The 2010 Atlanta Braves made a playoff run that was ended by the eventual World Champion San Francisco Giants. This year, after a slow start, the Braves are making a strong push to take over the division lead from the mighty Philadelphia Phillies. In this slide show are the top 10 reasons the Braves will overtake the Phillies and win the NL East.
Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia
Alex Gonzalez has been a huge pickup for the braves since the Toronto trade last year that sent Yunel Escobar north. Gonzalez has a new-found power in his recent years, and he is currently tied for second on the Braves roster with seven home runs. Gonzalez is also fifth on the Braves club with 22 RBI. Alex is hitting a respectable .277 at the plate in 2011, and he seems to have recently found his stride.
Even more important to the Braves than his offense is Gonzalez's solid defensive play. Alex is sure to make a highlight reel type of play nearly every night he plays. With a fielding percentage of .984, Gonzalez is also one of the most consistent shortstops in all of baseball. Gonzalez is a solid all-around player who will be an integral part of the Braves' run to a divisional title in 2011.
Ryan Howard hangs his head after a disappointing strikeout
The Philadelphia Phillies undoubtedly have one of the the best starting rotations in the MLB, and possibly of all time. Roy Halladay is a Cy Young-type of pitcher every year. Follow that with Hamels and Oswalt, and you get one of the most efficient rotations that has ever been assembled. However, pitching alone cannot win games, and the Phillies offensive numbers don't lie.
The Phillies currently rank 11th out of 16 National League teams in batting average at .247. The Phillies also rank 10th in on-base percentage and 11th in slugging percentage. While these rankings are not terrible, they are far from the Phillies 2008 World Series winning numbers. Many Phillies are aging, and some of their best players are constantly on the disabled list. With a struggling offense, the Phillies will have a tough time winning the NL East, even with their terrific pitching staff.
Chipper Jones connect with a long home run in Houston
Chipper Jones is the only remaining player on the Braves roster that was active for all 14 of the Braves' historic divisional championships streak. Chipper has always been a leader on the field for the Braves and an inspiration for young players. His leadership is one of the most valuable tools that manager Freddie Gonzalez has in his dugout.
Chipper has had a solid year at the plate after an ACL tear seemingly ended his career in 2010. Chipper vowed to come back and be effective, and he has done that very well for the Braves. Jones is hitting a modest .264 this year, but his on-base percentage is an impressive .356, and his slugging percentage is an even more impressive .441. Chipper is having a quality season thus far, even as he approaches 40 years of age.
Florida Second baseman Omar Infante misses a routine ground ball during the Marlins recent losing streak
Not many teams in Major League Baseball started 2011 hotter than the Florida Marlins. Led by dominate pitching and timely hitting, the Marlins only slightly trailed the Phillies just a month ago, and they had a large lead on the Atlanta Braves. Hard times have recently hit the Marlins however, and they just broke out of an eight-game losing streak. Leading the Braves in the NL East standings has becoming a distant memory for the Marlins as they now trail the Braves by four games and the Phillies by six games.
Braves backups Jordan Schafer and Brooks Conrad celebrate after scoring a run in Florida
What was originally thought to be one of the Braves biggest weaknesses has quickly become one of their biggest strengths. Within two weeks of each other, all of the Braves starting outfielders went down with injuries. Nate Mclouth had an oblique injury, Jason Heyward had a lingering shoulder injury and Martin Prado got a staph infection in his calf. As with any team, losing all three starting outfielders could have been detrimental to their divisional championship aspirations. Here is a rundown of the main backups in the outfield for the Braves.
Jordan Schafer, CF: nine walks to eight strikeouts leading off, and a team leading six stolen bases in only 59 at-bats.
Joe Mather, CF: one home run, eight RBI and four doubles in only 62 at-bats.
Eric Hinske, LF and RF: eight home runs, .285 batting average and .500 slugging percentage.
Playing so sparingly, it can be hard to be consistent. These backups have given the Braves a consistency that they could have only dreamed of in such a terrible situation. The experience these backups have received during this injury plague should prove to be a huge advantage for the Braves in the long run.
Call it wishful thinking if you want, but I believe that Dan Uggla is going to play an integral part in the Atlanta Braves run to the 2011 divisional championship. The numbers do not lie, and Uggla will live up to the hype that was surrounding him when he came to Atlanta. Check out Uggla's numbers over the past five years with the Marlins, against the same pitching he encounters with the Braves.
2006: .282 batting average, 27 home runs, 90 RBI
2007: .245 batting average, 31 home runs, 88 RBI
2008: .260 batting average, 32 home runs, 92 RBI
2009: .243 batting average, 31 home runs, 90 RBI
2010: .287 batting average, 33 home runs, 105 RBI
As you can see, Uggla has been one of the most consistent and powerful hitters in the National League over the past five years. Uggla has been notorious for having a slow start to the season, and this season has been no different. I expect big things from Dan in the second half of the season, as he always does.
Atlanta Braves backup catcher David Ross
Everyone knows about Brian McCann and his career long success with the Atlanta Braves. McCann has made the Major League Baseball All-Star game every full season that he has played in the major leagues. This season, "B Mac" leads the Braves with a .303 batting average. He has also been the late-game hero for the braves and has made a habit of hitting game-tying and game-winning home runs.
What many people might not know is that the Braves also have an excellent backup catcher, who could probably start for nearly any other team in baseball. His name is David Ross, and he is also having a phenomenal season. David Ross is actually the second leading hitter for the Braves with a .295 average. Ross also has a .523 slugging percentage and three home runs in only 44 at-bats. Having a backup catcher that can come in and catch consistently can be a huge tool for any team, but the Braves have a backup that can catch very well, throw very well and hit the ball very well.
Braves pitcher Jonny Venters
The only thing starting pitchers love more than a potent offense is a dominant bullpen, and a dominant bullpen is what the Atlanta Braves have. Five of the Braves lowest seven earned run averages belong to members of the bullpen, with Jonny Venters having the lowest at 0.45, followed by Eric O'Flaherty at 1.47. Jonny Venters, the setup man, and Craig Kimbrel, the closer, both have upper-90s fastballs and incredible breaking balls. The lefty/righty combo has worked wonders for the Braves, and there should be no slowing down that bullpen in the second half.
The Braves seem to have finally found the solution to their "first baseman carousel" in rookie of the year candidate Freddie Freeman. Freeman has been unreal in his rookie campaign, and his future seems brighter than ever. After starting slow, Freeman has adjusted well to major league pitching. If you have watched Freddie consistently, you can almost feel him growing more and more comfortable at the plate.
Currently, Freeman is hitting .277 with 16 doubles and 25 RBI. Along with his phenomenal offensive production, Freeman is excelling on the defensive side of the ball with 555 putouts in 601 total chances. That is an extraordinary .995 fielding percentage! Freeman is set to anchor down first base for the Braves for several years to come, and he should be a huge part of them winning the 2011 NL East championship.
As strong as the Phillies starting rotation is, the Atlanta Braves rotation has been just as good. Led by All-Star Jair Jurrjens, the Braves have pitched their way to a strong start with little run support. Jurrjens, Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson have been a force in the beginning of the season. Rookie Brandon Beachy has also had a huge impact on the Braves rotation, as he has been lights out in many of his starts. When Beachy went to the disabled list recently, Mike Minor stepped in and the Braves didn't miss a beat. As was the case last year, the Atlanta Braves pitching staff will carry them to the postseason, but this time it will be via a NL East divisional championship.