Well, Braves fans, it's time to oil up the glove, tar up the bat and head out for another season. Here's what I expect the Braves to look like by position:
Brian McCann, a five-time All-Star, returns behind the plate for the Braves with a renewed vigor ready to get back to the postseason. Also returning is David Ross, who surprised many with his clutch hitting last year. This is one of the strongest positions on the diamond for the Braves.
Derrek Lee is now with the Baltimore Orioles, which gives Freddie Freeman, the highly touted prospect, the chance to claim the spot. I honestly feel, however, that we may see Chipper Jones shift over to first to save wear and tear on his knees.
There have been rumors for awhile about this move, so keep an eye out for this. Similar players have made this move. Troy Glaus did it last year with the Braves and had great success in the transition, so it may give Chipper confidence in being able to do the same.
A definite improvement from last year, the Braves traded surprise All-Star selection Omar Infante and lefty pitcher Mike Dunn for Dan Uggla, a slugging middle of the lineup guy. The only downside about Uggla is he struggles a bit with the glove.
No need to worry, though. The Braves tend to do well at coaching players with defensive issues. We can definitely use the power in the middle of the lineup, and while Uggla's D isn't the greatest, it gives us an upgrade at a key position.
Alex Gonzalez returns this year for his first full season with the Braves. Gonzalez sputtered a bit at the end of the season and looked plumb tired, so look for him get a little rest every now and then. Prospect Diory Hernandez has been turning heads, so you probably won't have to worry much about seeing him fill in for Alex.
Hopefully, Alex will keep the pace this year because the National League is a bit more laid back and not as taxing as facing AL competition, so Gonzalez should be able to take it easy this season and enjoy his time in Atlanta.
Here's where it gets tricky. Chipper Jones is returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee, and that ligament is a key one as far as range of movement is concerned. If Chipper has any issues with that knee, you better believe he will either be benched or moved to first.
In that event, you will undoubtedly see Martin Prado moving to third base, and it will be tough to pry him out of that spot. Prado is one of the best defensive players in Chief Nokahoma's tribe, so look for the Braves to find a spot for him. Other options at third include Brandon Hicks (who has decent pop and a good arm) and Brooks Conrad, who proved his worth last year by coming through with some clutch homers and some stellar defense.
Martin Prado is almost assured the spot. He will be making a transition from the infield but will vastly improve this outfield's defense. Eric Hinske returned from free agency and is excited about returning -- good morale for this team. If Prado moves to third, count on Hinske getting a large amount of time in left.
Another option if Prado moves to third is a platoon between Hinske and Joe Mather, a free agent pickup from the St. Louis Cardinals. Coaches and scouts say Mather is a good athlete with great defense and good hitting. Mather and Hinske would do well to split the duties. The left field spot is solid this year.
Here is a mega question mark. Is Nate McLouth able to return to 2008 form? If so, count on him to be your leadoff guy and anchor in center. McLouth has all the tools to excel -- arm strength, speed, vision, and a history of good batting skills. Now, he had to retool his hitting over the offseason after his atrocious season last year, but the buzz is he is back on point and ready to go.
Another option would be second year guy Jordan Shafer. Shafer is still developing, but would be a good addition to this outfield.
Who else but Jason Heyward could fill this spot? Almost rookie of the year, All-Star in his rookie season and a phenomenal athlete, Heyward is a stellar player and will hold this spot until he wants more money or seeks greener pastures elsewhere. Unless he gets hurt, you can take out your Sharpies and marker Heyward in at right.
How will the Braves do in 2011?
If Heyward gets injured, look for Hinske or Mather to step in for the short term. Brooks Conrad also can play some outfield, so he would be an emergency guy. Other than that, right field is on lock down.
Here's where some fun begins. There's too much talent here. Of course, we have the tandem of Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrgens and Tommy Hanson. That is a fixed situation. The fifth spot is the tricky one, and it could go to a number of guys.
Mike Minor is a lefty, and they direly need a lefty in the rotation. Minor has an excellent fastball and a backdoor breaking ball. He needs to work on his patience, and he will do well.
Brandon Beachy is another guy that will work well in the fifth spot. Beachy rose up out of AA to start against the Phillies. While he didn't win, he struck out a batter, only managed one earned run, and kept the Braves close. In his next start against the Phillies, Beachy went 5.2 innings, gave up just 7 hits, four runs (2 earned), only one walk, and struck out five.
Another possibility is Kris Medlen. Medlen went 6-2 with a 3.68 ERA last year, striking out 83 and walking just 21 in 14 starts, an average of six strikeouts per game. Bad thing about Medlen is he is expected to miss most of this season due to Tommy John surgery. Expect him to roar back with a passion at the end of this season.
Yet another wild card in this mix is Rodrigo Lopez, a pickup from the Diamondbacks, who signed a minor league contract with Spring Training invitation on Jan. 31, 2011. Lopez, who can struggle a bit with his command if rattled, is a savvy veteran with several years under his belt who could bolster the bullpen if he doesn't work as a starter. This is his second go-around with the Braves, who signed him in 2008 but cut him during Spring Training.
The bullpen will be without its closer from last year, Billy Wagner, but it still features the good parts from last year and some added talent. Craig Kimbrel looks to assume the closer role, and time will tell if he will fill Wagner's shoes well.
Add George Sherrill, the versatile lefty, and Scott Linebrink, the stoic veteran, to the mix, and you have a combination of youth and experience that is sure to rival any bullpen in the game.
Peter Moylan looks to return to All-Star form, and Cristhian Martinez, Eric O'Flaherty, Scott Proctor and Jonny Venters all look to contribute to this bullpen. Also, since there is only one spot in the rotation left, look for at least one of the three vying for the fifth rotation spot -- Beachy, Minor, and Lopez -- to migrate into the bullpen (Rodrigo Lopez may not make the cut, so bear that in mind).
With Bobby Cox gone (but still doing a little consulting for the team), former third base coach Fredi Gonzalez will fill the retired skipper's shoes after three winning years in Florida.
Terry Pendleton is being moved to first base coach, leaving Gonzalez to bring in (my cousin) Larry Parrish, the former Expos and Rangers All-Star as hitting coach. Roger McDowell remains the pitching coach and has done a fine job in that role.
Chino Cadahia exits as bench coach and is being replaced by Carlos Tosca, who formerly managed the Toronto Blue Jays and Braves' AAA affiliate Richmond Braves. Eddie Perez returns as bullpen coach and will continue to do a fine job with the catchers.
The 2011 Atlanta Braves look to be a good team, but the question remains about their ability to beat the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies rotation looks stacked, but Cliff Lee has been known to have rough patches and has not had great success against the NL East. I look for this season to result in an NL Wild Card championship with a decent run in the playoffs. Only time will tell.