Pressing Questions: The Atlanta Braves

It's a Strange New World on Peachtree Street this spring, with Bobby Cox no longer in the dugout. It's amazing that Cox and the Braves won just one World Series despite 17 playoff appearances over the years, but it's a mistake to dwell on that. The Cox Era should be your fantasy model; put yourself in position to win every year, then hope for a break or two in crunch time.

Fredi Gonzalez is the new man in charge, and it's a natural baton pass – he worked under Cox and had a mentor-student relationship with him. The Braves feel confident that Gonzalez is the man for the long haul, and I'm expecting the team to remain one of the top clubs in the NL for the balance of the decade. There's a wonderful mix of young and established talent on this roster.

I know, you're just here for the numbers. Let's dig into it.

With Billy Wagner(notes) retired, who takes control of the ninth inning?

Craig Kimbrel(notes) and Jonny Venters(notes) are the two primary candidates, and this is one of the position battles you should be monitoring most closely this spring. Both pitchers have power arms, but that's where the similarities end.

Kimbrel is just a pup, 22 years old, and he's a strikeout ace. The right-hander piled up 40 punchouts in just 20.2 innings as a rookie last year, allowing just one earned run. But too often Kimbrel doesn't have command of his stuff – he walked 16 men in that stint – and that's the sort of thing that gets you pushed out of the ninth.

Venters snuck up on the Braves last year, a 25-year-old lefty with an ordinary minor-league profile. His strikeout numbers exploded out of nowhere when he finally got the call to Atlanta (10.08/9) and he carried a handsome ground-ball bias as well (68.4 percent). Venters at times had trouble finding the zone against right-handed batters – his WHIP was .22 higher in those instances – but everyone in the league had trouble hitting him. His power sinker should translate well to the ninth if that's how Gonzalez wants to play it.

Neither player is getting much love in the early mocks, but ignore that for now. It's the uncertainty talking. If Gonzalez endorses anyone in his bullpen as the save-grabber, they should immediately be one of the Top 15-20 relievers on your board. Atlanta looks like one of the best teams in the National League again, and Gonzalez will steer the stat to one man if someone proves worthy of that designation.

Peter Moylan(notes), Scott Linebrink(notes) and George Sherrill(notes) are also around if you want to go the "dollar and a dream" route in NL-only leagues, but the kids will probably have to make a mess of things before one of the vets gets the call. In a mixer, these are names to know, not names to click on just yet.

Is there any downside to Jason Heyward(notes), Year 2?

There's only one concern that I can see – Heyward's thumb issue. He injured his left thumb in May of his rookie season and he still doesn't have all the flexibility back. "I don't have any pain in it, but I still don't have the full range of motion in it," Heyward told last week. "I still can't bend it anywhere close to where it was before. I don't know if I ever will be able to do that. But I know it's not holding me back from hitting."

If Heyward wasn't physically right in the second half of his rookie year, it sure didn't show in his stats. He pushed his average up 51 points after the break, while improving his batting eye and keeping his slugging percentage in the same area. His post-break power showed up more in extra-base hits (16 doubles, two triples) then it did in home runs (seven), but there's no reason to fret here. Eventually he'll be a very safe bet for 30-40 taters a year. There's nothing to debate on Heyward's pedigree.

Kid Heyward is trading as a fourth or fifth-round pick in the make-believe mock season; he's currently got a 51.20 tag next to his name. I'll sign off on him as worth the plunge in the fifth, but given the depth of the overall outfield pool, I would probably pass on him in the fourth. He needs to improve significantly to justify the tag we're putting on him, and we'd like to see him cut down on his strikeouts and get more experience on the bases (11-for-17 last year). You probably know my stance on buzzy young players by now; I'd prefer to let someone else chase the trend and price in the expected improvement. But I welcome your pro-Heyward propaganda in the comments.

How many at-bats can we expect from Chipper Jones(notes)?

I'll set the over-under at 365; you can place your make-believe bets below. Jones has missed a significant chunk of time in six of his last seven seasons, bottoming out with last year's 95-game campaign. He's currently dealing with tendinitis in his surgically-repaired left knee, and his feet have been chronic problems for years. Chipper's sweet swing is still a delight to behold and he's already earned a Hall of Fame trip in my book, but you're not getting anything close to a full-time player here.

Jones is a concern from the efficiency side of things as well. He's batted .264 and .265 the last two years, and he only clubbed 10 homers last summer. In a standard mixer, I'm not going near him until we're in the final quarter of the proceedings. He's currently trading at 231.08 in the early-mock season, the No. 200 player off the board. I don't see the upside.

Can Nate McLouth(notes) come back from the dead?

I like him as a late-round mixer selection, maybe someone you can even get in the final round. McLouth's swing mechanics were a mess last spring and he never got things right – eventually the team demoted him to the minors – but we saw some reasons for optimism during a 19-game September run (.275, three homers, three steals, .894 OPS). McLouth will probably be a mild drag to your batting average, but he's got 20-20 potential and the Braves are giving him the shot to win the center field job. Cox didn't seem to be the biggest McLouth fan out there; perhaps a fresh start with a new manager will do the veteran some good. So long as you have an easy U-turn out of a McLouth selection, I'll sign off on this gambit.

Hey, you didn't talk about my favorite player. What gives?

Maybe I can make it up to you on the way out; have a handful of crackerjacks and let's look at quick-hitters. … Tommy Hanson's(notes) strikeout rate fell late in 2010 and his walk numbers crept up a speck, but it's hard to quibble with 173 strikeouts, a 3.33 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP in his first full season. Perhaps his 10-11 record will lead to a bargain price in some less-sophisticated leagues; if his current ADP holds (79.45), he's a steal. … Tim Hudson's(notes) bounce-back season probably didn't get enough pub, but he was also the beneficiary of a friendly hit rate (.253) and his strikeout numbers were underwhelming. Shockingly, he's not even the Top Hudson off the board in the early mockery; the drafters prefer Daniel (126) to Tim (147) at this moment. I'd have no problem taking Atlanta's Hudson in a league that isn't innings capped; sinkerballers generally look better with the front-door ERA than they do with the peripheral-suggested one. … Like Heyward, Freddie Freeman(notes) is on the fast track – the 21-year-old slugger will get every chance to win the first-base gig in March. Freeman has the eye of a veteran and the pedigree of a future star, but the power might not come right away; if he sticks in Atlanta, look at an Ike Davis(notes) type of debut. … It would be a mistake to chase Dan Uggla's(notes) .287 average from last year – a .330 BABIP had a lot to do with that – but his power numbers have been remarkable consistent for his entire career. Put him down for something in the .260s along with elite stats in three other categories (runs, homers, RBIs). He's the type of player you almost never lose money on. … Is Henry Aaron the most underrated superstar of All-Time? Why weren't songs and fables written about this guy? Everyone knows about the 755 home runs, but Aaron also hit for average and ran very well, and you never got a bad season out of him until he was past the age of 40. Take a good look at his career numbers and appreciate how amazing he truly was.


Bad Henry image courtesy Associated Press

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