The Atlanta Braves had a tough 2008 season. Injuries and inconsistency plagued them most of the year. As the 2009 season approaches, one has to wonder if the Braves are ready for a comeback to elite status. Here is a preview of the upcoming 2009 season:
At this point, the Atlanta Braves seem to be strong in the infield. Chipper Jones will again man third base. The only problem with Jones is his inability to play a whole season. The Braves will be happy with 145 games from Jones.
Yunel Escobar is the starting shortstop. He had a solid, yet unspectacular first full season for the Braves. He is looking to be a lot better this season.
Kelly Johnson is a solid second baseman. He had a tough start to the season, but ended the season as hot as anyone in baseball. Johnson has to be more consistent for the Braves to improve this season.
Casey Kotchman is the starting first baseman. He was put in a tough position when he was sent to Atlanta at the trade deadline for Mark Texeira. He never got comfortable in Atlanta. I think he will be more relaxed and much improved.
The outfield has the most question marks of any of the positions on the field. The Braves needed to add some power to the outfield, but failed to do so.
Matt Diaz was re-signed and looks to be the starting left fielder. He is a professional hitter, but has a hard time staying healthy. If he struggles, look for him to platoon with Brandon Jones or lose the job outright.
Gregor Blanco will go into Spring Training competing with Josh Anderson for the starting center field position. Blanco was unspectacular in 2008. He needs to show a lot more to be considered the everyday center fielder. Anderson is as good a baserunner as Blanco and has a little more power. It will be interesting to see who leaves Spring Training the starter.
Jeff Francoeur had a tough 2008 season. 2009 is a make-or-break season for him. If he struggles, look for him to be elsewhere in 2010.
Barring injury, Brian McCann will be the starting catcher for years to come. He is a fantastic offensive and defensive catcher. The Braves signed David Ross to be his backup. He should be a huge upgrade from Corky Miller.
What looked to be a glaring weakness heading into Spring Training has become a strength. The trade for Javier Vazquez and the signings of Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami has given the Braves much-needed depth. Jair Jurrjens, Jorge Campillo, and Charlie Morton will not have as much pressure this year.
The bullpen is hard to figure out at this point. Mike Gonzalez is slated to be the closer and Rafael Soriano is slated to be the main set-up man. After that, there's still much to be decided. Blaine Boyer, Buddy Carlyle, Manny Acosta, and Jeff Bennett can be solid relievers.
However, Bobby Cox tends to overwork all his relievers. That has got to change for the Braves to contend this season.
The Braves have Greg Norton, Martin Prado, Brandon Jones, and Omar Infante returning to strengthen the bench. This is one of the best group of bench guys they have had in years.
Because we are still a month away from Spring Training, I realize there may be more players brought in before the first workout. However, this is how I see the Braves season going as of this point. I am optimistic that the Braves can reach 85 wins this season. The key is keeping players healthy and consistent. It could be a good year for the Atlanta Braves.