What’s Happening Today with: Atlanta Braves
February 16, 2011 1 Comment
Last Season: 91-71 (Clinched Wild Card) Lost to Giants 3 games to 1 in NLDS.
When you talk about the current state of affairs for the Atlanta Braves, the conversation must start with the retirement of manager Bobby Cox. For the first time since 1990, the Braves will run out onto the field on Opening Day without Cox filling out the line-up card. Cox retires with a career win-loss record of 2,504-2,001, the bulk of those wins coming with the Braves in his second stint as manager.
In his final season, Cox helped guide a Braves team with a perfect mix of veteran leadership and young talent to the National League Wild Card, but lost to the eventual world champion San Francisco Giants in the NLDS. The Braves saw unexpected production from the likes of All-Star 2B Martin Prado, utilityman Omar Infante, rookie phenom right fielder Jason Heyward, and veteran closer Billy Wagner, who returned to form in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.
This year, however, the Braves enter play with a few very large question marks. It all comes back to who is leading the Braves in the dugout this season. Fredi Gonzalez, who made something out of seemingly nothing for years with the Florida Marlins, was hand-picked by Cox to be his replacement. Gonzalez was tutored by Cox as the Braves’ third-base coach for years, so Cox was familiar with the leadership abilities Gonzalez possesses.
However, the manager can’t go out there and play 162 games, and the Braves have plenty of on the field questions that need to be answered. The first of which: what can the Braves get out of 6-time All-Star third basemen Chipper Jones. Jones is one of the greatest switch hitters of all-time, posting staggering career numbers including a batting average of .306, 436 home runs, 1,491 runs batted in and an on-base percentage of .405. But, over the last six seasons, Jones has missed a total of 253 games, not playing in more than 143 in one season and playing in only 95 last year. In fact, Jones felt his body was betraying him to such a degree that he considered retiring at the end of last season. For the Braves to have a consistent punch in their line-up they’ll rely on more production from Jones then his .265 average and 10 home runs last year.
Other question marks that remain for the Braves come in the form of young talent, and a recently acquired slugger. Will Jason Heyward, only 21 on Opening Day 2011, continue to grow and reach his promising potential? Heyward finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting last year, losing out on the award to Giants rookie catcher Buster Posey. Heyward will either need to replicate or improve on his line of .277/18/72/.393.
Will rookie first basemen Freddie Freeman meet the high expectations the Braves organization has placed on him? Freeman was a monster in the minor leagues, tearing up minor league pitching in each stop he made last season. However, minor league pitching compared to veteran major leaguers are night and day. Where minor leaguers would understand your flaws and try to work around you, major leaguers study your flaws and look to exploit them. It will be an interesting watch to see Freeman develop on the big stage in Turner Field.
How will the Braves bullpen perform this season with the losses of veterans Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner? Wagner had a resurgent campaign in 2010, recording 37 saves and posting an ERA of 1.43. However, after the season, Wagner retired like he said he would instead of trying to continue on with his storied career. Saito in the off-season signed with the Miwaukee Brewers after providing dominant 8th inning work for the Braves the year before. In the off-season, the Braves acquired reliever Scott Linebrink from the White Sox, but made no other significant additions to their bullpen. They’ll rely heavily on second year players, such as Johnny Ventures, who will be given a chance to win the closer role in spring training this year.
Lastly, how will the Braves’ one major off-season addition, former Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla, perform in spacious Turner Field? Uggla played under Fredi Gonzalez when both were in Florida, so there will be familiarity there. But, the Braves were forced to move super utilityman and former All-Star Omar Infante to get Uggla, and Uggla’s presence in the line-up forces the Braves to shift second basemen Martin Prado to left field. Even though Prado is the superior defender to Uggla, Uggla wouldn’t come to the Braves without the promise of playing second. Uggla is a masher, pounding 30+ home runs in each of the last four years, and never hitting less then 27 in a single season. His power presence will take pressure off of the likes of Heyward, Jones, Freeman and Prado, but, he will now be forced to play 81 home games in Turner. Dolphin Stadium (or whatever they call it these days, Sun Life, Joe Robbie, you choose) was no hitters park either, but Uggla feasted on the relatively short left field porch. Turner’s dimensions are slightly bigger, especially in the gaps, so it will be interesting to watch Uggla’s transition to his new field.
While those questions need to be answered, the Braves are still the second-best team in the National League East on paper. They have a strong line-up as mentioned, a good mix of youth and vets on the pitching staff, and an experienced manager with teams built like these. But, with other teams like the Milwaukee Brewers and Colorado Rockies also improving, it will be harder for the Braves to win the Wild Card in back to back years. Not to mention, they play in the same division as the Philadelphia Phillies monster pitching staff and teams like the Marlins and Mets that can sneak up on some people this year.
Year One of the post-Bobby Cox era will tell Braves fans a lot of what is on the table in the future.