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Five Questions: Mac Thomason on the 2009 Atlanta Braves

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Many of you already know my friend Mac Thomason, proprietor of Braves Journal, the oldest Braves blog on the web. He's a bit more circumspect in his hopes than the Marlins, Mets, and Phillies bloggers we heard from, though he's not completely ready to write the year off just yet.

1. The 2008 Braves had a number of things go right -- the emergence of  Jair Jurrjens, the unexpected effectiveness of Jorge Campillo, an MVP-caliber year from Chipper Jones, and surprisingly good campaigns from Omar Infante, Martin Prado, and Greg Norton. Obviously, though, more things went wrong, especially pitcher injuries and the famously bad play of Jeff Francoeur and Corky Miller. When you look over our roster and its depth -- taking into account the likelihood of aberrantly good or bad years, or of injuries -- what do you think are the odds that the Braves' positives will outweigh the negatives?

Probably about 55 percent -- more likely than not, but not that much more likely.  I tend to think that this is Francoeur's last shot, and that if he plays like he did last year he will be replaced, and that some of last year's problems (primarily pitching depth related) have been solved.  The real question is if last year's strengths will repeat.  If Chipper plays worse or a lot less, or if McCann struggles, the team's in trouble, and I can't imagine that the bench will be as good as it was last year.

2. We've had a year and a half to evaluate Frank Wren, and in that time he's made some good deals, some headscratchers, and some infuriating non-deals. The 2008 draft already looks to be quite strong in pitching, though the minor league system is a bit thin on position prospects other than Heyward, Freeman, Schafer, and Gorkys Hernandez. How do you evaluate Wren's abilities as a GM? Do you feel nervous or confident with him in charge? (Assuming you believe he's really the one pulling the strings, rather than Schuerholz or others.)

I don't think anyone is 100 percent in charge.  That is, Wren is making the day-to-day decisions, but he has a number of masters, and he often winds up doing what someone else has told him to do, or not doing what he wants to do because someone stopped him.  (Notably, I am convinced that the Francoeur situation festered as it did because Wren wasn't allowed to address it.)  Needless to say, this is no way to run a railroad.

I think Wren is pretty good at filling in the edges of the roster, and has done a good job on trades.  (I give most of the drafting credit to Roy Clark.)  I'm not 100 percent convinced that he's much good at player evaluation.  The primary problem is one I have mentioned on a couple of prior occasions (the Furcal and Griffey fiascos): I don't think that agents respect Wren, and are willing to cross him in a way that they would not have crossed Schuerholz, and am afraid that this attitude will spread to other GMs.

3. The Braves' minor league development has been up and down in recent years. Before the Baby Braves, a swing-first hitting philosophy sabotaged most hitting prospects between Andruw Jones and Marcus Giles, with a hat tip to Jeff Francoeur, and the Braves haven't developed and kept a successful starting pitcher in their own rotation since Kevin Millwood. Can Tommy Hanson change that? Or should we keep rooting for Wren to sell off our best prospects before they pull an Andy Marte?

To be fair to the Braves' player development people, they did also come up with Jason Schmidt, Jason Marquis, and Adam Wainwright.  Pitching prospects are notoriously prone to failure, though one as good as Hanson will usually become some type of major leaguer.  Hanson has a chance to be an ace starter, and you can't normally get a player like that in trade, because there aren't many.  It's best to take a chance that he can become that type of pitcher.

The Braves for most of the Schuerholz regime, up through the Marte deal were very good at figuring out which prospects to keep and which to dump; arguably they made only one bad trade of a prospect, dealing Wainwright (and Marquis) for JD Drew.  After the McGriff deal (when I was convinced that Mel Nieves was a better prospect than Ryan Klesko) I pretty much decided that they knew what they were doing and that if they're willing to trade a guy, they have their reasons.

4. The Mets added J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez; the Phillies are the defending World Champs. The Marlins have Cameron Freaking Maybin. The division's getting awfully crowded. Is there any room for the Braves? What has to happen with our competition for the Braves to have a shot at the playoffs?

Well, I don't think that the Marlins have nearly enough good players to compete, so I'll leave them out.  On paper, the Mets should win, but they should have won the last two years and didn't.  Their whole season rides on Johan Santana's left arm.  A baseball team is a system, and the the linchpin of the Mets is Santana; if he can't pitch as well, and more importantly as much, as he usually does, it will be very hard for them to win; if he can't pitch at all, they'll have trouble getting through the season.  Recall last year when Hudson went out; the Braves were still in contention at the time, but fell out about twenty minutes after it was announced he was out for the season.

Similarly, the Phillies need a healthy Cole Hamels, though they are a little better set up to survive a limited Hamels than the Mets are a limited Santana.  I think they mishandled the left field situation, and will miss Burrell more than they think.  The biggest key for the Phillies is for Ryan Howard to reverse his decline:

Year OWP
2006 .803
2007 .706
2008 .618

He's basically reached the point where a player of his type can't lose anything else without losing all value.  With no Burrell, if Howard can't rebound there's a whole lot of pressure on Chase Utley.  I have a lot of respect for Utley, probably more than for any player in the game but Albert Pujols, but I don't think he can carry a team to postseason by himself.

5. What will be the story of the season? Last year, the Braves needed health from Smoltz and a breakthrough from Francoeur, and got neither. What is the linchpin to the 2009 campaign? Do you have any other predictions that you haven't seen elsewhere?

Watch centerfield.  While I'm pretty convinced that Jordan Schafer is a better player than Josh Anderson or Gregor Blanco, if he comes up too quickly, that could be a sign of panic.  On the other hand, if Anderson (who looks like the likely centerfielder) plays too far above his head, we might have a situation like Willie Harris in 2007, where six weeks of hitting over his true ability masks that he's been hitting an empty .260 for two months.  Basically, Anderson needs to play well, but not so well that the Braves are unwilling to pull the trigger if Schafer can help them make a run.  Though the odds are that there will be one outfielder (no names!) that they'll jettison if Schafer burns up AAA.  Actually, I think there's probably about a one in three chance that he starts the year in left field because Garret Anderson won't be able to play.

The key player that the Braves need to play well is Casey Kotchman.  Kotchman was grievously mishandled by the Angels, who tried to turn him into a power hitter he simply isn't meant to be.  On the other hand, he had a career minor league OBP of .401, and walked more than he struck out.  There were signs (after he returned from his grief leave) that that player was still there.  He's not a middle of the order hitter, but he's capable of being a very useful piece -- if the walks he lost under the "care" of Mickey Hatcher really are back.
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