Atlanta Braves 2011: 14 Reasons Why They Will Win the NL East
The 2010 season for the Atlanta Braves was one of tremendous highs and lows. Late inning magic sparked excitement around Braves Country for the first time in over half a decade, as the club made its first return to the playoffs since their unprecedented run of 14 consecutive division titles.
But even with great success, they were unable to send their beloved manager Bobby Cox into retirement with a ring, as injuries and defense plagued the team throughout the second half of the season, flaming out against the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS.
But with each year comes new hope, as the Braves send out a talented roster to once again do battle with the Marlins, Mets, Nationals and Phillies for control of the National League East.
1. Fredi González: A New Manager with a Familiar Face
It’s a tough task to replace a man known only as “the skipper,” But if anyone is up to the task, Fredi G is that man. He served as the third base coach for four years under Bobby in Atlanta, before moving on to becoming the winningest manager in the Florida Marlins’ history.
His winning percentage with the team was just a shade under .500, but for the first time he is the manager for a legitimate contender. The Marlins are infamous for dealing away their best talent, and the Braves have shown the desire to put the best possible team together, grabbing Dan Uggla from the Fish in the offseason.
It is difficult to earn wins in the Bigs. But more difficult to earn is respect. Fredi has already crossed this hump.
During a May 17th home game in 2010, the Marlins’ star shortstop Hanley Ramirez misplayed a bloop hit over his head and accidently kicked the ball into left field. Instead of hustling to rectify his mistake, he lazily jogged after it, allowing runners to score and advance.
González benched him, risking ill will from the ownership of the Marlins, who have always backed Hanley. The handling of this incident drew praise from around the national baseball community.
2. Hudson and Hanson: A Pair of Aces to Headline the Rotation
The dynamic duo of Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson may not compare to Cy Young winners Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, but they come as close as any other top two pitchers in the National League.
Tim Hudson had an incredible bounce-back from Tommy John surgery, winning the NL Comeback Player of the Year award in 2010 and finishing fourth in the NL Cy Young voting. Hudson features a nasty sinker, as he posted a 64.1 percent ground ball rate, the best for all starting pitchers last season. With an improved infield, look for a lot of double plays to be turned behind Huddy.
Standing in stark contrast to the finesse pitcher that is Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson mixes a powerful fastball with a deadly combination of a plus slider and a devastating 12-6 curve. Standing at over 6’6, "Big Red," as he is known, is an intimidating force from the mound.
He pitched to a losing record last season, but he had the 12th lowest component ERA in the NL, finishing ahead of such names as Tim Lincecum, Cole Hamels and Chris Carpenter. Look for Hanson to continue from where he left off as he emerges as dominant starter in 2011.
3. Lowe and Jurrjens: A Crafty Veteran and an Emerging Star
Derek Lowe will probably best be remembered for guiding the Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years and posting a 1.86 ERA in the 2004 postseason. He then vacillated between being a dominant starter and an overpaid veteran for both the Dodgers and the Braves, before lifting the 2010 Braves onto his back in September and dragging them into the playoffs with a 1.77 ERA and a 5-0 record.
He looks to continue where he left off and in his first two 2011 starts has only allowed one run.
Jair Jurrjens was a staff ace in 2009, posting a 2.60 ERA that was good for third in the NL, as well as starting 34 games. What was shaping up to be a promising 2010 campaign was marred by injury, and he only started 20 games before having season-ending surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his right knee.
If your fourth-best pitcher is only 25 and was dominant just over a year ago, you’re in pretty good shape.
4. Beachy and Minor: 2 Young Studs Looking to Make Their Mark
If you haven’t heard the story of Brandon Beachy, look it up. It is one of the true inspiring stories MLB has to offer.
In short, the undrafted free agent made two spot starts for the 2010 Braves, tossing up a four-and-a-third-inning gem against the powerful Phillies, giving up only one earned run. In 2011, he beat out first-round pick Mike Minor and veteran Rodrigo López for the fifth starter spot. He has already started off 2011 strong, allowing one run on four hits with seven strikeouts and just one walk against the Brewers in a no decision.
Mike Minor will most likely be on a carousel with Beachy for the fifth starters job, as each man will probably be shipped between Triple-A Gwinnett and Atlanta a few times this season.
A much needed lefty (the only one in the rotation), he can touch 95 mph with his fastball, coupling that with a devastating slider. Look for him to carve up the lefty-laden Phillies in 2011. He filled in for the injured Jurrjens well in 2010 and has already been called up to pitch tonight in place of Jair, who was placed on the 15 day DL.
Both Beachy and Minor are raw, but they have all of the potential in the world and give the Braves one of the best starting staffs, top to bottom, in the majors.
5. The Return of Chipper Jones
Other than Bobby Cox, the one constant for the Braves over the last decade and a half has been their third baseman, Chipper Jones. Destined to be a Hall of Famer, Chipper is coming off of an injury plagued 2010, where he missed 67 games.
After offseason knee surgery, Chipper surged in spring training and has already left his mark on the 2011 season, notching six hits in the first five games.
The most important thing to remember about Chipper is that he has proven that he can still perform at his advanced age. Just in 2008, he won the NL batting title, hitting .364 with an OPS of 1.044. If Chipper can remain healthy and give the Braves an RBI threat out of the three slot, the lineup goes from above average to one of the best in the National League.
6. Uggla: ‘Nuff Said
Since the departure of Andruw Jones in 2008, the Braves organization has been craving one addition to their lineup: a right-handed power bat to accompany the left-handed power they were getting out of Brian McCann and Jason Heyward.
Jeff Francoeur appeared to be the heir to the throne of mighty Andruw, but he didn’t pan out. The Braves have been known as a team that looked to the farm for talent, but GM Frank Wren knew that sometimes you have to take what you want.
Enter Dan Uggla, stage right. We all know his impressive offensive chops (the only second baseman to homer 30 times in four consecutive seasons, the fastest second baseman to 100 jacks, etc.). But at 31, can ATL expect heightened production from him?
In short, yes. For the first time in his career, he has a barrage of talented bats around him, with NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Heyward hitting behind him. And for the first time, he is on a true contender who will be willing to make the right deals to ensure success.
If you needed any more reason to believe, he has posted a career .354 batting average and .652 slugging percentage at his new home Turner Field, good for third all time in both categories.
7. González and McCann: Power Where Power Is Not Expected
Alex González has been a bit of a journeyman, changing teams six times since 2006. While Gonzo may not be mentioned among the best shortstops in the league, he has a good bit of pop in his bat. He went for 23 homers and 88 RBIs in 2010, both good for second in the majors.
And he did much of this in the AL East, going up against the deadly pitching staffs of the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox. His power allows him to effectively hit deep in the lineup and provide a measure of protection for Jason Heyward.
Brian McCann really needs no introduction. For 2010 catchers, he was second in home runs, second in rubies, third in OPS and third in runs scored. He is the three-time defending Silver Slugger in the NL and was the 2010 All-Star Game MVP.
Due to Joe Mauer’s down year in 2010, the debate over who is the best catcher in baseball finally has credence. Mac will be feared throughout the National League in 2011.
8. Prado and McLouth: Good Offensive Production from the Outfield
The 2010 Braves really lived and died by their second baseman turned third baseman Martín Prado. He replaced Kelly Johnson at second base in 2009 as the Braves made a run at the NL East.
He had a breakout year in 2010, and by the halfway point of the season, one could make the argument that Prado was the leading candidate for NL MVP, as he led the league in hits and average. However injuries slowed him down before taking him out completely with a hip pointer and a torn oblique.
Now playing left field, Prado remains the hardest worker on the Braves and looks to have a monster 2011.
Nate McLouth has been a tragic figure in Atlanta. Since he was traded from the Pirates, he has struggled mightily. In 2010 his average dipped below the Mendoza Line to .190, and after a midseason collision with Jason Heyward, he struggled to get into the lineup, playing only 85 games.
In Atlanta, a phrase has been coined: Pittsburgh Nate. McLouth is only 29 and a few seasons removed from a monster season. In 2008, he led the league in doubles as well as getting his first All-Star berth and Golden Glove award, all with the Pirates.
If he can return to his former self, Atlanta will become an offensive juggernaut.
9. The Young Studs: Heyward and Freeman
Hometown hero Jason Heyward really knows how to make an entrance. On April 5, 2010, during his first major league SWING, he belted a 471-foot bomb off of Carlos Zambrano. In 2011, it took him two swings to get his first homer.
That’s the kind of sophomore slump you want to see. The Jay-Hey Kid already plays like a seasoned pro, notching a .393 on-base percentage, being named the 2010 All-Star starting right fielder and finishing second in NL Rookie of the Year voting. A nagging thumb injury has finally healed and Heyward looks to tear it up in 2011.
In an interesting move, Fredi G decided to name Freddie Freeman the starting first baseman for the 2011 season at the very beginning of spring training, despite having veterans such as Eric Hinske who could easily claim that role.
Freeman looks to play the part. He is the biggest question mark behind Chipper Jones for the Braves this season, but the kid has chops. His first major league homerun came off of Roy Halladay. Look for Freeman to make a run at the NL Rookie of the Year award.
10. The Bullpen: Stronger Than Ever
A good mix of veterans and young arms make up the frontline of the Braves bullpen. Peter Moylan, known as "the Thunder from Down Under," looks to continue his impressive outings for the Braves. He reworked his changeup, known affectionately as "Dave" and has started 2011 well, already notching his first hold of the season.
Eric O’Flaherty continued where he left off in 2010, and in his first three outings he hasn’t given up a run. Christhian Martînez is the club's primary long reliever and is honestly good enough to be a bottom rotation starter on most clubs.
Two additions were made to the 2011 bullpen from outside of the organization: veterans Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill. With the departure of Billy Wagner, Linebrink hopes to bring some sort of calming veteran influence to the pen. And he is no slouch, posting a career average 1.50 WHIP and 3.50 ERA.
George Sherrill is a lefty specialist, holding them to a .192 average. Since virtually every slugger in the NL East is a lefty, look for him to earn his salary in 2011.
11. The Bench: Among the Best in Baseball
David Ross is probably the best backup catcher in the game. He and McCann combined for the best WAR (wins above replacement) in the Bigs last season among catchers and their backups.
He gives Brian rest whenever he needs it and will allow him to DH during interleague and, knock on wood, the Fall Classic. Brandon Hicks is probably the best glove in the organization and can replace any of the infielders in a pinch. Matt Young is a speedster out of Texas who can pinch run and swipe bags.
That brings us to the two primary pinch hitters: Eric Hinske and Brooks Conrad.
Hinske started out 2010 as an everyday left fielder for the Braves but was moved to the bench shortly into the season. In just 281 at bats, he hit 11 homers and notched a decent .794 OPS.
Brooks Conrad will be remembered for his horrendous fielding at the end of the 2010 season and in the playoffs, but his clutch hitting was invaluable for the Braves, including a pinch-hit walk-off grand slam.
12. The Defense: No Longer an Achilles’ Heel
The 2011 Braves will feature three top defenders in their everyday lineup. Martín Prado may already be the best defensive left fielder in the NL.
In the very, very young 2011 season, he has already nailed Ryan Braun and Jayson Werth as they tried to take home. Alex González has been among the league’s best shortstops for some time now, and Freddie Freeman posted incredible defensive stats throughout the minors, and his 6'5" frame allows him to stretch very well at first base.
Among the other great defenders on the club include Jason Heyward. Try taking third on him in a game; he has a monster arm. Almost all baseball fans believe that Dan Uggla may be among the worst fielding second basemen in the league.
The advanced metrics back this up, as Uggla posted a minus-22 UZR. UZR has been used in FanGraph’s WAR calculations since 2002 for defense. However, when playing on the road, his UZR is plus-1.4.
Hanley Ramirez also experienced a similar spike in away UZR. Dolphin Stadium is not the friendliest of infields, so don’t expect Uggla to be a slouch defensively.
13. The Flamethrowers: Venters and Kimbrel
These guys are so sick, they deserve their own section. Jonny Venters should be a closer this year, but he is currently the Braves’ setup man. He became known as "Everyday Jonny" last year, for he appeared in 69 games after being called up and pitched 83 innings.
He posted a tremendous 1.20 WHIP and 1.95 ERA, giving the Braves another invaluable southpaw in their bullpen.
The only reason that Venters isn’t closing is because Craig Kimbrel is downright nasty. Blitzcraig is incredible. He can hurl 97 mph fastballs and make hitters look foolish with his curve. Last season at triple-A, he posted a 1.50 ERA and 68 K over 48 innings.
During his brief call-up, he responded with a 1.08 ERA and 15 K over 8.1 innings. Fredi G mentioned that the Braves were going to platoon at closer, but Kimbrel has all but thrown away that idea. He has converted both of his save opportunities without allowing a base runner.
Out of the six batters he faced, he fanned five of them. Don’t expect the Braves to blow too many eighth inning leads with this duo waiting in the pen.
14. The X-Factor: Julio Teheran
Remember this name. Julio appeared in spring training for the Braves in 2011 before being shipped back to triple A Gwinnett. The kid is an outright stud.
He currently ranks fifth overall of all prospects by Baseball America and already possesses major league quality pitches. Last season, in stints around the Minor Leagues, he had 24 starts, posting a 2.59 ERA with 159 K over 142 innings.
Aroldis Chapman was a September call up for the Reds who helped secure their playoff spot. Julio just turned 20 and is still very green. But Gwinnett is only a half hour drive away from the Ted.
The Braves management knows this. It is most likely that Julio will serve the Braves in some kind of relief role in 2011 or possibly even make a spot start. When he does, mark it down. You could be witnessing the birth of a legend.