Can Atlanta contend in the East with its new -- yet old -- rotation?
Despite a 72-90 mark in '08, the Braves seem convinced they'll contend this year
The Braves have acquired Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami
Truth be told, an actual playoff berth still seems like a long shot
Despite their 72-90 record last season, the Braves seemed convinced that they were going to contend in 2009. At least that's the message they've sent this offseason by trading one of their top hitting prospects and shelling out more $60 million to shore up their rotation with a trio of thirty-something right-handers.
Despite losing out on A.J. Burnett and being burned by Rafael Furcal, the Braves stuck with the plan and landed 35-year-old Derek Lowe with a four-year deal worth a reported $60 million and 33-year-old Kenshin Kawakami, formerly of the Chunichi Dragons of the Japanese Central League, with a three-year deal. Those two were added to a rotation that includes 32-year-old Javier Vazquez -- who was acquired from the White Sox in early December in a six-player deal that sent power-hitting catcher prospect Tyler Flowers to the ChiSox -- and 2008 holdovers sophomore Jair Jurrjens and former Mexican leaguer Jorge Campillo. The Braves have thus fleshed out a rotation that was decimated by injuries a year ago and was already going to be without Tim Hudson for most of the year (Tommy John surgery) and John Smoltz, who just signed with the Red Sox after 21 years in the Braves' organization.
Still, it's unlikely that a rotation of Lowe, Vazquez, Jurrjens, Kawakami and Campillo is going to keep opposing hitters up at night. The top three are solid, league-average-or-better starters, but none are likely to dominate. Vazquez has the strikeout and walk rates of a front-end starter, and has made 32 or more starts in 10 of his 11 seasons, but he is prone to giving up home runs and has had just one above-average season since the Expos traded him following the 2003 season.
Lowe and Jurrjens keep the ball on the ground, but the 22-year-old Jurrjens seemed to tire down the stretch last year and could suffer a sophomore slump after throwing 45 more innings in 2008 than he had between the majors and minors in '07. Lowe was dominant down the stretch last year, posting a 0.94 ERA over his last nine starts, but that's not a performance anyone would be likely to repeat. Lowe also had a sharp home-road split last year, as his ERA was more than two runs higher outside of Dodger Stadium. That was likely a bit fluky, but his ERA on the road over his first three seasons as a Dodger was still 45 points higher than it was at home. Beyond that, the Braves' infield, which will be crucial to the sinkerballing Lowe's continued success, is a mixed bag. Shortstop Yunel Escobar and first baseman Casey Kotchman are strong defenders, but second sacker Kelly Johnson -- whom the Braves had hoped to replace with Furcal -- and the aging Chipper Jones are subpar with the leather (though Jones did have a good year in the field in 2008).
Kawakami, meanwhile, is a total unknown in terms of his ability to retire major league hitters. Given his outstanding control (less than two walks per nine innings in his Japanese career), wide assortment of pitches (cutter, curve, shuuto, forkball) and a fastball which tends to sit in the high 80s and top out at about 91 mph, I suspect he's a very similar pitcher to the 30-year-old Campillo. Indeed, Campillo's best pitch is a changeup that has a shuuto-like break back toward right-handed hitters. Both are foreign-league veterans who get by on deception, changing speeds (Kawakami's curve is a big, looping yakker that comes in at around 65 mph) and their ability to hit spots and stay a step ahead of the hitter.
The X-factor for Kawakami will be the effectiveness of his cutter, which was his out pitch in Japan. If he can get major leaguers to swing and miss at that pitch, he could be yet another solid league-average-or-better arm for the Braves. If not, he'll hang out at the back of the rotation with Campillo and battle to see who gets to keep his spot when the organization's top pitching prospect, Tommy Hanson, arrives midseason. Given the mere 117 1/3 innings Kawakami threw last year (Lowe threw exactly as many in his home games alone in '08) and the strained back he suffered in September, the Braves may well need Hanson to take Kawakami's spot around the time of the veteran's 34th birthday in late June.
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