In a season that saw a lot of things go wrong, there were a number of things that went right for the Atlanta Braves. Yes, they finished 72-90, but it wasn't all negative. Here's what went right in 2008.
1) Chipper Jones won the National League batting title – After finishing second behind Matt Holliday in the race last year with a .337 average, Jones won with a .364 mark in 2008. He was hitting .400 as late as June 18th, and after hitting .270 in July Jones bounced back to hit .315 in August and .408 in September. Jones adds the win to an already impressive career that could lead him right to Cooperstown in a few years.
2) Jair Jurrjens emerged as a top starting pitcher - When he was acquired last October, not many people knew what to expect from the young pitcher from Detroit. But Jurrjens quickly showed everyone he was going to be more than just someone to be the fifth starter. Jurrjens showed the Braves in spring training, specifically with a solid performance in Winter Haven against the Indians, that he had special talent. As the rotation broke down around him, the 22-year old became the Braves ace. He led the team in almost every major category, with a 13-10 record and a 3.68 ERA.
3) Mike Hampton returned - It didn't start off well, with a shaky spring training and not even getting out of the bullpen for his first start, but Mike Hampton returned in late July and pitched fairly well. His overall ERA (4.85) was a bit high, but he had nine quality starts in his 13 games for the season, including eight in his last nine games. His ERA in those last nine games was 3.46. Hampton's gone to a perpetual joke to someone the Braves are actually considering bringing back next season, and most fans may not object. Everyone believed if you could just get him back on the mound he'd be effective, and it happened. So the next question is can he stay healthy now that he's gotten back in action?
4) Mike Gonzalez returned - After having Tommy John surgery on May 31, 2007, Gonzalez came back on June 18th in his native Texas to pitch against the Rangers. When Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan went down with injuries, the Braves needed Gonzalez to be more than just a contributor. He had to be the closer, and performed well notching 14 saves and a 4.28 ERA. Gonzalez struggled a bit in September (5.84 ERA), but most of his troubles came when he was in a non-save situation. The Braves saw the pitcher they envisioned when he came over from Pittsburgh, only to delay it a bit with the injury. His return gives the Braves one less position to worry about for 2009.
5) Jorge Campillo emerging as a starter - If you had heard in spring training that Campillo, a six-year free agent signed from Seattle last winter, would start 25 games for the Braves this season you might have guessed we were all in for a long season. He was suppose to be a starter in Richmond, but with all the injuries was pressed into action in Atlanta. In his 25 starts Campillo had a 4.16 ERA, with 135 hits allowed in 134 innings and only 33 walks. He wore down as the season went along, with a 6.76 ERA in his last ten starts. Who knows how Campillo fits in next season, but he stepped in when the Braves needed innings from the rotation.
6) Some promise shown by the young pitchers - Okay, so Jo Jo Reyes, Charlie Morton, and James Parr combined for an ERA of 5.83. But remember how other young pitchers struggled when they came up for the first time. Not everyone can be a Jair Jurrjens. Reyes, Morton, and Parr did give the Braves some hope that if the three compete next spring for the fifth starter's spot they will get a good pitcher. Reyes is a bit more of a concern, but the Braves still believe he's got good stuff. Morton has the best stuff, and the experience should be invaluable for him as he heads to big league camp. And the Braves will just have to see how Parr does now that he's gotten a taste of the big leagues. But the injuries to the experienced starters did give the team a chance to see what they have on the immediate horizon for the rotation.
7) Buddy Carlyle was effective out of the bullpen - This guy could get lost in the shuffle of a bad season, but Buddy Carlyle was good – very good. He had a 3.59 ERA in 62.2 innings of middle relief work, with 52 hits allowed and 59 strikeouts. Carlyle had a 2.79 ERA in the final two months of the season, when the Braves had thrown in the towel and needed innings from somebody. Now it's safe to assume they will count on Carlyle next year to be their new top middle reliever, which is an underrated role on a club.
8) Solid work by Tavarez, Nunez, and Julio - The Braves had to go scrounging at the bottom of the barrel for pitchers when the rotation and bullpen fell apart. But three veteran pitchers who had been released were adequate. Julian Tavarez joined the team in midseason after being released by Boston and Milwaukee. He posted a 3.89 ERA in 36 games. Former Marlins closer Vladimir Nunez pitched in 23 games (3.86 ERA) this season and was particularly effective in his last 11 games (1.63 ERA). Former Orioles closer Jorge Julio, who was horrible with Cleveland earlier in the year, had a 0.73 ERA in 12 games late in the season after getting ‘fixed' by Richmond pitching coach Guy Hansen. Now the Braves will be able to decide which one of these three deserve a chance to win a full-time job next season.
9) Brian McCann - He was an All-Star – again. He was a .300 hitter – again. The Braves' catcher led all major league catchers with 23 home runs, was second in RBI with 87, and led all starters with a .523 slugging percentage. He's quite possibly the Gary Carter of this generation. Yes, he needs to get better at throwing out baserunners, but McCann is the clear leader on the field for the Atlanta Braves. Pitchers love throwing to him. He's just getting better, and now that he's getting into his mid-20s McCann is taking control of this team.
10) Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar produced as offensive middle infielders - Johnson struggled with consistency, but he finished with a .287 batting average, 12 home runs, and 69 RBI. Escobar struggled with nagging injuries caused by aggressive play, but he finished with a .288 batting average, 10 home runs, and 60 RBI. With the outfield failing to produce much offense, Johnson and Escobar helped the lineup tremendously and became serious threats. They're still young (Johnson will be 27, Escobar 26 next season) and will be huge parts of the 2009 lineup – unless they are traded.
11) Martin Prado being productive in a limited role - The Braves were forced to use Prado at third base at times and put him at his natural position of second base when a tough lefty was on the mound. All he did was hit, putting up a .320 batting average in 228 at bats with 33 RBI. His .377 OBP was also impressive in a limited role. There is no doubt Prado can hit, but the Braves just have to figure out what to do with him. Is he just a reserve, or will they be tempted to trade Johnson and insert Prado at second base? Either way, Martin Prado now has value to this club.
12) Josh Anderson's play in September - The old adage is ‘never take September too seriously.' Teams are usually diluted a bit with minor leaguers called up, and what a player does for a month doesn't guarantee he can do it for a full season. But you can't ignore what Josh Anderson did in September. He hit .296 with 3 home runs, 10 RBI, and 7 stolen bases in 98 at bats. Will the Braves consider Anderson as an everyday player for left field, or in center if Jordan Schafer is not ready? Anderson was impressive, so the team just has to figure out if he's more than a reserve.
13) The bench provided some solid work - Greg Norton hit .316 off the bench as a pinch-hitter and did well when pressed into service. He hit .323 after the All-Star break and actually led the team with five home runs, which talks more about the pitiful power of the team than anything else. Omar Infante had to play left field (104 at bats), third base (101), shortstop (62), second base (35), and even center field (4 at bats). He provided the versatility the Braves wanted when they acquired him from Chicago. And again, Prado came off the bench and was a solid player.
14) The farm system continued to produce talent - Most of it is not here yet, but the farm system had a great year. We're saw pitchers (Tommy Hanson, Kris Medlen) get to Double-A that could really contribute next season in the big leagues. We saw premium offensive talent (Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Cody Johnson, Tyler Flowers, Brandon Hicks, Gorkys Hernandez, and Jordan Schafer) get closer. This system is loaded, and with help needed, help is on the way.
15) The season finally ended - The final two months took seven years, but it finally ended. After the Teixeira trade in late July, the team simply finished out the schedule. The 72-90 record was the worst in eighteen years. But it's over, and that's a good thing.
Bill Shanks hosts The Atlanta Baseball Show on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and The Bill Shanks Show on SportsRadio 105.5 the Fan in Macon. He 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. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. What went right in 2008?
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