Atlanta Braves: 10 Keys to Unseating the Injured Phillies in the NL East
It's been six years since the Braves won a division title.
For the last five years, it's been the Phillies on top of the division, with one World Series title to go with it.
The reason: injuries and age.
As far as age, the Phillies' average age is 29.9 years old, while the Braves average 27.4. I know, it doesn't seem like a big difference, but it is considering the Phillies ranked No. 2 in the league, while the Braves rank 27th.
On the injury front, the Braves have injuries to Chipper Jones (big surprise) and Tim Hudson to start the season, and Arodys Vizcaino for the entire season.
The Phillies, on the other hand, will be without two of their big three hitters (Ryan Howard and Chase Utley) for a few months. Throw in there Michael Martinez and Mike Stutes and you have injuries to some key positions.
The one thing the Phils don't have to worry about (right now) is injuries to their starting staff.
If the Phillies are to win another World Series, this has to be the year, as Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee continue to get older, while it's conceivable that Cole Hamels will leave via free agency after this year.
However, if the Braves are to unseat the Phillies, here are 10 keys to ensuring that happens.
Can't Overuse Bullpen
One thing manager Fredi Gonzalez did last year was use the back end of his bullpen a lot.
There were many games when Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and/or Eric O'Flaherty were used when they didn't need to be used.
This year, Gonzalez needs to consider the game he's in. If the game is not in doubt, positively or negatively, there is no reason to use one of those three.
Having Kris Medlin and Cristian Martinez in the bullpen allows the Braves manager the opportunity to use a reliever for more than one inning, which is something I think he needs to use more often.
If he doesn't overwork the bullpen, then we can definitely avoid any type of collapse that might happen at the end of the season, like we witnessed last year.
Jason Heyward Has to Get Going
We've seen some good things from Jason Heyward during the spring, so hopefully it will carry over into the season.
Not only was Heyward's sophomore season bad statistically, but injury-wise, he had to learn a lot about the fact that his team would rather have him at 80-90 percent, than not have him at all.
If he can return to the form of his rookie season, Heyward will find himself with more opportunities to pad his stats.
I'm looking for 20 home runs and 80 RBI from Heyward. If he can do this, then the Braves will be set up nicely for the middle of their order.
Make a Trade
The Braves have the pieces to pull off a blockbuster trade.
You have Martin Prado, Jair Jurrjens, Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran, Sean Gilmartin and Mike Minor who should all be on the block.
Granted, I don't think that two of Delgado, Teheran or Minor should be included in any trade, but I do think that Frank Wren needs to make a move for a left fielder.
Unfortunately, I'm still not sold on Prado, and we need a good No. 2 or 7 hitter (depending on Heyward) that can hit the ball to all fields with some power.
We have the pieces. It's time to make a move.
Use Speed to Advantage
With the speed Michael Bourn has, Gonzalez has to give him free reign to steal whenever he wants.
If you leave the decision up to him each time he gets on base, he could have 70 or even 80 steals by the end of the season.
Some may laugh at that, but he's the one player in the big leagues that could reach that level.
By doing this, sure he'll get thrown out a few times, but he'll also put himself into scoring position more times than not.
Uggla's Got to Start Early
Dan Uggla capped his year in good fashion, and had good power numbers throughout the season, but he has to get off to a good start.
Imagine that Uggla started the year the way he ended the year. We probably could have seen him get close to 50 home runs.
He has the potential to do so, but won't if he struggles out of the gate again this year.
It's true, his average has never been great over the course of a season, but his first half was abysmal last year.
If he can turn that around and start out well, the Braves will be in good position to gain an early lead in the division race.
Don't Let It Come Down to the Final Series
Last year, the Braves let their playoff hopes get down to the final series of the year.
This year, that can't happen.
By the time the Braves travel to Pittsburgh for their final series of the year, they should have the division or wild card well in hand.
Don't leave anything not settled until the end. Take care of business as early as possible and put teams out of the playoff race as early as you can.
Fortunately for the Braves, they'll have many lower-tier teams to play in the final month to where they can make that a reality.
In Cluth Situations Use Your Bat off the Bench
There's no reason why Julio Lugo should have been batting in clutch situations last year as a pinch hitter, when Eric Hinske and Brooks Conrad were still on the bench.
With Conrad gone, you still have Hinske and you need to take advantage of that.
When it comes down to needing that base hit to tie or win a game, Hinske should be the man called on to do so.
That's the reason the Braves signed him in the first place, so that's what he needs to be used for.
Of course, that's when he's not starting on those few chances.
If Hinske is unavailable, then go with a high on-base guy who can help your team manufacture a run...someone like Jose Constanza.
Do Better Against the Nationals
Sure, the Braves went 9-9 against the Nationals last year and 8-10 in 2010, but you have to take advantage while you can against the Nats.
Washington is a little bit better of a team this year, but the Braves are still better.
For some reason, they've struggled against the Nationals every year.
It's time they showed they were better and win two of every three games they play. So, in 18 games they play this year, the Braves need to go 12-6.
And, while we're at it...
Compete Against the Phillies
You have to do better than 6-12 over the course of the season against the Phillies if you hope to take the division title away from them.
The Braves showed flashes of brilliance in some games against Philadelphia last year, but they just couldn't put it together at the end of the season when it mattered most.
The first opportunity to do that comes at home May 1-3. Good thing, though, that the season doesn't end there, but in Pittsburgh.
In the end, the Braves have the pieces to overtake the Phillies.
They just have to take advantage of the Phillies' injuries to some of their best players and get out of the gates fast.
The bigger of a lead you have, the harder it is to lose it...although, we saw it happen to both the Braves and Red Sox last year.
Play with a Chip(per) on Their Shoulder
Chipper Jones is retiring after this year.
There is no next year for him.
Just like the team did for Bobby Cox in 2010, I think it would be great to send Chipper out with another playoff appearance.
The team should be motivated enough to give their leader one last taste of the playoffs. I think he's earned it.
You know Jones is going to play like there's no tomorrow this season and will probably play in about 130 games.
His commitment level will be a good example for the rest of the team, and they should follow suit.
If the rest of the team shows the same commitment level every pitch, I don't see any reason why the Braves won't be the N.L. East champions.