Please note that this lack of headlines is not covertly saying the Braves are not contenders in 2011. Fact is nothing could be farther from the truth.
Last season, Atlanta won 91 games in the regular season and did not finish the way they had hoped, losing to the Giants in the NLDS. The disappointment stemming from the departure of their beloved skipper Bobby Cox and wanted nothing more then to have him go out on top.
A baseball legend, Cox retired after 28 years as a MLB skipper, with the last 24 serving as the Braves manager. Cox’s presence in the dugout will be sorely missed in Atlanta, and throughout baseball, but he has signed a one-year deal to be a special advisor in 2011, so Cox is not totally done yet.
Let’s take a look at the Atlanta Braves heading in to the 2011 season, in the team’s first year of the post-Cox era:
The Braves claim if any pitching rotation can compete with the Phillies ‘fab-four’ they can. Led by Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, this statement is not far from the truth.
Atlanta’s 1-4 in their starting rotation is impressive, with all easily winning 15+ games and should post an ERA of less then 3.00.
The fifth spot has not been named yet, but it looks to be top prospect Mike Minor. Minor is a 23-year-old lefty who had an ERA just shy of 6.00, going 3-2 over his eight starts in 2010. Minor will either struggle in his first full season or become a hero; he has the potential to go either direction.
The bats will be better than last season, with the acquisition of Dan Uggla from the Marlins. Uggla will be sandwiched in between rookie sensation Jason Heyward and his mini-me, rookie 1B Freddie Freeman who is said to be better than Heyward was last season. That is a nice group of power in the heart of a line-up, as the addition of two-time All-Star and recent Silver Slugger winner in Uggla will be the difference maker.
New Skipper Fredi Gonzalez will take over for Cox, his mentor and the Braves front office only interviewed manager by choice. Gonzalez was the Braves third-base coach for four seasons under Cox, till he became the Marlins manager following 2007. Gonzalez got canned last season for benching Marlins star shortstop Hanley Ramirez for being lazy, which was more then fair. Ramirez threw a fit and Gonzalez took the fall. Gonzalez is glad to be out of that situation and has a bright future ahead of him.
Regardless, Gonzalez believes in hard work ethic, with a smile. Gonzalez is perfect for this job and even though Cox’s shoes will never be filled, this is pretty darn close.
Defensively the Braves have to improve to back-up the pitchers on the mound. There is not one infielder that excels with their glove. The 126 errors in 2010 cannot happen again, as they only had one less then the Pittsburgh Pirates. It is just unacceptable and sloppy form by a playoff team.
The concerns start with 3B Chipper Jones is about to be 39-years-old and almost retired last season after he had to have knee surgery. After Jones, Freddie Freeman is a rookie covering first and Uggla playing at second is not comforting. Uggla brings a lot of talent but catching the ball is not one of them.
Behind the plate is catcher Brian McCann, who has been with the Braves for four seasons. McCann continues to improve his stats each season and is a threat with a bat. He has to stay healthy, as he was clearly worn down last season. Atlanta is counting on McCann’s bat being more productive to add to one of the club’s clear strengths.
McCann had an unfortunate accident while he was at-bat a few days ago. He hit a line-drive foul ball that hit Braves minor league manager Luis Salazar in the face. Salazar had to be airlifted off the field and is alive but did lose one of his eyes. As you can imagine, McCann is a wreck about this and is very shaken up still, as anyone would be. Hopefully, this will not set him back.
The biggest area of concern is the bullpen, as it could turn really messy with no real depth whatsoever. It looks like Gonzalez is going to platoon rookie right-hander Craig Kimbrel and left-handed veteran Jonny Venters to split the role of closer. Players hate being platoon-ed and it does not fair well to use this method to fill such a significant and vital position. Down the stretch and especially in the playoffs, having a go-to closer is very comforting and takes pressure off the starters.
Kimbrel is just 22-years-old and has only 20 innings pitched at the big-league level, so I understand what Gonzalez is doing but it doesn’t mean I trust it. Braves fans will keep an eye on Kimbrel, who just could have a break out year and take on the special job full-time. At least that is what they hope.
Players To Watch:
3B Chipper Jones is about to be 39 years old and almost said goodbye with manager Cox in 2010, after having to have season ending knee surgery at the start of last August. The same injury he had 16 seasons prior. This will be Jones’ 18th season, but so far in Spring Training he is crushing the ball.
On St. Patrick’s Day Jones commented on his surgically repaired left knee:
“It’s not an issue. I have no pain in the knee whatsoever. I feel like I turned the corner about 2½ weeks ago.”
Jones is a sure future Hall-of Famer, a lifer with the Atlanta Braves and the fans have grown up with him. Jones has come back with a chip on his shoulder and looks to prove everyone wrong. Well, the Braves need him to darn well do just that. Oh and if he could stay healthy for 115+ games, that would sure help too.
1B Freddie Freeman is taking over at first place in his rookie season, after the team’s top two first basemen, Troy Glaus and Derrek Lee, were lost to free agency after last season. Word on the street is this kid is the real deal, but he still has a lot to prove. Last season Freeman played 20 games in the bigs, posting a .167 batting average, struck out eight times, drew zero walks, with only one RBI and one home-run in his 24 at-bats. Freeman has to be better both defensively and offensively in 2011.
2011 NL East Prediction:
Alas, the Braves will just miss the snagging the NL Wild Card in 2011, but my bet is that it comes out of the NL West.
The Braves will come in a close second because they are a darn talented ball-club, but to win the NL East is just not in the cards, not yet at least.
This division is Phillies to lose and that is not in the cards…unless the Chase Utley situation turns into a season-ending one. That would open a door and the Braves have to pounce.
Just thinking of the pandemonium and riots not making the playoffs would cause in Philadelphia is enough motivation in itself for the Braves to win.
SIDENOTE: Gosh….if Mrs. Cliff Lee thought Yankee fans were bad, guess her GQ got lost in the mail last week, as Philly fans tied with Eagles fans for #1 worst fans in all of sports.
- 2011 MLB Preview: Atlanta Braves (thebaseballblog10.wordpress.com)
- 2011 MLB Preview: Atlanta Braves (bleacherreport.com)
- MLB Preview: Eight Questions Facing The Atlanta Braves in 2011 (bleacherreport.com)
- Keep on Rollin': Why the Atlanta Braves Will Carry Their Momentum into 2011 (bleacherreport.com)