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Atlanta Braves Going for it in 2010

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This morning word came out that the Atlanta Braves had informed Jason Heyward, mega-prospect of the year, that he had made the team, and will be the starting right fielder come Opening Day.

Heyward making the team is an interesting move. Clearly, if you believe the reviews of practically everyone that has seen him, Heyward is going to be a star player, and is certainly the best option from an on-field perspective to play right field. However, there is a clear drawback to Heyward starting the year as a Brave - 2010 will count as a full year of service time for Heyward (assuming he stays up the whole year), meaning that the Braves will control Heyward until 2015 rather than 2016. Not only is it an extra year of the likely superstar, but it will be an extra year in his prime. Plus, with the extra service time, he will likely qualify for Super 2 Status, and head to arbitration a year early, costing Atlanta some extra money.

Lately, teams have gone out of their way to avoid their players getting extra service time. Last year, we saw the Orioles, Rays and Blue Jays all keep their mega-prospects (Matt Wieters, David Price and Travis Snider) in the minors for periods of time that were obviously for no purpose other than slowing the clock.

The Braves however are going in a different direction by letting Heyward start the season in the big leagues, and the reason is obvious: The Braves see themselves as contenders in 2010, and having Jason Heyward with the team for an extra two months should give them a valuable boost over that period of time. It is certainly a costly and bold move to make, but if the Braves are truly contenders this year, nobody will question them for it come September.

The Braves are coming off a very solid 2009 season where they finished third in the NL East, just one game behind the Florida Marlins, with 86 wins. For the simplicity of analysis, not much else has changed in that division. With a full year of Roy Halladay, the Phillies will be a bit better than they were in 2009. The Marlins remain essentially unchanged, and the Nationals are still far away. The Mets added Jason Bay, and with health and bounce-back seasons could be a tough team in 2010, but still have a lot of holes in their rotation. The Braves however, did have a pretty busy off-season.

On the offensive side, they added Troy Glaus to play first base, who with a healthy season, could be a 30 home run threat. His health is a pretty big concern, however. They traded for Nate McLouth last season, and he should be a solid contributor to the team for the full year. They also acquired Melky Cabrera through a trade, who should give some marginal contributions. The Braves were in the middle of the pack in baseball in terms of offense last season, and should see some gains in 2010 with these three and Jason Heyward. Just making an estimation, I could see the Braves picking up an extra 4 or 5 wins based on offensive improvements.

The pitching side is more interesting. The Braves had an incredibly strong rotation for most of 2009. Javier Vasquez was an incredible, Cy Young candidate for them, while youngsters Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens pitched almost out of their minds. On the bright side, Tommy Hanson is going to be a superstar. The league will likely figure him out a bit better than they did last year, but that dip he would take should be offset by the value of having him in the rotation the full year. Jair Jurrjens may be a bit of a regression candidate, as it seems like his 2009 was in some part due to a lot of luck, as his control was pretty poor. Of course, the big loss to the rotation is the trade of Vazquez, who according to FanGraphs, was worth 6.6 wins himself last year, making him the seventh most valuable pitcher in baseball. They will get some of that benefit back from a returning Tim Hudson and hopefully a better season from Derek Lowe, but there should still be a net loss. Overall, I could see the Braves pitching wiping away some of those offensive gains.

What this leaves us with is a prediction of the Braves being somewhere around an 88-win team in 2010, based off extremely rough estimations. While 88 wins may not be enough to take down the Phillies, it is certainly enough to vault the Braves right into the wildcard hunt. For that reason, the marginal benefit gained by the extra two months of Jason Heyward could make a big difference in giving them an extra win or so over the crowded wildcard field.

When you add in the fact that 2010 is supposed to be the last year that Bobby Cox spends as manager of the Braves, and it seems pretty clear that the decision to have Heyward start the year in the big leagues was a smart one. Rebuilding teams can take their time with their prospects to get more use of them when they plan to be competitors, but when you can get yourselves an extra boost in a playoff race, teams owe it to their fans to pay the extra price it takes to win.