It’s that time of year again… Major League Baseball Opening Day.
Today, hope springs eternal for all baseball enthusiasts as every team starts with a fresh slate as the 162-game marathon officially gets underway.
Last year, the Braves made an improbable late run at the National League Wild Card and stayed in contention for the spot until the final few games.
The remarkable turn of events had fans and the media buzzing about the “return” of the Atlanta Braves.
After an offseason in which the club decided to re-sign Tim Hudson and trade Javier Vazquez, add Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito to the back end of the bullpen, sign Troy Glaus to serve as the team’s new first baseman while penciling in No. 1 prospect Jason Heyward in right field, the pre-season hype about the Braves seems legitimate.
Many preseason national pundits have predicted the Braves to indeed make the playoffs in 2010, offering a sense of excitement around the team’s loyalists.
It is no secret that this team has something to play for.
Iconic manager Bobby Cox is in his final year at the helm, and his players desperately want to send their skipper out on a high note.
However, the “win one for Bobby” mantra will only get this group so far.
And they know it.
While, the players have added incentive and extra motivation to win— which may serve they well in the dog days of summer, the talent also appears to be in place for Atlanta to once again taste October glory.
Chipper Jones believes this Braves club could win 90 games, if they stay healthy.
And it is easy to see why.
Despite the loss of Javier Vazquez, Atlanta’s returning starting rotation comprised of Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Kenshin Kawakami still figures to be one of baseball’s best.
Lowe looks to rebound from one of his most disappointing seasons in 2009.
Yet, despite an uncharacteristically high 4.67 ERA, D-Lowe still won 15 games for the Braves last year, which tied him with Vazquez for the team lead in wins.
Jurrjens has established himself as one of baseball’s best young hurlers, finishing last season with a 2.60 ERA, third-best among National League starters.
Hanson made his highly anticipated rookie debut in June and went on to win 11 games last year, which was good enough for a third-place finish in the 2009 Rookie of the Year balloting.
Atlanta’s top pitching prospect is more seasoned and mature heading into Opening Day, and the Braves rotation stands to benefit greatly from getting a full year out of Hanson in 2010.
Japanese standout Kawakami won 7 games in his rookie season in the U.S. for Atlanta last year, but proved he could go up against any elite starter, besting some of baseball’s top aces last season, including countryman Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Kawakami figures to improve upon those numbers this season, as he has now grown increasingly comfortable with the pitching style in the states and has made the necessary adjustments this spring.
The Braves also boast an improved bullpen this season.
Atlanta added one of the game’s best closers in Billy Wagner to replace last season’s dual closers Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez.
Takashi Saito was also brought in as a set-up man to Wagner, but his wealth of prior closing experience gives the Braves great depth late in games this season.
Atlanta’s offense, which undoubtedly derailed the team’s postseason aspirations last year, seems to have at least been marginally improved.
The Braves’ additions of Troy Glaus, Melky Cabrera and Eric Hinske this off-season— along with the emergence of Jason Heyward— gives Atlanta a more well-rounded and deep batting corps than last year’s group.
The team still lacks a prototypical “big bopper” on paper, but with Glaus serving as the team’s clean-up hitter, protecting both Chipper Jones and Brian McCann, the pieces are in place for a solid middle unit.
That is, of course, if all prove to stay healthy.
The key to Atlanta’s success will be if Glaus, Jones and McCann, who are all overcoming past health concerns, can stay on the field and out of the trainer’s room.
Jones, a future Hall of Famer, is expected to rebound from his career-worst season at the plate in 2009.
McCann, who was slowed early last season by vision problems, should benefit from his second Lasik eye procedure this winter.
The wild card for the success of the Braves offense is whether Jason Heyward can make an immediate and profound impact at the Major League level.
There is no doubt J-Hey is the real deal.
The question is: Can he can serve as a consistent force in the Braves lineup and help power what last season was an often punchless offense?
With the additions of the switch-hitting Melky Cabrera and super utility man Eric Hinske, the Braves are afforded a great deal of versatility this season.
Cabrera will likely serve as the team’s leadoff hitter when he plays and can man left or center field, depending on the pitching matchup and Cox’s preference of playing Matt Diaz or Nate McLouth at the other spot.
I believe Chipper said it best, in terms of assessing the team’s line-up in 2010.
This offense is not “sexy,” but it is balanced top to bottom.
There are no easy outs, and if a player does go down, there are veterans with experience and depth who can step right in and contribute immediately and effectively.
Moreover, the Braves are a more confident and a much more cohesive unit then they’ve been in years.
The club has always enjoyed a great deal of chemistry over the years, especially during their run of 14 consecutive division titles, but never before have the personalities meshed quite like this year’s troops.
Chipper Jones and Tim Hudson credit the closeness and camaraderie among this bunch as a significant intangible that can’t be overlooked.
How often do you see a team stacked with superstars top to bottom but the egos couldn’t play together and the success on paper never quite translated to the field?
To build a winning roster, you need a group that is talented, versatile and that can compliment each other well.
That’s the makings of a true “team.”
The Braves are far from the most talented group assembled on paper in the Majors, and they aren’t even the cream of the crop in their own division.
However, funny things happen over the course of a marathon season.
Legends are made, heroes emerges and storylines develop.
I can’t help but think that Jason Heyward could be that legend and that any number of heroes could stand up to help cement the greatest storyline of the year— sending Bobby Cox out as a winner.
Oh, the beauty of Opening Day…where no dream is too big.
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