2009 outlooks: Atlanta Braves

After a few years of trying to eke by with journeymen and less-than-elite prospects in their starting rotation, the Braves elected to return to their roots this offseason, making a concerted effort to improve a pitching staff that ranked 12th in the NL last season.

They didn't acquire Jake Peavy (just missed) or sign A.J. Burnett (oh so close), but they did get two near-aces in Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez and signed a wild-card middle-of-the-rotation type in Japanese right-hander Kenshin Kawakami . Of course, none of those three qualify as aces from a Fantasy perspective, but Lowe, Vazquez and returning sophomore Jair Jurrjens , who finished third in Rookie of the Year voting last season, deserve to go off the board in the middle to late rounds of standard mixed-league drafts.

The obvious name missing from that group is John Smoltz , who the Braves decided they didn't want to re-sign coming off shoulder surgery. The Braves also won't have Tim Hudson until late in the summer, if at all, as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery. They re-signed Tom Glavine to fill the fifth spot in the rotation, but you can only expect so much from a 43-year-old coming off elbow surgery. Any of Jorge Campillo , Jo-Jo Reyes , Charlie Morton , James R. Parr and Tommy Hanson could play a role before season's end, with Hanson having by far the most Fantasy appeal of the bunch. The top prospect will likely open the season in the minors, but he's the reason the Braves don't have Peavy now. The organization considered him too valuable to move, which tells you something about his long-term potential and the impact he could make in Fantasy this season. Think Tim Lincecum in 2007.

As usual, the Braves have a somewhat unsettled bullpen situation -- not that their closers have offered much in recent years, due largely to the shortcomings of their starting rotation. Mike Gonzalez , who made a successful return from Tommy John surgery last season, figures to handle ninth-inning duties, but Rafael Soriano could intervene if he can overcome the elbow soreness that plagued him last season.

With their pitching staff more or less in order, the biggest hurdle the Braves will have to overcome if they hope to reclaim their familiar place atop the division standings is their shortage of offense, which became all-too-apparent following the departure of Mark Teixeira at the trade deadline last season. The biggest bat the Braves acquired in the offseason is Garret Anderson , who will man left field and likely bat cleanup, but he barely has any mixed-league appeal. Josh Anderson , who has 40-steal potential, will likely start in center field, though he'll face competition from another sophomore in Gregor Blanco , a player who literally does nothing but get on base. For whatever good his .366 on-base percentage does, his .309 slugging percentage destroys it.

Of course, the outlook changes if any of Jeff Francoeur , Casey Kotchman , Kelly Johnson or Yunel Escobar takes the next step forward in his development -- particularly Francoeur, who had all the makings of a middle-of-the-order hitter before falling off the face of the planet last season. If none of those names sounds particularly exciting to you, then maybe you have some idea just how much this team will struggle on offense. In fact, of all the Braves hitters, only Brian McCann and Chipper Jones have significant Fantasy appeal, and Jones has become somewhat of a pariah because of his frequent injuries.

Potential Breakout: Kelly Johnson , 2B

Sure, you drafted Johnson last year expecting his big breakout to come then, didn't you? Of course you did. And then he left you feeling nothing but disappointment when his numbers took a turn for the worse, at least as far as power and plate discipline go. Hey, it happens. But that disappointment can actually work to your advantage because everybody felt it. How else do you explain how he now lasts into the late rounds of some mixed-league drafts? And really, his numbers didn't decline by much, especially when you consider his batting average actually improved thanks to a hot finish. After a rough three-month stretch in the middle of the season when he hit .238 and looked like one of the biggest busts in baseball, he rebounded to hit .398 with a 1.072 OPS in September. He'll also turn 27 in February, if you buy into that sort of thing. Even if you don't, the fact remains that based on his pedigree, Johnson will get better, and based on his age, it'll happen relatively soon. At one of the more difficult positions to fill in Fantasy, he has the potential to post near-elite numbers.

Potential Bust: Chipper Jones , 3B

Really, the only bust candidate on a team that came apart at the seams last year is Chipper, who, now 14 years into his career, still does the same great things he always has. But at some point, all those injuries have to make his superhuman 1.100 OPS not worth the trouble, and he might have finally reached that point in the second half last season. He hit only four home runs in 141 at-bats, marking one of the few occasions over the years when his poor health affected his performance. With that drop-off, you can't help but wonder how much longer he can produce Hall-of-Fame numbers while standing on one foot, locking his elbow, or taking whatever other insane measures necessary to keep himself in the lineup. Then again, you've heard this same story for years now. It's a bit of a reach, yes, and with a little luck and a stable backup behind him, Chipper can still carry your Fantasy team for weeks at a time. But in the first eight rounds, especially as he enters his late 30s, you might want to opt for someone safer.

Potential Sleeper: Jeff Francoeur , OF

As crazy as it would have sounded a year ago, when you couldn't escape the talk of him breaking out with a 40-home run campaign, Francoeur's Fantasy stock has fallen to the point he doesn't even get drafted in some mixed leagues. Listen, he's always had his share of critics in the past, and for good reason. He doesn't walk enough, and he hasn't slugged .500 since his rookie season. But when you have an opportunity to draft him in the 22nd or 23rd round, among players you halfway expect to end up on waivers anyway, who gives a can of tuna? No, those problems haven't gone away, and unless you think his new batting stance will really revolutionize him as a player, he doesn't give any clear indications of a significant rebound. But it shouldn't matter. For a former first-round amateur with two 100-RBI seasons under his belt at age 25, you can afford to spend a late-round pick "just in case."

Atlanta Braves Outlook
Projected lineup
Pos.
Projected Rotation
1 Yunel Escobar SS 1 Derek Lowe RH
2 Kelly Johnson 2B 2 Javier Vazquez RH
3 Chipper Jones 3B 3 Jair Jurrjens RH
4 Garret Anderson LF 4 Kenshin Kawakami RH
5 Brian McCann C 5 Tom Glavine LH
6 Jeff Francoeur RF Alt Jorge Campillo RH
7 Casey Kotchman 1B Top bullpen arms
8 Josh Anderson CF CL Mike Gonzalez LH
Top bench options SU Rafael Soriano RH
R Matt Diaz OF RP Peter Moylan RH
R Martin Prado INF RP Manny Acosta RH
R Omar Infante UTL RP Boone Logan LH
Rookies/Prospects Age Pos. 2008 high Destination
1 Tommy Hanson 22 RH SP Double-A Triple-A
Braves wouldn't trade him for Jake Peavy . Future ace should arrive in '09.
2 Jason Heyward 19 OF Class A Class A
Power prospect still a ways away, but so talented he could get late call-up.
3 Jordan Schafer 22 OF Double-A Triple-A
Still CF of future despite HGH suspension. Will get long look this spring.
4 Gorkys Hernandez 21 OF Class A Double-A
Came over with Jurrjens in Edgar Renteria deal. Like Schafer, but step behind.
5 Todd Redmond 23 RH SP Double-A Triple-A
Not considered elite, but surprised last year and could debut this year.
Best of the rest: 3B Eric Campbell , 1B Kala Kaaihue , 1B Freddie Freeman , SP Cole Rohrbough , SP Jeff Locke , SP Julio Teheran, SP Kris Medlen, RP Stephen Marek, SP Randall Delgado, SP Craig Kimbrel, SS Brandon Hicks , 3B Peter Pope, OF Jason Perry , SP Anthony Lerew , SP Matt DeSalvo , RP James R. Parr, C Christian Bethancourt, C Clint Sammons , RP Jeff Ridgway , RP Phil Stockman , SS Diory Hernandez and RP Francisley Bueno .

You can e-mail us your Fantasy Baseball questions to DMFantasyBaseball@cbs.com. Be sure to put Team outlooks in the subject field. Please include your full name, hometown and state.

Senior Fantasy Writer

Raised in Atlanta by a board game-loving family during the dawn of the '90s Braves dynasty, Scott White was easy prey for the Fantasy Sports, in particular Fantasy Baseball, and has devoted his adulthood... Full Bio

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