After making several acquisitions this offseason and welcoming a few injured players back, the Atlanta Braves are once again feeling good about their team and are ready to pursue another "long-awaited" division title. But just like for every other team, there are questions to which they will need to respond.
But here, I'm not going to talk about the team itself but instead about some possible ways they can hang in the standings despite their potential holes. Here are five key issues for the Braves to be successful:
Take Advantage of Early-Season Schedule
In April, after the opening series with Phillies, the Braves will face just two more teams with winning records last year, and neither team is a clear contender. They're the Cards and the Marlins.
Atlanta really needs a good start, as they are going to face the Mets, Phillies, and Diamondbacks in 15 total games in May, and have only seven games against teams with losing '08 records in that month. Plus, they'll see the Yankees and Red Sox in the interleague games before the Break, and that's always a pain.
Play Better against the Phillies
It is just ridiculous to have a record of 4-14 (0-9 at home) against one team. I realize that Philadelphia is a good team, but a mark like that is unacceptable.
I think getting four more wins at home against the Phils is not too much to ask, though more is necessary if the Braves are seriously thinking about contending. I'd really like to see at least .500 against the champs.
Keep Beating the Mets
Atlanta was 11-7 against the Mets in 2008, though they were 9-9 and 7-11 against them in the previous two years, respectively. That actually matches the Phillies' record against the Mets in the same time period.
This Braves team is better than the '06, '07, and '08 teams, no doubt. They need to have those wins over New York so that improvement against the Phillies will not be in vain.
Improve versus Weaker Clubs
Against teams with a losing record last year, the Braves were 27-33. In case you don't do math, that's below .500.
It's hard enough for them to beat some better teams, but having a losing record against weaker teams is really not the way to take the division.
Perform in One-Run Games
Last year, the Braves were 11-30 in one-run games and 3-10 in extra-inning games.
Those marks are the result of inconsistent RISP numbers and a weak bullpen that gave up the lead in late innings. They need to do better in those situations.
This club is solid, but just like every other team (even the mighty Yankees), they could underperform and lose the division if they don't keep their heads on straight.
Still, I expect to have less injuries this year, and the young players will be better for the year under their belts.
To recap, if the Braves can do the following, they'll contend:
Improve over last April by five games (that'd put them at 17-7 on the month); take four additional games against the Phillies; maintain last year's level of play against the Mets; win 12 additional games over weaker teams so as to improve from 27-33 to 33-27 against sub-.500 clubs; and get five more one-run wins, hopefully some of them from winning teams.
That would be a 26-game jump in total and would give the Braves a 98-64 record.
Of course, doing all that would be difficult, but at least achieving half of those goals would put Atlanta on their way to an above-.500 season.