Pitchers and catchers reporting tomorrow down in Orlando (or "Dark Star" as Dave O'Brien of the AJC has so cleverly coined it) has a welcoming ring to it.
Every trade, every signing, every prospect, and every rumor has been dissected and bantered about throughout this hot stove season to the point where the only thing really left to do is the most important of all: play ball.
I've tried to figure out this Braves club and really put a finger on them. Realistically the moves were going to stop after Glaus, so all Damon rumors were pretty much filler until the team actually started practicing. Since 2006 there have been questions concerning one, two, sometimes all three aspects of the Braves.
Be it 2006-2007 when the bullpen imploded with Bob Wickman as the anchor of a group that also "featured" Chris Reitsma, Jorge Sosa, and an aging Mike Remlinger. All that with a little Scott Thorman and a green Jo-Jo Reyes mixed in.
There was 2008 when the braves had to have Dr. Andrews on speed dial in order to keep up with the number of players that headed to Birmingham, Alabama. A spot I give the tag line "where seasons go to die."
That year was Frank Wren's first in dealing with the enormous pressure of following what John Schuerholz had built (and in some ways brought down with the trade of Teixiera) in Atlanta and the enormous (albeit passive) pressure from most Atlanta fans and what we've come to expect in Georgia:October baseball, every year, without fail.
So it comes as no surprise then that in year four of the Frank Wren experience we go into another season filled with questions. Despite the criticism laid on him over the last couple years he's done literally everything in his power (and diminished means) to make the Braves as competitive as possible.
Luckily folks, this year I think he just might have hit it on the head this year.
The Braves have closed the gap on those front running Phillies in the division, and these four keys will make sure that postseason baseball is brought back down to Georgia.
1.) Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito
Say what you will about health, pitching back-to-back days, etc., these guys are ready to go. Lets remember the numbers they put up were in arguably the toughest division in baseball and both pitched effectively enough to warrant a contract from a Braves scout team that by now should go unquestioned.
Let's remember that Wagner was so effective he intimidated even the great Jonathon Papelbon causing him to believe his spot could be in limbo.
Wagner and Saito's presence will also have a huge impact behind the scenes as Saito will help Kawakami feel more adjusted culturally which in turn will help him become a more effective pitcher throughout the year.
Wagner's will have a far reaching impact with the group of relievers already in the Braves bullpen and I am interested to see his impact on Craig Kimbrel, Eric O'Flaherty, and Peter Moylan.
Not to mention not allowing any team he is playing on to settle for the complacency that had just as big a part in the Braves 2009 as their anemic offense (see performances against cellar dwellers Pittsburgh, Washington, Reds and Padres).
2.) Troy Glaus
The guy can rake. All he does is mash and his defense (yes even at first) is very underrated and overlooked generally because of his hitting exploits. I know the reality of Glaus' history on the DL, but I also know this:
He will play in over 115 games this year, and never in his career has he been given that many games and not produced 25+ homers and an .800 OPS. Plus Glaus should take pressure off of McCann and Jones in the middle of that line-up.
3.) Martin Prado
This is usually an overlooked man, but the expectation on Prado is enormous. He not only outplayed Kelly Johnson for the starting job at second base, but a lot of people forget that before a broken hand robbed him of his chance this was Omar Infante's job to lose in 2008.
While I do believe Prado is a better bat, he needs to continue to progress and tune out the expectations of the Braves faithful that have almost considered him a given.
Not to mention this is the first time he has gone in knowing he has the job, so pressing is not something he needs to do. I like him better than Infante for the power factor, as I feel he is a potential 15 plus homer threat and a solid average guy.
4.) Bobby Cox
He needs to manage with as much urgency as the players who are trying to send him out with a bang. He is without a doubt in most minds the greatest manager of his generation and should be given a proper send off. What more fitting end to a fantastic managerial career than a deep playoff run.
Problem is the old dog must use new tricks in his pursuit of the ultimate goal. One such is not waiting too long to pull the trigger on switching pieces and utilizing relievers in a more constructive manner i.e. when someone isn't getting it done, lets move on (Jo Jo Reyes/Manny Acosta anyone?).
We all know the baseball mind Cox has. That was never the question. It's that big heart that needs some fine tuning in order to get things done this time around.
5.) Brian McCann
I've said it before and I will shout it again: Brian McCann is the most important piece to this entire Braves season.
For all the Heyward talk this spring, and the concerns about a pitching staff that finished THIRD IN BASEBALL in overall pitching, and a trade involving a guy who was otherwise expendable anyway, this is now McCann's team and he needs to start performing like it.
I'm a baseball guy, and I know it seems I am coming down hard on a four-time All-Star catcher who also has two silver sluggers to his credit. But McCann is special folks, and special players take it to special levels when the time is theirs. McCann has to realize that his time is now, and capitalize on it to the fullest.
The Braves have everything necessary to overtake the Phillies. If these five things happen there isn't a doubt in anyone's mind that they will make some noise come the time they are so accustomed to being in.
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