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Two-for-One MLB Previews: Philadelphia and Atlanta

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Two-for-One MLB Previews: Philadelphia and Atlanta
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

After 105 pages in Microsoft Word, four weeks, over 38,000 words and 4,750 lines of previewing, it’s finally done…almost.

Two more teams to go and then we can finally move on to the season.

I won’t lie, I’m exhausted. This wasn’t easy, I didn’t expect it to be, but I wanted to know everything there was to know before the season started. So I willed myself to go through every team.

Here are your World Champion Phillies and the Atlanta Braves, the two teams that will kick everything off on Sunday night.

Past Previews: TB/SD, TEX/CIN, MIN/PIT, TOR/STL, BAL/LAD, OAK/HOU, CHW/FLA, DET/NYM, KC/COL, SEA/CHC, CLE/ARI, NYY/WAS, BOS/SF, LAA/MIL

Current Standings

ALE: Boston, Tampa Bay*, New York, Baltimore, Toronto

ALC: Cleveland, Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City

ALW: Los Angeles, Oakland, Texas, Seattle

NLE: Florida, 2, New York Mets, 4, Washington

NLC: Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Houston, Pittsburgh

NLW: Arizona, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Colorado, San Diego

* Wild Card

Philadelphia Phillies – NL East

Last Year: Won World Series

Notable Additions: IF Miguel Cairo, OF Raul Ibanez, SP Chan Ho Park

Notable Subtractions: OF Pat Burrell, RP Tom Gordon

Underrated addition: Miguel Cairo

He’ll be missed: Pat Burrell

Cairo is nice insurance for two injured infielders, Chase Utley and Pedro Feliz. Burrell was a big favorite of the Philadelphia faithful.

Biggest Key to Success: Repeat Performance

How did this team go so unnoticed in terms of winning it all?

I mean they had it all when you look back at it. They had the potent offense, the ace of the staff leading a rather deep staff, and a fantastic bullpen. Don’t forget their strength up the middle with the defense.

You have to love their lineup; it’s not going to be an issue, especially with one of the best one through fours you are going to find in the National League.

In fact, I love their lineup, so that’s what I’m going to talk about.

Losing Pat Burrell stinks, doesn’t really hurt if Raul Ibanez can replace his production, it just stinks because he was loved there.

The combo of Chris Coste and Carlos Ruiz is quite the underrated catching tandem. Coste may have to watch out for prospect Lou Marson though.

Pedro Feliz is the defensive guy at third, but Greg Dobbs is regularly called on to mash the ball. A team with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley at the top of the lineup can afford to put someone like Feliz at the bottom so he can help improve the defense.

Oh and Jayson Werth had himself a year. If anything, the Phillies would love to see him try and at least come close to the year he had in 2008.

So really, when it comes down to it, they just need to do it all again. They won it all last year and rightfully so.

 

Biggest Concern: Ho-Hum

I think it’s pretty nice when some of your main problems are minute issues like Chase Utley’s health for the first game of the season.

All teams have concerns, it is tough to go through the entire 30 team league and not find someone with a problem. But Philadelphia probably has the least glaring issues.

And rightfully so, they are the defending World Series winners, they won it all, outlasted all the other teams and proved to be the best team in the entire game.

The one concern that I might have with them is getting their heads stuck in the clouds a little bit.

A team that wins a title can get a little heady, maybe over-confident and they figure they can just cruise. Philadelphia might have that as a concern.

But overall, as long as the little changes they made take, and the ones they didn’t make don’t constitute as being complacent and “same old, same old” then this team should be fine.

 

Biggest Change: Don’t Mess With Success

They didn’t change much, did they?

Pat Burrell was loved, that’s for sure, but he had a big contract coming his way and Philadelphia didn’t want to give it to him.

To replace him, they signed veteran outfielder Raul Ibanez, who seems to coast for awhile and then absolutely do what it is that Raul Ibanezes do.

Ibanez is consistent, but it seems like he turns it on when the heat gets hot and the lights get brighter. There is a good chance he thrives in a winning situation with the Phillies.

They lost Tom Gordon, but their bullpen is deep, they’ll find a way through even with J.C. Romero’s suspension.

Other than that, this team didn’t make any changes. They are hoping that the whole “you don’t fix what isn’t broken” thing works out for them.

 

Team MVP: Chase Utley, 2B

Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, both winners of the MVP award in the National League.

Some thought it would be Chase Utley to make it three-for-three for the Phillies in 2008.

He probably could have, he was close at least.

I think it could possibly come a year later for Chase though.

The team leader in on-base percentage on the Phillies was Utley. He's the best all-around hitter on one of the best hitting teams in the entire game.

I think it could be tough to pick between Utley and Howard, but overall, I think Chase is the more complete player, not just offensively.

Both did have an equal number of extra-base hits. Howard did knock in more runs, but he is supposed to because he is going to have more opportunities.

This is more about the current season than last season though. This is about who needs to have an MVP performance and I'd go with Chase Utley over Howard. The Phillies need Utley to have those 70 some extra-base hits and .380 on-base percentage.

Howard is the run-producer, Jimmy Rollins is the catalyst, but Chase Utley is the do-it-all hero.

 

On the Rise: Shane Victorino, OF

No surprises here really.

I can’t find anyone on the rise. This team is in their prime, they are hitting at all cylinders. They are what you strive for when you’ve got a young nucleus and want them to all be good at the same time.

But consider this a chance to talk about the awesome that is Shane Victorino and everything about him.

Aside from the shirts dedicated to him, the fantastic “Flyin’ Hawaiian” nickname, the hula-skirt bobbleheads, he’s a pretty good ballplayer.

He’s throwback with double earflap batting helmet, the fact that he built his arm strength up by throwing coconuts, the defensive plays, and of course just the way he plays the game. It’s all throwback.

It’s starting to click for Victorino, you could tell in the postseason last year. Last season was his best statistical year of his career and with him entering his prime years, everyone is going to take to the madness that is the Flyin’ Hawaiian.

That name doesn’t get old.

 

Overview

Look...I’ve been as bland as possible about this team. They’ve got a lot of positives, not a lot of negatives.

If they don’t get to the playoffs, some bad things have happened.

They’ve got Chan Ho Park in the fifth rotation spot. I don’t know how long that will last, but they’ll get something if he doesn’t work out, they’ve got options.

Provided they stay healthy, there is no reason for them not to be successful.

Unless of course they get the champions syndrome I was talking about earlier.

I’m trying to ride this Florida Marlins shock the world thing, so I have the Phillies making the playoffs, but not winning the division. I think the NL East is pretty tough, but they find a way in because they are definitely battle tested and talented.

Prediction: Finish Second in the NL East, Win Wild Card

Atlanta Braves – NL East

Last Year: Finished Fourth in NL East

Notable Additions: C David Ross, OF Garrett Anderson, SP Javier Vazquez, SP Derek Lowe, SP Kenshin Kawakami, RP Boone Logan

Notable Subtractions: IF Brent Lillibridge, SP John Smoltz, SP Mike Hampton, RP Jorge Julio, RP Will Ohman

Underrated addition: David Ross

He’ll be missed: Will Ohman

Ross is the ideal fit for the Braves as a backup catcher and the perfect compliment to Brian McCann. Ohman was one of the best left-handed relief pitchers in 2008.

Biggest Key to Success: Mini-Punch

I like the way the Braves offense operates.

Bobby Cox runs his team like a well-oiled machine no matter the pieces.

It isn’t real flashy, it may be the middle of the pack in terms of scoring, but it gets the job done.

I even gave it the nickname of “Mini-Punch” because it packs a mini-punch.

I don’t know what the really means, but it sounded cool.

What I like is how disciplined this team is. They are one of the best in terms of walking and one of the best in terms of not striking out.

That discipline always translates into success.

This team doesn’t need to slug a lot of home runs to be successful; they just have to operate their offense.

 

Biggest Concern: A Healthy Pen is a Happy Pen

Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano are both capable of closing out ball games. They are both setting up ball games.

They are a great tandem.

If they can remain healthy that is. Gonzalez and Soriano are averaging 34 innings pitched in their two seasons with the Braves.

That isn’t cool.

Gonzalez has the most closing experience, so he’ll be the guy to start it out, he can certainly get the job done with 44 career saves.

The minute he or Soriano both go down though, the Braves will be in trouble.

They’ve lost their lefty Will Ohman and while Manny Acosta put together a decent season in 2008, they don’t really have any options.

So if these recently injury riddled relief pitchers can remain healthy for the entire year, the Braves will be in good shape, especially if that newly rebuilt rotation takes.

 

Biggest Change: Rotation Reloaded

Tim Hudson is hurt, John Smoltz is gone, and Mike Hampton won’t be on the DL for the Braves anymore.

So who’s going to start?

Well, the Braves went to work in the offseason and retooled.

They started trading for Javier Vazquez after the deal for Jake Peavy fell through. Vazquez will eat some innings and give them a capable number two.

He’s a number two because the Braves later signed Derek Lowe to a contract, making a formidable one-two punch at the top of the rotation.

The Braves are also hoping Japanese import Kenshin Kawakami produces at the bottom.

Jair Jurrjens is a year older and with the additions of Vazquez and Lowe, he won’t be pressured into being the main guy. Quietly, Jurrjens put together a solid first half with a 3.00 ERA.

He struggled a little bit in the months of August and September, but with a full year under his belt, Jurrjens should be ready to go full-boar.

Tom Glavine should round things out, but if things go south, then word is young phenom Tommy Hanson is ready to go right now.

Atlanta’s starting pitching was ranked 20th in the entire major leagues last year. While that isn’t bad, the Braves hope their additions improve that drastically.

 

Team MVP: Brian McCann, C

I like Chipper Jones, I really do.

But how about Brian McCann?

The kid can rake.

After a down year in terms of the old batting average and on-base percentage, McCann got bake to raking in 2008.

McCann isn’t just one of the best power hitting catchers in the entire game, he’s a staple of that Braves lineup.

With Jones being the rock in the middle, McCann is the run producer, the guy who you set up and he knocks them down.

With Andruw Jones gone, Jeff Francoeur seemingly not what he used to be, it’s McCann’s show.

He led the team in RBI last year and he’ll have to do it again for the Braves lineup to thrive. He’s the main run-producer and it’s time to act like it, not just the guy who can rake.

 

On the Rise: Yunel Escobar, SS

It kind of happens like this.

I feel really good about a player, they have a good year, but not what I was expected.

Then next year it happens and I’m like, yeah I saw that coming.

Yunel Escobar could be that guy.

He showed enough in 2007 for the Braves to make room for him by trading Edgar Renteria. He put up a good year in 2008, but now he’s kind of off the radar.

Time for him to creep back onto it.

Escobar is one of those disciplined hitters that the Braves have. He buys into that style and he can do a lot of good things.

He may fall in the lineup, but that could be just the thing that is needed for Escobar to blossom.

The defense was also a little left to be desired, with 16 errors, Escobar has some work to do.

But if there is one youngster in the Braves lineup that could be primed to breakout, it would be Escobar.

 

Overview

Okay they fixed their rotation, their lineup isn’t spectacular but it is solid. If they stay healthy in the bullpen they will be good.

So what isn’t to like about the Braves?

I don’t know, they have a lot of that potential that you like.

But a lot of teams at this point in the season have potential and right now I like others potential over theirs.

I think if things come together for them, they might surprise a few people and do something this year. But they could end up finishing fourth based on just the talent around them and things not happening for them.

Kenshin Kawakami is a complete wild card as far as the rotation goes, you don’t know how he’ll translate to the major leagues. Their fifth spot isn’t a total guarantee either.

As mentioned, that bullpen could be in trouble with just one or two injuries.

Garrett Anderson will be a nice veteran addition and something solid in left field. But by far the biggest key for this offense is Jeff Francoeur.

We know what he’s capable of and he’s still young for how long he’s been in the majors, but he needs to shake those bad vibes that surrounded him last year.

If that can happen, then pressure comes off McCann too and maybe the pitching doesn’t need to be as good every night.

Hey, the Braves could surprise us all and finish second, I’m not ready to count anyone not named the Nationals out of the division race, but I don’t see them doing it.

Prediction: Finish Fourth in the NL East

Final Standings

ALE: Boston, Tampa Bay*, New York, Baltimore, Toronto

ALC: Cleveland, Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City

ALW: Los Angeles, Oakland, Texas, Seattle

NLE: Florida, Philadelphia*, New York Mets, Atlanta, Washington

NLC: Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Houston, Pittsburgh

NLW: Arizona, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Colorado, San Diego

* Wild Card

Check out my recap and division rankings for an update to standings and more.

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