Written by Robert Democh
Published: 12 March 2009
Upon joining the NL East in 1995, Atlanta embarked on an amazing streak, capturing 11 straight divisional crowns. Beginning in 2006, the balance of power shifted with the resurgent Phils and Mets conspiring to keep the Braves at bay. The era of Atlanta boasting the finest starting rotation in baseball is ancient history, although former bellwether Tom Glavine returns for a nostalgic farewell appearance. This is a team badly in need of an identity and some quality outfielders but fantasy-wise you’ll find some ripe acorns clustered around the teepee. Top Tier:Brian McCann (C):
At the tender age of 24, McCann has scaled the mountain to become the top catcher in fantasy. His power and run producing acumen are without peer at the position and McCann has thus far enjoyed the luxury of good health. His walk rate improved substantially last season (57 in 509 at bats), raising confidence in his ability to sustain a .300 average. With the expectation his power will grow as he matures, .300, 25 homers, 100 RBI are well within reach this season. He’s a hot commodity and won’t last beyond the 4th round in most mixed leagues.
Chipper Jones (3B):
Chipper Jones is a great hitter
- unfortunately not the most healthy one.
Jones completed his 14th big league season in impressive fashion last year, garnering his first batting title with a sensational .364 average and an 1.044 OPS that trailed only Albert Pujols. He’s unlikely to ever again play 150 games (last year’s total: 128) due to advancing age and recurrent shoulder, back, knee, and hamstring problems. He’s already been sidelined in the WBC with a strained oblique so evaluate his opening day availability. He doesn’t run much and his runs scored are depressed by frequent absences. Jones is a professional hitter with an excellent work ethic, making him a good bet to approach last year’s output (22 homers, 75 RBI). In choosing him, however, make sure you have a capable understudy on hand. If Jones falls to the sixth round, dive in.
Second Tier:Javier Vazquez (SP):
Vazquez’ lackadaisical approach during the stretch run last year made him persona non grata in Chicago, and the White Sox gratefully unloaded him on the Braves. Despite weak 2008 statistics (12-16, 4.67 ERA and 1.32 WHIP), he has become a 2009 fantasy darling. Many touts forecast him benefiting from vacating a notorious hitters park (Cellular Field) while receiving a sizeable NL bounce (think Bronson Arroyo when he first joined the Reds). Vazquez should rank among the NL leaders in strikeouts and innings pitched. He has fanned an average of 199 batters the past three years and has failed to toss 200 innings just once since 2003. If you believe the NL effect and an improved Atlanta defense shave perhaps half a run off his ERA, Vazquez becomes a tasty 10th round value, capable of 15 wins and 200 strikeouts.
Derek Lowe (SP):
At an age (35) when most pitchers are struggling to hold on, Lowe was busy conducting press conferences. He masterfully employed his exceptional sinker, going 14-11 last season with a 3.24 ERA in 211 innings. Lowe parlayed those numbers into a 4-year, $60 million deal with the Braves. His strikeout total has hovered around 150 the past two years, representing a ceiling. He has been among the NL’s most consistent hurlers the past four seasons (averaging 34 starts and 13 wins) and his probable 14 wins and 3.50 ERA are worth pursuing in the 11th round. Kelly Johnson (2B):
Johnson hopes to build upon a strong 2008 finish, when he batted .319 after August 1. Turning 27 this season, he offers some power, some speed and the potential for a decent average. Be advised that his strikeouts increased and walk rate declined last season. The Braves will probably have him on a short leash as they unsuccessfully shopped him over the winter. Blessed with talented infield reserves Omar Infante and Martin Prado, Atlanta could turn to either should Johnson falter. If he retains the job, expect 13 homers, 65 RBI, 10 steals and a .275 average. Casey Kotchman (1B):
Moving to the NL last July as part of the Mark Teixeira trade was a mixed blessing for Kotch. Although he was handed an everyday job, he had difficulty adapting (.237, 2, 20 during the second half). He remains Atlanta’s main option at first and should draw 500 at bats. Given his patient approach at the plate (18 walks, 23 strikeouts last year), Kotchman will likely revisit his 2007 totals (11/68/.296). Nothing in his resume suggests he will ever crank 25 homers, so don’t bid expecting a power surge. Third Tier:Yunel Escobar (SS):
In the span of a year, Escobar has gone from fantasy mainstay to roster filler. His falling fortunes coincide with losing multi-position eligibility, as he is now limited to SS in mixed leagues. Escobar is a decent contributor (10/60/.288) but not a difference maker in any particular category. He’ll only provide a worthy return on investment by bumping his average above .300 and continuing to provide double digit power.
Question Mark:Garret Anderson (OF):
After spending 15 seasons with the Angels, Anderson surrendered his Halo to sign with the Braves. In recent years, he has evolved into a gap hitter, maintaining a decent average while flashing occasional power. Anderson’s ability to DH in the AL masked the deterioration of his defensive skills. There’ll be nowhere to hide in Atlanta and Anderson (who averaged just 90 games in the outfield the past two seasons) may ride the bench once the extent of his defensive shortcomings becomes apparent. He’ll miss the rest of spring training with a strained calf, placing his opening day status in doubt. Anderson is locked in a left field timeshare and literally on his last legs, so don’t bank on more than 12 homers, 60 RBI and a .280 average.
Sleeper Alert: Jair Jurrjens (SP):
The Flinging Dutchman snuck up on the opposition last season. Possessing the skimpiest of minor league credentials, Jurrjens announced his ML arrival by lasting six or more innings in his first 10 starts. He wasn’t able to maintain that degree of endurance all season but came close, eventually settling for 13 wins and serious consideration as National League Rookie of the Year. Just 23, Jurrjens’ 3.68 ERA glossed over a middling strikeout rate (6.64 K/9IP) and borderline command (139:70 K:BB ratio). That he opted out of appearing for the Netherlands in the WBC to concentrate on the upcoming season should extend his staying power. Nothing Jurrjens has shown suggests an imminent breakout, making him no more than your fifth starter in 12-team mixed leagues. Great Debate: Jeff Francoeur (OF):
Like witnessing a horrific mid-air collision, it was painful watching Francoeur’s struggles last year. Talk of his five-tool potential quickly evaporated as he swung at countless bad pitches and continued his frustrating refusal to accept walks. That would have been bad enough without the steep power slide (a career-low 11 homers) or the July detour to the minors (at which time he was batting .234 with a .287 on-base percentage). It had to be humbling for a player who–after averaging 24 homers and 102 RBI in 2006-2007-thought he had it down. The silver lining for him is that Atlanta’s outfield cupboard is nearly bare, so they will probably roll the dice and give him another go. If the bad habits persist and Francoeur can’t rekindle his power, he may be more spectator than player this year. Wait to see what he’s offering before allocating a roster spot. Prospect Watch:Tommy Hanson (SP):
Tongues are wagging about the immensely talented Hanson, Atlanta's top pitching prospect. He did nothing last year to delay an early ML arrival, going 8-4 with a 3.03 ERA and an absurd 114:41 K:BB ratio in 98 innings at Double-A. He then iced the cake by going undefeated (5-0) in the Arizona Fall League. Hanson has just 18 starts above Class A and has yet to pitch at Triple-A, warning signs for a Braves organization that has traditionally been averse to rushing young arms. Expect Triple-A initially, with a call-up later in the season if Hanson performs well and Atlanta remains in the postseason hunt. He’s a must-have in keeper leagues.