Monday, February 4, 2008

2008 Atlanta Braves Fantasy Team Preview

This winter has been filled with mixed emotions for the Braves and their faithful. Prodigal son Andruw Jones, one of the centerpieces of the franchise for the last 10 years, left for sunny LA while future hall of famer Tom Glavine returned home after a 4 year stint in New York.

Outside of the Glavine signing, the usually active Braves have been fairly quiet this offseason, completing only a few low-key trades to fill holes and bolster their bench. The biggest move was a trade with Oakland netting Mark Kotsay to replace Jones in center. In addition, middle reliever Will Ohman was acquired in a deal with the Cubs to work in the 7th inning. 

Let's take a look at the 2008 Atlanta Braves and what they have to offer fantasy baseball owners in the coming season.

Key New Faces

Tom Glavine, SP
Mark Kotsay, CF
Will Ohman,  MR

Projected Positional Starters

C - Brian McCann
1B - Mark Texeira
2B - Kelly Johnson
SS - Yunel Escobar
3B - Chipper Jones
LF - Matt Diaz
CF - Mark Kotsay
RF - Jeff Francoeur

Projected Pitching Staff

Starting Pitchers

Ace - John Smoltz
#2  -  Tim Hudson
#3  -  Chuck James
#4  -  Tom Glavine
#5  -  Mike Hampton


MR1 - Peter Moylan
MR2 - Will Ohman (Lefty Specialist)
MR3 - Manny Acosta
MR4 - Tyler Yates
Setup Man - Mike Gonzalez (Recovering From Tommy John Surgery, Out Until Mid-Season)
Closer - Rafael Soriano

Braves Hitters To Draft 

The Braves boast a particularly deep and powerful lineup featuring numerous excellent fantasy options:

1. Mark Teixeira, 1B - Big Tex is Atlanta's top fantasy option and easily ranks as a top 5 first baseman entering the 2008 season. After a poor first half by his standards, Tex put up big numbers after being traded to his hometown Braves hitting 18 homeruns while driving in 64 RBIs and maintaining a .300+ average. Teixeira, who turns 28 April 11th, is now entering his hitting prime and should flourish in a loaded Atlanta offense. He will have plenty of protection in the clean up spot and should have plenty of RBI opportunities. A 40 homer, 120-130 RBI campaign is not out of the question.

2. Brian McCann, C - The young catcher continues to come into his own at the plate and is another Brave that is a top 5 option at his respective position. McCann had a down season in 2007, failing to reach his 2006 homerun, RBI, runs scored and batting average numbers in 62 more at bats. Clearly the most noticeable drop was in batting average which fell from a stellar .333 in 2006 to .270 in 2007. McCann was hampered by injury in 2007 which hurt his production and may have suffered from a little sophomore slump as pitchers better adjusted to him. He will be only 24 entering 2008 and will definately be one of the top catchers off the board.

3. Chipper Jones, 3B - The ageless wonder checked in with a monster yet under the radar 2007 campaign - .337, 29 HR and 102 RBI. Playing at a deep position fantasy-wise, Chipper still ranked in the top 5 among the likes of perennial keepers such as A-Rod, Miguel Cabrera and David Wright. Perhaps the most eye-popping stat unknown to many fantasy owners, Chipper was among 9 fantasy studs with an OPS over 1.000. He ranked fifth behind a select group that includes A-Rod and David Ortiz while placing in front of guys like Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Matt Holliday. Chipper's big 2007 was due in large part to the injury-prone veteran staying healthy, getting over 500 ABs.  If Chipper, who will be 36 in April, can get another 500+ ABs, there's no reason not to believe he can't put up another big season hitting in the 3 hole. 

4. Jeff Francoeur, RF - After enjoying a solid 2007 campaign, the durable Francoeur is on the verge of really establishing himself on the fantasy baseball landscape. The 24 year old played in every game last season making it the second straight year he's made 162 starts with 640+ ABs. Francoeur has put up over 100 RBIs the past two seasons; however in 2007, he put up career highs in walks and doubles while rising his batting average 33 points and OPS 40 points. These are all good indicators that the young left fielder may continue to build on his 2007 output and be in line for a solid season.

5. Kelly Johnson, 2B - At a sneaky deep second base position, the talented Johnson was an excellent fantasy contributor hitting 16 homers with 68 RBIs, 91 runs scored and an .832 OPS. At 25, Johnson is yet another young Braves hitter starting to come into his own. If he can show added plate discipline and cut down his strikeouts, Johnson has the potential to hit around .290 with 20 homers, 80 RBIs, 100 runs scored and 10 steals batting at the front of the Braves lineup.

Pitchers To Draft

The Braves offer fantasy owners a few good options at starter but outside of closer Rafael Soriano, offer little in the way of established bullpen arms until Mike Gonzalez's return mid-season.

1. John Smoltz, SP - Despite his escalating age, he'll be 41 in May, Smoltz remains an excellent fantasy starter registering a 14-8 mark with a 3.11 ERA and low 1.18 WHIP. Smoltz has been very durable over his career, averaging well over 30 starts a season when in the rotation and that probably won't change now. Pitching to weaker lineups in the National League and backed by a strong offense, Smoltz should be a reliable top-tier fantasy starter once again.

2. Rafael Soriano - Soriano enters 2008 as the Braves unquestioned closer giving him great value this season. Soriano had an excellent 2007 for fantasy owners, accumulating 19 holds and 9 saves after being named closer in the second half. Many fantasy owners may not realize exactly how solid Soriano was last year, as he had a miniscule WHIP of .86 while striking out nearly a batter an inning. In his first full season as a closer for what looks to be a good Atlanta team, Soriano could enjoy great success in 2008.

3. Tim Hudson - Hudson had a strong 2007 going 16-10 with a 3.33 ERA and WHIP of 1.22. The 32 year old Georgia native rebounded from subpar 2006 to put together his best season in his three years with the Braves. While he isn't a big strikeout guy, Hudson is reliable fantasy starter who can be counted on to produce about 15-17 wins with an ERA in the mid 3s and a low WHIP barring injury.

4. Mike Gonzalez - The former Pirates closer will be the Braves primary 8th inning setup man once he returns mid-season and should have good value in leagues which count the hold statistic. The hard throwing lefty was put on the DL in May with an elbow injury and was forced to have Tommy John in late May which effectively ended his season. When healthy, Gonzalez is a good source of holds and strikeouts while providing owners with help in ERA. He tends to be wild so expect a WHIP around 1.35 - 1.40. He can also vulture a few saves on occasion and would become the closer if anything happened to Soriano. If you have room to take a late round flier and stash him on the DL it could pay off around the all-star break. If not keep an eye on him as he nears his return; he's a Bobby Cox favorite. 

5. Chuck James/Tom Glavine - These lefties project to be the third and fourth starters respectively and may be worth a late round flier to supplement your fantasy staff. The younger James has the higher upside and has shown flashes in the past while Glavine may be juvenated a bit with a return to Atlanta. I would suggest playing these guys in the right matchup against weaker opponents as they can both be very sink or swim on any given start.

Sleepers To Watch

Matt Diaz, LF - Diaz put up good numbers in limited time last year and enters 2007 as the Braves starting left fielder. In 358 ABs last season, the soon to be 30 year old hit .338 with 12 homers and 45 RBIs. Given a starting gig for the first time in his career and hitting in a deep lineup, Diaz has the opportunity to have a good season and might end up being a steal late in the draft. If he gets 500+ ABs, 15+ homers, 70 RBIs and a good batting average are feasable numbers.

Yunel Escobar, SS - The trade of Edgar Renteria to Detroit makes 25 year old Yunel Escobar the Braves starting shortstop. In limited at bats last season (319), Escobar maintained a solid batting average of .326 while hitting 25 doubles. More of a fallback option in shallow leagues given he plays at a loaded fantasy position, Escobar may establish himself as serviceable SS in deeper leagues as the year progresses.

Players To Avoid

The Atlanta Braves are a fantasy gold mine for talent, offering owners studs and solid options at nearly every conceivable position. However, there are a few guys not worth taking:

1. Mike Hampton - After missing all of 2007, Hampton is projected to return as the Braves fifth starter this season. Hampton, who hasn't pitched a full season since 2004, is a tremendous injury risk. We were reminded of this when he strained his hamstring while rehabbing this winter. If healthy, Hampton could put up decent numbers in the right matchups, but I wouldn't count on it. There will be better pitching options available in the later rounds.

2. Mark Kotsay - Acquired from Oakland this offseason, Kotsay will be the Braves starting centerfielder replacing Andruw Jones. Once a decent fantasy option, the 32 year old veteran is more of a defensive specialist in centerfielder at this point in his career and should not be counted on to provide significant offensive contributions.

3. Braves Middle Relievers Not Named Mike Gonzalez - Outside of Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez who will be out until mid-season, the Braves bullpen does not offer any established or reliable arms capable of providing holds on a consistent basis. Bobby Cox will most likely mix and match who pitches in holds situations in the 7th and rotate guys in the setup role until Gonzalez's return. You would be best served looking for holds elsewhere. 

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