Epps: Looking on the bright side as Braves open 2009

Epps: Looking on the bright side as Braves open 2009

April 5th, 2009 by Darren Epps in Sports

So I was sitting in my mother's basement the other day, poring over baseball projections for the upcoming season and really nerding it up as I ate a bowl of Kix. You've really got to enjoy this time of year - the NCAA tournament is the best three weeks in sports, baseball is about to start, we've got our college football fix and I'm almost certain hockey is going on.

Anyway, the consensus among people who project the baseball season is this: The Atlanta Braves will win 85-86 games, finish third in the NL East and fail to make the playoffs. Baseball Prospectus, which is scary accurate at these projections, predicts the Braves will finish 86-76 and finish behind the Mets and Phillies. Bill James thinks the Braves will win 91 games but miss the playoffs.

You get the point: The overwhelming opinion is that the Braves' chances of making the playoffs are fatter than C.C. Sabathia.

April is about hope for baseball. And steroid talk. But mostly, hope. Sure, the Braves' outfield is shakier than Andre Smith's chest when he ran the 40 at Alabama's pro day (sorry if you're eating). But let's look at a completely positive projection for the Braves entering the 2009 season:

* Catcher: Brian McCann

The best catcher in baseball. PECOTA believes McCann will hit .300 and play more like he did in 2006, when he hit 24 home runs and drove in 93. McCann showed improvement from 2007 to 2008 and you've got to think he's entering the prime of his career.

* First baseman: Casey Kotchman

You did not see the real Kotchman last year when the Braves traded for him. Kotchman struggled with the switch to NL pitching and dealt with the illness of his mother, who suffered hemorrhaging in her brain last August. Kotchman is 26, the magical year for baseball players, and PECOTA thinks he'll hit .289 and drive in 68. His career is following a similar path to Wally Joyner.

* Second baseman: Kelly Johnson

September numbers: .398, a 22-game hitting streak, three home runs and nine doubles. The baseball-number folks say Johnson ranked tied for fifth in the majors last year in line-drive rate. His falling walk rate is concerning, but James writes that he expects Johnson to excel this year. Johnson, 27, could easily rank among the top 3 NL second basemen with Chase Utley and Dan Uggla.

* Third baseman: Chipper Jones

Statistically, maybe the greatest third baseman to play the game (I will hear arguments for Mike Schmidt). Seriously. Look it up. James projects Jones to play like he did in 2006, when he hit .324 with 26 home runs and 86 RBI. He continues to strike out less and walk more, which makes me think Jones will keep hitting. And since we're being positive here, I don't think he'll get injured at all. Nope, not once.

* Shortstop: Yunel Escobar

Another 26-year-old (although, given the age discrepancies lately with players from other countries, he could be older than Chipper). The Cuban is learning English and adjusting to the culture, a very overlooked aspect with foreign players. He'll be motivated after all the trade rumors this offseason and he'll be eligible for arbitration after the 2010 season. James predicts Escobar will hit .300.

* Outfielder: Garret Anderson

You know, I didn't like this signing at all. I know I know, we're being positive. And if you can't say something nice ...

* Outfielder: Jordan Schafer

You might see Gregor Blanco here (though he lost ground by playing for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic). Schafer absolutely mashed this spring, enough to prompt the Braves to trade Josh Anderson. Schafer is scoring runs and the Braves need a leadoff man.

* Outfielder: Jeff Francoeur

The lack of power remains a mystery, but Francoeur also suffered from some pretty bad luck last year. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was a terribly unlucky .277. It was .342 the previous year. PECOTA projects a rebound year with 19 homers and 83 RBI.

* Starting pitchers: Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez, Jair Jurrjens, Kenshin Kawakami, Tom Glavine

Lowe is the very definition of consistency and moves to another pitcher's park with a solid infield behind him to gobble up those groundballs he often induces. He'll be fine. Vazquez is out of US Cellular Field, which is built from home runs. Jurrjens proved he was worth giving up Edgar Renteria before tiring at the end. Kawakami and Glavine are mysteries, but even if they struggle, there's always Tommy Hanson lurking in the minors.

* Relief pitchers: Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, Peter Moylan

Moylan returns in May, and the Braves missed him more than anyone last year. His absence did not help a struggling bullpen that piled up innings (poor Blaine Boyer). Soriano is absolutely dominant when healthy. I think that actually happened once.

So there you go. Clearly, the Braves will go 162-0. And then, of course, lose in the playoffs.