Well, this has been a very productive off season so far for the Atlanta Braves. Sure, we all know letting Derek Lee and Troy Glaus go means that Freddie Freeman will be given every chance to succeed and win the first baseman job during spring training. We made what appears to be a steal of a deal by getting Dan Uggla from the Marlins for Omar Infante and Mike Dunn. While Infante was invaluable last season, and Dunn is a powerful lefty out of the pen, to acquire Uggla, a big time power hitting right handed bat that plays second base, a position not known for its power, for a utility player(though Infante was an all star in 2010,) and a middle reliever in Dunn looks to be a one sided deal in Atlanta's favor. I'm not complaining, I just thought we'd have to give Florida one of our top pitching prospects to acquire Uggla. While the Uggla acquisition has been the biggest move the Braves have made this off season, Frank Wren has made a few more moves. He sent a minor league reliever in Kyle Cofield, who is a descent prospect despite his obvious control problems, to the Chicago WhiteSox for right handed middle reliver Scott Linebrink. While Linebrink has had his issues the past few seasons pitching for the Sox, the Braves have been high on him for a few years now, attempting to acquire him at the trade deadline a few years back while he was pitching for the Padres. Linebrink should bring a veteran leadership to the club after losing Billy Wagner to retirement and non tendering Saito. Wren also made a splash by signing another veteran reliever in lefty George Sherrill, who only three years ago was an all star closer for the Baltimore Orioles. Both Linebrink and Sherrill should help the Braves bullpen, which is returning Johnny Venters, Craig Kimbrel, and Eric O'Flaherety to name a few. The main question about the bullpen, is who will take over the closers job for the retiring Billy Wagner. Venters did more than enough last season to prove he is worthy of consideration for the job, having an ERA under 2.00, and striking out over 9/9IP. Though he pitched extremely well, he is a lefty, and over 2/3 of the batters in the majors are right handed. Taking that in to consideration, Kimbrel, who is a strike out machine(he struck out 40 in 20 innings last season) and had a very good post season, seems to be a better option to close. Though there is such a thing as closer by committee, that never works very well. If Kimbrel can continue to improve his control, he made major strides last season, he could be one of the most dominant power closers in the past 30 years.
Our starting rotation returns in tact from last season as well. Tim Hudson, who had a fantastic season in 2010, coming back from injury, to pitch as good, or better, than he was in any season since coming over from Oakland. Tommy Hanson started off a little slow, and had a few BAD outings, will be back and should be the Braves number 2 starter. Though his 10-11 record does not look impressive, his secondary numbers do. He had a 3.33 ERA, struck out around 8/9IP, and had a WHIP under 1.20. He is coming into his 3rd season and he could be looking at a huge season. A season of 15+ wins an ERA under 3.00 and 200+ strikeouts are very possible this season. Derek Lowe and his 15 million dollar salary also returns. I'm not 100% positive, but I think maybe Atlanta is starting to regret this deal. When Lowe is on, he is one of the best in the game, but when he's off, he's really off. I can't watch him pitch unless I have plenty of Tums standing by. That being said, he will be the 3rd starter for the Braves this season, unless they can find a team willing to take on his salary, while getting a little back in return. If Seattle is still considering a Lowe for Chone Figgins deal, I'd pull the trigger. The #4 man should be Jair Jurjjens. JJ was not healthy in 2010, but when healthy, he is a dynamic pitcher, with the ability to be a #1 starter. The #5 spot is up for grabs, with Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy the most likely candidates to win the spot. Both Minor and Beachy were plenty impressive in their short debuts in 2010. Beachy a right hander, throws in the low 90's with an above average curve and being and undrafted free agent gives him a nicely placed chip on his shoulder. Minor is the polar opposite of Beachy. He was a first round pick out of Vandy, and is a lefty. He throws his fast ball in the low to mid 90's and has an impressive off speed arsenal. Minor may have the upper hand, as he would be the only lefty in the starting rotation. I guess we will all have to wait for spring training to see who will win the job.
Now that we have the pitching out of the way, lets get to the guys who swing the bat. Brian McCann and David Ross have the catching position locked down. McCann is widely known to be the #2 offensive catcher in the game, behind Joe Mauer. McCann has been an outstanding offensive presence, but has yet to have that breakout season. 2011 could be the season McCann puts up that complete season where he hits .300 with 30HR and 100+RBI. David Ross is by far the best back up catcher in the league. Like I mentioned earlier, Freddie Freeman will be given the chance to be the starter at first in 2011. Like Jason Heyward, Freeman is a big lefty, with the potential to dominate at his position. If he wins the job, he will be a favorite to be the 2011 ROY. At 2nd base, the Braves now have a right handed power bat in Dan Uggla. Though he is not a defensive wizard, Uggla can hold his own in the field, while pounding out 30+HR and driving in 100+ runs while hitting in the middle of the lineup. Wren and the boys are working hard to lock Uggla up long term, and I hope they can get it done before the season starts. At SS, Alex Gonzales will get his first full season as a Brave. Though he did not put up the offensive numbers he did while playing in Toronto, his defense and leadership in the club house make him a nice member of the squad. All Braves fans are hoping Chipper can return to the player he was before his season ending injury last season. I know he is not the Chipper of old, him just being in the lineup makes Atlanta a better team. When he is not playing, Prado will more than likely be the man at 3rd. When Chipper is playing, Prado will be manning left field. Prado put it all together in 2010, and was an MVP candidate before he went down to injury. Prado is possibly the best line drive hitter in the game, and can carry the team when he gets hot. A .300 average is now expected from Prado, and a move to the outfield means he needs to power up a little. He has the ability to hit home runs, and I can honestly see 2011 being a season in which Prado hits .300 with 20HR. Center field is a soft spot in the lineup. Nate McLouth disappeared last season, and was replaced by a clone who was not programmed to hit a baseball. McLouth, Matt Young, and Jordan Schafer will battle it out for the starting job, and whoever wins the job needs to play solid defense and put up some descent power and speed numbers. The RF spot is locked down by the J-Hey kid, Jason Heyward. J-Hey put up above average numbers in 2010, playing most of the season as a 20 year old. With his rookie season under his belt, and having his best friend, Freddie Freeman, around for the entire season, Heyward looks primed to have an MVP type season at a very young age. He is,by far, the most impressive young position player in the big leagues, yes, even better than Georgia native Buster Posey. Eric Hinskie is back as the best PH in the game, with Ross, Brooks Conrad(NOT A DEFENSIVE REPLACEMENT!!!!!!) and probably Diory Hernandez as bats off the bench. All in all, the lineup looks pretty good.
Possible trade opportunity? Are the Braves looking to upgrade the CF position? If I'm Frank Wren, I am. We have an obscene stock of starting pitchers in the minors, and could swap one or two for a good CF. Atlanta was looking at Lorenzo Cain earlier in the off season, but the Brewers sent him to KC in the Grienke trade. Me, personally, I would LOVE to have Jacoby Ellsbury as our starting CF. Tell me what you think. Boston sends Ellsbury and a prospect to the Braves, and the Braves send Beachy, Schafer, and Zeke Spruill to the Sox. Sounds like a win win to me. I know I'm living in a fantasy world, thinking Ellsbury will come to Atlanta, but a man can dream can't he?
Assuming Atlanta does not make any more moves before the season begins, I am going to give you guys my predictions for the 2011 season, with my projected starters, projected lineup, and their numbers.
This is only my predictions if the lineup works out this way. If McLouth comes back to form, he will probably lead off and Heyward will probably be in the 6 hole. Either way it works out, I hope the Braves take it all the way to the World Series title. I will do my starting pitcher predictions at a later date... To all Braves fans, keep hoping for the best and as always, GO BRAVES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!