After a tough start to the 2010 campaign, the Atlanta Braves are playing like it's the 1990's. Last night against the Los Angeles Dodgers, they extended their win streak to nine games. The Braves are the hottest team in baseball and now is as good a time as any to take a closer look.
Despite dealing Javier Vazquez to the Yankees this off season, the Braves have one of the deepest pitching staffs in baseball. Tim Hudson is dominating after Tommy John surgery. Tommy Hanson is better than his ERA (3.78) indicates. (The reason for the high ERA is a poor start against Cincinnati in which he gave up eight earned runs in 1.2 innings pitched). Like Hanson, Kris Medlen is establishing himself as a quality starter in his second year in the majors. When Jair Jurrjens returns from the 15 day DL, Derek Lowe could very well be the fifth best starter in the rotation. (However, I have a feeling the Braves will move Medlen to the bullpen when Jurrjens comes back and leave Kawakami as a starter.)
Of course, Atlanta has always been known for quality pitching. It's the offense that has propelled the Braves to first place in the NL East. Jason Heyward has exceeded expectations. Looking back at spring training, one wonders if the J-Hey Kid wasn't hyped enough. After an awful April, Troy Glaus has been hitting the ball as well as anyone in the league. His torrid May has allowed him to overtake Heyward as the Braves' RBI leader and tie Heyward for most home runs with ten.
Even though the Braves have been swinging the bat exceptionally well, I believe they could still substantially improve. Jason Heyward is not a prototypical two spot hitter. His power makes him an ideal candidate to bat in the heart of the lineup. The third spot belongs to Chipper Jones until he retires. Bobby Cox is a loyal manager and would never force him out of it. If I were the manager, I would bat Heyward cleanup and move Yunel Escobar up to bat second. I know Escobar hasn't played well this year, but I expect him to come around soon. Brian McCann could be moved down two spots to bat six. The aforementioned changes would give the Braves the following lineup (when everyone is healthy of course):
1. Martin Prado
2. Yunel Escobar
3. Chipper Jones
4. Jason Heyward
5. Troy Glaus
6. Brian McCann
7. Eric Hinske or Melky Cabrera
8. Nate McClouth
That's a scary lineup and with Atlanta's pitching it should provide more than enough runs.
Looking forward, I could see the Braves trying to add another power hit at the deadline. Obviously, they will cool off eventually; however, the should contend until the end of the season. They should return to the postseason, either by winning the division or the wild card. For now, I plan to continue to enjoy rooting for the hottest team in baseball. Go Braves!