2010 was an end of an era for the Braves as they bid farewell to their long time manager Bobby Cox in his 25th season, it was also the last go round for closer Billy Wagner. They said hello to future stars in Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, and Johnny Venters. The Braves went 91-71 and ended their five year playoff drought by winning their first ever Wild Card berth.
This year’s team stands a good chance of returning to the playoffs. The Braves enter 2011 without Bobby Cox in the dugout for the first time in over 20 years, but he will remain with the team as a special advisor. Taking the helm will be former Marlins manager and Braves 3rd Base coach Fredi Gonzalez. Gonzalez inherits a team with a solid rotation more or less intact from last year, and a familiar face at 2nd Base in Dan Uggla. This is likely the last year for Chipper, however the main attraction for many will be one of the best tandems of underage players in baseball history in Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman. The 2011 Braves have a good mix of young talent and veteran leadership with few glaring holes in the lineup and should be a fun team to watch. On to the breakdown after the jump.
Tim Hudson, after missing most of 2009 to Tommy John surgery posted his best season as a Brave last year going 17-9 with a 2.83 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 135 ERA+ in 228 innings pitched. Hudson anchored the Braves rotation as they fought for a playoff spot, and the Braves will need him to continue to pitch well if they intend on reaching the postseason again this year. Hudson outperformed his peripherals in 2010 sporting a 4.09 FIP and 3.87 xFIP, benefitting from a career low BABIP (.249), a career high LOB percentage (81.2%), and career high GB rate (64.1%). Hudson being on the wrong side of 35 (turning 36 this summer) and coming off somewhat of a career year seems to be a candidate for regression. I’d say the Bill James projection of 15 wins with a 3.5 ERA seems about right, and the Braves would probably take that gladly.
Fellow old timer Derek Lowe finished 2010 lights out, going 5-0 in September with a 1.17 ERA and pitching well in his two postseason starts (2.31 ERA), despite getting the loss in both games. Lowe’s resurgence late in the season has been ascribed to his working more on the inside corner and having his slider become a strikeout pitch. It remains to be seen whether this new approach, which Bobby Cox praised after Game 4 of the NLDS, will provide continued success in 2011 remains to be seen, although age and injury history give reason for concern that Lowe can be effective over the course of the long season.
The remaining three spots in the Braves rotation will be filled by young guys with a lot of upside. Tommy Hanson pitched well in 2010 despite getting Aaron Harang level run support as his losing record (10-11) would show, despite posting a solid 3.33 ERA in 34 games started. The sky is the limit for Hanson, the Braves showed how much they think of his abilities by starting him in seven games last September while fighting for a playoff berth, Hanson responded by going 2-1 and keeping his ERA under 2. If Hanson can stay healthy there is no reason he cannot be the ace of the Braves staff for years to come.
You can pencil in Jair Jurrjens as the 4th starter, and I would think most teams would be happy to do so. The 25 year old missed a good chunk of 2010 to hamstring and knee injuries, but seems healthy to start the 2011 campaign. The Braves would like to see Jurrjens bounce back to his 2008-2009 form, when he showed a great deal of talent as he burst on the scene posting some gaudy numbers in his first two seasons in the big leagues.
The 5th Spot seems to be a two horse race between top prospect Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy. The young southpaw Minor,the Braves number 1 pick in 2009, seems to have the upper hand to make the rotation. The right-hander Beachy was an undrafted free agent in 2008, and spent last season taking the minors by storm by posting a MiLB leading 1.73 ERA before making three MLB starts with a 3.00 ERA. 35 year old Veteran Rodrigo Lopez is said to be in the running, but with his awful performance last season (7-16 with a 5.00 ERA and a league leading 37 HRs allowed) I don’t see him as anything more than providing competition and guidance to the young guys.
The Braves front four stacks up well against most teams in the league not named the Phillies. The age at the top of the rotation combined with the inexperience and youth at the back end could be seen as cause for trepidation, but all in all the rotation should be a strength for the Braves this year.
(Note: As of this time Gonzalez has not yet named his Opening Day starter so this order is speculative.)
Taking over the closing duties for retiring Billy Wagner will not be an easy task, yet the Braves are planning on giving that assignment to a pair of young fireballers in Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters. Right-handed Kimbrel seems to be the closer in waiting after alternating between closing in AAA and pitching relief in four stints with the big league club, yet manager Fredi Gonzalez has said he will use both in a closer platoon (which is an intriguing idea) early in the season until one of them claim the spot. Kimbrel has shown flashes of brilliance at every level with a 95-98 MPH fastball with heavy sink, astounding K rates, and a nasty slider but has struggled with control issues at times. The left-handed Venters had a fantastic debut in 2010 pitching in 83 innings with a 1.95 ERA. He probably won’t be the K machine that Kimbrel looks to be, but he does throw hard and has good sink on his fastball as well. Like his battery partner, and many young flamethrowers, he too struggles with control.
In addition to losing Wagner, the Braves say goodbye to Takashi Saito, Kyle Farnsworth and Mike Dunn. Scott Linebrink heads from the South Side to the Dirty South, and Gorge Sherrill will serve as a LOOGY coming over from the Dodgers, both providing a dose of the all important "veteran presence." Eric O’Flaherty returns from a solid year in 2010 in which the lefty put up a 2.45 ERA and holding opponents to a .230 AVG. Big guy Peter Moylan may need to focus more on pitching than his badass tats this year as he is coming off one of his worst seasons as a Brave. The final spot in the bullpen seems to be up for grabs with Christian Martinez, Scott Proctor, and possibly Beachy if he loses out on the 5th spot. The bullpen appears to be solid if the young guys at the back end can hold their own and throw strikes.
On the corners of the infield we have a young first baseman that should be in the thick of the ROY race and a HOF third baseman playing in what should be his final year. Freddie Freeman was all but handed the starting 1B job in the winter, and has done nothing to prove the Braves wrong as he has been tearing the cover off the ball so far in Spring Training. Freeman, 21 years old, will replace Derek Lee who the Braves let go to free agency. Freeman is a big guy (6’5" 225lbs), yet he does not project to be a pure HR hitter, he’s more of a line drive hitter with gap power. He tends to be rather aggressive at the plate with only an 8% walk rate, but does not struggle making contact as he only strikes out 16% of the time (minor league numbers). Freeman has a strong arm, and is seen as a slightly above average defender at 1B although he is rather slow on the basepaths. Bill James is rather bullish on Freeman with a projected 2011 line of .282/16 HR/83 RBIs.
Larry Wayne Jones enters the season fully recovered from his torn ACL that shortened his 2010 season to only 95 games. The Braves hope to get more from Larry this year, Jones himself has said he wants to play 145 games, but that seems to be a pipe dream. Personally I would put the over/under at 450 Plate Appearances for the Chipster. The Braves success in 2011 may hinge on Chipper’s health due to the domino effect and lineup adjustments that will ensue if he spends time on the DL. It’s hard to project someone with an injury history like his. Will he ride off into the sunset leading the Braves on a championship run, or blow out one of his many surgically repaired extremities and watch his team from the dugout?
Up the middle the Braves have a shiny new toy, at 2nd Base in Dan Uggla. Uggla was acquired in an offseason trade with the division rival Marlins that sent "all-star" utility man Omar Infante and reliever Mike Dunn to south Florida, Uggla was promptly signed to a 4-year extension. Uggla fills a big hole from last year as he is realistically the only Brave that can be considered a legitimate power threat and be penciled in for 30+ HRs. While the Braves will see an uptick in runs scored with the addition of Uggla, his defense leaves a lot to be desired (around 15 errors per year).
Uggla’s double play partner is the leading candidate for the Jim Edmonds Designee for RR Vitriol, our old pal Sea Bass. Alex Gonzalez came to Atlanta from Toronto in a midseason trade last year for head-case Yunel Escobar. Gonzalez seemed to benefit from whatever magic was going on in Toronto last season as he was on pace to shatter his single season HR total before coming back down to earth in Atlanta. I would expect his offense to regress to his career average this season, as his power surge last year has "fluke" written all over it. His defense remains slightly above average, but his age may catch up to him soon as he turned 34 in the offseason.
Behind the dish the Braves have one of the most underrated players in baseball in Brian McCann. McCann is nearly as good as Joe Mauer with almost none of the hype. The five time All-star and four time Silver Slugger can be penciled in for .270+/20+/80+ without batting an eye. McCann is just now entering his prime (he turned 27 this spring) and could be poised for a monster year. Backing up McCann is former Red and Arroyo BFF David Ross.
The Braves outfield features Rookie of the Year runner-up Jayson Heyward in Right Field. Heyward looks to improve on his impressive rookie season in which he hit the ground running belting an Opening Day homer in his first major league at bat. Had he not suffered a thumb injury before the All Star break he just may have beat out Baby Buster for the ROY. Heyward shows a rare combination of power and plate discipline with above average defense, he looks to be an elite talent for years to come.
In Center, the Braves have what looks like their biggest deficiency. Nate McLouth is coming off an abysmal 2010 season and is still on the books for $6.5 million this season. His slash line of .190/.298/.322 last year in 85 games could be partly attributed to multiple nagging injuries which have hopefully cleared up in the offseason. With the money owed to McLouth this year, it looks like the Braves have every intention to let him try to regain his form and earn his paycheck. Providing competition for the starting CF spot is former top prospect Jordan Schafer who was the Opening Day starter in 2009 after tearing it up in Spring Training as a 22 year old non-roster invitee. A weird wrist injury and subsequent surgery derailed Schafer for the past two seasons, yet he may now be fully recovered. If McLouth continues to struggle, or if/when Chipper gets injured Schafer will likely see some playing time this year.
In Left field, 2010 All-star Martin Prado will be showing his versatility by switching from the infield to the outfield. Prado may have had the best season of any Brave last year (.307/.350/.459) playing 2B before switching to 3B after Chipper’s season came to an end. Prado has played the OF in only 4 games in the Majors, yet plays there regularly in Venezuelan Winter Ball, with LF not being a premier defensive position it shouldn’t be a huge concern. Prado is likely to take over at 3B this season again if Chipper goes on the DL.
Fredi Gonzalez's announced "ideal" lineup:
1. LF Martin Prado
2. CF Nate McLouth (L)
3. 3B Chipper Jones (S)
4. 2B Dan Uggla
5. C Brian McCann (L)
6. RF Jason Heyward (L)
7. SS Alex Gonzalez
8. 1B Freddie Freeman (L)
The Braves bench was a bright spot last year due to the solid play of Omar Infante and Matt Diaz who are both gone this year. Eric Hinske returns with some pop from the left side of the plate, and Brooks Conrad (famous to us for the walk off grand slam last year, famous to the rest of baseball for his boner-fest in the Divisional round of the playoffs) should make the team as well. The Braves picked up Joe Mather off waivers from the Deadbirds who can play both corner infield spots and all three outfield positions. As opposed to 2010, the bench this year looks rather weak in my estimation.
The Reds face the Braves six times this year, going to Atlanta for a three game series in late May (the final game being aired on Sunday Night Baseball) and hosting the Braves for a three game tilt at GABP in late July. The Braves won the season series last year going 3-2 against the Reds, although that could have easily been the other way around if Dusty pulled his head out of his ass in "The Game." I would put my money on the Braves being the odds on favorite to take the NL Wild Card, with a realistic chance of upsetting the Phillies as the division champs. They look like a 90+ win team, give or take a few depending on how things shake out. The Braves, much like the Reds, appear to be a team that is built for success in the regular season but would likely struggle in the Playoffs.
In conclusion, Fredi Gonzalez looks like Kenny Powers without a mullet.