Alright Braves fans, it is almost time for the most exciting day in sports; Opening day for baseball!!! Coming in to this off season, the Braves knew they would be losing their closer(Billy Wagner,) and also knew they needed a right handed power bat. All of Braves nation knew it was Freeman time at first base, and that the starting rotation was coming back completely intact. So, what did Atlanta accomplish this off season? First off, they let it be known that Craig Kimbrel and his nasty arsenal of pitches would be given every opportunity to win the closers job. Though he came out of the gates rather slow this spring, Kimbrel looks like he's finally got it going now that the season is right around the corner. If, for some reason he slips up to begin the season, Jonny Venters is primed and ready to go. To make up for the losses of Wagner and Takashi Saito, the Braves traded Kyle Cofield to the ChiSox for Scott Linebrink and signed big lefty George Sherrill to add that veteran presence at the back end of the bullpen. With Peter Moylan, Eric O'Flaherty and a rejuvenated Scott Proctor to go along with Linebrink, Sherrill, Venters, and Kimbrel, the Braves have a nice mix of young guns and vets, as well as a good mix of lefties and righties. All in all, the bullpen looks as good if not better than last season's bullpen. I give the bullpen a grade of a solid B+.
While the baseball world was giving the Phillies the World Series title after they signed Cliff Lee to pitch along side of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and Joe Blanton, the Braves quietly brought back their entire rotation from last season. Tim Hudson is back after coming back from Tommy John surgery and put up his best numbers since he became a Brave. He is the undeniable ace of the Braves rotation, and another 17 win season seems very reasonable. Derek Lowe is also back, and if he pitches this season like he did in September of last season, then he could win 20 games, and do it easily!! That is asking a lot, but, like Hudson, winning 15 to 18 games is a very solid projection. Tommy Hanson,A.K.A, Big Red should have won 15 or more games last season had the bullpen not blown the lead in many games that he came out of with the lead. With a full season under his belt, if Hanson stays consistent from day 1, he could battle the likes of Halladay and Tim Lincecum for the Cy Young Award this season. 18-20 wins and 200+ strikeouts appear to be very reachable goals for Hanson. If Jair Jurrjens can come back healthy this season, he could quiet possibly be the best #4 starter in all of baseball. If you look at his first two full big league seasons, you can project Jurrjens to win 14 games with an ERA in the low 3's. The only question mark for the rotation is the 5 hole. What's so great about that is the fact that Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor are both young and extremely talented. Both guys have had fantastic springs and no matter which guy wins the final spot, you are going to be getting an above average starter in the 5 spot. The fact that Minor is a lefty may give him a slight advantage coming into the season. The rotation has looked great this spring and I give them a solid grade of an A-.
Coming in to last season, all the buzz was around a 6'5 240lb lefty with a sweet swing and a promising future certainly ahead of him. His name is Jason Heyward. Coming in to this spring, all the buzz is surrounding a 6'5 240lb lefty with a sweet swing and a promising future certainly ahead of him. His name is Freddie Freeman. After a September call up last season and hitting his first big league home run off of Roy Halladay, Freeman has his sights set on this years Rookie of the Year Award. He won the International League's MVP last season and will be the Braves starting first baseman come opening day. Though he has yet to put up the power numbers expected of a corner infielder, projecting a .280/18/80 with 35 doubles is very reachable for the California native. Oh yeah, he plays a pretty solid defensive first base as well. Last season began with Martin Prado as the Braves starting second baseman, and he more than lived up to the hype, making the all-star team and putting up above average numbers before an injury ended his season early. This season will start with an all-star and second base again. His name, however, isn't Martin Prado. His name is Dan Uggla. The Braves pulled off a STEAL of a deal acquiring Uggla from the Marlins for Omar Infante and Mike Dunn. Uggla is the big time right handed power bat the Braves have been lacking since the departure of Andrew Jones. While his defense may be suspect, he has improved his defense dramatically since his 05' rookie season. When you are putting up a .270/30/100 line at second base, most people will overlook fringe average defense. After the trade that sent Yunel Escobar to the Blue Jays, Alex Gonzalez played above average defense with Atlanta, though his power numbers tailed of pretty bad. Sure, Escobar was a younger, more athletic SS, but his attitude and lack of respect in the locker room made the deal look a little better. Playing a whole season in Atlanta, Gonzalez should continue to play stellar defense and if he puts up a .260/15/60 line, the Braves will be more than happy. (Quick note: Tyler Pastornicky was also picked up by the Braves in the deal and could help the Braves as soon as this season.) When Chipper Jones went down with the season ending knee injury last season, a lot of people thought he may call it quits. After all, he has already put up good enough numbers to make the HOF. That being said, Chipper worked HARD in the off season to get back for spring training and he has been tearing the cover off the ball all spring. He has made it known that he wants to play as much as possible, but he is also a realist and knows he'll need a day off every 7-10 days. If he can stay relatively healthy, Chipper can still rake at the plate, so a line of .310/22/90 may seem optimistic, but is reachable. Last,but not least, is 5 time all-star catcher Brian McCann. There really isn't much to say here that hasn't been said every year he has played. He's a solid defensive catcher and will put up a line of .285/25/90, or close to it. He is as solid behind the plate as they come. The infield grade? B+ with the possibility of an A-.
When it comes to the outfield, 2 spots are 100% locked down. Martin Prado will play left field for the first time in his big league career, and he is a good enough athlete, that there should be no issues with his transition from 2nd base to left field. His line=.315/18/75,115 runs scored. Right field belongs to Jason Heyward and should belong to him for many years to come. He finished 2nd in the ROY voting last season and showed the keen batting eye that most experts expected, finishing the season with an OBP over .390. I do not expect a sophmore slump out of Heyward, so a .295/25/95/25 season would be very much appreciated. What can you say about Nate McLouth that hasn't already been said? He went from an all-star cf for Pittsburgh to an absolute disaster last season. He has, however, put up some good numbers this spring, and will be given every opportunity to win the starting job in center. If all goes well, a line of .255/18/65/22 would be acceptable.
The bench has always been a vital part of the Braves team. Eric Hinske is back, and will be the number 1 guy off the bench. David Ross is the backup catcher and could start for 25 teams if he had the chance. Joe Mather was picked up this off season, and can play pretty much anywhere while putting up descent power numbers. This is where it gets a little tricky. Wilkin Ramirez has done everything asked of him this spring, and according to hitting coach Larry Parrish, has all the tools to be an all-star, but has yet to put it all together. He is a right handed hitter and if it comes down to him, Jordan Schafer, and Matt Young for the 5th outfield spot, Ramirez might get the nod. He can play all three outfield positions, and has more power than Schafer or Young. All three have real good speed, but Young has the best batting eye, as well as stolen base potential. It is really a toss up between the three. As for the infield backup/s, there is also some stiff competition. Brooks Conrad is a switch hitter with some pop in his bat, but we all remember his defense in last years post season.(HORRIBLE!!!!) Diory Hernandez and Brandon Hicks are average or better defensively, but not much on offense. Ed Lucas and Shawn Bowman have played very well this spring, with Lucas a little more of an average guy with descent speed. Bowman, who has yet to play above AA, found his power stroke last season in AA hitting 22 homers while batting .269. Just like the outfield, the infield backup positions are a toss up and you really can't go wrong with any of them. If you are looking for a late inning bat, Bowman, Lucas, and Conrad would get the nod. If you are going for late inning defense, Hernandez or Hicks might get the nod. While it sounds complicated and a little complex, the fact that there are more people than spots available is actually a good thing. That means we have a lot of talent waiting in the wings.
Now that Bobby Cox is gone, it is time for Freddie Gonzalez to step up and prove to the world that the Braves were correct in choosing him to replace cox. With Frank Wren working out deals, and with a farm system loaded with right handed power arms, if Atlanta goes in to late July and still in the race, Wren and the Braves have the pieces needed to pull of a big time deal if needed. If there aren't any major injuries and the boys play up to their ability, the I would have to give the Braves team an overall grade of a B+. I believe the division will go down to th wire, just like last season, with the Braves and Phillies battling it out. My prediction== Atlanta 98-64 and win the division. Phillies==94-68 and win the wild card. The Braves beat the Giants in the NL Championship 4-2, and then beat the RedSox 4-2 to win the 2011 World Series!!!!!!!!! Go Braves!!!!!