Atlanta Braves: 2011 MLB Season Preview

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Atlanta Braves: 2011 MLB Season Preview
Marc Serota/Getty Images

ATLANTA BRAVES

Last Year: 91-71, 2nd in NL East  

Manager: Fredi Gonzalez  

PROJECTED LINEUP 

C—Brian McCann (L) 

1B—Freddie Freeman (L)

2B—Dan Uggla (R)

3B—Chipper Jones (S) 

SS—Alex Gonzalez (R)

LF—Martin Prado (R)

CF—Nate McLouth  (L)

RF—Jason Heyward (L)

The Braves offense struggled at times during the team's run into the playoffs.

Brian McCann is the Braves most consistent power hitter who can averages a little more than 20 plus home runs a year. Expect a line of .280/.370/.500.

Jayson got off to a fast start in his rookie season, but had to deal with some adjustments and an injury.

Heyward has all the tools to be a star in this league, and we should see more improvement this year in the strikeout department. I see him hitting 20-25 home runs with a .290/.400/.490 line.

The Braves need another strong year from Martin Prado, and the team struggled to replace him when he went down towards the end of the year. He will provide 10-15 home runs while hitting around .300 from the top of the lineup.

Nate McLouth has been a bust since the Braves acquired him in 2009, but I think he will find a way to contribute 15 home runs and a mediocre.250/.325/.410 line. 

Freddie Freeman will play 1B and bat at the bottom of the lineup. (Check out Breakout player for projections.)

Dan Uggla will provide some right-handed power that the Braves need. However, like the rest of the Braves lineup, Uggla strikes out too often and his batting average is streaky season to season. I expect a dip in his average to .250 but he will provide the same 30 HR power.

Alex Gonzalez provided some pop last year, but he was helped by playing in Toronto for the first half of the season. He only hit six home runs for Atlanta. His power numbers will come down to 13-15 home runs with a line of .260/.300/.400.

Chipper Jones will be coming off of knee surgery, so it remains to be seen at what strength he will be at when he returns. The team will need to get him some days off, but I see him hitting 15 home runs if he gets enough at-bats. 

One of the weaknesses of the 2010 team was the poor defense.

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It might get worse this season with Dan Uggla, one of the worst second basemen in the league, starting everyday. Freddie Freeman will play an above average 1B, but Chipper Jones is coming off of major knee surgery and I am sure it will compromise some of his range. Alex Gonzalez is the best defender in the infield, as he was the sixth highest ranked shortstop in terms of UZR. Additionally, I would consider Brian McCann above average behind the plate.

The real defensive problems come in the outfield. Nate McLouth has poor range in CF and Turner Field is too expansive to have a below average center fielder. In addition, Martin Prado will make the movie from the infield to LF. It remains to be seen how Prado will do playing everyday there. At least the Braves have Jayson Heyward, who is a very good right fielder with a plus arm. 

 

BENCH

IF/OF—Eric Hinske (L)

IF—Brooks Conrad (S) 

IF/OF—Matt Young (L) 

C—David Ross (R) 

IF—Brandon Hicks (R) 

STARTING ROTATION

RHP—Tim Hudson  

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

RHP—Derek Lowe 

RHP—Tommy Hanson 

RHP—Jair Jurrjens 

RHP—Brandon Beachy 

The Braves top three starters pitched very well in 2010 and they will all be returning for 2011. Tim Hudson pitched very well in his first full season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Hudson had his best fastball since 2004 (91.2 MPH), and it was the best pitch in 2010. Hudson will throw a little bit of everything, but he needs his sinker to be successful. Hudson has good control, but it sometime looks worse than it is because of his movement. I wouldn't expect Hudson to put up dominant numbers again, but he should have a low to mid 3 ERA with a K/9 rate.

Like Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe was known as one of the top sinkerballers in the game, but fell in love with his slider in 2009. Lowe rebounded in 2010 because of a renewed emphasis on his sinker and the increased use of his change-up. Lowe pitched extremely well during the second half of the season, and I expect him to put up similar numbers in 2011 with a high 3 ERA. 

I like what Tommy Hanson did in his first full season in the majors, and I think there is room for improvement in 2011. Hanson should improve on his strikeout numbers, and he should be the Braves' best pitcher if his control is as steady as last year. He has an impressive repertoire that includes a low 90's fastball, great slider, good change and average curveball. Hanson is ready to take the next step and become the ace of this staff.

Jair Jurrjens lost a lot of 2010 to an injured right knee, which affected him when he did pitch. Jurrjens is expected to put up a 3.6-3.90 ERA with a 6 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 rate.

Brandon Beachy beat Mike Minor out for the final spot in the rotation. He throws a low 90's fastball with a slider and a changeup. Beachy posted very good strikeout and home run rates during his time in the minors, and could be a stabilizing force in the backend of the rotation. 

BULLPEN

RHP—Craig Kimbrel (Co-Closer) 

LHP—Johnny Venters (Co-Closer)

RHP—Peter Moyland 

RHP—Scott Linebrink  

LHP—George Sherrill  

LHP—Eric O'Flaherty  

RHP—Christhian Martinez  

With the retirement of Billy Wagner, the Braves are left with two promising pitchers to handle the closer's role. Craig Kimbrel will get the opportunity to get the bulk of the saves opportunity from the right side. Kimbrel has great stuff (avg. 95.7 MPH on fastball) with a plus slider. Kimbrel's control has been a problem—he walked 16 in 20 innings last year, and it might keep him from fully assuming the closer role.

Marc Serota/Getty Images

Johnny Venters will also get a shot after an impressive 2010 season. Venters was a mid-level prospect until the Braves made him a reliever last year. His sinking fastball's velocity jumped to 94-96 and he became Bobby Cox's go to reliever. Venters problems are his below average control and his lack of a secondary pitch.

Peter Moylan will be one of the primary set-up men. Moylan is a sidearming righty who is a groundball specialist, and gets a fair share of strikeouts. His control is a little iffy, but he is as reliable as they come fromt the right side. 

George Sherrill and Eric O'Flaherty will be the left-handed specialists out of the pen. Sherrill struggled with his velocity and command last year, and it remains to be seen if he can get either of them back. O'Flaherty has become a reliable set-up man for the Braves and will get more work against righties than Sherill.

Linebrink struggled the last few years with the White Sox, but his K rates were still very good and his velocity increased last year. He should benefit from the move back to the NL, and he will try to put himself into the mix for some save opportunities. 

NOTABLE NON ROSTER INVITEES

RHP—Rodrigo Lopez

RHP—Kenshin Kawakami 

C—Wilkin Castillo (S)

OF—Wilkin Ramirez (R) 

BREAKOUT PLAYER—1B Freddie Freeman 

Freeman should impress this year with his above average defense and gap to gap power. He will hit for average this year even though the power might not come right away. He will eventually become a 20-25 home run a year hitter who will hit over .300. He shouldn't be under too much pressure batting eighth in this lineup to begin the season. 

PROSPECT TO WATCH—RHP Julio Teheran 

Teheran is considered the Braves' top prospect. He throws a fastball that tops out at 96 MPH and it has some movement going in to righties. Both his curveball and change-up have the ability to become above-average pitches that could make him a top starter in the league. He does short-arm the ball so he needs to prove that he can stay healthy enough.  He could be with Braves sometime in September if everything goes according to plan. 

PROJECTED FINISH—2nd in NL East 

The Braves have a good pitching staff and a streaky offense that should keep them in contention for the entire season. I think missing an experienced closer and having an inconsistent lineup without a prototypical leadoff hitter will keep them from winning the division, but I think it will be a closer race than people think. The team will definitely be in the hunt for the Wild Card. 

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