Braves put faith in healing powers
Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series is in reverse order of team quality and continues at No. 8 with the Atlanta Braves.
2009 record: 86-76
2009 finish: Third place, National League East
2009 final payroll: $100 million
Estimated 2010 opening-day payroll: $88 million
It’s been a faith-based few months for the Braves, centered on their belief in the restorative powers of Tommy John surgery. Oh, and the power of forgiveness was tested as well.
Tim Hudson(notes) returned after a year’s absence recovering from the ligament-replacement procedure that has resuscitated so many careers to make seven starts beginning Sept. 1. He pitched well enough in 42 1/3 innings – 49 hits, 3.61 ERA, 30 strikeouts, 13 walks – that the Braves entered the offseason assuming Hudson would be at the front of their rotation in 2010.
They did their best to trade Derek Lowe(notes), but nobody would take on a contract that pays him $15 million each of the next three seasons. So, instead, they dealt Javier Vazquez(notes), coming off a career year, to the Yankees for middling outfielder Melky Cabrera(notes) and pitching prospect Arodys Vizcaino. Vizcaino is barely 19 but wowed scouts with his stuff on the off-Broadway stage of low-Class A Staten Island last year.
The Braves, meanwhile, offered Hudson a testament of faith in the form of a three-year, $28 million contract. “My arm hasn’t felt this good in eight years,” he said recently, and everyone will soon find out if it stays that way.
Lowe, normally a jovial sort, groused publicly about being shopped around, but once Vazquez was traded the Braves and Lowe shifted into forgive-and-forget mode. Hudson and Lowe are joined by Jair Jurrjens(notes), Tommy Hanson(notes) and Kenshin Kawakami(notes) to form one of baseball’s best rotations.
Another leap of faith led to Billy Wagner(notes), who signed a one-year, $7 million deal to become the Braves’ closer after an impressive late-season return from Tommy John surgery. He struck out 26 in 15 2/3 innings for the Red Sox, enough to convince Braves GM Frank Wren that at 38 he can approximate the Wagner who has saved 385 games. Takashi Saito(notes), who turns 40 on Feb. 14, also was added to the bullpen.
Although the old and infirm dominated offseason headlines, the Braves are waist-deep in a youth movement, and an exciting one at that.
Is Jason Heyward ready to take over in right field? How about Freddie Freeman at first base? Those two could be fixtures not only in the Braves’ lineup but in All-Star games for years to come. If they aren’t ready now, veterans Cabrera, Troy Glaus(notes) and Eric Hinske(notes) can hold down the fort until they are. Johnny Damon(notes) is a possibility as a stopgap sign, late and cheap.
Other youngsters are already established. Shortstop Yunel Escobar’s(notes) career OPS is a tick over .800 and second baseman Martin Prado(notes) has sustained a .307 batting average over 800 plate appearances. Catcher Brian McCann(notes) is recognized as the league’s best at his position.
The rising stars could offset diminished production from aging third baseman Chipper Jones(notes) and a leveling of numbers from outfielders Nate McClouth and Matt Diaz(notes). It all bodes reasonably well for the Braves, but whether it will be enough to surpass the Phillies in the NL East is a separate matter.
Bobby Cox will retire at season’s end with more victories than all but three other managers: Connie Mack, John McGraw and Tony La Russa. He’ll also become the fifth manager to reach 2,000 losses unless the Braves win at least 93 games. As for a second World Series title for Cox, keep the faith: It would require effective, injury-free seasons from Hudson and Wagner at the very least.
Braves in Haiku
Farewell Bobby Cox
Ninety-Five was your zenith
Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz
Next: Seattle Mariners