Springtime Storylines: Did I pick the Braves to win the NL East because I'm a fanboy?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30
teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally
breaking down their chances for the 2010 season.  Next up: a switch over to the senior circuit, which kicks off with the Atlanta Braves — yes, the Atlanta Braves — as my first place pick.


The
big question: Did I pick the Braves to win the NL East because I’m a fanboy?

No! Well, maybe. Look, I’m basing this on the merits, I swear. It’s a rotation thing, mostly. The Braves finished third in the majors with a 3.57 ERA last season, and that’s with a swooning Derek Lowe, a mostly absent Tim Hudson and with Tommy Hanson not making his debut until June. Sure, Javier Vazquez is gone, but the Braves’ rotation is arguably the best in the league and no one who is coming back had a freakishly good year in 2009. I have this strange feeling that Lowe is going to have a bounceback season. The amount one fretted about the team giving up Vazquez was inversely related to how much one remembered how good a pitcher Tim Hudson was before his surgery. Jair Jurrjens and Hanson are legitimate studs. It’s not going to be easy to score runs against these guys.

At the same time, the Braves’ fatally-flawed 2009 offense stands to take a great leap forward. The notion that Jason Heyward isn’t going to dramatically outperform Jeff Francoeur (68 OPS+ while with the Braves) in right and Nate McLouth isn’t going to dramatically outperform Jordon Schafer (62 OPS+) in center is redonkulous. Chipper Jones’ second half slump was unprecedented in his career. While his MVP-candidate days are certainly over, he should round back into nice form for a late-career Hall of Famer. Think nice OBP and average with reduced power. Troy Glaus at first base is certainly a risk, but if he can stay healthy he will improve on the woeful production the Braves got from their first basemen last year as well.

So what else is going on?

  • The above optimism about the lineup and the rotation notwithstanding, the make or break of this team is going to be the bullpen. I like the additions of Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito, but I’d be lying if I said I thought they’d each hold up well this year. Let’s face it: they’re old. If they do, Katie bar the door. If they don’t, well, we’ll just chalk this whole winning-the-NL-East thing up to springtime optimism, OK?
  • Let’s talk about Heyward. I have no doubt that he’s going to be a great one, but we have to be realistic about what he’ll do in 2010. He’s 20. He’s played 50 games above A-ball. The fact that he forced his way onto the 25-man roster despite his age and the fact that the Braves traded for a major league outfielder just this winter speaks well of his potential, but he’s going to get schooled by a lot of big league pitchers who are close to being old enough to be his father. As alluded to above, the key to Heyward is not to see where he stacks up on the leader boards, because he won’t register much of a blip there. The key is to see how much he outperforms the dreck the Braves trotted out to right field last season. First let’s watch him lap Jeff Francoeur three or four times. Then we can talk about the text of his Hall of Fame plaque.

  • This is Bobby Cox’s last season, but I’m not going to abide much in the way of “Let’s win it for Bobby!” baloney. Baseball players are professionals. They’re always trying to win it. The notion that anyone apart from maybe Chipper Jones, who has worked for the guy for the past 16 or 17 years is going to get some kind of emotional boost out of the last hurrah is the stuff of simpletons, and come to think of it, I don’t really believe even Chipper Jones is wired that way. 
  • Though none of the Big Three actually pitched in Atlanta last year, it is worth noting that this truly is the first season since 1986 when neither Tom Glavine, John Smoltz or Greg Maddux will have any bearing on the Atlanta Braves on-field prospects whatsoever (last year Glavine had that rehab assignment drama). Show of hands: how many of you weren’t alive in 1986? For those of you who were alive, what were you doing? I turned 13 around the time of the All-Star break, had a crush on a girl named Anne that I hoped might one day lead to kissing of some sort (it didn’t) and was not yet aware that my Huey Lewis & The News tapes — yes, tapes — really, really sucked.  

So how
are they gonna do?

Am I wearing rose-colored glasses? Probably. Am I drinking the Jason Heyward
Kool-Aid? Sure, I’m not gonna lie about it. But the fact is that there
is good reason to think that multiple aspects of the Braves’ attack will
improve in 2010 and no strong reason to think that any aspect of it is
going to seriously regress. I think it might just be enough to steal
this thing from the Phillies. Besides, I’ve hewed pretty closely to the conventional wisdom with these picks so far that it’s about time I go out on a bit of a limb here. If it’s going to break while I’m on it I’d rather it be a limb with my team’s name on it.

Prediction: First place in the NL East, Bobby Cox retires a winner and Chipper Jones is named player-manager for 2011. Why not?

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What’s on Tap: Previewing Thursday’s action

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 18:  Manny Machado #13 of the Baltimore Orioles celbrates hitting a solo home run in the sixth inning during a baseball game against the against the Tampa Bay Rays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 18, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.  The Orioles won 2-1.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
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With each division now spoken for, our attention now turns to the Wild Card races. The Blue Jays hold a one-game lead over the Orioles for the first Wild Card slot in the American League while the Orioles have a one-game lead over the Tigers for the second slot. The Jays and O’s will do battle on Thursday night and each of the four other teams alive in the AL Wild Card race are rooting for the Jays to win. The Yankees and Astros can both be eliminated from Wild Card contention if the Orioles win one more game or if they each lose one more game. The Mariners are also active in the Wild Card hunt, currently two games behind the Orioles.

Over in the National League, the Giants have a one-game lead over the Cardinals for the second Wild Card slot. The Giants get to play the Rockies while the Cardinals face the lowly Reds. The Mets, who currently own the first Wild Card slot, have the night off.

Asterisks denote that the game is relevant to the Wild Card.

The rest of Thursday’s action…

*Boston Red Sox (Henry Owens) @ New York Yankees (CC Sabathia), 7:05 PM EDT

Chicago Cubs (Rob Zastryzny) @ Pittsburgh Pirates (Ivan Nova), 7:05 PM EDT

*Baltimore Orioles (Ubaldo Jimenez) @ Toronto Blue Jays (Marcus Stroman), 7:07 PM EDT

Philadelphia Phillies (Jeremy Hellickson) @ Atlanta Braves (Josh Collmenter), 7:10 PM EDT

*Cincinnati Reds (Dan Straily) @ St. Louis Cardinals (Alex Reyes), 7:15 PM EDT

Minnesota Twins (Kyle Gibson) @ Kansas City Royals (Danny Duffy), 7:15 PM EDT

Tampa Bay Rays (Chris Archer) @ Chicago White Sox (Jose Quintana), 8:10 PM EDT

Los Angeles Dodgers (Julio Urias) @ San Diego Padres (Christian Friedrich), 9:10 PM EDT

*Oakland Athletics (Kendall Graveman) @ Seattle Mariners (Ariel Miranda), 10:10 PM EDT

*Colorado Rockies (Jon Gray) @ San Francisco Giants (Johnny Cueto), 10:15 PM EDT

Who should win the MVP Awards? Who will?

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 20:  Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs bats during the second inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field on September 20, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cardinals defeated the Cubs 4-3. (Photo by John Konstantaras/Getty Images)
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With the regular season ending on Sunday and most of the playoff spots locked up, there’s really only one big thing left to argue about: postseason awards. So let’s spend some time looking at who should win each of the four major awards and who will win them. Which are often totally different things. First up: The MVP Awards. 

Who should win the AL MVP Award? 

We at HBT have tended to lean toward the idea that the best player should win the MVP Award, regardless of whether his team wins or not. It’s not an iron-clad thing, of course. In the past I’ve supported some more narrative-driven MVP candidates and, more importantly, deciding who is “the best player” in an objective sense is not always a cut-and-dried endeavor. Defense is an inexact science. Players often have competing apples and oranges arguments for their candidacies.

If you look at “best overall player” this year, however, it’s hard to say that Mike Trout and his line of .318/.441/.556 with 29 homers and his usual solid-to-outstanding center field defense is not that guy. Yes, his team stinks, and no, his 2016 season isn’t head and shoulders above any number of his other excellent seasons, making him a less-than-sexy choice in a lot of ways. But it’s hard to stand head and shoulders above uniform excellence and no matter what you think of stuff like WAR and all that goes into it, Trout has a 1.5 WAR lead over Mookie Betts according to FanGraphs and 1.3 according to Baseball Reference. It’s a pretty significant separation, especially when you realize that, dang, Betts is having a whale of a season himself (.320/.365/.538).

Still, Trout isn’t a unanimous pick even with the HBT team, which has it this way:

Craig: Trout
Bill: Trout
Ashley: Betts

Who will win the AL MVP Award?

There has been a lot of talk about Betts and his teammate, David Ortiz, splitting the vote, as it were. Maybe that was a thing that happened more often back in the day when narrative-driven awards were more common, but I think today’s BBWAA voters are way more savvy than that. I think that Ortiz will get some votes thrown his way by virtue of his outstanding offensive season (.316/.401/.622, 37 HR, 124 RBI) and the storybook ending to his career, but I think Betts will ultimately carry the day with the better overall and all-around performance. MVP PREDICTION: MOOKIE BETTS.

Who should win the NL MVP Award?

There are a lot of guys putting up years that, under different circumstances, would be MVP worthy. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman, Nolan Arenado, Daniel Murphy, Joey Votto and Corey Seager are all having outstanding campaigns. Most of them are bunched up as far as WAR goes, more so with Baseball-Reference.com’s version, a little less so with FanGraphs. Bryant leads both versions and is putting up outstanding offensive numbers. Murphy, Freeman and Votto are hitting a tad better than him depending on how you measure it, but have less defensive value. Seager’s mix of defense and offense may be closer to what Bryant is doing, although Arenado might have something to say about that. There are a lot of good choices.

Bryant is the best choice, however. His hitting — .293/.387/.560, 39 HR, 101 RBI — is better than the other all-around candidates and his defensive versatility — he’s played all three outfield positions as well as his usual third base — sets him apart. He’s been the best player in the NL this year.

Craig: Bryant
Bill: Bryant
Ashley:Bryant

Who will win the NL MVP Award?

This is one of those years where I suspect our views will match that of the voters. MVP PREDICTION: Bryant, possibly unanimously.