Colin from Braves Blast took the time to answer some questions about the upcoming season.
Is Kelly Johnson’s defense at second base good enough to keep him at the position?
Kelly had a solid debut season at second. He transferred in from the outfield because he had to play there when we had Chipper, Giles, and Furcal up the middle. However, realize that we originally drafted him as a shortstop, not as a platoon outfielder. He had some missed plays here and there at the end of the season last year simply because of fatigue, but I think he’ll be a good solution at second for us this year. His defense is likely to improve as he gets more comfortable there, and word has it he’s been working to get better.
Will Mike Hampton really be the Braves’ fifth starter? How do you see Atlanta working in Jair Jurrjens? Is there anyone else in the mix at the back of the rotation?
I think Mike Hampton will be the fourth starter for the Braves. He’s healthy, he’s pitching well – and there’s no reason to not pencil him in there for now. I don’t think he’s going to pitch 200+ innings and have stuff worthy of being a #1 starter, but when his sinker is working he’s a very difficult pitcher to hit against. And early reports are that his pitches are still there.
Jurrjens is a very talented youngster (we got him as part of the package in exchange for Edgar Renteria, for those of you who don’t know) – he’ll be #2 starter material in a few years. He keeps his pitches low and despite some ugly stats at Detroit last year, he should be able to compete with Chuck James and the others for that fifth spot. If he doesn’t start the season up in the majors, I think we’ll see him before the end of the year filling in here and there as Hampton will need some rests here and there. The other pitchers in the mix include Chuck James, the young Jeff Bennett (I like him – he’s got good stuff), and Buddy Carlyle. I think James or Jurrjens are most likely to get spots in the rotation, but Bennett or Carlyle may find a spot in the crowded bullpen as a spot starter / long reliever.
What are we to make of Yunel Escobar, who hit 264/361/346 in Double-A in 2006 before tearing up Triple-A in ’07 and then posting a 326/385/451 line in over 300 at-bats with the Braves?
This is a very good question – I’m going to move away from the stats for a minute and focus on talent. The Braves have always been very good about recruiting and developing young talent within the organization. Some of the same questions came up in regards to Furcal and Giles previously, as well as Francoeur more recently. Yunel has “the stuff” to make it at the big league level, according to Frank Wren, our GM, Bobby Cox, and batting coach Terry Pendleton. Now, in my opinion, if you get the rubber stamp from those three guys, you’ll be fine at the big league level. I can’t even begin to predict stats – we all know that it’s easy to hit well when you first come up – but I think Escobar will fare just fine at shortstop this year.
Keeping with the are-they-the-real-deal theme, can Peter Moylan keep up with standard he set for himself with his 2007 season? The Braves pen was fantastic in ’07 and looks like it may be one area where Atlanta has gotten worse heading into ’08. Even if Moylan is solid again, do the Braves have enough arms out there behind Rafael Soriano?
I think the Braves have plenty of arms in the ‘pen. Moylan certainly set a high bar in 07 and it’ll be hard for him to follow up, but that said, I think he’ll be able to have a decent followup – even if he doesn’t match 80 appearances and 90 innings pitched. As for the ’07 bullpen, I have to respectfully disagree. We had instances of brilliance but it wasn’t a solid bullpen outside of Moylan. Had the bullpen been better, I think Hudson (with more run support) could have cracked 20 wins. I think that we’ve gotten better heading into ’08, despite the loss of Ron Mahay. Mike Gonzalez comes back mid-season and assuming Will Ohman can hold down the left-handed setup role until his return, I think we’ll be solid. I also think that Soriano will also be a solid closer once he gets into the role.
What do you see as the biggest decisions the Braves will make between now and the start of the season?
The fourth and fifth rotation spots are crucial. Having a solid back end of the rotation to compliment the Smoltz/Hudson/Glavine trio is something we need to know can hold their own. Be honest, a Smoltz/Hudson/Glavine/Heatlhy Hampton/Jurrjens or James rotation is about as mean as any out there. If everyone is healthy, it’s not a one-two punch. It’s a one-two-three-four punch. Now, it’ll only work for a year or so, but it could be nasty.
I think the other crucial decision is who will fill out the bullpen. We have more pitchers overall than we did last year and I think the bullpen will be stronger than it was, but we need to get our guys picked out and they need to embrace the roles they’re given. The only other key question to be answered is who will fill out the left field platoon with Matt Diaz. I think we’ll likely see Brandon Jones out there, but Josh Anderson also wants a piece of the platoon. That’ll be interesting to watch.
How do you see the NL East shaping up in 2008?
I honestly think this is a three team race. You can make the argument that the Mets are the team to beat (Santana, Santana, blah blah blah). The Phillies are the incumbent from the point of view that they won last year, and have an excellent chance to pull it off again. I think that anyone who counts the Braves out is foolish. If our rotation is healthy, we have four very good starting pitchers and we’ve never had a shabby offense. I think it’ll be interesting to see it play out, but I like the Braves being the underdog for a change. The Nationals and the Marlins are not going to even factor in, we all know that. I don’t know how it’ll shake out, you’ll laugh but in my minds eye I see the Braves coming to the top. That said, the Mets and Phillies are not going to make it easy. I think going into the last month of the season we’ll see a three-team race. Wild card comes from the East this year, too. Just don’t count the Braves out.
Thanks again to Colin and remember to check out Braves Blast. I also answered some of his questions about the Phillies, which you can read here.
I thought the answer he gave to the question about the Braves’ bullpen from last year was very interesting. Atlanta relievers posted a 3.54 ERA last season, which was the second-base mark in the NL behind the Padres. They did, however, allow 38 unearned runs. Only the Brewers allowed more unearned runs in relief among NL teams, they surrendered 40. I see the bullpen as a weakness for the Braves for a team that has largely gotten better this season — if it proves to be true that the bullpen has actually improved that would be bad news for everyone else in the NL East.
Pat Gillick likes wine.
Scott Mathieson does not need more surgery and may be pitching to hitters again by mid-March.