While the Braves have looked quite impressive during their recent six game win-streak, they must excel in several key areas to contend with the highly touted Philadelphia Phillies. The Braves have excellent pitching and a stellar defense to back it up, but must improve in several areas. If the Braves can maintain their success on the field and improve some offensive issues, they can once again be a contender come October. Here are the most important determining factors for Atlanta to win the NL East.
Stay Healthy- Above all, the Atlanta Braves must keep their roster healthy. The Braves are actually a relatively youthful team, but some of their most important players are over 30. Veterans Chipper Jones, Tim Hudson, and Derek Lowe, the heart and soul of the Braves club, are getting into the later parts of their careers. Neither Lowe nor Hudson have been injury concerns in recent years, but their durability can never be taken for granted. With a 2.95 ERA between them, Hudson and Lowe are crucial to Atlanta’s great pitching.
Chipper Jones is a much bigger injury concern. After a devastating knee injury forced him to finish last season on the disabled-list, Jones has started the 2011 campaign with an impressive .290 average. The 39-year-old needs regular off-days especially into the hot summer months. Resting Jones is a catch-22 for Atlanta; while he needs rest more than other fielders, he is also the Braves' best offensive weapon thus far with a team best 24 RBI. Having Chipper in the lineup makes the Braves a better team, but they should be careful not to overwork him.
Get Moylan back into the Bullpen- Apart from precaution for their older veterans, the Braves also need one very important injured player to return. Since Peter Moylan was sent to the DL with a back injury, Atlanta has had an obvious weakness in their bullpen. The side-arming Australian has been a middle relief staple for Atlanta boasting a 2.61ERA and 18 relief wins in his time with the Braves. So far the Braves have tried numerous options for the seventh inning, but none have performed with the consistency of Moylan. The best replacement has been lefty Eric O’Flaherty having only surrendered four hits all season. While O’Flaherty may be an acceptable substitute for the time being, Atlanta desperately needs Moylan back in the pen. The regular routine of Moylan in the seventh, Venters eighth, and finally Kimbrel to close is as good a relief-staff as any in the NL.
Dan Uggla- The dreadfully slow start to Atlanta’s biggest offseason addition is one of the biggest stories of the early season. Uggla, one of the league’s best second-basemen, was a wonderful pick-up for the less-than-powerful Atlanta offense. So far the slugger has been the biggest disappointment of the early season, batting only .212 and an awful .268 on-base-percentage. His 11 RBI is near the lowest of the every-day starters. Luckily for Braves fans, Uggla appears to be slowly heating up, but is still has a long way to go to reach his .261 career average. The offensive woes of Uggla have been somewhat overshadowed by the surprising success of hitters like Nate McLouth. The much-needed pop in the lineup from Uggla will make the Braves’ lineup much more intimidating come late summer.