Atlanta Braves: Can the 2011 Team Surprise in the National League East?
The 2011 Atlanta Braves will seemingly be overlooked by most experts and pundits to best the Philadelphia Phillies for division bragging rights. How could last season’s NL Wild Card winners possibly hold their own against the Phillies’ vaunted starting rotation—who many have already deemed one of the best ever assembled?
Sure, they haven’t thrown one pitch in a meaningful game as a collective unit, but on paper, how could anyone argue that Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels will not equate to a historic starting staff?
Perhaps, it’s because a lot can happen over a taxing season. Players must still suit up and play the schedule—a full 162-game marathon. The injury bug so often rears its ugly head, throwing a wrench into any team’s—even the most talented’s—presumed destiny.
Big-time egos don’t always mesh together—credit the manager who is able to cohesively mold a “team” together above all individual's own personal goals and accolades. A club that puts the “I” before the “WE” can and WILL self-destruct. It’s happened before and will happen again.
It’s not to say that these Phillies—the projected favorites not only in the East but in the National League—won’t live up to expectations. It’s not to say that their “sexy” starting rotation won’t go down in history as the best ever. They very well could. But, the beauty of America’s favorite pastime is that baseball wins and division championships aren’t decided on paper or based on sheer talent, projection or expectation.
Any team can still beat you on any given day, and the unlikely squad you didn’t see emerging out of camp—hello, 2010 San Francisco Giants—can still defeat the odds and be crowned champions of baseball. The 2010 Giants were the epitome of the “little team that could”—and they gave hope to many lower budget, up-and-coming clubs that they, too, could eclipse baseball’s perceived powerhouses.
One of those teams believing in such hope is the Atlanta Braves. With an acclaimed starting squad of their own—which they are returning in 2011—the Braves’ rotation figures to once again be among the game’s elite. Anchored by Derek Lowe, who was dynamite down the stretch last season and complemented by a resurgent Tim Hudson, emergent Tommy Hanson and a healthy Jair Jurrjens—Braves’ starters stand to give their share of fits to hitters in their quest for a second straight postseason appearance.
And while their rotation is strong in its own right, it’s Atlanta’s bullpen that could emerge as their ace in the hole. Equipped with two young fireballers who could both excel in the closer’s role—Craig Kimbrel and Jonny “Everyday” Venters—Atlanta’s relievers possess the skills to round out a dominant relief corps.
If you’ve come to expect one thing from the Braves over the years, it is a team that can and will consistently pitch well. The question marks have usually risen with the club’s offense and lack of power at its heart. But, this year’s lineup is deeper than ever—with the offseason addition of Dan Uggla as the right-handed, middle-of-the-order bat that the Braves had so desperately coveted. Uggla’s presence alongside fellow All-Stars Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Martin Prado, and if all goes according to plan, a healthy Chipper Jones—could pack a potent offensive punch.
Few would argue against this team’s legitimacy as a contender. But, to win the division and dethrone the big, bad Phillies—well, that just sounds asinine, right?
Despite the Phillies’ nasty rotation, the club has many other questions that make them appear to be vulnerable. ESPN‘s Buster Olney suggests the Phils never addressed their biggest offseason need—a right-handed power bat to replace slugger Jayson Werth—who departed for the Washington Nationals via free agency.
Philadelphia lacks balance and experience in their lineup, placing a heavy offensive burden on talented but unproven youngsters Ben Francisco and Domonic Brown. The defending NL East Champs are also an aging bunch who saw a significant portion of their squad—they had 170 games lost to injuries in just the infield alone in 2010—on the disabled list last season.
Jimmy Rollins’ OPS has dropped for three consecutive seasons now, and the franchise’s golden boy Chase Utley’s own OPS has sputtered the last two. Ryan Howard’s postseason struggles were well-documented last season and could be attributed to an increase in off-speed pitches away he saw from opposing pitchers that he never was quite able to adjust to.
Even Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, who was at Phillies' camp as an instructor, called out Rollins, Shane Victorino and other offensive stars for their lackluster production last season. The Phillies are not without flaws—which the Braves or any team in the league can hope to exploit—they just expect their superior starters to carry the load and mask the holes in their bullpen and lineup.
Can they? Sure. Will they? That’s why they play the games.
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