MLB Preview: Eight Questions Facing The Atlanta Braves in 2011
Is it just me or was that the longest baseball offseason ever?
Whether it was the backbreaking Brooks Conrad error in Game Three of the NLDS or the heartbreaking end of the season the next night, the offseason has done little to extract the horrible taste of another bitterly swallowed October.
Now, with competitive baseball literally just around the corner, it's time to preview the upcoming season.
This past offseason was anything but silent for the Atlanta Braves.
The ceremonial passing of the torch from longtime manager and living legend, Bobby Cox, to the 47-year old former manager of the Florida Marlins, Fredi Gonzalez, started the offseason just days after the final out of the 2010 season.
It wasn't too long after that when GM Frank Wren pulled off a deal to get one of Gonzalez's former players, slugger Dan Uggla, from the Marlins.
There were other additions too. Former Orioles closer George Sherrill was added to the 'pen and pinch-hitter extraordinaire Eric Hinske was re-signed to continue to provide pop off the bench.
Gone are fan favorites Matt Diaz, Omar Infante and Billy Wagner. Two-month rental Derrek Lee and the light-hitting/fielding Melky Cabrera are gone as well.
Season previews are not about who is gone, however.
The next thousand or so words will be all about what the team has and the questions surrounding the 2011 version of the Atlanta Braves.
And now, eight questions...
How Will the Managerial Transition Affect the Team?
Perhaps the better question is if the change will affect the team at all, rather than trying to quantify how much it will change things.
Fredi Gonzalez is a Bobby Cox clone. There will be little, if any, noticeable changes in philosophy, style and player management.
Will Chipper Become Chipper Again?
When Chipper Jones came down awkwardly on his leg before crumbling to the ground in Houston last August, I told my seven-year-old to savor the moment, because this may very well be the last time we see Chipper Jones on a baseball diamond.
Given Chipper's age and injury history, there weren't many who figured Jones would come back as anything more than a shell of his former self.
If the reports concerning Chipper's offseason progression are accurate, however, the longtime face of the organization should be good to go come April.
Two weeks ago, AJC reporter David O' Brien reported that the slugger literally knocked the cover off a baseball during an offseason batting practice at Turner Field.
Chipper told O' Brien, "That's what you've got to look forward to this season." If that is truly the case, consider this question answered.
How Much Will Jason Heyward's Game Progress?
The new face of the Braves, Jason Heyward, finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting a season ago. Without the thumb injury that derailed nearly a month of his season, the 21-year-old probably would have been able to run away and hide with that award.
2011 will be a much more important year for the young phenom.
Adjustments will be made and better scouting reports will be formulated.
How well Heyward adjusts in year two will say a lot about the success of these Braves. Pure, unadulterated talent will only take him so far.
Will Jair Jurrjens Return to Form?
The third-year starter was coming off a career best 2.60 ERA in '09 when injuries caused bouts of ineffectiveness for the young ace-in-the-making.
Jurrjens finished his 2010 season in mid-September, with a 7-6 record and a 4.64 ERA.
Much of the talk about the Braves having a formidible rotation in 2010 featured Jurrjens as the key to its success. Thankfully, a career year from Tim Hudson helped to fill the gap that Jurrjens ineffectiveness created.
If Jurrjens can stay healthy in 2011, the Braves could very well have one of the best rotations in the National League.
Can Rookies Freddie Freeman and Mike Minor Fill Key Holes?
For a second straight season, there is a considerable amount of expectation being heaped upon a Braves rookie. While Freddie Freeman is not coming in with the same kind of hype that surrounded Jason Heyward, there will still be more than a few folks watching his progression in the spring.
Billed as a gap-hitting, defensively gifted first baseman, the former MLB top-50 prospect will do well to hit 10-15 home runs and knock in 50 or so runs in his rookie season. Most of the 21-year-old's work will come from the seven or eight slot in the lineup.
Since Kris Medlen will likely be rehabbing his surgically repaired right elbow until at least August, rookie Mike Minor will be the fifth starter for much of the 2011 season.
Minor pitched well in nine starts last August and September. Since he didn't meet the minimum innings requirement in those starts, he will be considered a rookie in 2011. Not bad for a kid who struck out 43 major league batters in 40.2 innings last season.
The Braves should not be too worried about the very back end of the rotation, considering they have a rookie who struck out 12 batters in his Wrigley Field debut last August.
What Can the Braves Expect from Nate McLouth?
The Braves should expect nothing from the disappointing center fielder at this point. Basically, there's nowhere to go but up from here.
After hitting .168 through the first four months of the season, McLouth spent most of August in the minors trying to rediscover his swing. Upon his September arrival in Atlanta, McLouth had 15 hits in 22 games.
McLouth absolutely has to improve on his .190 average of a year ago if he expects to hold off rejuvenated former prospect Jordan Schafer in center field.
Will Kimbrel/Venters Combine for the Save?
Do you want the long answer or the short one? This one can be answered in one word—yes.
Will it be closer by committee? No. Kimbrel and Venters will certainly receive their fare share of saves, but the lefty/righty combo should be all the Braves need to close games out.
It will probably be the same sort of situation the Braves had with Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez two seasons ago.
Fredi Gonzalez will likely take the opposing lineup and the hot hand into consideration when choosing which of the two will record the final three outs.
But, you can't count out one of the two getting a stranglehold on the job at some point in the season.
Is Dan Uggla the Answer That This Braves Lineup Needed?
The excuse has been the same since Mark Teixeira was traded—the lack of power in the lineup has held the Braves back from being a true contender in the NL East.
That excuse will no longer fly in Atlanta.
The Braves finally have their 30-plus home run, 90-plus RBI man in Dan Uggla. With a hopefully-rejuvenated Chipper Jones, and the developing Jason Heyward on either side of Uggla and catcher Brian McCann in the batting order, this team could make Braves fans forget all about the offensive struggles of recent seasons past.
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