Mailbag: Will Braves keep up in East?
Atlanta beat reporter Mark Bowman answers fans' questions
What National League East team do you think will pose the biggest threat for the Braves this year?
-- Matthew S., Elko, Nev.
This once again appears to be a three-horse race, with the Mets only currently being listed to satisfy those looking to bet a trifecta. Of course, if New York general manager Omar Minaya is able to bring Johan Santana to Queens, prognosticators will have a much tougher time projecting the clear-cut kings of the NL East.
As the Braves have shown with their acquisition of center fielder Mark Kotsay, roster reconstruction is far from complete for every Major League team. Some still believe the Twins want to deal Santana out of the American League, and because of this, the Mets still have reason to believe they could land the lefty and immediately turn a shaky rotation into a solid one.
Assuming Kotsay proves to be healthy and regains the form he had before his back started giving him problems, there is definitely reason to believe Atlanta could be hoisting another division crown. Their starting staff possesses the desirable combination of both depth and talent and their lineup will certainly remain strong as long as both Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann continue to develop into stellar Major Leaguers.
As the rosters currently stand, I'd say the Phillies appear to be Atlanta's greatest threat. They have the talent to repeat as division champs this year even if they don't get another assist from the Mets, whose concerns center around their rotation and not how they'll rebound from last year's September collapse.
The Phillies might regret the acquisition of Brad Lidge during some ninth innings in the band box that they call home. But even if a change of scenery isn't enough to end the mental woes the once-dominant closer battled in Houston, his arrival in Philadelphia has at least allowed Brett Myers to return to the rotation, and that should be considered a good thing in the City of Brotherly Love.
With Myers and ace Cole Hamels, arguably the NL's best young left-hander, the front of the Philadelphia rotation is solid. But it's certainly not better than the one-two punch Atlanta has with John Smoltz and Tim Hudson. And it definitely would again have to take a back seat if Santana is paired with Pedro Martinez, who will remain at least effective as long as his once-prized right arm stays attached to his surgically-repaired shoulder.
Still as the Braves were reminded last year, a rotation's success goes beyond front-line starters. They feel they've deepened their rotation with the return of Tom Glavine, whose exit from Queens certainly could have a damaging effect on the Mets, who can only hope that Oliver Perez did indeed turn the corner last year.
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While the Mets will cross their fingers regarding Perez, the Phillies will do the same with Kyle Kendrick, who went 10-4 with a 3.87 ERA in the 20 starts he made after getting his first call to the Majors on June 13. He did so while allowing opponents a .280 batting average and a history that included just 14 wins in 91 Minor League starts. Truth be told, the 23-year-old right-hander has been solid since beginning his third consecutive season at the Class A level in 2006.
Each of these teams have solid offenses and the race should be determined by rotation depth. With Hudson and Smoltz, the Braves appear to have the best thoroughbred duo and thus I'll peg them as the favorites. But when it comes to the NL East this year, the only sure lock is that the Marlins will finish last.
Where do you see Kotsay batting in the lineup in 2008?
-- Matt I., Waverly, Va.
Kotsay has spent a majority of his career hitting in either of the top two spots of the batting order, and this year should be no different. My early guess is that he'll man one of those two spots with Yunel Escobar and that Kelly Johnson will bat seventh or eighth.
Some believe Escobar would be a solid run producer in the middle of the lineup. You can't argue that. But at the same time, you can't dispute the value he brought while hitting .351 with a .400 on-base percentage in 34 games as the leadoff hitter last year.
The Braves don't have the speed demon that teams like to put at the top of their lineup. But with Escobar and Kotsay, who owns a .337 career on-base percentage, they have two guys who can provide regular run-producing opportunities for Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira.
Johnson produced a .372 on-base percentage in 76 games as the leadoff hitter last year and might have at least shared that role with Escobar if Kotsay hadn't arrived. But my guess is that the Braves will put him in the eighth spot with the hope that he'll get on base consistently and give pitchers numerous sacrifice opportunities.
As long as his back remains healthy, I think Kotsay will bat second and Escobar will once again be given the chance to be the consistent catalyst that he was down the stretch last year.
With Matt Diaz's ability to hit both right- and left-handers, and his improved defense in 2007, why is he, again, being considered a platoon player?
-- Bill C., Black, N.C.
This is probably best explained by the old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." While primarily platooning in left the past two years, he's hit .329 with a .359 on-base percentage in 334 at-bats against left-handers and .336 with a .374 on-base percentage in 321 at-bats against right-handers. He has hit 14 of his 19 homers during this span against left-handed pitchers.
Once pegged as a defensive liability who couldn't hit right-handers, Diaz has earned the right to prove he's an everyday player. But with Brandon Jones waiting in the wings, it looks like the Braves are going to use a platoon in left field for a fifth straight season.
You have to go back to 2003 to find a season when the Braves didn't use a platoon in left field. The man filling that position was none other than Chipper Jones.
There's reason to wonder if Brandon Jones is ready for the Majors, and some who have watched him progress through the Minors wonder whether he'll be comfortable not being an everyday player. Fortunately for the Braves, if he stumbles, they at least have reason to believe Diaz can handle the everyday role.
Do you see Jordan Schafer coming up to the Majors this year or in 2009?
-- Kenny K., Elyria, Ohio
With Kotsay in the mix, it obviously appears Schafer will be given the chance to gain extended seasoning at the Minor League level in 2008. Of course, with the reality that Kotsay's back could provide lingering problems, there's no reason to completely rule out the possibility that Schafer could be in Atlanta some time this year.
In some ways, it's been unfair to Schafer to already label him the club's center fielder of the future. Put more of that blame on me and some of the other writers. He's never had the chance to play above the Class A level, and now with the opportunity to realize normal growth, we'll have a better understanding of whether we've been correct to place this kind of pressure on a 21-year-old.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.