Series Preview: Braves/Pirates

The Bucs open up a weekend series tonight against the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves. After an astonishing 14-year reign as division champs, the Braves fell to third in 2006 on their way to a disappointing 79-83 campaign. The main culprits in the streak-ending season were a flimsy bullpen and a questionable rotation behind the ageless John Smoltz. The Braves appear stronger on both fronts in 2007. The bullpen has been fortified by offseason trades for power relievers Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano, and Tim Hudson has rediscovered a spliter that played a large role in his success as a member of the Oakland Athletics. In addition, the back end of the Braves rotation has some interesting (though) unproven arms in Kyle Davies, Chuck James, and Anthony Lerew. Luckily, the Pirates won’t see Smoltz (still nasty after all these years) or Hudson, who is off to a torrid start.
Tale of the Tape
Atlanta Braves
Record: 22-12
Runs Scored: 168 (T-5th in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 147 (T-8th in NL)
Defensive Efficiency (percentage of balls in play converted into outs) : 0.698 (22nd in MLB)
Pittsburgh Pirates
Record: 15-18
Runs Scored: 114 (14th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 153 (11th in NL)
Defensive Efficiency: 0.688 (26th in MLB)
Probable Starters
RHP Kyle Davies ( 26.2 IP, 6.41 ERA, 7.76 K/9, 6.08 BB/9, 1.69 HR/9, 9.11 H/9)
LHP Zach Duke ( 37.2 IP, 5.50 ERA, 2.63 K/9, 1.91 BB/9, 0.72 HR/9, 12.42 H/9)
LHP Chuck James ( 35.1 IP, 4.84 ERA, 7.39 K/9, 3.57 BB/9, 1.53 HR/9, 10.95 H/9)
RHP Tony Armas Jr. (22.2 IP, 7.94 ERA, 6.35 K/9, 5.56 BB/9, 1.99 HR/9, 13.10 H/9)
RHP Anthony Lerew (6.0 IP, 3.00 ERA, 10.50 K/9, 3.00 BB/9, 3.00 HR/9, 3.00 H/9)
RHP Ian Snell (46 IP, 2.35 ERA, 7.04 K/9, 2.93 BB/9, 0.39 HR/9, 7.43 H/9)
Series Notes
-Braves Second Baseman Kelly Johnson is third among major league keystoners with a 14.1 VORP (Value Over Replacement Player.) Some questioned Atlanta’s decision to non-tender Marcus Giles and convert Johnson, formerly an outfielder who missed nearly all of 2006 because of elbow surgery, into a second baseman. Johnson has been a force at the plate ( .289 BA/ .427 OBP/.512 SLG) while showing solid defensive skills.
– Though Jeff Francoeur is an undeniably gifted athlete, there had been a large disconnect between Francoeur’s perceived and actual value to the Braves. Many looked at Francoeur’s superficially impressive 103 RBI in 2006 and saw a force in the Atlanta lineup, though he walked only 23 times while posting a paltry .293 OBP. However, Francoeur appears to have made significant progress with his plate discipline in 2007. Francoeur has already walked 11 times in 146 Plate Appearances and sports a .349 OBP. Francoeur’s P/PA (Pitches Per Plate Appearance) has increased from 3.3 in 2006 to 3.6. Sure, it’s not like Francoeur has turned into a walks machine, but with his combination of raw power and athleticism, even adequate discipline will be enough for Francoeur to blossom into a star-caliber player.
– One could argue that the Braves now feature the best 1-2 reliever punch in the National League in Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano. The Braves haven’t exactly missed the injured Bob Wickman, as Gonzalez and Soriano have stepped into high leverage situations and have performed quite well. Soriano was stolen from the Seattle Mariners for slopballer Horacio Ramirez, and Gonzalez was acquired from the Pirates along with shortstop prospect Brent Lillibridge for first baseman Adam LaRoche and outfield prospect Jamie Romak. Credit Braves GM John Schuerholz for identifying and attacking his team’s biggest weakness in 2006.
Ryan Doumit has been red hot since being recalled from AAA Indianapolis on April 26th, and is hitting .442/.510/.744 in 49 Plate Appearances. Doumit has a sweet lefthanded stroke (though a switch-hitter, Doumit looks far more fluid from the left side) and has solid power. A hitter with some pop capable of playing catcher, first base and right field, Doumit deserves to be in the lineup everyday for the punchless Pirates. Ideally, Doumit would platoon in right field with Xavier Nady, who continues to be wholly inadequate against righthanded pitching (.211/.269/.423 in 2007, . 243/.293/.408 in his career) while occasionally spotting for Ronny Paulino and Adam LaRoche.
– It will be interesting to see if Pirates Manager Jim Tracy bats Jack Wilson in the 8th spot again. Wilson has been the #2 hitter for years, despite an impatient approach at the plate that has produced a career OBP of .305. While the relevance of lineup order has been debated in recent years, the hitters near the top of the lineup undeniably take up a greater proportion of a team’s plate appearances. Is Jack Wilson one of the hitters you want gaining extra plate appearancs?

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Matt Bandi

Matt has covered the Pirates at Wait ‘Til Next Year, Pittsburgh Lumber Co. and now Pirates Prospects. He served as Pirates team expert for Heater Magazine in 2009 and 2010 and has contributed to Graphical Player 2009, 2010 and 2011. Matt was also the editor of the 2011 and 2012 Pirates Prospects Annuals.

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