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 4 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 second of a three-part series, we’ll look at how the Braves outfield will fare in the upcoming season.
Prado will play left field for the first time in 2011
In his first full season starting with the Braves, Prado exceeded expectations and was the Braves most consistent hitter until injuries ended his season early.
His 3.9 WAR ranked seventh among all second basemen (and would have ranked eighth among all left fielders). Prado’s bat has been consistent since reaching the major leagues, and the biggest question will be how he transitions to left field in 2011.
Prado has looked pretty good in left this spring, and will undoubtedly be a big improvement over the abomination that was Melky Cabrera.
If Prado improves, it will need to be in his pitch selection. He only walked 6.1 percent of the time last season (down from 7.2 percent in 2009). While Prado’s BABIP was high last year (.335) he looks like one of the rare hitters that might be capable of sustaining a BABIP above .300 in the long haul as he makes good contact and can put the ball in all fields.
.310/16/63, 3.7 WAR
McLouth will look to rebound in 2011
To say McLouth struggled in 2010 would be a drastic understatement.
He hit just .190 in 288 plate appearances and was sent to the minors to work on his swing at one point. The biggest issue was his strikeout rate, which was a career high 23.6 percent in 2010. When McLouth broke out with the Pirates in 2008, his strikeout rate was just 15.6 percent. McLouth did get a bit unlucky (.221 BABIP) and ended up with negative 1.3 WAR.
Things have been looking much better for McLouth this spring. It took him around 10 games to match his hit total from all of last spring and has some people talking about “Pittsburgh” Nate. Although his defense in center field leaves some to be desired, if McLouth can rediscover his power stroke and speed on the base-paths, the Braves will be more than happy with his production in 2011.
.255/.335/.420, 1.5 WAR
Heyward will look to build on his fantastic rookie campaign
Coming off of a historic rookie season, Heyward will look to take another big step forward in 2011.
He produced 5.0 WAR and had a phenomenal .393 OBP despite struggling through the month of June with a thumb injury that took a huge toll on his swing. Heyward will likely have to cut down on his strikeouts some to get to the next level (his 24.6 percent strikeout rate was much higher than Heyward’s minor league totals) but he should be able to do that with more experience under his belt.
The biggest improvement that Heyward could help the Braves with is continued development of his power stroke. As he continues to develop, Heyward should consistently hit more than 30 home runs at the major league level.
While there has been some debate as to where Heyward should bat, Fredi Gonzalez has decided to pencil him into the sixth spot to start the year. If he can cut down on his strikeouts, Heyward could again be an All-Star in 2011.
.285/23/94, 5.5 WAR
McLouth's performance will play a huge role in the Braves 2011 success
McLouth has more questions surrounding him than any other Braves player heading into 2011.
Whether or not he rebounds could be the difference in making and missing the playoffs. Additionally, if McLouth continues to struggle the Braves might have to trade away some of their fantastic minor league depth to acquire a new center fielder. Things have looked great for Nate this spring, but unless he produces into the summer, fans will be skeptical as to whether or not he will ever regain his 2008 form.
Matt Young will debut with the Braves in 2011
Eric Hinske will likely be the most used bench player this year, but instead we’ll look at Young, who will be making his MLB debut in the near future.
The 5'8" outfielder (that’s his listed height, which may be inflated) has some speed and got on base consistently at multiple minor league levels. Last year in Triple-A Richmond, Young hit .296 with a .376 OBP and 38 stolen bases. Young’s ability to play center field got him on the team, and he could get a chance for more playing time if Nate McLouth struggles.
A career minor league .299/.370/.413 hitter, Harrilchak struggled late in 2010 after getting promoted to Myrtle Beach. Still, he had a successful full season debut for the Braves. While he doesn't have overwhelming speed, Harrilchak could one day steal 20-plus bases in the majors.
Converted to center field this spring, Jones is one of the most athletic prospects in the Braves organization. He hit 15 home runs and stole 22 bases across three different minor league levels in 2010 (Single-A, High-A, Double-A).
After a terrific 2009 season, Milligan took a step back in 2010. I have him ranked above Todd Cunningham because of his higher ceiling, and he could find himself back among the Braves higher ranking prospects with a good (and healthy) 2011.