The Atlanta Braves are back: they’re a pretty good team that has enough talent to make the playoffs, but not to go very far. They led the majors in starters’ ERA last year, they have a top-5 farm system and some of the best frontline talent in the majors. They’ve missed the playoffs for four straight years, averaging just 80 wins a season, but this could be the year they finally make it back. (CHONE and the Fangraphs Fans think the Braves will win the division in 2010.) The trouble is, they’re in the same division as the back-to-back NL champs, and they have some of the same weaknesses they’ve always had.
The team has some exceptional young stars: C Brian McCann, SS Yunel Escobar, P Jair Jurrjens, and P Tommy Hanson are all under team control through at least 2013, not to mention rookie super-prospect Jason Heyward. But they’ve been surrounded by below-replacement-level talent in recent years, the sort of aging veterans that 68-year old manager Bobby Cox can’t lay off but GM Frank Wren really ought to know better, like Garret Anderson, Corky Miller, and Chris Woodward. Cox is retiring after 2010, and probably will move into the front office brain trust, as John Schuerholz did after he retired. Wren will finally get to hire his personal manager, but he won’t necessarily have a much freer hand in personnel decisions: Cox and Schuerholz will continue vetting every move.
Wren’s showed some ability to fill the team’s holes through trades, but he still often leaves dead weight on the roster. Throughout his tenure, the team has strangely been strongest up the middle and weakest at the corners, as it likely will remain in 2010, unless the team gets exceptionally lucky with injury risks Troy Glaus and Chipper Jones, and Kaline-like production out of Heyward. As a result, they’re significantly underpowered. No regular in 2009 slugged .500, and there’s a good chance no one will in 2010 either. The team’s power shortage is one of its biggest offensive weaknesses: this team has long had trouble in one-run games, hitting more poorly in later innings and stranding runners on base. The power outage meant that despite being 11th in OBP in 2009, the Braves were 17th in runs: they could get them on, but couldn’t get them in.
Beyond Heyward, OF Jordan Schafer and 1B Freddie Freeman are the only impact position prospects in the high minors; once Heyward graduates, the Braves’ farm strength will be almost entirely in pitching. And as it was at their height, the Braves will be led by a terrific young pitching staff and a more-or-less average offense. (In 2009, the Braves had the 17th-highest OPS in baseball and the lowest starters’ ERA in baseball, exactly as they had in 2000.) That’s a formula that works for them, though it’s also a formula that led to five NLDS losses in six years.
The Phillies are the team to beat, but their payroll is ballooning, and they’ll have much less money to work with if they happen to miss the playoffs. Because of their farm system and young team-controlled stars, the Braves are the team best positioned to pick up the slack. They’re one of the best teams in the National League. But these days that’s almost a backhanded compliment. There’s a reason that the first six teams on the Organizational Rankings are all in the Junior Circuit.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.