Fantasy Articles
The Atlanta Braves figure to be in the race in the NL East, and they’ve certainly got a number of players that will benefit your fantasy team.  In planning your draft, take a look at these players:

Top Tier

Mark Teixeira (1B): Teixeira came over to the Braves at the July deadline last season, and in 54 games he posted some gaudy numbers: 17 HR and 56 RBI while hitting .317 with a 1.019 OPS.  It’s not too much to expect similar numbers (40+ HR, 120+ RBI, .300+ average with a high OPS) over the course of the full season – this slugger will benefit greatly from hitting in the middle of the Atlanta lineup, and he’ll be a free agent after the 2008 season.  Those are two factors that explain why he’s showing up on a lot “preseason predictions” lists as NL MVP.  He doesn’t steal much (but how many 1B do?) and he strikes out his fair share (like most sluggers), but he’s easily a top-five pick in a deep class of 1B this year.  Expect him to go in the early rounds.

John Smoltz (SP): Perhaps I’m overpricing Smoltz by including him in the Top Tier (i.e., the first five rounds), but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that this future Hall-of-Fame pitcher will be gone by the beginning of the sixth round at the latest.  (If he is still around at that point, he won’t be for long.) Despite his age and four elbow surgeries, he’s still capable of logging 200+ innings and 200+ strikeouts with very strong ERA, WHIP and K/BB totals.  It’s likely that he’ll begin the season on the dreaded DL, but that’s due to a now-healthy (as of March 28, 2008) trapezius muscle that became sore during Spring Training and he expects to make his first start on April 6th.  A word to the wise: if you draft him, don’t get discouraged if his numbers aren’t what you were hoping for during the first three or four weeks.  Over the past three years, he’s started the season a little slow coming out of the gate, but come June and September, you’ll be happy you kept him. 

Second Tier

Brian McCann (C): McCann’s value has dropped a bit after some nagging injuries caused his numbers to decrease a bit in 2007, but he’s still one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball.  He’s a cog in the lineup along with Chipper, Tex, and Francoeur, so he’ll have plenty of RBI opportunities this year and could break 100 after two 90+ years.  Many are looking for McCann to have a bounce-back year, which would include 20+ homers and a .300+ average.  I’m including him as a second-tier player, but he’s a high second-tier player – if he’s around past the 6th or 7th round (and I think he could go as early as the 3rd round in most drafts), then the people in your draft aren’t paying attention. 

Kelly Johnson (2B):
Johnson was a pleasant surprise last year, both for the Braves and fantasy owners.  He posted a .375 OBP along with 16 home runs, and that’s great production from the 2B slot.  He lost the leadoff slot by the end of June, but that was more a product of Willie Harris’s hot streak and base-stealing abilities than a lack of production on Johnson’s part.  Johnson faded down the stretch, hitting only .200 in September, but don’t expect the same – his slump was largely a result of heavy offseason workouts in order to learn how to play a new position (he was recently an outfielder but switched to 2B), and by September, he had been playing baseball on a daily basis for about nine months.  It looks like he’ll be the Braves’ primary leadoff hitter, but that won’t equate to 30+ steals – while he has speed (and did steal nine bases last year as well as hit ten triples), he’s not a serious base-stealing threat. As far as productive second basemen, Johnson is a solid pickup, and still likely to be a “sleeper” pick.

Jeff Francoeur (OF): At only 24 years old, “Frenchy” is one of the brightest young players in all of baseball.  2007 was a large improvement over his previous year, despite hitting 10 less home runs (19 in 2007).  Overall, he improved his plate discipline and became smarter about which pitches to swing at, and the results speak for themselves: a .293 average (.260 in 2006), .338 OBP (.293 in 2006), 42 walks (23 in 2006), and 40 doubles (24 in 2006).  He’s bulkier, too: he’s added 17 pounds of muscle, so look for his power numbers to be back in the 25-30 HR range.  Don’t be surprised if 2008 is his breakout year.  

Rafael Soriano (RP): The Braves are trusting Soriano to take over the closer role, and it’s a welcome change after high-ERA and WHIP guys like Bob Wickman, Chris Reitsma and Dan Kolb. Soriano has the demeanor, glare and desire to be a closer, and he also has the ability to succeed: he registered almost a strikeout per inning (70 in 72 IP) last year while walking only 15. He also had a WHIP of 0.86.  There are a couple of concerns with Soriano: he went through a stretch in the middle of the season where he gave up quite a few home runs (which inflated his ERA to 3.00).  He also experienced some elbow soreness that limited his appearances in Spring Training.  As a former patient of Tommy John surgery several years ago, you wonder if injuries are going to be part of his season (though not really enough for him to be in the “Question Mark” category).  He certainly has the ability to post great numbers and be one of the elite closers in the NL, but you’ll want to monitor him and keep an eye on him. If he starts giving up homers in a few games in a row, you may want to bench him just in case.  

Tim Hudson (SP): Hudson had a return to form last year after a terrible 2006. He posted a 16-10 record (he had at least 3 wins blown by the bullpen) and a 3.33 ERA – after his 2006 totals of 13-12 with a 4.86 ERA, you can really see the progress he made.  Hudson’s trademark pitch is his sinkerball, which gets him a lot of groundballs (though not too many strikeouts).  He’s Atlanta’s ace this year, starting the first game of the season against Washington and taking on the role of being the staff’s leader. Look for him to continue on last year’s success with 220+ IP, 15-18 wins, an ERA between 3.30 and 3.60, and a WHIP around 1.15-1.20. 

Third Tier

Yunel Escobar (SS):
Escobar had a very impressive rookie year, posting a .326/.385/.451 line in 94 games (319 AB). He also racked up 25 doubles and showed a penchant for clutch hitting.  The Braves traded Edgar Renteria – a veteran who hit .332 – to make room for Escobar, and if that doesn’t tell you the kind of faith that the Braves have in this kid, nothing does.  He has a big, muscular frame (more similar to Miguel Tejada than other lean shortstops like Jimmy Rollins, Jose Reyes or Derek Jeter), so expect more power production (35-40 doubles and 12-15 HR) than speed.  Hitting in front of Atlanta’s big boppers should help him accrue close to 100 runs as well. 

Matt Diaz (OF):
It appears that Diaz will finally have his opportunity to be the Braves’ starting LF after two years of serving in platoons.  After hitting around .330 in both of those years, he certainly deserves it.  Diaz displays some good power numbers – 12 in 358 at-bats last year – but his main strength is hitting for average. It’s likely that he’ll post some good power numbers (13-17 home runs, around 30 doubles) too.  Of course, there’s a possibility that we’ll see some regression due to playing full-time.  If you need another outfielder and the draft is getting late, Diaz wouldn’t be too shabby. 

Question Marks

Mike Hampton (SP): Hampton returns to the starting rotation after two years of elbow injuries and surgeries.  A hamstring injury in the Mexican Winter League slowed his progress, but so far there’s reason for optimism. He pitched very effectively in Spring Training, and his elbow seems to be in great shape.  When asked about his expectations for the year, he responded that he’s expecting to make 30-32 starts, just like any other healthy pitcher.  The skeptics and critics, however, aren’t expecting him to make more than 10 starts, and with his injury history and the routines and rigors of lasting a whole season, some time on the DL wouldn’t be a surprise.  Odds are that most people won’t want to spend a draft pick (even their last one) on Hampton because those who are interested may want to monitor him during April and see how he does.  However, it could be a worthwhile pick late in the draft that may bring a positive return. 

Chuck James (SP): James had a sophomore slump in 2007 after posting impressive numbers in his 2006 rookie campaign.  While he won 11 games, he also lost 10 and also saw his ERA jump a half of a run (3.78 in 2006 to 4.24 last year).  He also spent time on the DL in the last couple of months, due to a sore shoulder.  While he has the “stuff” to succeed, one has to question how durable James will be as a major-league starter.  He’ll open the season on the DL and work in AAA, and expect him to be first in line (well, after Jeff Bennett) in case the Braves need a spot starter to fill in on short notice. Buyer beware: he allowed an alarming 32 home runs in 161 IP last year. You’ll be wasting a pick in the draft by selecting him, so the better route would be picking him up if and when he gets a call this summer.

The Great Debate

Chipper Jones (3B): At 36, “Hoss” has proven that he’s still an offensive force.  Last season, he posted career highs in doubles (42) and batting average (.337), though his home run total (29) was probably a bit lower than most fantasy owners would’ve liked. (But 29 homers in 134 games is very good.)   He hardly steals bases anymore, but he’s an RBI and OPS machine.  The question is if he’ll stay healthy enough to play 150+ games, which is what he’s said is his goal for 2008.  He gave Braves nation a brief scare during Spring Training when he tweaked his hamstring, but it looks like that’s okay entering the season.  If he’s healthy, figure him to be among the league leaders for average and OBP and to finish in the MVP voting (he finished 6th last year after playing in 134 games).  Due to his incredible 2007, Jones will likely be picked in most drafts – he’s still good enough (when healthy) to merit a mid-round draft pick, and he’s just too good to go undrafted.  However, you’ll want to keep an eye on him during the season and have a fall-back plan just in case.

Prospect Watch

Jair Jurrjens (SP): Jurrjens came over to Atlanta in the Edgar Renteria-to-Detroit trade. He pitched well in seven starts for Detroit down the stretch, posting a 3-1 record with a 4.70 ERA (inflated due to a few bad starts) and 1.14 WHIP.  He has been impressive during Spring Training as well.  He’s not so much a “prospect” – he has won a spot in the back of the rotation and will be a regular starter for Atlanta this year, but since it is his rookie year I’m including him in this section.  He probably won’t be drafted in the later rounds of the draft (unless your league consists of some Braves fans), so he may be a good sleeper pick.

Jordan Schafer (OF): Schafer is now the Braves’ highest-ranked prospect and, by most accounts, is the Braves’ “centerfielder of the future.”  He’s a left-handed hitting kid who, with more at-bats in the Minors, should develop into a strong hitter with decent power and better speed.  If Mark Kotsay has a setback and spends any time on the DL, expect Schafer to get the call-up.  Most scouts and Braves officials are projecting him to be the team’s starting CF in 2009 or the middle of 2008 at the earliest.