Some say that the Braves' great ride last year will end this season.
They say that they will get close to making the playoffs, but ultimately will finish just short.
I say, nay.
This is a Braves team that returns their entire core from a year ago, including four out of their five starting pitchers. They also kept their lineup intact, with Martin Prado, Jason Heyward, Brian McCann and Chipper Jones.
This is a team that won 90 games last year! What signs point to a regression?
They lost a legendary manager sure, but a manager isn't everything. The players are what win the games and they have the players.
They also did lose their closer Billy Wagner to retirement as well as set up man Takashi Saito to free agency, but the Braves are confident that Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel will replace them with little setback. They were prepared for Wagner and Saito to be short timers, so they had the pieces in place for when they did leave.
In addition to keeping most of the team together, the Braves added important parts. They traded utility player Omar Infante and relief pitcher Mike Dunn for consistent power-hitting Dan Uggla. They also acquired relievers George Sherrill and Scott Linebrink from free agency, both of whom have a career ERA under 3.80.
The biggest positive the Braves have going into this season is depth. What teams can say they have nine players that could be starters on almost any team?
They have Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, Rodrigo Lopez, Kris Medlen (who will return sometime around August) and top pitching prospect Julio Teheran. Obviously, the first four pitchers mentioned are already going to be starters and Minor is looking like he is going to be the fifth, but the other four could also start.
When a starting pitcher goes down due to an injury, most teams have to use someone from the bullpen or call up a pitcher who isn't ready. Generally, this results in disaster and they lose games they would have won; however, the Braves will have a replacement at the ready who can get the job done, plus some.
Having too much starting pitching is a good thing and the Braves have this problem.
In terms of the lineup, the Braves have a decent bench. It may not be as good as it was last year when it was one of the best in the league, but this year's bench should do just fine.
They have Eric Hinske, Brooks Conrad, Joe Mather and possibly a player like Jordan Schafer and Wilkin Ramirez (who is having a great spring training). Overall. it is an average bench, but they hopefully will not have to do much if the starters stay healthy and perform well.
Another positive the Braves have is a great balance of youth and experience. The Braves always bring up great prospects, and this year is no different. They will have a rookie closer in Craig Kimbrel and a rookie first-baseman in Freddie Freeman. Both are highly regarded prospects and they both are expected to perform well.
We already have had a taste of Kimbrel, who pitched in 25 major league innings. In those 25 innings, he pitched lights out. He allowed only two earned runs and he struck out 47 batters. If he can replicate those numbers this season, then he could be a serious contender to be voted rookie of the year.
Freeman, however, did not perform as well as Kimbrel did in the short time he was up in the big leagues. He hit only .167, and he struck out every three at bats. The good thing though is that he was only 21 years old. In time, he will develop (hopefully) into a great hit for an average type of player that will be a starter for many years.
The experience the Braves have will be a huge help because they will help teach the younger players like Heyward, Freeman, Kimbrel and Venters. Having Billy Wagner last year was a huge mentor for the younger pitchers and this year, they have Sherrill and Linebrink coming in with experience.
Lowe and Hudson will continue to be teachers for the younger starters, and Chipper along with Alex Gonzalez will help teach the younger hitters. While age can be a negative factor, it can also be a huge help because it provides balance in the team.
One issue that prevented the Braves from possibly beating the Giants and getting farther in the playoffs was their defense.
Their defense was atrocious last year, especially in the postseason. Now the addition of Dan Uggla doesn't help in that category, but the removal of Glen Hubbard does. He was the Braves' former first base coach and thus taught defense.
As shown by last year's overall defensive performances, Hubbard needed to go. Now, I do not know how much Terry Pendleton, his replacement, can do, but I believe that he will positively address the issue.
One final note about how I believe the Braves will carry their momentum from last year to this year is chemistry. Last year, the Braves probably had the best clubhouse chemistry of any team in baseball. There was neither drama nor strife in the clubhouse (other than Yunel Escobar, who was traded) and the players all got along.
It is important for all players to be happy and relaxed on a team—not frustrated and tense.
Bobby Cox was instrumental for the Braves having such a great atmosphere, but I think Fredi Gonzalez will keep being a player's manager. This in the long run could help in the player's performances.
The Braves had a great year in 2010. They won 91 games, made the postseason and they sent Bobby Cox out with a flourish.
What will this year bring? I say that they will continue to be a successful team and make the playoffs, either through winning the division or winning the wild card spot. They have the team to do it and they just need to play like they should on the field.
The Braves will be choppin' into October.
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