Expectations are the highest they have been for the Atlanta Braves since the division streak ended, and certainly over the past couple seasons. For the first time in years, the team is entering the season with a balanced roster with no significant weaknesses.
Two big question marks cast a shadow over Turner Field the past couple seasons, and the Braves did nothing about them, either due to no viable options or no means of acquiring them. Because of this, it held the team down and prevented any significant runs at pennants or just playoff appearances.
Those question marks were right-handed power in the lineup and a better bat in left field. Both have finally been answered this offseason, and that has led to greater expectations.
The Braves acquired second baseman Dan Uggla from the Florida Marlins this winter in exchange for Omar Infante and Mike Dunn, which was met with jubilee from Braves fans. He was promptly locked up for five years at $62 million, and while that did not come with the same jubilation, it did mean a right-handed power bat in the order for several years instead of having to through the same process again the following offseason.
Uggla has hit 30 or more home runs in each of the past four seasons, including his highest mark of 33 in 2010. He has posted ISO marks of .216 or better in four of his five seasons, and he has surpassed the .500 mark in SLG twice. From the right side, this is exactly what the Braves need.
With the addition of Uggla, the Braves filled the need of a better left field bat by default, moving Martin Prado from second base to left. While he will not give the Braves great production as an outfielder, he will give them steady work from the leadoff spot and one of the best contact bats in the NL East.
Prado was worth 3.9 wins in 2010 according to fWAR, due in large part to a 95.5% Zone Contact Percentage (league average was 88%). He continued to pound fastballs at a good rate and improved his contact against changeups while maintaining a good rate against curves. Prado won't give the Braves a ton of on-base ability, but they know what they will get from him, and that is good contact at the top of the lineup.
Going across the infield, the Braves are putting first base in the hands of 21-year-old rookie Freddie Freeman. His scouting reports and swing mechanics are well-noted, as is his solid 2010 at AAA as a 20-year-old, where he hit .319 with a .896 OPS and 18 home runs. Still, at 21 years old, it's a lot to put on Freeman to hand him the first base job with no competition. The Braves will try to eliminate the pressure by placing him at the bottom of the lineup to begin the season, and they do have some insurance in Eric Hinske.
Alex Gonzalez will be playing his first full season with Atlanta in 2011. After hitting 17 home runs in 348 plate appearances with Toronto, the Braves acquired Gonzalez for the stretch run and his power disappeared, hitting six home runs and slugging .386 in 292 plate appearances. With his horrid on-base ability, the Braves won't be counting on much more than good defense from Gonzalez in what should be his final season in Atlanta.
Likewise, the Braves won't be counting on much from Chipper Jones. The 39-year-old is trying to play as much as he can after returning from knee surgery, and 130 games might be the goal. If the Braves can receive solid on-base ability for stretches at the time, his season will be deemed a success. Prado is the fallback option at third base.
Brian McCann continues to man the dish among the best in baseball, sporting a 13% BB% and .375 OBP last season along with 21 home runs. Health is always the concern, but McCann should continue to produce as the best catcher in the National League as he enters his prime.
The outfield received a big boost from Prado moving to left field, as I mentioned above. That will hopefully offset whatever struggles may ensue from starting Nate McLouth in center field. McLouth is being given a shot mainly due to his contract and the fact that there is no other viable option.
Any type of return that may resemble "Pittsburgh Nate," which we have yet to see in Atlanta, would be a success. McLouth dropped below .200 last season before getting knocked out by Jason Heyward in a collision, and he worked his way through AAA most of the year when he returned, not faring much better. There is absolutely no way of knowing how he will do this season, but the Braves have total confidence in him, especially Fredi Gonzalez, who is putting him second in the order. Also worth mentioning is his backup, Matt Young, who I feel deserves more respect as a possible replacement as the season goes on if McLouth fails.
Right field is Heyward's playground, and he is just beginning. A season of 20+ home runs and .400+ OBP is expected now, not just a goal. How long he remains sixth in the order is the real question here.
The bench was the No. 1 debate during Spring Training, and the Braves seemed to get the most out of the competitions by choosing the best value. David Ross and Hinske remain two of the best bench players in the league. Brooks Conrad returns as a solid pinch hitter from both sides. Brandon Hicks will be the defensive replacement and pinch runner, and he brings the best glove from the candidates that were in the running. Young is the fourth outfielder, also providing the best glove from the candidates and bringing an underrated bat.
The rotation remains stable and one of the best in the league. Derek Lowe looks to build on a tremendous September in 2010 when he allowed four runs and three walks in 30.2 innings. He will start Opening Day and continue to provide the veteran leadership.
Tommy Hanson could fill the role of No. 1 starter by now, but one more season of working on durability is probably needed. The only concern for Hanson in 2011 is maintaining velocity and sharpness as the season wears on, which he had trouble with last season. The 2011 season should be a good indicator for where he is at in that regard.
Tim Hudson won't likely repeat his 2.83 ERA, but that doesn't mean he should fly under the radar, and it doesn't mean ERA projections in the mid-to-high 3s are where he should be at. Hudson's sinker appears to be picking up where it left off in 2010, which is not that common for sinkerballers.
Despite reports of arriving to camp in better shape, Jair Jurrjens continues to be a scare in the injury department. His stuff has been off and on this spring, which is expected, but a twinge in his side at the end of camp is a cause for concern as the season begins. If Jurrjens can stay healthy, he gives the Braves one of the best fourth starter arms in the league. But it is a big question at this point.
Brandon Beachy earning the fifth spot over Mike Minor was a surprise, but the Braves appeared to make a smart decision by allowing Minor to continue to work in AAA while Beachy figures to give the Braves quality innings in the fifth spot. Both are expected to contribute plenty this season, and the combination gives the Braves one of the best fifth starters in the game.
The bullpen also figures to remain stable. Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters will share closing duties according to who is due up in the eighth and ninth innings, which gets the most value out of the two relievers. Not many teams in baseball can boast such explosive arms from both sides in roles like this.
Peter Moylan and Eric O'Flaherty return to provide quality mid-relief innings. Moylan will be the ground ball specialist, while O'Flaherty will be the primary LOOGY. Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill are newcomers, giving the bullpen some added veteran presence, though neither is of great value. Cristhian Martinez rounds out the bullpen by providing the long relief innings.
The Braves are balanced across the board, which is something they have not been able to say for several years. Though the Phillies stocked themselves deep in the rotation, their offense remains a concern, and they are not as unreachable as many have claimed.
While the Wild Card is a respectable goal, the Braves should be shooting for the division title as if they were the favorites. There is no reason why they can't reach it.
C - Brian McCann
1B - Freddie Freeman
2B - Dan Uggla
3B - Chipper Jones
SS - Alex Gonzalez
LF - Martin Prado
CF - Nate McLouth
RF - Jason Heyward
C - David Ross
1B/OF - Eric Hinske
INF - Brooks Conrad
INF - Brandon Hicks
OF - Matt Young
SP - Derek Lowe
SP - Tommy Hanson
SP - Tim Hudson
SP - Jair Jurrjens
SP - Brandon Beachy
RP - Cristhian Martinez
RP - George Sherrill
RP - Scott Linebrink
RP - Eric O'Flaherty
RP - Peter Moylan
RP - Jonny Venters
RP - Craig Kimbrel