As optimistic as I tried to be, deep down (and not really all that deep) I knew Andruw Jones was a goner. I got my hopes up a few times, but it’s hard to make a good argument for keeping Andruw on the Braves. Terence Moore tried by making the bizarre claim that Andruw was responsible for the Cy Young awards of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz. Maddux finished winning Cy Youngs while Andruw was in A-ball; Smoltz picked up his only award during Andruw’s first season, when he appeared in 20 and 12 games in right and center; Glavine won one award (1998) when Andruw was the team’s everyday center fielder.
The reason Andruw had to go is obvious: the Braves have another need to fill before they can consider paying Andruw what he is worth on the free agent market. The Braves did a good job with their pitching this year, but the long-term prognosis is not good. Tim Hudson is a good pitcher, but he overperformed in 2007 (there is no way he gives up as few as 10 HRs in over 200 IPs again). John Smoltz is old—more than once this year I feared that he was down for the season. The youth movement consists of Chuck James and Jo-Jo Reyes. There is nothing on the farm to get excited about, especially after the parade “young gun” flame-outs—Kyle Davies, Anthony Lerew, Dan Meyer, Jose Capellan—that have come through the system.
On offense, the Braves are stocked. Even with Andruw’s horrible year at the plate, the Braves were third in the NL in runs scored. Now, I have little doubt that Andruw will rebound (more on that below), and that runs scored can offset runs allowed, but I think the risk-minimizing move is to take money that could go to a good outfielder and put it into multiple pitchers. Also, it makes sense to shed some big contracts and try to improve on the farm to grow some young cheap talent.
How will the Braves replace Andruw? I believe the smart move is to look internally, even though it will mean a significant drop-off on defense. Jeff Francoeur, Brandon Jones, and Brent Lillibridge have all been mentioned as internal options. I like the idea of moving Francoeur, even though I don’t think he’s all that spectacular on defense. Jeff is an athlete, and I think there are greater gains to working on his defense than offense at this point. I expect Jeff will top out between .800 and .820 OPS at his peak, and while this offense is below average for a right fielder, in center he’d look pretty good.
I hope that the Braves will move Kelly Johnson to the outfield. The Braves have a lot of infielders, and Kelly is too good to platoon. In a radio interview yesterday, I was delighted to hear John Scheurholz correct Buck Belue for not including Johnson as part of the Braves core of young talent. In fact, he stopped for a minute to emphasize Johnson’s ability. By moving Johnson to the outfield, the Braves can play Edgar Renteria and Yunel Escobar every day, and can use Willy Aybar and Martin Prado as back-up infielders. But, the Braves may choose to remedy the log-jam with a trade.
As for Andruw’s future, I have no doubt that 2007 was just a bad year. His batting average was way down, but his OBP and SLG were approaching 100 and 200 above his AVG. Give Andruw 40 points on his average (his career norm) and he’s an .800 OPS player. That is still a down year for Andruw, but it’s not nearly as ugly as what we witnessed. If his isolated power and walks had dipped significantly from the past, I would be more concerned. Luck, injuries, and some poor play combined to make this year a disaster. I expect Andruw’s problems this year will not continue. And this is part of the reason why the Braves are letting him go: there are plenty of teams that see Andruw as a valuable player for many years to come. He’s going to get a monster contract.
I really hate the way that Andruw went out. Fans gave this guy too much grief. I certainly wish him the best, and I will root for him where ever he plays.