The Braves have seen quite a bit of turnover in recent years, losing players like Rafael Furcal and Andruw Jones to free agency, as well as making several high-profile trades that have reshaped the franchise. Chipper Jones still remains on the team, but he is the only real holdover from the teams that won the NL East in a yearly fashion during the 90s and early part of this decade. As a result, the Braves are largely a younger team at this point, though they have made some veteran additions that could pay dividends for them this year. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what to expect from the Braves during this season.
C Brian McCann – McCann had a bit of down year in 2007, posting a .772 OPS that caused more than a few people to think that his impressive 2006 was a fluke. McCann bounced back in 2008, posting a .896 OPS that looks like it will be the norm, more than the exception. McCann has great power, and is a consistent 20 HR threat. He doesn’t strike out or walk a lot with an IsoD of .61 for his career and only 218 Ks in 1600+ AB. While this does make his plate appearances a bit shorter than you would like, it’s impossible to argue with the results, and he hasn’t shown a Jeff Francouer-type level of aggressiveness that would severely hamper his results at the plate. McCann is about as solid of a bet as you will find at catcher offensively, and his defense is beginning to catch up as well. Consider this position in safe hands for the Braves for the rest of his arbitration years, and they would be wise to lock him up after that as well.
1B Casey Kotchman – Kotchman came over from the Angels in the Mark Teixeira deal last year. While he had some trouble adjusting to the National League, posting a .647 OPS in his time with the Braves, expect him to bounce back to his normal levels around .800 during this season. He certainly is no Mark Teixeira, but still has time to display the power that made him a top prospect with the Angels in the minors. He is also a superb defensive 1B, something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Kotchman also has a trait that is characteristic of a fair number of Braves players these days in that he is aggressive in the count, walking only 36 times in 561 PAs last year. He still squares up to the ball relatively well, so the approach works for him, but it is something to keep in mind as to why he may not ever reach his full potential.
2B Kelly Johnson – Johnson is one of the most underrated 2B in the majors. If he was playing for a big-market team like Boston or New York, there would be far more written about him, as he has posted an OPS of at least .795 in each of his two years as a starter for the Braves. He is a solid contact hitter who drives the ball into gaps, and has the speed to account for his 16 triples over the past two seasons. One area of concern for Johnson is his relatively high strikeout rate, as he has topped 110 Ks in each of the last two seasons, but his ability to make hard contact with the ball when he puts a bat on it allows for him to be successful despite this flaw.
3B Chipper Jones – Jones, in his 15th year with the Braves, put up possibly his best season in the majors at age 36. Although he played in only 128 games because of injury, he still managed to post an OPS of 1.044, his third straight season above 1.000. With his subpar 2004, there was talk that Chipper might have been on the downward slope of his career, but he has managed to produce in every year since then. He is a great contact hitter from both sides of the plate, though most of his power comes as a lefty, as 17 out of his 22 HRs were from that side of the plate last season. While Jones doesn’t have the great first step that made him an elite defensive 3B in his prime or allowed him to steal 20+ bases anymore, he still is quite capable defensively. Look for him to continue to produce in 2009, though not necessarily at the level of his amazing 2008.
SS Yunel Escobar – 2008 was Escobar’s first full year as the Braves SS. He posted solid numbers across the board, with a .767 OPS in 136 games. Escobar never displayed much power in the minors, so his 10 home runs might have surprised some people last year. Expect anywhere from 5-10 HRs in a given year from him, so he was probably close to the top of his production from that standpoint. Don’t expect him to produce an OPS in the mid-800s like he did in his rookie year, as that was most likely due to an unsustainable BABIP that should cause him to fall in line with his 2008 numbers.
LF Brandon Jones – Jones entered 2008 as one of the Braves top prospects in the minors and was expected to see some time in the majors last year. After playing 41 games for the Braves, mostly towards the end of 2008, he now looks to lock down a regular lineup spot for 2009. Jones has consistently hit for average in the minors, and also displayed some power in 2007, belting 19 home runs across two different levels.