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MLB Analysis: Atlanta Braves Must Make Tough Offseason Decisions

| by Hardball Times

After the team’s epic collapse in September a meeting was held between Braves general manager Frank Wren and his manager, Fredi Gonzalez. The meeting was designed to accomplish two things. First, it was a chance for both sides of the organization to go over terms like team philosophy, player attitudes and other general topics. The second part was for management to placate its angry fan base and decide who should be sent out for public execution.

After a season of a paltry .243/.308/.387 and a team wOBA of .304, it was obvious that the blame should be directed at the offense. Sure, Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Chipper Jones, Martin Prado, Nate McLouth and Alex Gonzalez all missed a combined 190 games due to DL time and day-to-day injuries. But Wren focused on the Braves' high frequency of strikeouts, which resulted in 20.8 percent of the team’s output. This along with the team’s failure in “situational hitting” was all it took for both men to decide that first-year hitting coach Larry Parrish would be asked to not return for next season.

The Derek Lowe trade

The decision to trade Derek Lowe wasn’t surprising. Fans and beat writers were expecting this about a year after he signed his four-year, $60 million contract in 2009. Make no mistake, he was a serviceable pitcher, but he was never impressive enough to carry that high a price tag in Atlanta. Before the final season of that contract, the Braves finally got their wish, although they will be saving only about a third of his remaining pay.

It wasn’t how they envisioned it, but moving Lowe as a pure “roster dump” was necessary to make some space for their upcoming major league-ready prospects. As it currently stands, the 2012 Braves rotation consists of:

Tim Hudson (signed through 2012 with a club option in 2013)
Tommy Hanson (one season left before arbitration, free agent before the 2016 season)
Jair Jurrjens (due for arbitration, free agent before 2014)
Brandon Beachy (not due for arbitration until after 2013)

That is an enviable foundation for just about any team in baseball. Then, you factor in the options available for the fifth spot: Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and Kris Medlen. Things look quite promising.

The Braves' ultimate plan

Knowing what the team needs offensively as well as taking advantage of the weak starting pitching market, the Braves offered Jurrjens and Prado to the Royals for outfield prospects Lorenzo Cain and Wil Myers. The deal was reportedly rejected by the Royals, but the Braves seem to be firm in their belief that Jurrjens should net a sizeable return.

The Braves are showcasing Jurrjens as exactly what he is on the surface: a young, affordable pitcher capable of fitting into a team’s No. 2 or No. 3 rotation slot while primed to improve upon last season’s stats of 13 wins with a 2.96 ERA. However, looking under the hood shows a pitcher with an alarming reduction in velocity as well as a shrinking strikeout rate that went from 6.7 in 2010 to 5.3 last season.

Jurrjens missed some time due to knee ailments that surfaced toward the end of the 2011 season. This further complicates Jurrjens’ stock since this was the same knee that was operated on one year earlier. But the Braves seem determined to shop Jurrjens this offseason and, as they say, all it takes is one buyer, but with GMs like Ed Wade and Ned Colletti firmly planted in seller mode and Omar Minaya still looking for a job, it’s going to be hard to sell high on a pitcher basically on the merits of wins and ERA.

If no team takes the bait on Jurrjens, what’s next?

Assuming that many of their key players will be healthy next season, the Braves should see an offensive boost based on their current roster. But the huge vacancy at shortstop needs to be addressed.

Looking at the current team and adjusting for probable arbitration settlements and the $10 million owed to Lowe next season, the current team payroll comes in at around $89 million. The team has said it plans to raise its payroll for next season to the $91 million range in 2011. This will allow Wren and company some flexibility to address the team’s needs outside of the trade market.

The extra spending does come with a cap, which is why the Braves haven’t courted the services of big ticket players like Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins. Currently, Tyler Pastornicky has been penciled in as the de-facto starter at short, but team officials feel he isn’t quite ready to be an everyday major league player. If Wren’s master plan of flipping Jurrjens for either J.J. Hardy, Alexei Ramirez or Asdrubal Cabrera as well as legitimate prospects (I’m joking on all three of those scenarios) doesn’t work, then I think it would benefit the Braves to pursue cheaper defensive options like Clint Barmes or Ronny Cedeno.

Looking over the defensive metrics the past few seasons, we can see that the Braves could use some help in that department. As the Braves move toward a younger pitching staff, the focus on defense could be that extra advantage it needs.

With Michael Bourn firmly planted in center field and Heyward as the probable everyday right fielder, the search begins to find an upgrade over Prado in left. Since no internal options are ready (although Joey Terdoslavich could be interesting this spring) and assuming no one is brought in via trade, the market could pose some interesting, albeit limited, choices.

David DeJesus isn’t getting any younger but he does bring some positives that the Braves could use. He is an excellent defender and makes contact while showing patience at the plate. The Braves keep Prado, he and DeJesus could serve as a useful platoon next season, although Prado hits lefties and righties with equal value.

All the promise Conor Jackson once had could be a thing of the past. He’s probably no more than a utility option, but if the Braves want to gamble on something close to a minor league contract, they could do worse.

Ryan Ludwick could be a buy-low option in the outfield. His right-handed bat should mix well, but he has a lot of drawbacks, including his age (33) and high strikeout percentage.

Grady Sizemore may get his tires kicked. He’s open to a one-year deal and a move to a corner outfield spot, if necessary. But he is a major injury risk and his growing strikeout rate is alarming.

Unless Prado and Jurrjens can be traded for something better, this may be the best the Braves can hope for. This may seem hopeless, but the team can benefit from standing pat this offseason since the offense should immediately improve once health settles in.

As we saw with last season’s Reds team, nothing is guaranteed when a team enters spring training armed with a depth of young pitching. Hudson is expected to shoulder another 200 innings, but with Hanson’s shoulder injury and Jurrjens' knee issues and dropoff in velocity, this team could find its depth tested next season.
This offseason, Hanson has undergone a regimen designed to strengthen his shoulder, but nothing will become known until January.

The rest of the rotation will consist of Beachy, who has shown excellent progress in his development despite the lopsided home run rates he allowed in June and July. His innings progression has also been well-managed (maybe even a bit conservatively) going from 135 in 2010 to 146.2 last season. Like all young pitchers, he’s still learning his craft and has some areas to improve upon (keeping his percentage of fly balls in check) while also hoping to replicate others (mostly his incredible strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.67).

Mix all this with some high-upside pitching prospects and late season fortunes could be smiling for the Braves next season.

Vince has his own blog, The League of Transparency, and has also written for SBNation.

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