the 2008 season. No longer do we have to say ‘next season,' but now we can refer to the upcoming campaign as ‘this season.'
So the Braves finished 84-78 ‘last' season, a five-game improvement from the previous season. That's a step in the right direction, at least. And there are plenty of reasons to be very optimistic as we head into 2008.
Many of you know that one thing I like to do compare Opening Day lineups from year to year instead of comparing how the team looked like at the end of the season to what it will look like on Opening Day. I think you need to see how the ‘new' team will do for the entire six-month season instead of trying to gauge how the improvement will be from the end of the year.
For instance, I believe the fact that Mark Teixeira will be with the Braves from day one in 2008 will drastically improve the team, since last season Scott Thorman started the year as the starter at first base. Having Mark Teixeira from day one in 2008 will improve that position compared to just having him for a third of the season, which should matter in evaluating how much better the team may be next season.
We all know the story with Teixeira, who has the devil as his agent and is coming into his last year of his contract. The hope is there for him to remain in Atlanta for the long-term, but we also know the circumstances that make us all have doubt it will actually happen. Scott Boras has convinced Teixeira that a no-trade clause is, for some reason, important. But the Braves do not like to hand those out very often.
Teixeira needs to realize that a long-term deal for big money would, in effect, be his no-trade clause. If the Braves were to sign him to a seven-year, $140-million dollar deal, for example, it would be very unlikely he could be traded away. It would almost be like the Jason Giambi clause. The Yankees' first baseman has not lived up to his huge deal, but because it is so big he's been basically untradeable. And if another team were to take on his contract, it would only be a handful of teams that could take that chance.
So the same would hold true with Teixeira. If he did not do well and not justify his big money contract, the Braves would only have a few teams they could contact to try to trade Teixeira if that was their wish. It's not like they could peddle him off to the teams Teixeira is probably afraid of being traded to - like the Marlins or Royals or another small market, perennial losing team.
If the Braves were in that situation, it would only be the Yankees or Red Sox or Dodgers or Angels that could even take on Teixeira's big contract. Those are the same teams that will probably bid on Teixeira next winter if the Braves fail to re-sign him before he files for free agency. So what exactly is Teixeira afraid of with his demand for a no-trade?
Of course, most of the skepticism surrounding the Braves' chances of re-signing Teixeira revolve around Boras, who likes his clients to file for free agency so the market can significantly drive up the price. But will Teixeira look at what Alex Rodriguez and Kenny Rogers did this winter in firing Boras and take note that it's more important to do what you want to do instead of what he wants you to do? We can only hope.
Either way, the Braves will have Tex for the entire 2008 season. Teixeira replaces Thorman at first base and Andruw Jones as the cleanup hitter. That's a significant improvement for both spots. Thorman never showed consistency after the first month last season and had practically been benched by the time Teixeira was acquired in July. He'll now be the primary backup at first base and be a lefty bat off the bench.
The Braves will benefit even more from Teixeira replacing Jones in the number four spot in the batting order. Jones was pathetic offensively last season, and there's no doubt that Bobby Cox kept him in that spot too long. But you can't blame the Braves' Manager for hoping his star would snap out of the horrible slump. Andruw had been a significant threat in the lineup, but hitting .222 instead made him a player opposing pitchers looked forward to facing.
Teixeira will be a hitter no pitcher will want to face. His numbers in 54 games, which is exactly one-third of a full season, were scary after he came over from Texas. Can he actually hit over .300 and 54 home runs and 168 RBI for a full season? Well, that's what he was on pace to hit from his numbers he posted in that one-third of a season. If Tex comes anywhere close to those statistics, the Braves could be in for a very entertaining season.
How will having that bat in the lineup make the entire lineup better? Well, it's hard to argue that the Braves were not a more imposing team after the trade with Texas. Teixeira will probably make Chipper Jones even better, along with the other hitters batting around him.
Losing Andruw Jones will be felt more from a defensive standpoint than what he brought to the team offensively. Yes, the Braves may never again have a Gold Glove caliber-player that can also average more than 30 home runs per season - like Jones did before his nightmare season in 2007. But you have to look at what he did - or didn't do - last season.
It's one thing to have a Gold Glove center-fielder who hits 30 home runs. It's another thing to have a Gold Glove center-fielder who hits only .222. Jones was an overpaid disappointment last season, and while it will take a while to adjust to someone else patrolling center field, a look at the big picture should calm all fears of a gaping hole at that position.
The Braves are convinced that young Jordan Schafer, only 21 years old, will be the starter in center - eventually. It's only a matter of when and not if he'll take over. The front office is that certain that Schafer has the potential to be a front-line player at that position.
Three years ago Schafer was preparing for his senior season in high school as a pitcher. But Braves' scout Gregg Kilby believed the kid had the potential to be a position player, so the Braves took him in the third round of the 2005 draft as an outfielder. And after a breakout season in 2006 Schafer is now in the conversation for the 2008 season.
The Braves knew Schafer could have played in the big leagues defensively over a year ago, but they just wanted to see more progress at the plate. That was not unexpected considering his transformation into a position player. But no one could have predicted how far Schafer would come with the bat in the last two seasons.
Schafer had 176 hits last season between Rome and Myrtle Beach; that was the most by any minor leaguer in baseball. The lefty hitter also popped 15 home runs and stole 23 bases, which allowed many to wonder if Schafer might be another Grady Sizemore-type player.
And that defense is just spectacular. I saw him in the Instructional League in 2006 and was wowed by this kid. His arm strength is above average (not surprising with his pitching background) and the only other person I've seen cover ground like Schafer will now patrol center field in Los Angeles wearing Dodger Blue. Schafer is Andruw Jones-like with that glove.
But the Braves just aren't sure when Schafer will be ready. Will it be April 1st? July 1st? Or even April 1, 2009? Chances are it will be sometime this coming season, but Schafer will have to show the Braves in March just how close he is to the big leagues. It's very similar to the situation three years ago, when Jeff Francoeur was close and the Braves had to find out just how close he was to making that last jump.
This situation has made things a bit tricky for new General Manager Frank Wren this winter. He believes Schafer is the long-term answer in center, but there's no doubt the kid might need at least some time in Double-A. His only acquisition has been Houston's Josh Anderson, a fourth outfielder-type that might only be a stopgap.
The fact that Wren has not gotten another outfielder has upset some in the fan base. But if he is convinced Schafer is the answer, why give up a significant price, either in a trade or through free agency, for another player? Yes, it's a gamble. Yes, it's also important to worry about who will play there until Schafer is ready. But you have to be careful, as Wren has been, when you think a player is almost ready to make a major impact.
But the question is can Anderson, Gregor Blanco, and perhaps Brent Lillibridge be sufficient in center until Schafer is ready? Well maybe Wren does look into another player, like Corey Patterson or Nate McLouth. But for now those three, plus Schafer, will battle it out for the starting job in center field.
Color me unconcerned. Whomever wins the job will be decent defensively and will probably hit eighth no matter what. So let's open it up in March and let the best person win the job. Lillibridge is a player I think will have a great chance at getting the spot. While he hasn't played center in a few years, the kid is an athlete and has not forgotten how to play the position. His versatility could also be valuable to Braves' Manager Bobby Cox. But Lillibridge may not have anything else to prove in Richmond, after doing even better there last season than he did in Double-A.
Lillibridge has tremendous speed, which could be another element to the lineup that could make him attractive. Plus, he has great baseball instincts. If Schafer did show later in the year he was ready and able to make the jump, Lillibridge could simply slide into a different role with his ability to play multiple positions.
To me, those are the two biggest questions about the lineup heading into this season. How big of an impact will Teixeira have being here full-time? And what's going to happen in center field? It's not like we don't go into every season with similar significant questions. Remember the good ole second base question from last winter?
Well twelve months later second base is not a question and not a worry. Kelly Johnson was not perfect, but he proved he was more than capable of handling the opening after the release of Marcus Giles. Yes, Johnson still needs work on his backhanded play at second, but there's no reason to think that kid won't work extremely hard to improve that deficiency. That's just the way Johnson is; he's going to get better every single season he's in this game.
And offensively Johnson proved that he can be an effective and dangerous big league hitter. Again, there's no reason to think that the more he hits in the big leagues, the better Johnson is going to get. He's a natural hitter with a sweet swing, and the only question will be where Cox pencils Johnson in to the lineup.
Johnson will hit either first or second, depending on where Cox wants to use Yunel Escobar, who is taking over for the departed Edgar Renteria. The Braves loved Renteria, but you can't really be concerned about Escobar's potential. Heck, they traded Elvis Andrus because of Escobar. The Braves believe Escobar is ready to take over full-time as the starting shortstop.
Escobar will not provide the leadership Renteria showed in his two seasons in Atlanta, but there are so many other attributes that Escobar will give this team. His energy rubbed off on his teammates last season, and the Braves believe that will permeate throughout the clubhouse again in 2008.
Since we're talking about the players up the middle, let's move to Brian McCann. Okay, maybe we shouldn't have expected him to hit .330 again. And yes, maybe we were a bit disappointed he hit as low as .270. But remember the kid was hurt for most of the year, and also remember that he's a hitter. There's no doubt about his offensive ability. So let's hope he can be somewhere in between those two averages this season.
I think Heap can be a consistent .300 hitter. It might not happen every year, but he will hit .300 again in his career. It's not like this guy is going to all of a sudden become Bruce Benedict. Brian McCann will be 24 years old next month - 24! He's a two-time All-Star and he's only going to get better.
Yes, McCann's defense could stand to improve. But remember the work ethic with this kid (and most of the ones in this uniform). If there is a deficiency, Brian is going to work hard to improve it. So if he's healthier next season, expect a better showing behind the plate.
Another question is who will back up McCann. Well, the Braves brought in Javy Lopez a few weeks ago as a non-roster player. Yes, he's a bit older, and we all know how old he did look before he left the game a year ago. But why not - let's see what ole' Javy can do in March. This guy was a stud player for this franchise for a long time, so it won't hurt to see how he can do.
And it's kind of like the Schafer situation in that Frank Wren believes he has a player in Clint Sammons who is almost ready to take over the gig as the backup catcher. Sammons is just awesome defensively. He's got a gun for an arm and calls a great game - the attributes Cox loves in a backup catcher. But it's just a matter of when Sammons will prove he's ready. He'll battle Lopez in March for the job, and don't be shocked if he wins it.
While I don't want to pigeonhole Sammons as a backup, I think he's going to be the perfect player to spell Brian McCann for the next few years. The kid is smart (he's a UGA grad so you know I'd throw that in) and he knows how to play behind the plate. I just think he's going to be perfect in that role - at some point. But if it's not Opening Day, then maybe Lopez can bridge the gap until Sammons is ready.
Another area of interest for spring training will be left field, where we'll see if Matt Diaz is finally able to win an everyday job, or if he'll again split time with a left-handed hitter. Diaz deserves to play everyday, and that was the original plan after Ryan Langerhans was sold to Oakland. But Willie Harris made it tough, at least for a while, for Cox to hand over the full-time job to Diaz.
But Diaz is just a hitting fool. He's done nothing but hit since he put on the uniform. Diaz has hit .333 in 655 at bats as a Brave with 19 home runs and 77 RBI. And it's not like he hits only against lefty pitchers. The guy has hit .336 against right-handed pitchers in his two years here. Again, Matt Diaz deserves the chance to be an everyday player.
The Braves can't, however, ignore the presence of young Brandon Jones, who had 100 RBI between Mississippi and Richmond last season. The kid is ready, and the Braves believe Jones could be very, very good. I think he can be good, but I'm not sure if Jones is going to be a special player or not. I've just not seen enough of him to be convinced yet, but every single person that has seen him believes we're all in for a treat when Jones gets out there and plays in the big leagues.
It looks like for now that Jones is going to get his shot to platoon with Diaz. Maybe that will be effective. Maybe that'll be the best thing to do. Maybe Diaz will continue to be effective in a part-time role. But something tells me we might regret not figuring out if Diaz can play everyday. But then again you guys know I despise platoons, so what would you expect me to say?
Either way, a platoon of Diaz and Jones would figure to be an upgrade on the Diaz, Langerhans, and Harris trio from last season. Yes, Harris was effective, but only for a while. If Jones is as good as a lot believe he can be, the situation in left field could be improved in 2008.
As for right field, well you guys know I have no worries about Mr. Francoeur. The kid is special and he's only 24. That's right, he's still only 24 years old. How many kids have two and a half years experience and also have shown dramatic improvement since his debut? Not many.
Jeff Francoeur made great strides last season, improving his patience and becoming a better all-around hitter. Yes, his power was down. But the quality of his at bats was so much higher, and despite the decrease in bombs he was still a huge threat in the lineup.
I've said it a million times and I'll write it again: development does not stop when you leave the minor leagues. Young kids who are in the big leagues at 21 are more than likely going to be much better at 24, and then even better at 27, and so on and so on. We saw Chipper Jones develop over time, and Lord knows before his colossal demise a year ago we saw great development over the years from Andruw Jones.
Jeff Francoeur is never going to be a walker. He's a hitter, and as he becomes a better hitter the Atlanta Braves are going to be better for it. Progress is one of the first words I think of when I try to describe Jeff's last two and a half years. I think he's made great progress, and knowing his makeup as I do, I think it's just the start.
Frenchy is going to be the new face of the franchise. He probably is right now to a certain extent. But when Chipper and the pitchers are gone in a few years, this is going to be Jeff's team - and I can't think of anyone else I'd like to baton to be handed off to for the future.
As for Chipper, well I kind of put him in the Smoltz class now. I'm going to count on Chipper Jones until he gives us reason not to. We all know he's not going to play in 150 games anymore, and there's no doubt his absence from injuries hurts the team. But Chipper is just Chipper, and until the day he retires he's going to be a force for this team - just like John Smoltz.
To me the lineup for this season is pretty strong. Yunel and Kelly hitting one/two in some combination, followed by Chipper, Teixeira, McCann and Francoeur, then the left fielder, and then the center fielder. I think that's a pretty strong lineup - stronger than last year. Sure, there's still not a lot of speed (unless Lillibridge is down there at eight), but it's a very dangerous lineup capable of some huge innings.
The acquisition of Omar Infante from Detroit will improve the bench, as he can play the outfield and all four spots in the infield. He's just the type of player this team needed, one who is versatile and can be effective if pushed into starting duty. If Lopez is on the bench, he'll provide solid power - as long as he still has it. And Thorman will give the team a threat from the left side.
There's a chance the team could have five outfielders on the roster for the first time in a while. Whomever does not start in left will be coming off the bench, so both Diaz and Jones could be valuable reserves in the late innings. And Josh Anderson and Lillibridge could provide speed that has not been a big part of the team since Rafael Furcal left two years ago.
Martin Prado might have some role this season, as a backup for second and third. Not sure what else Prado has to do in Triple-A, but he's not a star prospect so he may only be a reserve player off the bench. Prado is not as bad as some people make him out to be, but again he's kind of in that in-between area of not being a star but being good enough to warrant a big league roster spot.
The bench could be stronger, and I won't be shocked if Wren gets another player or two to compete for a job in spring training. But the reserves do have the potential, with the right combination, to be effective.
Before I get to the other part of the team let me talk about the position players in the minors - those not named Jordan Schafer or Brent Lillibridge. The Braves still have a tremendous number of solid prospects that could be knocking on the door in a couple of years.
I truly cannot wait for next winter, when the talk of baseball might just be the Braves' position player prospects named Jason Heyward and Cody Johnson. These two could really be special. Both are power hitting outfielders with unlimited potential. This pair might be the next Francoeur-McCann duo to make the climb to the big leagues in a few years.
Heyward and Johnson will team up in Rome to make that one heck of a club to watch this summer. They just have great power and great athletic ability, and the Braves believe both players could be a huge part of the future.
Third baseman Jon Gilmore and first baseman Freddie Freeman are two young players from last June's draft that will also be fun to watch this summer. They are both extremely young, but the Braves believe they could be right up there with Heyward and Johnson in a few years.
There are some position players who really need to bounce back this season, with third basemen Van Pope and Eric Campbell at the top of the list. Twelve months ago they were two of Atlanta's top five prospects, but disappointing seasons have them really needing to bounce back in 2008. Both Pope and Campbell are very capable of doing just that, which would be very welcomed with the starting third baseman in Atlanta turning 36 next April.
Isaiah Ka'aihue also needs to bounce back this season. The power is there, but KK just has to show more consistency. If he were to have a strong season in Double-A, the Braves could consider him as an option if there were a need for a new first baseman in 2009 - if you know what I mean! But KK has to show these spurts of inconsistency are simply part of his developmental process. The Braves like KK, so this season will be critical.
We'll have to learn a bit about Gorkys Hernandez, acquired from Detroit in the Edgar Renteria trade. The early reports are very promising, but I think most of us just want to see what we have before anointing him in the same breath with Schafer and Heyward. But there's no doubt that when you win the MVP award in the Midwest League you've got to be doing something right, so Gorkys will be examined closely when he gets to Myrtle Beach this spring.
The Braves traded Elvis Andrus mainly because of Yunel Escobar, but it sure does help that Brandon Hicks emerged as a serious prospect last season. The third round pick out of Texas A&M, Hicks was outstanding in Danville and Rome and then did okay in the Arizona Fall League. He's a true shortstop that might push it all the way to Double-A this summer.
Now to the pitching. Oh my word I haven't started talking about the pitching and I'm on page eight! Good grief. Why don't I start by talking about the future since we're on position prospects and then build up to the big leagues.
Okay, contrary to popular belief I do not believe every Braves' pitching prospect is going to be a star. Well, not all of them at least. But I don't see how Ray Charles could've looked at this group of pitchers and not seen something special. We've had several waves of pitching prospects in the last ten years, but this group might be the one to make the biggest impact in the future.
The Rome Braves' pitching staff could be outstanding this summer. Jeff Locke, Chad Rodgers, and Steve Evarts are the ‘three lefties' drafted in 2006. Who knows how special they may be as a group, but we'll probably have a better idea after their first full season next summer in the South Atlantic League.
Eric Barrett, Jose Ortegano, and Edgar Osuna might be labeled the ‘three other lefties.' They're not bad themselves and could also be fun to watch in Rome this season.
Of course everyone is waiting to see more of Julio Teheran. Do the Braves really have something here? Maybe. He sure does sound good, doesn't he? A sixteen-year-old throwing an above average curve and changeup with a mid-90s fastball. You don't hear that very often. He'll probably be in the Gulf Coast League this summer, and after that we'll just have to see. But if he's anything like the coaches and scouts are making him out to be, the Braves might have a star in the making.
But there are others. Many others. Of course, we've had three paragraphs about Braves' pitching prospects and have not even mentioned the two who might be the best: Cole Rohrbough and Tommy Hanson.
Expect both the lefty Rorhbough and the righty Hanson to be teammates in Myrtle Beach this season, and who knows where they might end up at the end. It's possible both of these kids could finish up in Mississippi, and if that happens we'll be wondering twelve months from now how close those two are to contributing at the big league level.
Everyone has Rohrbough a bit ahead of Hanson right now, but that's mainly because he's a lefty and he has a curveball that's not often seen from a southpaw. But both are solid prospects who could project to solid major league starting pitchers.
The arms at the higher levels could also contribute soon. Charlie Morton is perhaps the best story of the decade for this organization. He always had the stuff but needed the intangibles and the confidence. A spectacular Arizona Fall League now has him high on Roger McDowell's list when help is needed from Richmond.
James Parr, Jeff Lyman, Mike Broadway, and Jonny Venters are four pitchers that need good 2008 seasons. They have talent and potential, but it's time to see some results. And Jairo Cuevas was placed on the 40-man roster for a reason. The kid has great size and very solid stuff. He'll move up to AA this season and could be a legit starting prospect with another impressive season.
Please go find me an organization with a better group of relief pitching prospects than the Atlanta Braves. From Kris Medlen to Nick Fellman to Cory Gearrin to Sung Ki Jung to Tyler Wilson to Ryne Reynoso to Deunte Heath this system is simply loaded. Medlen has dominated since he put on a Braves' uniform, and now he may not be that far away from knocking on the door. The others are now on the radar and will be watched closely this season.
As for the big league team, and the pitchers who could contribute in 2008, well I think it's safe to say the situation looks a bit better. Sure, there are lingering questions, but the options available make it a bit more promising than the nightmares we've had the last two seasons.
In 2006 it was the bullpen, and then last season it was the rotation. The one thing that brought the Braves all that success from 1991 through 2005 left them the last two years. But hopefully the moves Frank Wren has made so far this winter will make a difference. That and maybe a little bit of good health from a couple of lefties that will be counted on this season.
You hate to count on Mike Hampton and Mike Gonzalez, two lefties coming off injuries, but why not count on them. Sure, it's a gamble, but there's no doubt that IF they do come back this team is going to be better this season. Go write down the rotation and the bullpen and include those two names and you'll see how much better this team might be with them back.
What will happen if Hampton could give the Braves twenty starts? What will happen if Gonzo could give the Braves thirty relief appearances? Well, they'll probably be looking down on four other teams in the division if those two things happen next summer.
I keep trying to remember Hampton the way he was before he got hurt. Remember? He was outstanding in 2005, his third season in Atlanta. But then he was gone, and he hasn't been back since. And then after seeing that video of him in Mexico I actually believed he could come back, at least until he hurt his hamstring and was gone again.
But Hampton should be back in March, and if everything goes well, who knows. Maybe he can come back and win a few games, give the team some innings. He's in the last year of his contract and Lord knows Hampton wants to show he can still do something after missing so much time. Let's think positively! Maybe, just maybe it can happen.
Of course Gonzalez is probably not as big an ‘if' since he's only been gone for a half a season. And while the comebacks from Tommy John Surgery happen all the time, it'll still be good to see him out there on the mound. That bullpen would look mighty strong with Gonzo back from the left side.
Regardless of those two and their potential comebacks, on paper the Atlanta pitching staff does have the potential to be improved in 2008. Yes, we're also banking on a couple of old farts pitching well. But heck they are two Hall of Famers. It's not like we're banking on Buddy Carlyle and Jason Shiell.
I was very much for Tom Glavine returning to the Braves. Yes, he ticked me off when he left for the Mets. I still don't understand it and I'm just glad it's over. Every time I saw him in that ugly Mets' uniform it was physically painful to watch. But he's back, and I don't think it's anything but a good thing.
The best part about Glavine being back is his expectation of what he's suppose to do in the rotation. He knows more than anyone that it's not 1998 but 2008, and now he's simply suppose to be one of the starters instead of the main one. He knows his days as an ace are over, and he also knows the Braves' need for a third starter, and someone who can provide innings, is the reason he's back in a Braves' uniform.
I think he's going to be okay. Tommy might not be a star anymore, but there's no reason to believe he can no longer be effective. If he can just repeat what he did last season in New York (save the last three starts of the season) this team will be better.
His Hall of Fame partner, Mr. Smoltz, is Mr. Reliable. Yes, he's one bad sidearm pitch away from being toast, or at least scaring us that he might be done. But I kind of take the philosophy that the Braves need to ride Smoltz as long as possible. He's the most remarkable athlete I've ever covered, and Smoltz is going to pitch as long as he can be effective. Until the day comes when that ends, we need to enjoy him every time out.
Tim Hudson was finally the Tim Hudson from the days where he wore green and yellow in Oakland. We waited for it, and he finally showed us how good he can be as a top level starting pitcher. And now that he'll be complimented by Smoltz and Glavine, Hudson should feel even more comfortable in the rotation.
The top three, Smoltz, Hudson, and Glavine, could be very, very good. Yes, it's two 40-year-old pitchers that we have to count on, which is a gamble. But again, it's not just any regular 40-year-old pitchers. These are Hall of Famers. Yes, they'll eventually give out. But the hope that they'll combine for one last hurrah must sustain us into the season.
And what if Hampton comes back and joins them? Okay, I know I've already gone down that road.
So what's next after the main three? Well there's going to be some good ole fashion competition this spring for those last two spots. Of course, if Hampton is healthy, he'll be at the top of the list. Heck, they're paying him, so if he is healthy he's going to get one of the spots no matter what.
Chuck James, Jair Jurrjens, Jo Jo Reyes, Jeff Bennett, and Ryan Drese are going to battle it out for the last two positions in the rotation. James will be one of the favorites, and if he can throw that breaking ball he'll probably prove he belongs. But will he do it, or can he get by on those two pitches? Well I'm still a little skeptical about both, but I do like Chuckie and believe he can be effective. But the question is whether he can be more than effective and downright dependable.
I think we're all underestimating Jair Jurrjens, acquired from the Tigers in the Renteria trade. Frank Wren believes he's ready, and he's going to get a strong look in March. We just don't know much about the kid, but there's no doubt the positive reports I got in Nashville from Tigers' writers has me very anxious to see Jurrjens pitch.
Most believe Jurrjens can be a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter, and after last year we should all appreciate those type pitchers more than ever. It's nice to have an ace, yes, but there's nothing wrong with a middle-of-the-rotation guy. And if Jurrjens turns out to be just that, no one should complain.
Count me on the Jo Jo Reyes bandwagon. A year ago when most were screaming that Matt Harrison was the top pitching prospect I believed it was Reyes, and he proved that by making it to the big leagues a bit earlier than expected last summer. Reyes struggled at times, but anyone could see the potential. This kid is only going to get better. Maybe he needs a bit more time in Triple-A (although what more does he have to prove), but he's going to be a much better option after the experience he got last summer.
Jeff Bennett has everyone intrigued after a solid showing late last season. I still think he's going to replace the traded Oscar Villarreal, but if Hampton is still hurt and if Jo Jo and JJ need more time in the minors, Bennett might get another shot as a starting pitcher. He's out of options, so he's going to really have to flop to not make this team.
And as Frank Wren said first and exclusively here on The Braves Show, don't count out Ryan Drese. He's a former big league starter who has had some injury troubles the last few years, but Drese does have the experience the Braves might look for in a long-shot option.
Just look at the list of potential members of the rotation. Doesn't it look better than some of the names we saw last season? Buddy Carlyle? Mark Redman? Yeah, I think so.
Carlyle will battle with Bennett for Villarreal's job as the long man out of the bullpen, but he has another option so he could return to Richmond and be on hand if needed. He wasn't horrible last season (like Redman was), but he's just a Quad-A guy that is nothing more than a stopgap.
Again I mention Charlie Morton. That kid should be on our minds heading into this season. If he can build on the progress he made in the Arizona Fall League, Morton is going to be a factor. This kid has great stuff: a mid-upper 90 mph fastball, an Adam Wainwright-like 10/6 curveball, and other pitches that can get people out. Now that Charlie has the confidence he lacked for so long, the sky's the limit.
Now to the bullpen, where Bob Wickman is gone and Rafael Soriano is the new closer. If Soriano's performance after Wickman was let go is any indication, we have nothing to worry about. The guy throws gas, and when he got the chance last September to be the closer he did the job.
A year ago when he was acquired Soriano was thought of as a potential future closer, so now he gets his chance. He has the demeanor of a closer, with an intimidating look and the desire for the baseball. Now he's just got to go out there and stay healthy and do the job. I'm really excited to see what he can do.
The lineup to set Soriano up is not as set as it was last year, when he and Gonzalez were behind Wickman. But the candidates are definitely there. Peter Moylan was, in my mind, one of Atlanta's most valuable players last season. He's got filthy stuff, nasty stuff, and his arm is still fresh since he's coming off just his second full season as a pitcher.
Will Bobby Cox count on Moylan to be Soriano's main setup man this season? Perhaps, and I think he deserves that chance. Yeah, they may eventually figure Moylan out, but there's no reason to think he can't continue his dominance.
Tyler Yates is more of an enigma. He can look dominant at times, and then there are games you want to grab a bat and go face him yourself. If he can maintain his control, Yates can be a very dependable arm, and there is no doubt he can come in and throw gas.
The lefty situation will be fun to watch this spring, as Royce Ring and the newly acquired Will Ohman will be first in line. The Braves think Ring is ready after his last little stint in Triple-A after his trade from the Padres on July 31st of last season. Then he came up and pitched perfect baseball for a couple of weeks. While I miss Will Startup and his potential, I'm anxious to see how good Ring will be for this club.
I'm a little concerned at some of the reports on Will Ohman's makuep, and some of the problems he reportedly had in Chicago. But there is no denying that when he was pitching away from Wrigley Field Ohman was extremely effective. Can Ohman be as effective as Ron Mahay was for the Braves? Probably. And if Gonzalez returns in mid-season it'll just make the situation from the left side even more positive.
There are a ton of arms that will battle it out in spring training. While he has an option left, Joey Devine needs to be in the big leagues. He's finished with the minor leagues, and if he does not win a job they need to just trade him away. I think Joey can be a very effective setup man in 2008 if given the chance. But if they are still skeptical because of his history they are going to make a big mistake on this kid. He might not be a star, or even a closer, but I think Devine can be a very dangerous arm coming out of the bullpen. I hope it's with the Braves.
I mention Blaine Boyer next because I think most of us are forgetting about him. Don't do that. Blaine, in my mind, is still an arm that needs to be in the Braves' bullpen. Yes, there have been some durability questions with his injuries the past two seasons, but this kid proved to me in 2005 that he can be a very good major league reliever. I still believe in Blaine Boyer, and I sure hope the Braves do as well. He's out of options, so it might be a spring training of decision for the right-hander.
Manny Acosta proved a lot in his two months in the big leagues last season. First off, the man throws gas - easy gas. The ball just explodes out of his arm. Acosta may not need any more seasoning in the minors, but he does have options left and that might work against him. But Acosta made a great impression on Bobby Cox last season, which could give him an edge.
Chris Resop is also out of options, but since he's coming off surgery it's doubtful that will be a problem. He'll compete for a job in March, but he might require more time in Richmond to get ready. Resop was a good pickup, and I'm anxious to see how he does in a Braves' uniform.
Phil Stockman and Zach Schreiber are two more candidates for the bullpen. If Stockman can stay healthy, he'll pitch in Atlanta this season. The tall Australian is imposing and he has that easy gas as well. And Schreiber has gone out and won him a spot on the big league roster with some outstanding development the last few seasons. They could be some impressive backup options in Richmond and be called upon when needed.
I really like the bullpen options for this season. I think there's a lot of talent on board and that it's only a question of how it will shake out. If Wren acquires another reliever, the depth will be even better. But even right now I think the pen looks pretty good, and even outstanding if Gonzalez were to come back and be effective again.
Of course the ownership situation has us all more at ease compared to previous seasons. The payroll is up and the flexibility is there to make additional improvements if necessary. I am happy, however, that Wren is not just spending the money for the hell of it. Yes, there's some money available, but that doesn't mean Wren has to spend it right now.
Wren has the flexibility with the payroll that John Schuerholz lacked the last few years of his reign as General Manager. That should help tremendously, whether it's in March or in July.
I think Wren has done a good job this winter. He hasn't panicked, and he hasn't done things just for the hell of it. He's kept the big picture in mind when making moves, believing that this farm system is about to produce some reinforcements for the long-term.
Right now I think this team is a 90-win team. Is that good enough to win the East? Probably. But the potential is there, with the talent on this roster, for even more than 90 wins. They have it on the big league level, in the farm system, and talent to throw into trades to improve the roster if necessary.
The long-term outlook for this franchise is still excellent. There's a good young nucleus at the big league level, and the talent down on the farm is really top-notch.
Now that the holidays are gone, we can start counting down to that important day - the day when pitchers and catchers arrive in Orlando. I think this could be a season that we'll remember for a long, long time. Yes, a lot of things have to happen, but there's no reason those things can't all turn out positively for a fan base itching to get back to the playoffs - and win!
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. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.