The Atlanta Braves could make noise in 2013.
With Christmas being over and New Year's fast approaching, it moves us to being just a month-and-a-half away from the start of spring training. The new year is the first sign that we are inching closer to a new season, one that is filled with promise for every team.
For the Atlanta Braves there is plenty of hope for 2013, but there are also some questions needing answers. This article takes a look at a few New Year's resolutions for the Braves that will help put the team in position to win a World Series.
Dan Uggla has spent two full seasons in Atlanta, and with the exception of the second-half of the 2011 season, Uggla has endured the worst struggles of his career. Uggla had always had problems with strikeouts, but when he was able to hit .250 with 30 homers it wasn't much of an issue.
This year is very important for Uggla as the Braves' young lineup needs a veteran presence, especially with Brian McCann likely to miss the start of the season and Chipper Jones retiring. Youngsters like Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons can use the help of a big bat in the lineup if they are going to produce at a high level.
This means that one of the most important things this year is getting Uggla right at the plate, because the Braves cannot afford to get behind the Nationals early in the season when Washington's starting rotation is loaded.
In 2011, the Braves went through an epic collapse that ended up costing them a playoff spot, and in 2012 the team reached the play-in wild-card game before losing. One thing that the two seasons had in common was that the team never played up to their full potential.
Part of this could be attributed to the way Fredi Gonzalez has used his bullpen. In 2011, Gonzalez overused young relievers Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, and the pair ran out of gas in the final series against the Phillies. Last year Gonzalez did a better job of managing the bullpen, but Venters struggled a little early on because he wasn't pitching enough to get his sinker working.
To compete with a team like the Nationals, who are strong in all areas, the Braves need to maximize the performance of the bullpen. Hopefully Gonzalez has learned more about his relievers and their workloads from the last two seasons and does a better job managing them this year.
If there is one thing about the Braves that could be a negative, it's that the team has a bunch of youngsters playing prominent roles with the team. Three players in the everyday lineup, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons, along with key reliever Luis Avilan, will all be spending the majority of this season playing at the age of 23. Closer Craig Kimbrel and starting pitcher Mike Minor will also spend the bulk of the season at the age of 25.
This doesn't even include starting rotation candidates Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran or Brandon Beachy, who has made just 41 career starts. This becomes another reason that the loss of Chipper Jones could have a big impact, as Chipper was a veteran presence who helped teach the youngsters and get them through the slumps they ran into along the way.
Fredi Gonzalez and veterans like Brian McCann, Tim Hudson and Dan Uggla will need to step up in their leadership roles to keep these young pieces developing. This is essential in keeping the Braves in the hunt for the NL East in 2013.
For the Braves to avoid getting knocked out of the playoffs in just one game again, they will need to win the NL East to assure themselves of not being in that position. This means that Atlanta is going to have to beat out one of the best teams in all of baseball, the Washington Nationals.
The Nationals are a very strong team, and they have few holes across their roster, Their rotation featuring Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman and Dan Haren is among the best in the game. Their bullpen has quietly been among the NL's elite for the past few seasons, and will be even better in 2013 with a full year of closer Drew Storen.
Their lineup should be even better, as they finally got the true leadoff hitter they had been lacking and are likely to see Bryce Harper continue in his development to major league superstardom.
If the Braves are going to take the division they need to win the season series against the Nationals. Last year the Braves went just 8-10 in the season series and finished four games behind the Nationals. If they finished at 11-7, that three-game difference would have won the division for the Braves and they would have avoided the play-in game.
The Braves are going to need to figure out how to get the best of their new top rival in the NL East in 2013.