With the Atlanta Braves opening the season in less than 48 hours, excitement is swirling around the team as they try to build on last season’s playoff appearance via the Wild Card. Though the Philadelphia Phillies (and their Big Four starting rotation) are the heavy NL favorites, the Braves have improved from last season and could challenge them for the division title.
The Opening Day Roster has been set, with Matt Young, Christhian Martinez and Brandon Hicks getting the final three roster spots.
In the first of a three part series, we’ll look at how the Braves infield will fare in the upcoming season.
Brian McCann will look to continue his string of All-Star appearances in 2011.
McCann is coming off a somewhat down year in 2010, but he still ranks among the top catchers in the Major Leagues. While his batting average and ISO fell last year, McCann had a career best 13.1 percent walk rate and a very good .375 OBP.
With his defense improved in 2010, McCann led all catchers in WAR and should have another fine season in 2011. Hopefully, his vision problems are a thing of the past and he will team with David Ross to once again give the Braves more backstop production than any other team.
In 2011, McCann should see his batting average rebound some while continuing to drive in runs in the middle of the Braves order.
2011 Projection: .275/22/95, 5.2 WAR
Freddie Freeman is one of the leading candidates for the NL Rookie of the Year Award
Freeman is the top hitting prospect in the Braves system and was the AAA Rookie of the Year in 2010. Despite being only 21-years-old, the Braves essentially handed Freeman the starting first base job, and he should produce immediately. This spring, he has responded well, hitting .458 in 28 at-bats.
A great defensive shortstop, Freeman has great gap power and should rack up doubles near the bottom of the Braves lineup. While he may start slow, he took some time to get adjusted to AAA (before dominating the league) so the Braves shouldn’t worry.
2011 Projection: .275/15/74, 2.0 WAR
Dan Uggla should continue his string of 30 homerun seasons in Atlanta
The Braves big offseason acquisition, Uggla brings much needed power from the right side of the plate and looks to follow up on the best season of his career. Going by WAR, he was the fifth most valuable second baseman in 2010 while producing career highs with a .287 batting average and 33 homeruns.
Not a great defender, hopefully the switch out of SunLife Stadium will help, but Uggla will likely hurt the Braves some in the field, especially when groundball specialists Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson are on the hill.
That being said, Uggla is almost a lock for 30 homeruns if he stays healthy, and definitely provides an upgrade over Melky Cabrera (the player he is essentially replacing via Prado’s position switch).
2011 Projection: .265/35/108, 4.9 WAR
Back from a knee injury, Jones will look to regain the form he had just before getting injured
Despite a slow start, Chipper proved he still had some left in his tank before tearing his ACL midway through the 2010 season. Despite hints that he might retire, Chipper has made it through rehab and impressed this spring, drawing comparisons to the early 2000’s Jones that didn’t miss time every year.
Optimistically, Chipper will play 140 games and avoid any major DL time, but that’s no sure thing. His defense is average at best at this point, and the Braves will need him to show the power that he lost during the majority of last season. He has hit a couple of monster homeruns for the Braves this spring, so there is reason to be optimistic about his performance in 2011.
2011 Projection (140 Games): .282/21/71, 2.8 WAR
Gonzalez should anchor the Braves infield defense in 2011
Picked up from the Blue Jays last July, Gonzalez finished the season sixth among shortstops in WAR due to a nice power surge. Of all the Braves infielders, he could be the weakest member as he put up an OBP below .300 and saw a huge drop in ISO once moving to Atlanta.
A good defensive shortstop, Gonzalez will hold the Braves infield together in the field and hopefully provide some pop at the bottom of the lineup. If he can keep his batting average around .260, the Braves will be happy with his performance in 2011.
2011 Projection: .250/15/54, 2.1 WAR
Jones health will be a big determinant of how the 2011 season plays out
IF (and it's a big if) Chipper can stay relatively healthy and produce like he did towards the end of his 2010 campaign, the braves will have a great lineup. However, if Chipper gets hurt the Braves will likely have to make a trade midseason to improve their club as they would have a gaping hole somewhere (likely left field, since Prado would move back to the infield).
I’m confident Chipper can still play well when healthy, but he hasn’t played in more than 143 games since 2003 and has dealt with numerous injuries in recent years.
Ross probably could start for about 1/3 of the teams in the MLB
In two years with the Braves (and 296 total plate appearances) Ross has accumulated 3.6 WAR. If he could keep those numbers up over a full season, Ross would be among the top backstops in the league. Ross’ 1.6 WAR in 2010 ranked 20th among catchers despite getting roughly a quarter of a starters playing time.
Ross probably deserves to be the starter somewhere, and gives the Braves a great option if Brian McCann suffers an injury. McCann is one of the top backstops in the league, yet the Braves are well prepared if he has to miss any time.
A great defensive catcher, Ross will be a fixture when the Braves play a day game following a night game when McCann needs a rest.
Freeman is the cream of the crop as far as Braves infield prospects go
The Braves have one of the best farm systems in all of baseball, but are somewhat thin in the infield. Freddie Freeman will be graduating from the farm system this year, so hopefully some of the other players on this list can live up to their full potential.
Catcher: Christian Bethancourt - Although he struggled in his full season debut, Bethancourt is only 19 and could turn into a great all-around catcher for the Braves.
First Base: Freddie Freeman - Polished line drive stroke could have Freeman leading the league in doubles in coming years.
Second Base: Matt Lipka - Currently a shortstop, Lipka has excellent speed and will likely switch to second base or outfield in the future.
Third Base: Edward Salcedo - Another current shortstop, Salcedo's large frame will likely force a switch to third base (and help him develop good power).
Shortstop: Andrelton Simmons - A defensive whiz who could be an above average base stealer at higher levels (He also could be a highly rated pitching prospect if he doesn't struggle at the plate).