After winning 11 straight NL East titles from 1995 to 2005, the Atlanta Braves have finished in third place in the division and missed the playoffs the past two seasons.
Atlanta hopes to get back to the postseason in 2008, but it won't be easy. Both teams that finished ahead of the Braves in 2007 fortified their starting rotations in the offseason. Following their memorable collapse at the end of last season, the New York Mets acquired veteran starting pitcher Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins to strengthen their rotation. The Philadelphia Phillies, who won the NL East in 2007, added closer Brad Lidge in a trade with the Houston Astros. This move will allow Brett Myers to move back into the rotation after serving as the closer last year.
In order to return to the playoffs this season, Atlanta will need its veteran pitching staff to be successful. Left-hander Tom Glavine returns to the place where he spent the first 16 years of his career. John Smoltz and Tim Hudson will keep the pressure off Glavine in his second stint with the Braves. Glavine will be 42 in March and Smoltz turns 41 in May. If they are able to remain healthy and continue pitching at a high level despite their age, then the Braves could compete for the division title again.
2007 record: 84-78 (3rd in NL East)
Key additions: LHP Tom Glavine, CF Mark Kotsay, LHP Will Ohman
Key losses: CF Andruw Jones, SS Edgar Renteria, LHP Ron Mahay
Most valuable fantasy performers:
1. Mark Teixeira, 1B – The power-hitting first baseman is in the final year of his contract, so he's playing for the opportunity to sign a big paycheck in the offseason. Teixeira hit .306 with 30 home runs and 105 RBIs in 132 games split between Texas and Atlanta in 2007. The Severna Park native will be 28 in the first month of the season, so he's entering the prime of his career. Therefore, I'd expect him to hit at least .300 with 30-40 home runs and 110-120 RBIs. Draft him and you'll be very happy.
2. Chipper Jones, 3B – In his 14th season in the major leagues, Jones put up some of the best offensive numbers of his career. He had over 100 RBIs (102) for the first time since 2003 and he had the highest batting average of his career (.337). His 42 doubles were also a career high. If he can avoid the injuries that have plagued him for the past few seasons, then he'll have another solid season. It'll be hard to duplicate last season's performance, but Jones should hit over .300 again and hit at least 20-25 home runs. Jones needs only 14 more home runs to reach 400 for his career.
3. John Smoltz, RHP – Smoltz's career is definitely winding down, but he's won at least 14 games in each season since returning to a starting role in 2005. His ERA will be below 3.50, which should help your fantasy team in that category. Throw in the 175-200 strikeouts that he'll get this year and he's still worth a high draft pick.
4. Brian McCann, C – As the Braves starting catcher for the past two seasons, McCann has cemented himself as one of the top fantasy performers at the position. Although he dropped to 18 home runs in 2007 (24 in 2006), McCann still managed to get over 90 RBIs again. It's hard to predict his batting average because he hit .333 in 2006 and dropped to .270 last year. However, I think he's going to hit between 25-30 home runs and exceed 100 RBIs for the first time in his career. McCann will be one of the first catchers drafted, so make sure you grab him before he's gone.
5. Jeff Francoeur, RF – After emerging as a 21-year-old phenom in 2005, Francoeur has become a reliable fantasy performer. He's picked up over 100 RBIs in both full seasons and increased his batting average to .293 in 2007. Another statistic to note is that Francoeur has played in every game for the past two seasons, so you can count on him being in the lineup every night. If your league counts defensive statistics, then Francoeur's value increases. He'll rank among the leaders in outfield assists.
6. Kelly Johnson, 2B – Johnson put together a solid season as the Braves second baseman last year. He hit .276 with 16 home runs and 68 RBIs. Johnson will be the starter again in 2008, so he's got a good chance to have another quality season. Along with his 16 home runs, Johnson had 26 doubles and 10 triples in 2007. It remains to be seen if he'll post similar numbers this season since it's only his second as a full-time player, but Johnson ranks among the top 10 second basemen in the majors.
7. Tim Hudson, RHP – In three seasons in Atlanta, Hudson hasn't been able to pitch with the same level of consistency he had in Oakland. Last season, he had his best year in the National League with a 16-10 record and 3.33 ERA. I'd expect Hudson to win between 13-17 games this season with an ERA around 3.50. He needs to keep the ERA down to be a truly valuable starter in most fantasy leagues, but 16 wins will help you even if his ERA is over 5.00. He'll likely have between 135-145 strikeouts. That total isn't great, but it'll help your fantasy team in that category.
1. Yunel Escobar, SS – Last season, Escobar hit .326 with five home runs and 28 RBIs in 94 games for the Braves. He'll be the starting shortstop this year, so those numbers should improve some. Escobar won't hit a lot of home runs or steal a lot of bases, but he could help your fantasy team with batting average and runs. Watch how he plays during spring training because he may be worth drafting in the later rounds if he's available.
2. Rafael Soriano, RHP – Soriano appeared in 71 games last season and picked up nine saves for Atlanta. He'll start as the closer in 2008, so he's good to get you some saves and other owners may overlook him. Smoltz, Hudson and Glavine should give Soriano plenty of save opportunities. If you decide to draft him, make sure you keep an eye on his performance. Mike Gonzalez, who was the Pirates closer in 2006, is expected to return to the Braves from Tommy John surgery in June, so Soriano may lose the job if he is struggling. If that's the case, you can just swap him for Gonzalez.