2011 N.L. East: 10 Reasons Why The Atlanta Braves Have Hope

John SmithCorrespondent IIJanuary 5, 2011

2011 N.L. East: 10 Reasons Why The Atlanta Braves Have Hope

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 06:  Brian McCann #16 of the Atlanta Braves receives a high five from Jason Heyward #22 after hitting a two-run homerun in the fifth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on June 6, 2010 in Los Angeles, California
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    The 2010 Atlanta Braves did something that no other Atlanta Braves team has ever done—and that is win the Wild Card.

    The Braves clinched a Wild Card berth, beating out the San Diego Padres by one game in 2010.

    The Philadelphia Phillies come in as overwhelming favorites to win not only the N.L. East, but the World Series as well.

    And for good reason. On paper they have one of the best pitching rotations in baseball—but they have yet to step on the field.

    And that is why Atlanta Braves fans should have hope.

    The Lineup—if the players stay healthy—is solid. There aren't that many holes.

    The Pitching will be better and it will not include the name of one Kenshin Kawakami.

    Derek Lowe, after going 5-0 in the month of September last year, will have 20 wins next year, while Jurrjens and Hanson will both improve greatly.

    This team in 2010 learned what it took to be in the postseason. They have played in meaningful games in October.

    Let's just hope they can reach that point in 2011, and actually win those games come October 2011.

    With that being said, here are 10 things that should give the Atlanta Braves hope in 2011.

10. Fredi Gonzalez

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    SAN FRANCISCO - APRIL 6:  Brian McCann #16 of the Atlanta Braves receives congratulations from third base coach Fredi Gonzalez after hitting a home run against the San Francisco Giants during the home opener at AT&T Park on April 6, 2006 in San Francisco,
    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    Fredi Gonzalez is no Bobby Cox, and he never will be, but then again, neither will anyone else.

    Bobby Cox is simply one of the greatest managers in the history of baseball and there is nothing Fredi Gonzalez can do to put his name in the same breath as Cox.

    With that being said, I think that Fredi Gonzalez will provide a spark for this 2011 team. Sometimes, even with a manager like Bobby, a new voice can be a needed and welcome change.

    Sometimes, players just get too comfortable and they lose focus. Fredi Gonzalez will need to step in and be a leader from the moment Training Camp starts.

    He will need to go out and show to these players that they can put their trust in him. And if the players get behind their coach—then this 2011 Atlanta Braves team can do special things.

    He will be no Bobby, but that doesn't mean he can't win—and winning is something that we all want him to do.

9. Dan Uggla

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    ATLANTA - SEPTEMBER 29:  Dan Uggla #6 of the Florida Marlins against David Ross #8 of the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on September 29, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The Braves recently signed Uggla to a five year, $62 million dollar extension.

    And it was worth it. It's not like the Braves are going to use this money for anything else.

    The Braves needed a second basemen like Uggla, and they needed him to be around for a while.

    Uggla will bolster the lineup and will add power in the fourth or fifth spot—which is what the Braves have lacked.

    Sure they have guys that hit for a decent average—but they don't have that player who has the constant ability to hit the deep ball.

    In his last four years, he has hit more than 30 home runs each season, including 105 RBI's last year.

    Dan Uggla will greatly improve this Atlanta Braves offense which is something that this offense has needed for a couple years now.

8. Jason Heyward

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    ATLANTA - OCTOBER 10:  Jason Heyward #22 of the Atlanta Braves against the San Francisco Giants during Game Three of the NLDS of the 2010 MLB Playoffs at Turner Field on October 10, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The dude is a freak.

    Had he not been injured, and had he not played injured, Heyward would have been the run-away choice for Rookie of the Year.

    There is just something different about the sound that he makes when he swings and hits the ball—it is just different and it's something special.

    If Heyward can play 2011 without a major injury, he will show everyone just how good he can be.

    And the scary thing is he's only 20. He still has a lot of time left in his career. But for this, let's just focus on what he needs to do in the 2011 season.

    For the Braves to compete with the Phillies in 2011 the J-Hey train will have to run at full speed, for the entire season.

    He has shown glimpses of what he is capable of doing, just imagine a full season at his full potential at this point in his career.

    What this kid is about to do should scare the rest of Major League Baseball.

    And have I mentioned his strong arm or his range in the outfield yet. No, this kid is a special talent and will be around for a while.

7. Their Lineup

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    ATLANTA - OCTOBER 3:  Right fielder Jason Heyward #22 of the Atlanta Braves connects for an RBI triple during the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Turner Field on October 3, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.  The Braves beat the Phillies 8-7. (Photo by M
    Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

    When Chipper Jones and Martin Prado went down with injuries the Braves had a huge hole in the middle of their lineup.

    Let's hope in 2011 that the Braves can stay healthy—but we all know that there is no point in hoping that Jones will stay healthy.

    But let us hope that everyone else can stay healthy.

    1—Martin Prado, LF

    2—Jason Heyward, RF

    3—Chipper Jones, 3B

    4/5—Brian McCann C/ Dan Uggla 2B

    6—Freddie Freeman, 1B

    7—Alex Gonzalez, SS

    8—Nate McLouth/ Jordan Schafer, CF

    9—Pitcher's spot and the way baseball is supposed to be played. No DH here.

    I really don't see any gaping holes in this lineup. If this lineup can stay healthy, then this Braves offense will be very effective in 2011.

    I personally don't like J-Hey in the No.2 spot. I think he would produce a lot more in the five or six spot.

    Heyward, Jones, McCann and Uggla in the 2,3,4 and 5 spot right now is already scary. Just imagine if the CF position can add value to this lineup.

    The major key for the success of this offense will be the production from the CF position in the batters box

    If Schafer or McLouth can effectively bat in the No.2 spot behind Prado while letting Heyward bat in the fifth or sixth spot, the Braves offense will be very good next year.

    The Braves have built a solid lineup with the addition of Uggla. If this team can stay healthy, they will compete with the Phillies all the way down to the final few weeks.

6. The Phillies Are Old and Will Get Injured

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    PHILADELPHIA - OCTOBER 23:  Roy Oswalt #44 of the Philadelphia Phillies adjusts his hat while playing against the San Francisco Giants in Game Six of the NLCS during the 2010 MLB Playoffs at Citizens Bank Park on October 23, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylv
    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    The reason why the Phillies should call their pitching staff the "Mount Rushmore of Pitching" is because their pitchers are getting to that age.

    These pitchers are past their prime. Now this isn't to say they won't be good. They just won't be as good as everybody thinks they will be.

    I think that Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt are all past their prime.

    I think that this rotation is more built to win a seven game series in the playoffs than win in the regular season.

    This isn't to say that they won't be dominating in the regular season, they will. But they won't dominate the way that everyone thinks that they will.

    And guess what. If the Braves can compete with these Phillies in the regular season—then they will have a chance to do it in the playoffs when anything can happen and nothing is for certain.

    Comparing this to the 90s rotation that the Braves had at this point is absolutely ludicrous. They haven't even won a game yet or stepped onto the mound.

    Offensively, this team just hasn't been one that has been healthy in the regular season. Jimmy Rollins played 88 games, Chase Utley played 115, Placido Polanco played 122, even Ryan Howard missed 20 games.

    This team has shown that if it isn't healthy then they aren't a good offensive team. That is why the Braves were able to compete with the Phillies the majority of last season.

    The Phillies made their charge when they got healthy and the Braves injuries started to add up.

    I am not going to hope that any player gets injured—but if the Phillies lose some key offensive piece for a good part of the season, then the playing field in the NL East will become a lot more even.

    The 2010 Season showed this, let's just hope the Braves can capitalize on it during their 2011 campaign.

    I know Chipper Jones is going to get injured—but the Braves can still compete in 2011 without him. It would certainly be nice to have Chipper play 140 games, but we all know that's not going to happen.

    The Braves just can't have an injury like the one Martin Prado or Jason Heyward had last year. If they stay healthy, they have a chance—and that's all I want.

    And all I want to do is get to October and be one of the eight teams that has a chance to be named World Champions.

    All we can hope for as Braves fans is to be one of those teams that has a chance. Because in a five or seven game series anything can happen.

5. The Braves Pitching

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    ATLANTA - OCTOBER 11:  Pitcher Derek Lowe #32 of the Atlanta Braves against the San Francisco Giants during Game Four of the NLDS of the 2010 MLB Playoffs at Turner Field on October 11, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Derek Lowe will have 20 wins next year—write that down.

    Last September, Lowe went 5-0 and dropped his ERA from 4.42 to 4.00, only allowing four runs in his five September starts.

    Other than Lowe, Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson will lead this 2011 pitching staff of the Braves.

    Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy will battle for the fifth spot in the rotation, and the other one can fill in when one of the five inevitably gets injured.

    I see both Jurrjens and Hanson greatly improving next year in comparison to what they did in 2010.

    The Braves rotation doesn't have the talent of the Phillies rotation at all. But it's not like the best pitcher wins every game.

    If the Braves can keep this thing close, come next September look for Kris Medlen to make a huge impact during the final stretch of the season.

    The Braves rotation next year—Hudson, Lowe, Jurrjens, Hanson and Minor/ Beachy—will be good. And hopefully it will be good enough to beat out the Phillies.

    Also, the Braves will have a solid bullpen next year. Craig Kimbrel and Johnny Venters are going to be very good.

    Other than that, the Braves still have Eric O'Flaherty, Peter Moylan and Christian Martinez.

    They have also added George Sherrill from the Dodgers and Scott Linebrink from the White Sox in the offseason.

    All in all, I think this entire pitching staff has a chance to be one of the best that the National League has to offer. This includes everyone from the starters to the bullpen.

4. New York Mets, Washington Nationals and Florida Marlins

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    SCOTTSDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 23:  Washington Nationals prospect Bryce Harper #34 playing for the Scottsdale Scorpions warms up before the AZ Fall League game against the Phoenix Desert Dogs at Scottsdale Stadium on October 23, 2010 in Scottsdale, Arizona.  (P
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    If the Atlanta Braves want to win this division, they will have to beat up on the lesser opponents in their division.

    Bobby Cox always had a formula of winning every series—just taking two out of every three games.

    In order for the Braves to hang another division banner they will have to do this on a consistent basis against these N.L. East rivals.

    If they can do this, then they will only need to hold serve against those Philadelphia Phillies.

    Last year they went 8-10 against the Phillies—one more win and they would have split the series.

    They also had an 8-10 record against the Washington Nationals, but had 11-7 records against the New York Mets and Florida Marlins.

    In 2010, the Phillies went 12-6 against the Nationals, 13-5 against the Marlins and 9-9 against the Mets.

    If the Braves want to have any chance of winning the division they will need at least 11 wins against the Mets, Marlins and Nationals in the 18 games that they play.

    They will also need to go 9-9 against the Phillies.

    If the Braves can do this in their division, they will have a good chance of winning the N.L. East.

    Even with the talent the Phillies have, if you can win in your division, then that will go a long way in determining your final record.

3. Frank Wren Is Going To Make a Move in July

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    ATLANTA - OCTOBER 3:  Manager Bobby Cox #6 of the Atlanta Braves receives a trophy commenmorating his 2,500th win from general manager Frank Wren (L) before the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Turner Field on October 3, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.
    Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

    And how can you not expect this.

    2010: Alex Gonzalez and Rick Ankiel (and getting rid of Yunel Escobar)

    2008: Mark Teixeira

    Frank Wren will make a trade deadline move that will catapult the Atlanta Braves into serious contention with the Philadelphia Phillies come August and June.

    We don't know what that move will be, we just know that it will happen. There are some holes in this team—center field—and first base if Freddie Freeman shows he isn't ready.

    I just have a gut feeling that in July, when this race is still in hand, Frank Wren will show some guts and make a move that will bolster this lineup.

    I don't know what this move will be, I just know it will happen. I also know that this move will help the Braves compete with the Phillies.

    But if the Phillies aren't in reach there is always the Wild Card—and teams have won the World Series from the Wild Card position.

    All I want is a chance to play in October, and I believe that Frank Wren will make a move that will help make this a possibility.

2. No Kenshin Kawakami

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    ATLANTA - SEPTEMBER 09:  Pitcher Kenshin Kawakami #11 of the Atlanta Braves against the St. Louis Cardinals at Turner Field on September 9, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    And this is two years too late.

    8-22 record in his only years in MLB with a 4.32 ERA, including an 0-9 start last year.

    This is great news for the Atlanta Braves and their fans. No longer will we have to sit in frustration watching him pitch—which was painful.

    I get the fact that you had to give him time—but the Braves just gave him way too much time.

    Moving forward, I really don't care where Kawakami goes and I don't care if the Braves have to eat his entire salary.

    But I just don't want to have him put on an Atlanta Braves jersey during the 2011 season. For Braves fans, this is great news. We now have about 15 more chances to win games next year.

    And guess what, had we won half of those games last year—we would have been NL East Champions.

    If this doesn't give you hope, nothing else will.

1. It Is Baseball

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    ATLANTA - MAY 14:  Interior general view of the stadium during the game between the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves on May 14, 2006 at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia.  The Nationals defeated the Braves 8-1.  (Photo by Scott Cunningham)
    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    And anything can happen.

    David has defeated Goliath. San Francisco beat Philadelphia. Crazier things have happened.

    Some people gave the Philadelphia Phillies their World Series crown in December.

    But last time I checked, you win the World Series in October and you clinch playoff berths through your play in the regular season.

    The Braves got much needed experience playing in pressure-packed games last year and looking forward, this is nothing but great news.

    The 2011 Braves and 2011 Phillies will both start the season with records of 0-0.

    The Braves, just like the Phillies, will have to go out and earn victories in each of their 162 games.

    Every hit will be earned, every run will be earned and every win will be earned. No one is just simply going to hand over hits, runs and wins. Teams will have to earn those.

    It is baseball, anything can happen, and this includes the Atlanta Braves being N.L. East Champions—or so we can only hope.

    Cross our fingers, and let's hope for meaningful baseball in the city of Atlanta come October—and hopefully late October.

    As a Braves fan, that's all I can hope for.

    I believe that this 2011 team, even with how good the Phillies are on paper, can go out and compete with the Phillies next year.

    And as a fan, that's all I need until the season starts. Then the games start counting for real.