WTNYOctober 27, 2003
Organizational Meetings: Atlanta Braves
By Bryan Smith

Today I will begin my "organizational meetings" with the Atlanta Braves. I asked Brad Dowdy of No Pepper 9 questions about the Braves. I also give shorter answers to the same questions. The rest of the week will also likely have the Yankees and Giants. Enjoy...

1) Greg Maddux is likely to leave the Braves this offseason, opening a big hole in the rotation. With a rotation of non-power pitchers, would you move John Smoltz back to the rotation, why or why not? And if not, which power pitcher would you target?

No Pepper- I'm of the opinion that John Smoltz should continue to serve as the Braves closer. With his past and present arm problems, I don't see how he could stay healthy for the 180-200 innings that would be required of him. In the closers role, he is an elite player, and I would rather see him throw 75-85 high leverage innings than risk losing him for the season - and possibly career - if he goes back to starting. There is one question that I do not know the answer to - is there more stress on Smoltz's arm as a reliever, as opposed to being a starter? Meaning, is it tougher for him to get up and down in the bullpen and make 3-4 appearances a week, as opposed to starting every 5th day? If he were to start, would he work in the 93-94 MPH range with the fastball, instead of 97-98 when he comes in to shut the door? The only way I would be for him starting again would be if it is actually less stressful on his arm, which I don't think will be the case. Another issue that may keep Smoltz from returning to the rotation is money. Contained in his contract is a provision which pays him an extra $100,000 per start. The now budget conscious Braves front office may have a thing or two to say about him starting if it is going to add another $3 million to the payroll.

As far as what pitchers I would target, I think bringing back Kevin Millwood would be the best bet. Javier Vazquez is clearly the superior pitcher to Millwood in my mind, but the Braves, and I imagine other teams, will have a tough time dealing with the MLB Expos. Not to mention the fact that Expos GM Omar Minaya is interviewing for other GM openings as we speak. There may not be anyone in the Montreal front office that will be allowed to swing a deal for the non-free agent Vazquez. Millwood is the next best fit, and he is available. He has a proven track record, knows the team and city, the organization is comfortable with him, and he still has a home in the Atlanta suburbs. Despite the early season no-hitter, Millwood had a rough second half, keeping him within the Braves price range, but I'm sure his agent, Scott Boras, will have something to say about that. After Millwood, there aren't too many starters that are worth shelling out for. Colon's name is rarely mentioned, and Pettitte would be nice but we already have two other left-handed starters. After that group, it's really a crap shoot. I want no part of Sidney Ponson, who I was against trying to trade for last season. Miguel Batista and Carl Pavano would be decent middle of the rotation fall back guys, but I really don't want to see it get down to that point. The Braves really need a #1 caliber pitcher, and I think Millwood is it.

WTNY- Smoltz has stated that going under the knife one more time will result in his retirement. Asking 150+ innings from him substantially increases the probability Smoltz doesn't pitch in 2005. As a leader and a closer, he is invaluable to the franchise. Furthermore, it would likely cost an equal amount to rebuild a bullpen after Smoltz than it would to sign starting pitching.

There aren't a lot of power pitchers available this offseason, so the Braves have limited options. Javier Vazquez could be acquired in a trade, but I'm not sure his price tag (both $ and players) will equal his output. Sidney Ponson is available, but he's no sure thing, and not the type of pitcher needed. Basically, I present the Braves with two options: Kevin Millwood and Bartolo Colon. Both will receive interest from their 2003 team, but Colon's White Sox have more interest than the Phillies. Millwood's return to Atlanta would present an interesting story, and end the bashing Scheurholtz got for his trade in the first place. I also don't think it's a horrible idea to go after cheaper options, most notably Carl Pavano.

2) Paul Byrd will be back next season, after missing 2003 with an arm injury. What can you expect from him in 2004? Can he be the 2004 version of Shane Reynolds, or would you rather go with a rookie like Andy Pratt or Bubba Nelson?

NP- Paul Byrd will be back next year, but maybe not until after the All-Star break. So, if the Braves don't add another starter in the offseason, we may be looking at possibly 2 young/rookie starters instead of the likely one. That one could come from a long list of players: Jason Marquis, Jung Bong, and Trey Hodges - all of who spent time in the Atlanta bullpen last season, or Andy Pratt, Bubba Nelson, Adam Wainwright, and Brett Evert - each of whom would come from the minors. Once Byrd makes it back, I imagine he will be better than Reynolds was in 2003, but that isn't saying much. Anything better than a 4.25 ERA will be a bonus.

As for who will fill the 5th (and possibly 4th) starter role until Byrd returns - I think it will go to one of the minor leaguers. Most Atlanta fans want to see Wainwright, but I'd like to see him spend most of the year in AAA Richmond, with a possible late season call up. He is currently getting shelled pitching for Team USA in the AFL, and has a tendency to wear down late in the season, so another year under his belt would serve him well. Pratt and Nelson are just about ready, with Evert having an outside shot. I've stated in a couple of places that I think Pratt might get the nod with a good spring, and he is performing well so far in the Team USA trials.

WTNY- I wouldn't expect a lot from Byrd in 2004, as his health will always be a risk. His upside might be as a middle reliever in the bullpen, or replacing one of the starters. I think it is a better option to go with either a rookie, or a very cheap pick-up. Hold a competition between Pratt, Bubba Nelson, and some veterans that you can find around. John Burkett, Scott Erickson, Jason Bere are all examples of starters whom will have a hard time finding a job, but would supply solid innings. Throw Shane into that same category.

3) A huge hole for the Braves in 2003 was set-up relief, getting the ball to Smoltz. What are your thoughts on the three that ended the year doing it, Jaret Wright, Will Cunnane, and Kent Mercker? Do you believe they should be retained next year? What about Roberto Hernandez and Ray King? Who else would fill your bullpen?

NP- From day 1 through the playoffs, the 2003 bullpen was a problem. I never had to worry about running out of material for my blog. Heck, Roberto Hernandez even had his own category! Jaret Wright impressed me enough that I would offer him a deal for 2004, and let him set up for Smoltz. Same thing goes for Will Cunnane. I think Mercker will look elsewhere, and possibly end up back in Cincinnati. Ray King wasn't terrible, except with runners on base (.319 OPP AVG with runners on, .131 AVG without), but I imagine the Braves will pick up his $1 million club option, which is a reasonable sum. The Roberto Hernandez era should come to a crashing halt, as there is no way he gets resigned. Hopefully Darren Holmes won't be either, and I could go either way on Kevin Gryboski. As long as he is used strictly in situations where the Braves need to induce a double play, I'm fine. Asking him to start - and complete - a full inning is asking for trouble. The remainder of the bullpen should consist of at least two of the following: Jason Marquis, Jung Bong, Trey Hodges, Brett Evert, Bubba Nelson. The rest will make up part of the starting staff in Richmond.

WTNY- Entrusting Mazzone with the 2004 bullpen would be an interesting option. That would mean giving him players like Wright and Cunnane before Smoltz, and letting him go to work. Wright was hitting 96 in the playoffs, which gives him a whole lot of upside. Cunnane threw 20 solid innings, so he has made his case to be a set-up man next season. I'm not a big fan of Hernandez, Darren Holmes, Ray King, or Kevin Gryboski, and could see all of them leaving. Mercker was a solid veteran influence that would compliment with Smoltz well. After years of Maddux and Glavine, the Braves must have good advice readily available from veteran players, Mercker would give that.

Jason Marquis, Troy Hodges, and Jung Bong all give the Braves options as well. Marquis has the most upside, but also the most trade value. I think Hodges and Bong could both improve given the chance in 2004, as long as Mazzone lowers those BB/9 ratios. Rookies Andy Pratt and Bubba Nelson could fill those holes if needed, as both have relief experience. Problem is, they both have potential as starters. I really like Buddy Hernandez, whom didn't make the A's after being a Rule V pick, but had these numbers at AAA: 65H/71IP 82K/31BB.

4) The Braves will have three holes due to free agency departures, at catcher, first base, and third. If needed, the team could go with youngsters Johnny Estrada, Adam LaRoche, and Mark DeRosa. Which of these players would you trust with 400-500 at-bats, and whom wouldn't you? Why or why not? Do you believe any of the veterans (Lopez, Castillo, Franco, Fick) should be retained?

NP- This is a big question, so let's start with the easiest decision first, and go from there. Give Adam LaRoche the 1B job, and let Robert Fick go. LaRoche has proven he is ready for his shot with a big 2003 split between AAA and AA (combined .290, 20 HR, 33 2B). LaRoche also provides Gold Glove caliber defense according to those who have seen him play. Worst case scenario, have LaRoche platoon with ageless wonder Julio Franco. I heaped on the praise of Robert Fick in the first half of the season (.296 AVG/.354 OBP/.481 SLG), but his second half slump (.229/.307/.325), and subsequent postseason hatchet job, have soured many Braves fans on Mr. Fick.

The third base job should go to Mark DeRosa, but this is one area where John Schuerholz may go out and overpay for a "proven veteran". Someone like Vinny Castilla or Tony Batista, neither of whom do I want anything to do with. Andy Marte, my #1 overall Braves prospect, and the #1 3B prospect in the minor leagues according to Baseball America, is two years away, or less, from taking over at the hot corner. If DeRosa hits .280 with 15 homers and keeps the spot warm for Marte, I would be very pleased. I'd rather allocate the money saved to other areas.

Javy Lopez, Johnny Estrada - what to do with the catching situation? I honestly do not have a good answer. I'm not a big Estrada fan, mostly from an offensive standpoint. In his age 27 year, he posted career numbers in AAA (.328 AVG/.393 OBP/.494 SLG), and that's what bothers me. I'm not a major league equivalent guru, but he looks like a .270, 10 HR major league hitter to me, which is BIG drop-off from Lopez (I know, master of the obvious). But Lopez, who put together one of the greatest hitting seasons ever by a catcher, may have priced himself right out of the Braves plans. I think retaining him is a 50/50 propositon at best right now for the front office, and is not a priority. A lot will depend on other offseason moves, since a backup plan is already in place. My gut tells me he is gone, and I'd rather him be gone than overpaid.

WTNY- Here's a look at 2 catchers in AAA:
Player 1: .335-19-72 28 2B 29BB/22K in 373AB
Player 2: .328-10-66 29 2B 30BB/30K in 354AB

The first player is Tampa Bay catcher Toby Hall, whom won the 2001 International League MVP with those numbers. The second player in Johnny Estrada, the switch-hitting catcher John Scheurholtz acquired for Kevin Millwood. Hall's 2003 numbers (.253/.295/.380) are likely indicative of what Estrada would produce in the Majors. Pursuing Javy Lopez is a good idea, but don't considering giving more than two years at $10M.

At first base, there is two options. The first is to five the job to Adam LaRoche, and bringing Julio Franco back to platoon. My second choice would be to trade for a stud first basemen, which would eliminate the idea of re-signing Sheffield. More on that in question six...

The hot corner is the most difficult decision. First of all, don't give Vinny Castilla the job. DeRosa would be a good choice, and seems like the kind of player that does well when playing a lot. When he got time this season he produced, but he's no guarantee. Go with him if you're ready for a .750OPS, or sign Robin Ventura, the kind of winner the Braves like, to platoon with him.

5) In the NLDS, Chipper Jones proved to be a major liability in left. With both infield positions open due to free agency, is it time to move Chipper back onto the diamond? Where should he be playing next year, and what can we expect from him?

NP- Chipper Jones needs to stay in left field. He's been there for two full seasons now, and wasn't a Gold Glove caliber 3B to begin with, but moving him back and forth every year or two can only be detrimental to his already poor fielding. In 8781.2 career innings at 3B, Jones made 123 errors in 2426 total chances, for a fielding % of .949. In 2825.1 career innings in LF, Jones has 14 errors in 539 chances, for a fielding % of .974. With 3B being a much tougher position to field than LF, I call that about a wash.

What can we expect from Chipper in 2004? Pretty much what you got from him for the past 8 seasons: somewhere around .300/.400/.550, with 30 HR, 100 RBI, and 100 runs, and, of course, spotty defense in left. I could envision a scenario where Chipper could move back to third for 2004, but it would be highly unlikely.

WTNY- Don't move Chipper again. After witnessing Carlos Lee go from one of the worst outfielders in the Majors to average, I think left field is the easiest position on the diamond. Chipper probably wouldn't be very good anywhere, and Ventura, DeRosa, LaRoche, and Franco would all be better defenders on the infield corners. The more time he has in left, the better his defense, and offensive productivity will rise. Chipper's one of the least respected players in the game (along with Magglio Ordonez), and may have already locked up a place in Cooperstown. But after the Cub killing he did in the NLDS, I'm not sure I'll ever like Chipper Jones.

6) Gary Sheffield will be a free agent, likely courted by Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and the Yankees. Would you throw a lot of money at Sheffield to keep him around, set your priorities on Vlad, or go after a second-tier right fielder like Jose Guillen? Defend your choice.

NP- Schuerholz has to re-sign Gary Sheffield. As a lead in to question number 9, I think this is offseason priority number one. Of course, Guererro would be great, but there is no way the Braves could afford him. I imagine he will command more than the 6 yr/$85 million deal that Jim Thome signed last winter. Sheffield should go for less money, and fewer years. He is a premiere outfielder and perennial MVP candidate, and there aren't many solid outfield options available after you get past him and Vlad. How this goes will set the tone for the entire offseason.

WTNY- Scheurholtz needs another big bat, so it's either Sheffield or acquiring someone through a trade. Sheffield would be pricy, likely landing the exact same deal Jim Thome got last year. If you could find another player whom would give similar results at a cheaper price, he'd be a good fit. Oh wait...you can? Yes, Richie Sexson.

Sexson is the perfect player for the Braves. Relatively speaking, he comes cheap at $8M. This would allow the team to bring Javy Lopez back, as well as a second-tier RF. It would give them extra dollars to attract Kevin Millwood as well. In the deal you could put the two youngsters that lose jobs, Estrada and LaRoche, along with the starter that won't get a spot, Bubba Nelson. That should do it, and the Brewers might eat a million or two also. The Braves then go after a cheaper player with upside, either Guillen, Juan Gonzalez, Raul Mondesi, or Jose Cruz Jr.

7) The Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggested the Braves trade Andruw Jones for Javier Vazquez. Do you agree or disagree? Why? How important is Jones for the Braves?

NP- As much as I like Vazquez, I would be against trading away Andruw Jones to get him. With the possibility of losing both Sheffield and Lopez, the Braves can't afford to lose any more offense. It also goes without saying that Andruw provides great defense in center - just ask Tom Glavine. There are other free agent pitchers out there that I would prefer to focus on, rather than trading Jones for Vazquez. All of that being said, there is clearly room for improvement in his game. His approach at the plate is borderline criminal in certain situations, and he could benefit by dropping a few lbs. also. But there are no suitable replacements for a guy who is an annual threat to hit 30 homers, drive in 100, score 100, and provide Gold Glove caliber defense in center field.

WTNY- That would be a horrible trade. Jones value to this team is immense, as he cuts the outfield into a much smaller place than it is. Without Andruw, Chipper's defense would get talked about a lot more, and Braves' pitchers wouldn't succeed as much. The team is loaded with flyballers, and needs Jones. Plus, his bat ain't bad either.

8) Which Brave players do you expect jumps from next season? Will Mike Hampton continue to improve away from Coors? Will Horacio Ramirez be another Braves great homegrown pitcher?

NP- So many Braves players had big jumps in 2003, this is a tough one to answer. The two that you mention, Mike Hampton and Horacio Ramirez, both should improve on solid 2003 seasons. Hampton found his old self in the second half of the season, and I was clamoring for him to be the Braves #1 starter in the postseason. Ramirez started out strong, hit a rough patch in the summer, then finished out September (3-0, 2.41 ERA, 33.2 IP) as strong, or stronger, than anyone else on the team. I look for both of these guys to continue to improve in 2004.

Rafael Furcal had arguably his best season to date in 2003, but he still seemed to fly under the radar, as Javy Lopez, Gary Sheffield, and Marcus Giles exploded all around him. He posted career highs in Hits (194), Runs (130), Doubles (35), Triples (10), Home Runs (15), RBI (61), and OPS (.795), and was successful in 25 of 27 stolen base attempts, but was rarely mentioned outside of Braves circles. His 130 runs were the most by a Brave since Dale Murphy scored 131 times in 1983. After all of that, I still think Furcal can improve further in 2004, placing him among the elite shortstops in the game.

Jason Marquis is another one who I will throw out as a long shot breakout candidate. He could really surprise some people if he could get his head screwed on straight. If the Braves pull of any big trades this offseason, Marquis will be one of the first included, but if he sticks around, I'd like to see him groomed into a dominant setup man. He has been a starter for most of his career, with decidedly mixed results, but I think he has the stuff to shut down the opponent for 1-2 innings at a time, despite a terrible 2003 in the bullpen (6.23 ERA, 30.1 IP). The one thing I am not sure of is his attitude.

WTNY- Mike Hampton will be this team's ace next season, write that down. He really showed his old stuff and attitude late in the season, and should have the kind of year Darryl Kile did in 2001 (16-11, 3.09ERA). While he's not a great fantasy baseball pitcher, don't be hesitant to make him your third or fourth selection next year. I also love Andy Pratt, whom had a great season in AAA. The last selection would be Jaret Wright, who can go nowhere but up after an abysmal 2003.

9) Create a step-by-step offseason to-do list for John Scheurholtz.

NP- Offseason To-Do List for John Schuerholz:
1. Re-sign Gary Sheffield- This will set the tone for the entire offseason. If Sheff signs, the offense is in good shape, and allows the Braves to insert LaRoche at 1B and DeRosa at 3B, and let Javy walk. This also allows Schuerholz to allocate most of the remaining funds to improving the pitching. If Sheff signs elsewhere, we will might make a play on Lopez (still not sure he would sign, or that it would be the right move), and look at the second tier of outfielders to fill in in RF. I don't see the Braves in the Vlad conversation at all.
2. Sign a top free agent pitcher - preferably Kevin Millwood. There is a lot to like about bringing him back and making him the Braves #1 starter for the next several years. Vazquez is also a possibility, but I don't see the Braves getting a deal done with the Expos this offseason.
3. Get the thoughts of starting out of John Smoltz's head. When he is healthy, he is one of the best, if not_the_best, closers in the game. That is irreplaceable. There is no need to go trading for a Billy Wagner, or signing an Eddie Guardado, or the like.
4. Do not spend $4 mil/yr on the LaTroy Hawkinses of the world for bullpen help. No offense to LaTroy, but the Braves pen will improve via addition by subtraction. Hernandez and Holmes should be gone, along with Mercker. Wright and Cunnane did a good job at the end of last season, and should be brought back. Ray King was decent, and the younger arms (Marquis, Bong, Hodges) are more experienced. Name the bullpen early on in the spring and assign roles: early inning replacement, LOOGY, 7th and 8th inning setup, and stick with it. Too many guys were used in too many different situations last season.
5. Stay away from overaged/overpriced veterans. There are going to be certain bench, and possibly starting, roles that are going to need to be filled via free agency. I am worried about Schuerholz filling the hole at third by resigning Castilla, or bringing in someone like Batista. Yuck. Give the job to DeRosa, and use the savings elsewhere.
6. Pull the 5th starter from the minors. We don't need any more Paul Byrd contracts, so let's fill the 5 slot with a guy like Andy Pratt. I think he is ready to make the jump. Ben Kozlowski who?

My projected 2004 Braves rotation: Kevin Millwood, Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, Horacio Ramirez, Andy Pratt
My projected 2004 Braves bullpen: John Smoltz (closer), Jaret Wright (main setup), Will Cunnane (secondary setup), Jason Marquis (secondary setup), Ray King (situational), Kevin Gryboski (situational), Jung Bong (situational/spot starter)

My projected 2004 Braves lineup: C Johnny Estrada, 1B Adam LaRoche, 2B Marcus Giles, 3B Mark DeRosa, SS Rafael Furcal, LF Chipper Jones, CF Andruw Jones, RF Gary Sheffield
Bench: 1B Julio Franco, 1B/3B Mike Hessman, IF Wilson Betemit/Jesse Garcia, OF Ryan Langerhans, C Free Agent

WTNY- Here's my list:
1. Trade Dave LaRoche, Johnny Estrada, and Bubba Nelson to the Milwaukee Brewers for Richie Sexson- Replaces Sheffield's bat in the lineup, and improves defense at first.
2. Re-sign Javy Lopez, sign Raul Mondesi, and Robin Ventura- Veteran influence is huge, and the lineup might be as potent as in 2003.
3. Grab Kevin Millwood- There are other options, but Millwood simply makes the most sense in this circumstance. While I believe it, don't count on Hampton to be an ace quite yet.
4. Keep Kent Mercker, make Andy Pratt 5th starter, then go with youngsters and minor league free agents in bullpen- Mercker is a great LOOGY, Pratt could be great, and bullpens are easy to find. Don't overpay for relievers!

2003 lineup: SS Rafeal Furcal, 2B Marcus Giles, LF Chipper Jones, 1B Richie Sexson, CF Andruw Jones, C Javy Lopez, RF Raul Mondesi, 3B Ventura/DeRosa
2003 rotation: Millwood, Hampton, Ortiz, Ramirez, Andy Pratt
2003 bullpen: Smoltz, Jaret Wright, Cunnane, Mercker, Buddy Hernandez, Jung Bong

Check back tomorrow for more, and the Yankees meeting should be on Wednesday.