Jason Heyward could lead the Braves to greatness this year.
Turn on ESPN or MLB Network. If they're talking about the National League, they're talking about the Phillies. You'd almost swear they have the division won before playing a single game. They have a pitching staff that will go down as the greatest in history, and an offense that still scores at will. They'll win 100 games by mid-September and coast to the Fall Classic without ever breaking a sweat. Philadelphia will become the kings of baseball, and their onslaught of the other 15 National League teams will begin on March 31st.
It's almost like we shouldn't even play the season.
Though despite receiving minimal attention this Spring, the Braves could have something really special coming together. There are nine innings in a baseball game, and these are nine innings worth of reasons the National League East crown could come back to Atlanta in 2011.
1st Inning - Bobby is gone, but Fredi is the right man for the job.
It's never easy to replace a legend, but Fredi Gonzalez has already shown why he was the consensus pick to replace Bobby Cox. The transition between managers has gone without a hitch, and he's already received the full vote of confidence from his players. The Braves organization is among the best in baseball and there's no need to reinvent the wheel. Fredi will continue to do things the "Braves Way", and future looks bright with Gonzalez at the helm.
2nd Inning - After three long years, we finally have an offense.
Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, Martin Prado, and Dan Uggla are four All-Star-level hitters. Each player should have an OPS well above .800, and 100 combined home runs isn't out of the question at all. Seriously, it's tough to find a better core of young hitters in baseball. They'll mash all year long.
Chipper Jones, even if he needs some time off, still controls the strike zone better than just about anyone in baseball and is having a phenomenal Spring Training. Freddie Freeman had an OPS just shy of .900 as a 20-year old in Triple-A last year, and all signs point to a big year at the plate in 2011. If these two guys can handle the grind of a long season, we'll really be looking good.
Towards the lower-half of the lineup, Nate McLouth has hit like "Pittsburgh Nate" this Spring, and everyone who's seen him this Spring has been impressed. And if Alex Gonzalez can at least be decent at the plate as our 8th hitter, we're looking at a pretty damn solid bunch of hitters.
3rd Inning - Some serious starting pitching.
Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, and Mike Minor. You don't find many rotations better than that. With a nice mix of experience veterans and up-and-coming kids, the Braves should get a solid performance out of their starting pitcher every night of the week. Each is capable of shutting down an offense on any given night, and with the improved offense, they should be able to pitch without feeling the need to be perfect.
If the season started tomorrow, Brandon Beachy, Kenshin Kawakami, and Rodrigo Lopez would all start the season in the Minor Leagues. They're the 4th or 5th starter for just about any other team in baseball, and they're the Braves' 6th, 7th, and 8th best options. That's some serious depth for you.
And then there's always the Brandon Beachy or Jonny Venters-type pitcher the Braves seem to find every season. You won't know who it is at the beginning of the year, but that player will emerge. Just ask Beachy, Kris Medlen, Peter Moylan, Eric O'Flaherty, or even a guy like Buddy Carlyle or Jorge Sosa. They may not stick around for a long time, but you can rest assured that they'll find a way to have an impact on the team.4th Inning - Jason Heyward.
His wrist and thumb are finally healthy. Want to know his stat line from 2010 if you exclude when he played through injury? .296/.410/.527. Combine this with gold glove-level defense and the potential for 30 home runs and 100 RBI (which you know the voters drool over), and we're looking at a possible MVP candidate. Jason Heyward is a special baseball player, and he could become a superstar in 2011. Let's just not bat him 6th.
5th Inning - It won't always be pretty, but the defense will be improved.
The Braves won't be great, but they'll be vastly improved in the field this year. Troy Glaus and his gimpy knees will be replaced by Freddie Freeman. Melky Cabrera and his center field-throwing arm will be replaced by Martin Prado, who's had his transition to left field be described as "a duck to water". Chipper Jones is healthy, and he's looked solid at the hot corner throughout Spring Training. And while Dan Uggla wasn't much of a defender in Florida, his defense should improve with a better playing surface at Turner Field.
6th Inning - The bench is back in town.
David Ross is the best backup catcher in baseball, and we can only hope he'll be in the lineup a little more often to give Brian McCann a rest. Eric Hinske is one of the best in the league as far as bench players go, and he'll be back for more in 2011. All-Star Omar Infante will be missed, guys like Ed Lucas or Matt Young are showing that they could be the second coming of our talented utility man.
The Braves could also benefit greatly if former top-prospects Wilkin Ramirez and Jordan Schafer finally figure it out. They'd be a welcome addition to the club as a 4th outfielder. And while his defense is awful, Brooks Conrad earned the nickname "Clutch Conrad" for a reason last season. The guy knows how to hit when the game is on the line, and his late-game heroics could be big once again for Atlanta.
7th Inning - Good luck after the 7th inning.
With Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters forming a nasty combination for the 8th and 9th innings, it's tough to imagine teams doing much damage once these two kids make the trot in from the bullpen. Fredi Gonzalez will be able to play the match-ups in just about every game, and with so many talented hitters occupying the NL East, it'll be a huge advantage for the Braves.
Peter Moylan, Eric O'Flaherty, Scott Linebrink, and left-handed specialist George Sherrill will round out a 'pen that's just as good as anyone's. And with younger guys like Stephen Marek, Cristhian Martinez, Cory Gearrin, and Juan Abreu eagerly waiting for their call-up to Atlanta, there's plenty of insurance waiting around in Gwinnett should the Braves need it.
8th Inning - Flexibility at the trade deadline.
Plain and simple, the Braves have the prospects to get just about any deal done. Money is always a concern with Liberty Media at the helm, but we do have the pieces to put together a big trade if deemed necessary. Frank Wren's track record with mid-season transactions isn't great, but the man is still among the best in the business. If we have a glaring hole on our roster, we'll be able to fill it.
9th Inning - This team doesn't have a weakness.
We can pitch, we can hit, and we can field. We have an excellent mix of veterans and kids on the roster, and we have a phenomenal new manager in Fredi Gonzalez to get the team through the grind of 162 games. Sure, there are a few questions surrounding the team, but every team in baseball has them. Will Chipper stay healthy? Will Nate McLouth be able to rebound? How will rookies like Freeman, Minor, and Kimbrel perform? They're all legit concerns.
At the end of the day, though, this is a really good team with a ton of talent. We'll give the heavily favored Phillies a hell of a run this year, and if a few things roll our way, the Atlanta Braves could be National League East champions in 2011.