Organizational Rankings: Current Talent – Atlanta

The Atlanta Braves are back: they’re a pretty good team that has enough talent to make the playoffs, but not to go very far. They led the majors in starters’ ERA last year, they have a top-5 farm system and some of the best frontline talent in the majors. They’ve missed the playoffs for four straight years, averaging just 80 wins a season, but this could be the year they finally make it back. (CHONE and the Fangraphs Fans think the Braves will win the division in 2010.) The trouble is, they’re in the same division as the back-to-back NL champs, and they have some of the same weaknesses they’ve always had.

The team has some exceptional young stars: C Brian McCann, SS Yunel Escobar, P Jair Jurrjens, and P Tommy Hanson are all under team control through at least 2013, not to mention rookie super-prospect Jason Heyward. But they’ve been surrounded by below-replacement-level talent in recent years, the sort of aging veterans that 68-year old manager Bobby Cox can’t lay off but GM Frank Wren really ought to know better, like Garret Anderson, Corky Miller, and Chris Woodward. Cox is retiring after 2010, and probably will move into the front office brain trust, as John Schuerholz did after he retired. Wren will finally get to hire his personal manager, but he won’t necessarily have a much freer hand in personnel decisions: Cox and Schuerholz will continue vetting every move.

Wren’s showed some ability to fill the team’s holes through trades, but he still often leaves dead weight on the roster. Throughout his tenure, the team has strangely been strongest up the middle and weakest at the corners, as it likely will remain in 2010, unless the team gets exceptionally lucky with injury risks Troy Glaus and Chipper Jones, and Kaline-like production out of Heyward. As a result, they’re significantly underpowered. No regular in 2009 slugged .500, and there’s a good chance no one will in 2010 either. The team’s power shortage is one of its biggest offensive weaknesses: this team has long had trouble in one-run games, hitting more poorly in later innings and stranding runners on base. The power outage meant that despite being 11th in OBP in 2009, the Braves were 17th in runs: they could get them on, but couldn’t get them in.

Beyond Heyward, OF Jordan Schafer and 1B Freddie Freeman are the only impact position prospects in the high minors; once Heyward graduates, the Braves’ farm strength will be almost entirely in pitching. And as it was at their height, the Braves will be led by a terrific young pitching staff and a more-or-less average offense. (In 2009, the Braves had the 17th-highest OPS in baseball and the lowest starters’ ERA in baseball, exactly as they had in 2000.) That’s a formula that works for them, though it’s also a formula that led to five NLDS losses in six years.

The Phillies are the team to beat, but their payroll is ballooning, and they’ll have much less money to work with if they happen to miss the playoffs. Because of their farm system and young team-controlled stars, the Braves are the team best positioned to pick up the slack. They’re one of the best teams in the National League. But these days that’s almost a backhanded compliment. There’s a reason that the first six teams on the Organizational Rankings are all in the Junior Circuit.




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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


30 Responses to “Organizational Rankings: Current Talent – Atlanta”

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  1. DavidCEisen says:

    As a Phillies fan, I agree with placing the Braves one slot ahead of the Phils. I think the Phillies have a much better chance of making the playoffs and winning the World Series this year than the Braves do, but next year I wouldn’t be surprised if they were equally talented. And three, four, and five years from now, I think it is safe to project the Braves as being the better team–not that I think the Phillies will be a bad one. It will be interesting to see if the Braves can keep their talent under contract for the next 5-7 years.

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  2. NEPP says:

    There’s a lot of potential on the Braves (another Phillies fan here). They have a great young core and they should only get better. I dont think they will beat out Philly this year but next year should be interesting (depending on how Heyward, Hanson, Jurrjens, and the underrated Prado all improve with experience).

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  3. Stu says:

    You note the lack of slugging, which is an issue, for sure, but one (big) positive is the fact that this team projects to get on base. A lot. That’s a good thing, and it’s a recipe for better-than-average offensive production — as long as everyone stays reasonably healthy.

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  4. TheUnrepentantGunner says:

    You don’t understand math, Alex.

    Unlike, say basketball where one team could be legitimately a -400 favorite, any two competent teams playing eachother almost by definition make the game something of a tossup (at worst 35-65 with a bad starting pitching matchup or something).

    If the braves make it, their path will be a 5 game series, followed by a 7 game series. Even as a healthy underdog in each series, they would still be something around 15% to make the world series. Now let’s follow this up with the following:

    would the braves be big underdogs against the dodgers, cardinals, or rockies?

    Alot can change over the season, but if they make it, the only way they dont have a meaningful chance of going somewhere is if the bubonic plague makes a big comeback in atlanta on october 1st.

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    • TheUnrepentantGunner says:

      as an aside, i am a phillies fan. the argument isn’t about relative merits though.

      The playoffs arent quite the crapshoot that billy beane described, and maybe people had their experience skewed by the mid 2000′s with the relative dominance of the red sox and yankees, but the reality is even crappy teams (relative to their playoff peers) can win the world series (ala the cardinals 5 years ago).

      So to say they arent built to go far once in the playoffs is just awful.

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      • Sure, they have a meaningful chance. I just don’t think that they’ll make it.

        Believe me, I well know that the best-of-five Division Series has often tended to promote the worse team to the LCS and send the better team home — that’s how I’ve often had to console myself over the past decade.

        But the fact remains that this Braves team is underpowered in a very familiar way.

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  5. mike says:

    The Atlanta Braves are back: they’re a pretty good team that has enough talent to make the playoffs, but not to go very far.

    - This may be the worst sentence written on this website. What does this even mean? How could you begin your article with such a lede?

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    • Steve says:

      What he means is that the Braves of old are back: they’ll make the playoffs and then lose. Just like the Braves from 1996-2005

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  6. Zach says:

    It’s true they have enough talent to make it to the playoffs and it’s true they won’t be the most talented team if they get there but I think it would be more accurate to say the SHOULDN’T go far based on their relative talent, instead of saying they WON”T go far because while the playoffs might not be the crapshoot Billy Beane says they are, they are still a crapshoot nonetheless. Just a minor issue I have with a very good article.

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  7. Trevor says:

    Good analysis. The interesting thing about the Atl Braves is the presence of above replacement level players throughout their depth chart. While there is a lack of legitimate superstars, they have quality players everywhere and replacement level players backing them up.

    Health is always an issue, but unless they experiences a Mets-esque injury cycle, they should be able to compete for the division and/or the wild card.

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  8. Reuben says:

    “There’s a reason that the first six teams on the Organizational Rankings are all in the Junior Circuit.”

    Guess this means the Rockies are next.

    Twins
    Mariners
    Rangers
    Rays
    Red Sox
    Yankees…

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  9. Yardsma says:

    Red Sox will be number one. The Yanks farm system is pretty bare at the moment, and they have more bloated long-term contracts on the payroll than Boston currently does.

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  10. Bobo says:

    Alex you brought up the Phils payroll in this series and I’m not sure what your opinion on their revenue has directly to do with the Braves, but I’m curious, and how much weight your guess about their payroll factored into the Braves chances. I guess another way to put it, was is the projected team revenue a big factor in these rankings?

    You mentioned this directly about the Phils but Are you concerned that if the Braves don’t make the playoffs their attendance will drop belop 2mm? Cause I am. Further, it was noted in the comments to the Phils rankings that they have already sold more tickets in 2010 than ATL will all year by more than 500,000 seats…I didn’t believe it but I found articles about it. If anything, my biggest concern with the Braves is their owners willingness to spend cash. The Phils have rewarded their fans by forking over lots of money and cranking up payroll to over 140mm. I don’t know how long they can maintain that level, but I’m worried about the Braves maintaining a 97mm payroll just as much. I mean I think the Vasquez trade was a complete salary dump forced by the poor D.Lowe signing…this team would have been better with him than without him…and it was all about money.

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    • The rankings were really all Dave Cameron. I just mentioned the Phillies’ payroll because my understanding is that they can really only afford to sustain their current status among the highest payrolls in baseball if they keep going deep into the playoffs. So that won’t affect the Braves’ chances in 2010. But it could hurt the Phillies’ chances in the next few years, if they happen to miss the playoffs in 2010 or 2011.

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      • Smeck says:

        Wait. That is a huge issue Dave keeps saying it was all a vote from a bunch of you guys, are you saying these are mister Mariner Fan himself and not a team effort?

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      • NEPP says:

        Just a note on that issue. The Phillies have stated on a couple occasions that they budget for the year based on NOT making the playoffs. If they do, great but they don’t need to make it to break even/make a good profit. Thus, this $140 million cap is where they can stay as long as they keep the seats filled at CBP.

        Making the playoffs and making 2 straight WS was just gravy for their ownership group.

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      • Smeck, sorry if I was unclear. We all offered input, but Dave was the person who helmed this project.

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      • Smeck says:

        Thanks Alex,

        I like this ranking but I’d probably have them a shade under the angels and Phils, but not to big a deal 1 or 2 spots either way is saying they are about equal. I was concerned (feel free to put a stronger adj in if you felt different) when Jair had his MRI earlier this spring. I think Hanson/Heyward are gonna be a couple of studs, but I think very little of Freeman/Schafer. I’m probably harder on the Farm System than others since part of me doesn’t want to get my hopes up. I’m concerned that Freeman won’t ever develop the power I’d like to see for 1B.

        Thanks for clearing up that point about Dave driving the boat and the rest of you guys working the oars.

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      • Alex says:

        I like how Smeck is now acting like a Braves fan after earlier pretty clearly showing he knew little about the team (blamed the 96 sale of the team for the end of the division run in 2006).

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      • NEPP, they may be right about that, but I know that I’ve read differently in previous years, and I’d be surprised if that were entirely true. Philadelphia’s a big city, but it’s not New York, and $140 million is a whole lot of money to be able to spend year in and year out.

        Smeck, I understand your hesitation on Schafer and Freeman, but I think they can be productive major league regulars, if not stars like Hanson and Heyward.

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  11. Bobo says:

    Um, didn’t the Time Warner in the early 2000s start to complain about losing money and reducing payroll? Didn’t they stop spending as much on free agents? Wheren’t there changes in the front office – guys getting picked away to work on other teams, maybe cause TW wasn’t paying them as much?…I’m think that guy that actually went to the Phils but can’t remember his name now…

    Anyway, I think TW had an impact it just took a long while for it to filter through the system.

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    • Alex says:

      I don’t think they ever significantly reduced payroll, just held it steady and stopped with the increases. I’m not sure what front office defections you’re referring to, as the two main ones, Moore to KC and Clark to Was are more recent. Anyway, that’s really beside the point, which was supposed to be that the Braves actually won more division titles under TW than they did under Turner. If anything, it was Time Warner’s attempt to sell the Braves, which began in earnest after the 2005 season, that ended the streak as they were less willing to make any commitments longer than 1 year in fear of hurting the product they were trying to sell.

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      • The Braves are now owned by Liberty Media, which supposedly purchased the team with the intent to sell it after a few years. But they’ve been relatively benevolent owners so far. They haven’t allowed the Braves to spend much more money than late-period Time Warner, but they haven’t begrudged every penny. I haven’t seen anything to indicate that Liberty is interested in owning the team for the long term, but at this point, it’s unclear when the Braves will have new owners.

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      • Alex says:

        I know, TW started shopping the Braves after the 2005 season and traded the Braves to Liberty Media as part of an asset swap prior to the 2007 season. Just to make that clear, because I know people get confused all the time, Liberty Media didn’t purchase the Braves, they traded 60 million shares of TW stock for the Braves, ownership of a couple random magazines, and $1 billion.

        As you mentioned, Liberty has done a good job in ownership so far, though its tough to know what their long term intentions are. They seem to view the Braves as an asset and they have no problem assigning a yearly budget and then keeping their distance. I do know that they must maintain ownership for a few more years because of tax breaks they got by making an asset swap for the Braves instead of buying them outright, but I’m not sure how much longer that will be. The good news is that Liberty clearly isn’t hurting for capital (they just poured $780 million into Sirius XM about a year ago) and they clearly understand how to value investments, so I see them being more willing then most corporations to give out long term commitments to the right pieces, understanding that young, cheap, controllable talent is only going to add to the value of the team, especially if those guys are young stars from the area. At least I’m telling myself that with the hopes that the Braves will lock up Heyward long term and maybe give Mac another extension in 2 years or so.

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      • Thank you for clarifying!

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  12. Superb post! I completely agree along with you.

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