The Braves have the worst outfield in the NL East, and one of the worst in all of baseball. The Braves' outfield is the one glaring weakness in the team's attempt to return to prominence in 2009, and the front office's failure to land an impact outfield bat is inexplicable. The Braves wasted money on players they didn't need, like Tom Glavine and Garret Anderson, when that money could have gone to productive outfield bats.
This problem is something all Braves fans are familiar with: last year's outfield was downright atrocious. The outfield was headlined by Jeff Francoeur, who hit a horrid .239/.294/.359, while playing below average defense, making him one of the 5 worst regulars in all of baseball.
While the rest of the outfield was better than him, it did not have a single hitter who was league-average or better. The results were disastrous. The Braves outfield had no power and no speed, was not great on defense (with the exception of Blanco/Anderson), and was prone to making terribly untimely outs on offense. If the outfield plays that poorly this year, the Braves will not be able to compete in their division.
However, the Braves outfield won't be that bad this year. In fact, it will be substantially better. Here's a look at the 2009 Braves outfield, position by position.
Francoeur has returned to his old weight, appears more patient at the plate, and, well, he just can't be that bad again. He has hit fairly well this spring, showing nice poise at the plate and drastically cutting down on his strikeouts. It wouldn't be outrageous to hope for league average offensive numbers from Jeff, but, even if he gets back to his career average OPS+ of 92, that would be a huge improvement.
If he doesn't, then he will find himself in the minors by July and the Braves will find a replacement-level player to fill in. Jeff is never going to be a power hitter, and he is never going to be a middle of the order bat, but his 2008 season was probably an outlier, and we should expect better returns this year.
Jordan Schafer has outplayed Josh Anderson this spring, and all things being equal should probably get the starting CF job, but my hunch is that it still goes to Josh Anderson. Schafer could use another half season in the minors, and the Braves may want to avoid starting his arbitration clock early. Josh Anderson isn't a bad option in CF, he plays nice defense (2.0 UZR in CF last year) and if he gets enough starts he will steal 30 bases.
But Schafer is probably already a better hitter. He has shown good patience at the plate and some pop this spring, and while he would be exploited some by Major League pitchers, he is the kind of player who could do everything well. He will hit for average, power, and speed, plus play a nice center field. I cannot remember the last time the Braves gave an opening day roster spot to someone who had never played in the majors, so I suspect he will be called up mid season, but if the Braves surprise us and go with Schafer, he may be a very nice center fielder.
Left field is still a bit up in the air. It will likely be a platoon between Matt Diaz (who crushes lefties) and Garret Anderson (who hits a bit better against righties). Garret's already hurt, and Diaz has proven that he is not an everyday player, so we could see some unusual left fielders again this year. Don't be surprised if Omar Infante gets some starts out there, or Josh Anderson, Schafer, or even Martín Prado.
It seems unlikely that Gregor Blanco, who had a nice few months last year, will get any significant playing time this year, but if anyone else is hampered by injuries or ineffectiveness, than he is the replacement. Diaz is a good hitter against lefties, and because of him left field should produce some offense next year. It would be great if Garret Anderson could complement Diaz in a productive platoon, but at this point it is impossible to know what to expect out of Garret.
The Jason Heyward-filled future is actually very bright for the Braves outfield, but there is no point in talking about the Braves of 2011, so we will stay focused on the Braves of 2009. Without question, this outfield will be better than it was last year -- it could hardly be any worse -- but it still lacks any true power bats. Teams are supposed to generate power from the outfield, and this group doesn't have a single player that will hit more than 15 home runs next year. Since the outfield will not produce much in the way of thunder sticks, the Braves would be prudent to build the outfield around defense and gap hitters. That would mean playing Anderson in CF and Schafer at one of the corners. It is not going to happen, but any scenario that keeps Jeff Francoeur in Gwinnett is nice to dream about.