Wednesday, November 24, 2010

3 Questions: Atlanta Braves

The 3 Questions series keeps plugging along. By the way, click here to see a complete set of links to the teams that have been covered thus far. Today, the Atlanta Braves are in the crosshairs.

Question 1: Will Chipper be back and will he be Chipper?

The answer to the first part of that question seems to be a resounding yes. Reports are that Chipper has been cleared to start swinging a bat and it looks more and more like he’ll be able to come back by the start of the season. But even before his injury last year, Chipper Jones was showing his age. In 2009, he played a full season and slugged .430 with just 18 homers. In 2010, he had 10 homers in 381 PAs, and slugged .426. His on base percentage was still an excellent .385 for those two years, but there’s little doubt that, at age 39, his bat will be even slower in 2011.

Fortunately, the Braves have positioned themselves well to absorb another injury or a total collapse by their future Hall of Famer, by trading for Dan Uggla. Uggla is slated to play 2B, which frees up Martin Prado to play either LF or 3B, depending on where he’s needed. It was a canny acquisition by GM Frank Wren, and one that gives the Braves a terrific amount of flexibility as they challenge the Phillies.

Question 2: What difference will Fredi make?

Fredi Gonzalez is stepping into the manager position as the hand-picked successor to Bobby Cox. Gonzalez had two surprisingly good years for the under-funded Marlins before getting the unanticipated boot by Scrooge McLoria, and is a longtime favorite of former manager Bobby Cox, for whom Gonzalez served as a longtime 3B coach.

The Braves have succeeded for decades now in part because of Bobby Cox’s ability to build a strong team and inspire loyalty among his best players. His limitations were largely in building a bench and in-game tactics. If Fredi Gonzalez can take the best of Bobby and combine it with some tactical acumen, the results could be scintillating. If he can keep the team on the same plane as Cox, it will still be a success. Some folks are less than optimistic, however.

Question 3: Is Freddie Freeman ready?

Last year, Keith Law saw him as a John Olerud-type with good defense, patience, and doubles power and ranked him the 67th ranked prospect in baseball. Baseball America had him at 87, and Kevin Goldstein was the high water mark at 51. But the Braves pushed the youngster anyway. As a 20 year old, Freeman hit a terrific .319/.378/.521 in a full season at AAA Gwinnett, and earned a September call-up.

Freeman has no real competition in front of him this year, unless Derrek Lee is offered arbitration (which is unlikely) and accepts. With the job virtually locked down, the only question is what kind of offense the Braves can get out of Freeman. Atlanta 1B hit a combined .248/.346/.422 in 2010. According to Fangraphs, Bill James has Freeman projected to hit.282/.335/.446, which the Braves would probably take and be glad for. Ultimately, Freeman offers a lot of room for growth, but a big rookie year would help solidify a Braves lineup that has several question marks on offense. The Braves are certainly open to letting young players contribute, and don’t figure to stand in the way. Freeman will get plenty of rope this Spring.

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