The Braves had a very good season in 2010 as they went 91-71 and returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2005. The emergence of some rookies as well as the presence of off-season acquisitions gave Bobby Cox one last postseason run as the Braves’ manager.
The Braves were a patient team, ranking fourth in the MLB in OBP at .339 while hitting at an average clip of .258, 14th in the league. They were also third in the league in ERA at 3.56, trailing only the world champion San Francisco Giants and the playoff-less San Diego Padres.
Some low-lights included an uncharacteristic 126 errors in the field, one error off the lead in the MLB behind the lowly Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates. Those two teams had a combined record of 122-198.
Who are the players that could make an impact in spring training for the 2011 Braves under Freddi Gonzalez?
So far, relief pitchers Billy Wagner, who followed his promise to retire after the season, and Takashi Saito, who has been let go, have set the stage for Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters to stabilize the bullpen.
Derrek Lee 1B, Rick Ankiel CF, Eric Hinske LF/1B, Troy Glaus 1B/3B, and Kyle Farnsworth RP have all declared for free agency and most likely will not return to the Braves. Contractual options on SS Alex Gonzalez and INF/OF Omar Infante were picked up. Assuming no trades or free-agency pickups, next year’s lineup could appear as follows:
(Player - position - 2010 BA/HR/RBI/OBP/SLUG.)
1. Omar Infante LF .321 / 8 / 47 / .359 / .416 in 471 at bats
2. Jason Heyward RF .277 / 18 / 72 / .393 / .456 in 520 at bats
3. Chipper Jones 3B .265 / 10 / 46 / .381 / .426 in 317 at bats
4. Brian McCann C .269 / 21 / 77 / .375 / .453 in 479 at bats
5. Martin Prado 2B .307 / 15 / 66 / .350 / .459 in 599 at bats
6. Alex Gonzalez SS .250 / 23 / 88 / .294 / .447 in 595 at bats (267 with the Braves)
7. Nate McLouth CF .190 / 6 / 24 / .298 / .322 in 242 at bats
8. Freddie Freeman 1B .167 / 1 / 1 / .167 / .333 in 24 at bats (.319 / 18 / 87 / .378 / .521 in 519 AAA at bats)
Omar Infante had an all-star season in 2010 and his bat is too valuable to come off the bench. He is used to play many infield positions and left field. Chipper has stated he will make a return in 2011 after having a surgery on a torn ACL suffered in mid-season. Prado has been moved down to a run producing spot as he has more power than Infante.
Alex Gonzalez came over from Toronto as a source of power, but only offered 6 home runs as a Brave in 267 at-bats, as opposed to 17 in 328 at-bats as a Blue Jay. The probable departure of Derrek Lee means a starting job for Freddie Freeman, who had great numbers at AAA Gwinnett.
Where does the bench stand for Spring Training 2011?
Matt Diaz LF (he will probably remain as a platoon player due to his good numbers versus left-handed pitching)
David Ross C
Diory Hernandez SS
Brooks Conrad 2B/3B
Brandon Hicks INF
Top Minor Leaguers:
Tyler Pastornicky SS (acquired in the Alex Gonzalez trade that sent Yunel Escobar to Toronto)
Jordan Schafer CF
Barbaro Canizares 1B
What stands out in the projected lineup is the low slugging percentages and the lack of power that has plagued this club for the past few years. It may finally be the year to reach for a power-hitting left or center fielder.
The Braves have already acquired Joe Mather, but he is still a raw player and will most likely remain in the minors. Center field looks to be an obvious hole with the disappointment of Nate McClouth. However, beyond a 41-year-old Jim Edmonds, no 2011 free agents have a track record for power.
The only other option is to acquire a left or right fielder and make a position change. The class is headlined by Carl Crawford, who is more of a base-stealer but still offers some power, Jayson Werth, who would probably have to be a left fielder, and Colby Rasmus.
Adam Dunn is also out there, but would definitely have to be a left fielder, and a terrible one at that—but where else can you pick up 40 home runs a year?
If the Braves can make a big splash in free agency or concoct a smart trade, they would easily make the jump to being championship contenders.
The Braves are and have always been propped up by elite pitching and the makeup of last year’s third-ranked pitching staff will remain mostly unchanged. The San Francisco Giants have proved pitching does indeed win championships. A quick look at the rotation:
(2010 ERA / Record / Strikeouts)
1. Tim Hudson 2.83 / 17-9 / 139 in 34 starts
2. Derek Lowe 4.00 / 16-12 / 136 in 33 starts
3. Tommy Hanson 3.33 / 10-11 / 173 in 34 starts
4. Jair Jurrjens 4.64 / 7-6 / 86 in 20 starts
5. Mike Minor/Brandon Beachy 5.98 / 3-2 / 43 in 8 MLB starts - 3.00 / 0-0 / 15 in 2 MLB starts
Tim Hudson vaulted to the ace position with his Cy Young candidacy-worthy year. Jurrjens was hampered by injuries for most of the year and consequently had a down year. The battle for the fifth starting spot will probably be between Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy, who both had good showings in starts down the stretch.
The bullpen looks like:
Kris Medlen is possible to return from Tommy John Surgery after All-Star break.
Set-up men (seventh-eighth inning):
Jonny Venters received a lot of work in 2010. He posted a 1.95 ERA in 83 innings of work, with only one home run given up for the year.
Craig Kimbrel is projected to be the closer with the departure of Billy Wagner. His upper 90s fastball and baffling slider have acted as validation.
Top minor leaguers:
As usual, the Braves farm system contains a bunch of highly regarded pitchers that could break into the majors in 2011. Leading the hype is right-handed pitcher Julio Teheran, who might just make the team from spring training. The only off-season moves in terms of pitching would be to acquire a few low level middle relief pitchers to fill out a bullpen that was one of the best in the majors in 2010.
There was also something of a coaching carousel in the dugout and next to the base paths. The Braves fired first-base coach Glenn Hubbard and bench coach Chino Cadahia named Carlos Tosca bench coach in his place. They also reassigned hitting coach Terry Pendleton to first-base coach and named Larry Parrish hitting coach.
Tosca was the Marlins bench coach under Gonzalez and Parrish came from coaching the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens in the farm system of the Detroit Tigers. Roger McDowell, Brian Snitker, and Eddie Perez remain the pitching, third-base, and bullpen coaches, respectively.
Some how, every year the Braves come out of Spring Training ready to compete for the pennant and there’s no reason to expect 2011 to be any different. 2010 will be marked down as a fluky weak defensive performance, so expect a rebound in that department. With a solid pitching staff, a new face or two inserted into the lineup, and a vaulting of Jason Heyward into stardom, the Braves will have sight of a World Series spot.