Even if everybody returned from last year’s roster, that surprisingly challenged for both the National League East title and Wild Card spot, everything would still be different. For the first time in 20 years, Bobby Cox isn’t directing the ship for the Braves. However, the cupboard isn’t bare for the new manager taking over the reins for the future Hall of Famer, Fredi Gonzalez. He showed for years in Florida he could make a roster with very little work as hard as possible to maximize what it’s got (think runway model coach without the colorful accent and lifestyle). In the CHEAP SEATS first of 30 Major League previews, let’s take a look first at the new era in the A.
1. The Come Up: There is no better young power hitter anywhere than Jason Heyward, who made his All-Star debut at the age of 21 last year. He is already the best hitter in a lineup that isn’t exactly low on quality bats, and he hasn’t even seen what his roof can be yet. Think Ryan Howard, with more mobility for the power this guy has, or maybe a pre-DEA target Darryl Strawberry when he could do no wrong for the 80’s Mets. That’s what you’re looking at here. Injuries and rookie cold streaks held him to 18 home runs last year; however it’s not a gamble to say he could approach doubling that number this year.
2. Youth Movement: No team in baseball has a better mix of young players on the Major League scene already, and more help ready to break through now than the Braves do. With already All-Stars Heyward and Martin Prado playing every day, and starting pitchers Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Mike Minor , in addition to closer Craig Kimbrel, already on the scene, the foundation is laid. First baseman Freddie Freeman about to play his first full season and the minor’s best pitching prospect in Julio Teheran (and his 97 mph fastball) is not far behind. The future is about to becoming the present in a very good way.
3. Arms Development: As mentioned, the Braves have a ton of great young arms already at work for them. If Hanson keeps the consistency he found in the second half of 2010, Jurrjens stays healthy and young left hander Mike Minor grows along with them this year, they have one of the most talented rotations in the game, with several guys in the race to be their long-term ace.
1. Middle of Nowhere: Nate McLouth fell off last year harder than Sarah Palin’s presidential hopes. He went from being an All-Star with back-to-back 20 home run years, to a .190 hitter with only 6 home runs, that spent time in the minor leagues. That can happen, especially for a guy that landed $5 million for that effort, and actually will make $6.5 million this year as a follow-up.
2. End of Days: Billy Wagner retired as he said he would, and took his 1.43 ERA and 43 saves with him. The Braves didn’t chase a proven vet to replace him, and instead opted for youngster Craig Kimbrel to fill the role. It’s an all or nothing move going with a young, first time closer and for a team with a realistic shot at the postseason, he could make the entire difference. Not much pressure on ya there kid. Oh wait….actually yeah, that is. Best of luck.
3. “Bring Out The Gimp”: I’m going to tread lightly here and make my point clear about a certain definite Hall of Famer that the Braves are still placing a lot of their success on over at third base. Chipper Jones has never been the picture of health at any point in his career, however when he’s been out there, he’s been dynamic. You don’t get 436 home runs and eight 100 RBI years on accident. However, he’s still being depended on to produce at the same level that he earned this respect at, even though he’s coming off a torn ACL, is 36 years old and his coming off a year where he had to go on a tear to end up hitting .265 when he was healthy. Another high stakes gamble in a crucial spot.
LINEUP/STAFF w/ 2010 stats (Biggest Difference Maker in BOLD)
- Martin Prado-LF: .307 avg/15 HR/66 RBI/100 runs scored
- Jason Heyward-RF: .277 avg/18 HR/72 RBI/11 stolen bases
- Chipper Jones-3B: .265 avg/10 HR/46 RBI/95 games played
- Dan Uggla-2B: Biggest boast to the club, hit 33 home runs last year and takes pressure off Heyward as primary power source. Biggest offensive addition to any NL team this year.
- Brian McCann-C: .269 avg/21 HR (tops among NL catchers)/77 RBI
- Alex Gonzalez-SS: .250 avg/23 HR/88 RBI
- Freddie Freeman-1B: ROOKIE. Hit .319/18 HR/87 RBI at AAA in 2010
- Nate McLouth-CF: .190 avg/6 HR/24 RBI/7 stolen bases
- Tim Hudson-RH: 17-9, 2.83 ERA, 139 K’s
- Jair Jurrjens-RH: 7-6, 4.64 ERA, 86 K’s
- Derek Lowe-RH: 16-12, 4.00 ERA, 136 K’s
- Tommy Hanson-RH: 10-11, 3.33 ERA, 173 K’s
- Mike Minor-LH: 3-2, 5.98 ERA, 43 K’s
Closer: Craig Kimbrel-RH: 1 Save, 0.44 ERA, 40 K’s (In 20 innings, Wow!)
Rundown: Are they getting better? Yes. A nearly every team in the East got better this year, and most made really big name moves to do so. Braves are no exception by adding the former All-Star Uggla to the middle of their mix. However, they were already close to breaking through with the cast they in place previously, and most of their roster actually has room to improve. This is a team that hasn’t fully realized its potential yet. It’s going to be hard to take the fight to the Phillies, but the talent is in place. It’s just a matter of if all the Atlanta youth is ready to contribute all summer consistently and stay healthy, which is always a gamble with young guys (ask the Nationals).