Coming off a 91-71 wild card campaign, the Atlanta Braves polished their injury ridden season off with a four-game series loss to the World Champion San Francisco Giants. The Braves strengthened their roster with the acquisition of power hitting second baseman Dan Uggla and the free agent signings of relief pitchers Scott Linebrink and George Sherill. While still looking for potential suitors for the nuclear disaster, Kenshin Kawakami, as well as discussing other potential small value possibilities, Frank Wren and the front office appear to have finished their off-season dealings. In an interview with Dave O'Brien, Wren said even after the Cliff Lee signing in Philadelphia, the Braves strategy is unchanged and the roster appears "ready for Spring Training."
In a recent interview with two baseball gurus, Ryan Hoover, sports beat writer for the Cardinal & Cream Newspaper, and Keith Edwards, author and Braves paraphernalia collector, the two discussed the upcoming season for the Braves, the NL East and the MLB as a whole.
UU: Hearing what Frank Wren said about the current roster looking "ready for Spring Training," how do you think the Braves' 25 players stack up against the rest of the division?
RH: It is interesting that he "called it quits" so soon but Atlanta has done very well this off-season. They answered several questions with the Uggla trade and the reliever signings.
KE: Not to mention the resigning of Hinske.
RH: And Hinske. Our pitching staff is still in the top tier in the league. With Hudson and Lowe providing veteran experience on the starting staff and Hanson and Jurrjens still developing, we have a more than qualified staff.
KE: I'm not sure FW is done necessarily. In middle school you learn when you like a girl the last thing you do is tell her.
RH: This may be true but realistically for the Braves there are limited options available for our financial situation.
KE: Right. While I don't necessarily think FW "likes a girl," I don't 100 percent believe we are done making moves. That being said, if this is it, then I am cautiously optimistic of the players we having going forward. While our one glaring hole of lack of power was addressed, we still have some obvious questions but it is equally obvious to see that we improved from last year.
RH: I agree we improved. However, every team in the NL East improved this Winter right beside us. It was a dagger when the Phillies signed Lee because we were so close to being as talented as them.The Nationals have solid, young talent in Desmond, Strasburg and Bernadina. They were very aggressive this off-season with Werth and their attempts in getting a top notch pitcher (Lee, Grienke, Pavano, Garza).
KE: Don't forget the Mets (strange glares) They were doing so many foolish things and so far they haven't done anything idiotic. That's a complete 180. (Laughter) In all seriousness, the Fins got our good buddy, Javier Vazquez and have a whole slew of young talent in the outfield.
UU: And All-Star Infante. He will probably become a Braves killer like Wes Helms.
RH: Watch your mouth (Laughter).
UU: Let's focus more on the 25-man roster. Who will have improved the most over the off-season coming into Spring Training?
KE: While I would love for it to be Chipper's knee or Nate McLouth's overall ability to play athletic sports, my gut feeling is that Martin Prado will carve out his niche as the Braves best all-around player this season. He will continue to have a .300 average but he said himself last year that he is always looking to improve his game. He is a professional hitter and I think his overall driving ability will improve. Look for Martin to do everything in Atlanta short of a collaboration with Ludacris.
RH: I think Martin has a ton of drive to improve but I think when we talk about the "most" improved, you have to look at the Golden Child, Jason Heyward. We saw last year that he has so much raw talent and is still developing his mechanics and comfort zone which he is constantly modifying. Take for instance, at the beginning of last year, pitcher began pounding the inside corner and were highly successful. His K rate skyrocketed, but he adjusted. He sought council in the most patient lineup in the league and started developing plate discipline. I think his plate presence this coming year will begin to look more like the established hitters in the game: Pujols, Mauer, Gonzalez, Francoeur. (Laughter)
KE: One area I think we really improved on, that's not necessarily a player, is the bottom of our rotation.
UU: You think Minor is an upgrade over Kenshin Kawakami, I assume?
KE: Wholeheartedly. Did you watch the first Giants-Cowboys game this year? (No) Well at the end of the game, the score was close, the Cowboys had great offensive stats and even lead for a while, but the Giants basically dominated the entire game. Point being: stats don't necessarily tell the whole story. When you look at KK's numbers, his stats aren't awful. I have even heard the statement that he'd be the 3rd or 4th starter on any other team. Fact of the matter is, you can throw out the stats and watch his performance. He was/is not a good pitcher for the Braves. I know some people still disagree, and I'd love for him to be here another season and prove me right, but I take comfort in knowing he'll never put on an Atlanta hat ever again.
RH: I'm not sure he will put on an American baseball uniform again. Even the Pirates don't want him.
UU: Who do you think will disappoint Braves fans, excluding McLouth?
RH: It'd be unfair to say Brooks Conrad, right? I mean, how much more can we be let down?
KE: Is it awful that I wanted some fan to attack him? Not because I was that mad, but I really wanted one of those 30 for 30 documentaries made about us.(Nervous laughter)
RH: But in all seriousness, Jonny Venters cannot be the same pitcher he was last year. It ails me to say that because he took the place of Kris Medlen as my favorite youngin' but its true. He pitched in 79 games as a rookie. I think his arm will be tired, much like Medlen's was last year. I hope he can produce the same performance, but we saw the effects of the 2010 season in the last week of the season and the postseason, especially. Plus, he won't have his high socks.
KE: He might. I'm going to generalize and say the bench. As much as Hinske and Conrad affected a large amount of games last year, those two and Ross are the only solid replacement pieces. Diory isn't a major league hitter. Schafer is a huge question mark if he's even healthy. I do have optimism about Young and Mather but they are questions as well.
RH: It does seem we gained a few more question marks with the loss of Diaz and the every elusive Melkman. (Laughter)
KE: Alex Gonzalez also worries me more than Jayson Werth around my wife. I have this innate fear that he will take up old habits and begin striking out again.
(The conversation continued, but due to length of this post, I am going to skip to the end and possibly post the rest at a later time)
UU: Lightning Round. Single sentence answers. Ready? Braves player you will miss the most in 2011?
RH: Kyle Farnsworth. I like knowing we can win any fight.
KE: Kris Medlen. More so for his bat and his spice for life.
UU: Atlanta wins how many games this year?
RH: 90. I expect a more consistent season from last year's roller coaster ride.
KE: 92. (No explanation)
UU: Most home runs on the team?
RH: 34. "HIS NAME IS DAN UGGLA!"
KE: New guy's gettin 40.
UU: Thing you're most looking forward to seeing at Turner Field this coming year?
RH: Home Depot Tool Race
KE: A Hinske home run where he tosses the bat and slowly walks the first 30 steps.
UU: Better Braves outfield? Prado, McLouth, Heyward or Cabrera, Blanco, Francoeur?
RH: Oh those Kansas City Braves...I think they will retire Bobby's jersey before us.
KE: What is they say about imitation?
UU: Last one.You're starting your own MLB franchise and have your choice of 3 players from any team. Who do you choose?
RH: Heyward. Lincecum. Andrus.
KE; Heyward. Latos. Gaby Sanchez. How about you?
UU: Heyward. Strasburg. Posey.
KE: Now we know why you ask the questions. (Laughter)