The top five teams on our list are all in the AL East or NL East, so four of them are likely to make the playoffs every year. After their first playoff appearance in five years, the Atlanta Braves jumped from #8 in last year’s rankings to #5 this year. They’ve rebuilt themselves into another perennial contender after a few years in the wilderness amid the departures of three Hall of Fame pitchers, a Hall of Fame manager, a Hall of Fame General Manager, and a borderline Hall of Fame center fielder. (Not to mention the departure of Dayton Moore, the man who built the best farm system in the history of whatever.)
They’re a solid fifth, though, ranked behind the Yankees and Red Sox in every category we tracked, and behind the small market Rays in all but financial resources and behind the Phillies in all but baseball operations. (Yes, we hate the Ryan Howard extension that much.) The Atlanta Braves look like the kind of team that could make the playoffs every year but get bounced in the first or second round — just like old times. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, y’all.
Current Talent – 85.00 (T-5th)
Future Talent – 85.00 (T-5th)
Baseball Operations – 86.82 (4th)
Financial Resources – 81.67 (T-9th)
Overall Rating – 84.45
Two of Marc Hulet’s top 10 Braves prospects are on the major league roster, 1B Freddie Freeman and co-closer Craig Kimbrel, with Mike Minor having been beaten out for the fifth starter role by dark horse Brandon Beachy. But Minor isn’t far away. Three years ago, the Braves moved their AAA affiliate from Richmond, VA to Gwinnett County, Georgia, approximately 45 minutes from Turner Field — so if they need Mike Minor to make an emergency home start, he’ll literally be able to take a taxi to the stadium. (It would certainly take less time than Pascual Perez on I-285.)
The Braves are absolutely loaded with pitching, though. With Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Derek Lowe, and Beachy, they have one of the deepest five-man rotations in baseball, with better back-end starters than most teams despite a lack of star power at the top. And they essentially have a full starting rotation behind them. Even if Jair Jurrjens’s injury struggles continue, the sixth starter, Mike Minor, would be a pretty good fourth starter on most teams. The best non-Hellboy pitching prospect in baseball, Julio Teheran, will likely be ready for the majors later this year. So will Kris Medlen, the fourth starter in 2010, who’s currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. That’s not to mention top Double-A prospects Arodys Vizcaino, who hit 100 mph in spring training, or Randall Delgado, who has a similar ceiling. (And then there’s Kenshin Kawakami, whom the Braves have practically made an unperson, but who is still a perfectly serviceable fifth starter.)
That pitching depth is one reason the team is in good shape for the next several years. The other reason is the Braves’ financial flexibility and team-controlled young core. Other than Dan Uggla, extended this offseason until 2015, all of their multiyear contracts end in 2012: Chipper Jones, Tim Hudson, Brian McCann, Derek Lowe, and David Ross. Jones, Hudson, and McCann have club options for 2013. (Scott Linebrink and Nate McLouth’s contracts, handed out by other teams, expire at the end of 2011.) The rest of the offense is team-controlled for the next three to six years: 21-year-olds Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, and fourth-year Martin Prado, who moved from second base to left field to make room for Uggla.
General Manager Frank Wren has shown himself to be capable of assembling a consistently productive minor league pipeline while putting a good team on the field, but while he appears to be strong at drafting and trading for pitching, he is less adept at offense. Their 2010 essentially ended because of their lack of positional depth: injuries to Chipper Jones and Martin Prado pressed ace pinch hitter Brooks Conrad into everyday service, and we all know how that turned out.
Wren has a particular blind spot when it comes to the outfield — one he inherited from John Schuerholz. The Braves have basically had a hole in left field since Kelly Johnson moved to second base in 2006, and a hole in center since Andruw Jones left for Los Angeles in 2008. Those roster spots have been filled by a grotesque cavalcade of scrubs and fourth outfielders.* This year, Wren filled the left field hole by signing a second baseman and moving his All-Star 2B, Prado, to left, and addressed the center field hole by crossing his fingers and praying that McLouth could return to his 2008-2009 form. Following Freeman’s graduation, the Braves don’t have much positional talent in the upper minors, so Wren will need to prove more adept at acquiring offense either by trade or by free agency.
* Garret Anderson, Josh Anderson, Rick Ankiel, Gregor Blanco, Melky Cabrera, Matt Diaz, Willie Harris, Brandon Jones, Mark Kotsay, Ryan Langerhans, Nate McLouth, and Jordan Schafer. The horror! The horror!
The final thing that needs to be mentioned is their ownership situation. Liberty Media bought them from Time Warner in 2007, and at the time it was understood that the purchase was motivated by tax considerations, and that Liberty would sell the team off as soon as they could. That time is approaching, as Forbes reports:
It appears as though Liberty Media is preparing to unload the Braves. The tax advantages to Liberty’s purchase of the Braves from Time Warner 2007 expire after five years and ownership has slashed player payroll from $102 million to $84 million since 2008 despite higher revenue.
Naturally, the Braves’ future fortunes hinge partly on who winds up buying the team. Most Atlantans would love it to be Arthur Blank, the man who took the Falcons from a laughingstock to a contender, but Blank has been noncommittal. (It could always just be another guy who owns a ton of land. Liberty chairman John Malone recently surpassed former Braves owner Ted Turner as the nation’s largest private landowner.)
The Braves aren’t the absolute best in the business at anything, but they’re pretty adept at everything, and well-positioned in the National League with a playoff caliber team for at least the next several years. Time will tell whether new skipper Fredi Gonzalez is a better playoff manager than his old mentor Bobby Cox, but chances are good that he’ll get a chance to prove himself this year.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.