Manager: Fredi Gonzalez
General Manager: Frank Wren
Projected Finish: 93-69, second place, wild card
LF – Martin Prado
CF – Nate McLouth
3B – Chipper Jones
C – Brian McCann
2B – Dan Uggla
RF – Jason Heyward
SS – Alex Gonzalez
1B – Freddie Freeman
I’ll hesitantly call this the best lineup in the division – everyone is a realistic bet to hit double digit home runs, and Gonzalez is the only player who doesn’t also get on base — but it’s also not hard to imagine a scenario that ends with Chipper Jones on the DL, Nate McLouth in Double-A, and Frank Wren working the phones July 31st, desperately trying to reacquire Rick Ankiel.
Martin Prado – The best part about Omar Infante being traded to the Marlins is that I now know definitively which .300 hitting, multi-positional Venezuelan-born Brave is Martin Prado. If you’re still having trouble, there is a Facebook support group.
Nate McLouth – Two years removed from a 20 home run, 19 steal season, but one year removed from a nightmare 2010 campaign that saw McLouth hit .190/.298/.322 and take a sabbatical to the minors to find his lost swing. Despite the Gold Glove, he’s not a good fielder and he has to hit to be useful, something he’s recently stopped doing. For some reason, the Braves don’t have much of a backup plan for center field, something that burned them last year. If McLouth slumps and Prado has to move to third to cover for an injured Jones, the outfield will get ugly.
Chipper Jones – Sometime in 1999 or 2000, I was at a Mets-Braves game at Shea Stadium, sitting in the upper deck with my father. Some guy in a section near us smuggled a blowup dummy into the stadium, inflated it, dressed it in a full Atlanta Braves uniform complete with a Chipper Jones jersey, took out a rope and hung the effigy by the neck from the upper deck when Jones came to the plate. In retrospect, that should have been way scarier than I remember it being.
Brian McCann – McCann has hit 24, 18, 23, 21, and 21 home runs in the past five seasons, and didn’t turn 27 until this past February — among catchers, only Johnny Bench had more 20 home run seasons before his 27th birthday. McCann has also averaged 139 games played over those five years, hitting the DL just twice (and one of those trips was basically because he needed glasses). Hits for power, gets on base, and durable, McCann is the best catcher in the National League.
Dan Uggla – The Braves sent infielder Omar Infante and reliever Michael Dunn to the Marlins for Uggla, and then signed him to an extension through his age 36 season. I’m going to take August 2012 in the “month Uggla is unwillingly moved to left field” pool.
Jason Heyward – Heyward walked 91 times last year; Mel Ott and Ted Williams are the only players to draw more walks in their age 20 season. He already has the plate discipline of an old guy, and probably hasn’t tapped into all his power yet. The only concern is health, as Heyward has suffered a series of small, nagging injuries, spending time on the DL last season and missing time in spring training with groin and back issues this year. If he can stay healthy, he might be the best hitter in the division.
Alex Gonzalez – hits home runs, doesn’t walk, and has a good glove at shortstop. The last two are consistent traits for Gonzalez, but the first one is not. Some years, like 2010, he hits 23 home runs and is useful; other years he hits 5 and isn’t worth much.
Freddie Freeman – You know how if you go back and look at Tom Glavine’s rookie card, or Carlos Beltran’s rookie card, it’s hard to believe they once looked that young and awkward? Yeah.
RHP – Derek Lowe
RHP – Tommy Hanson
RHP – Tim Hudson
RHP – Jair Jurrjens
RHP – Brandon Beachy
Maybe the second or third best rotation in the division, with the Phillies’ front five clearly better and the Marlins’ group neck and neck. The Braves probably have better depth than the other two, with Mike Minor and Todd Redmond near-ready and 20 year old super-prospect Julio Teheran probably joining them in the Triple-A rotation to start the year. If rotations ran eight pitchers deep – and with injuries they sort of do — I would take the Braves.
Derek Lowe – Same as he ever was: Lowe gets ground balls, eats up innings, and sweats excessively.
Tommy Hanson – The 24 year old Hanson is the consensus pick to emerge as the staff ace by the end of the season. After posting a 4.13 ERA in the first half of last year, Hanson finished out his first full season in the majors with a 2.51 ERA after the break. The only real knock against him is that he struggles holding runners on, allowing 33 steals in 37 attempts last year.
Tim Hudson – Now recovered from Tommy John surgery, Hudson is still good for a 3.40 ERA and 210 innings. I can understand Fredi Gonzalez picking the veteran Lowe over Hanson for the Opening Day nod, but I’m not sure if I get picking Lowe over Hudson. Hudson has been with the team longer, is a better pitcher, and is also a veteran (though, due to the sweating, Lowe is probably more of a “crusty” veteran). It’s a weird choice by the new manager, almost as if Gonzalez is consciously trying to do something he thinks Bobby Cox would do. I’m thinking mid-May is when we get the first @FireFrediGonzalez twitter account.
Jair Jurrjens – Jurrjens missed two months last season with a hamstring injury, underwent offseason knee surgery, and had trouble keeping the ball out of the air when he was healthy. If he can keep the ball on the ground and himself on the field, Jurrjens looks like a bounce back candidate.
Branden Beachy – An undrafted hitter out of college, Beachy continued his improbable rise by beating out Mike Minor this spring for the fifth spot in the Braves’ rotation. More of a swingman than a starter, Beachy probably moves back to that role whenever the Braves decide Minor
has had his service clock delayed long enough is ready to join the major league rotation.
C – David Ross
IF – Brandon Hicks
IF – Brooks Conrad
OF – Matt Young
4C – Eric Hinske
Ross has an .822 OPS as a backup over the past three years. Eric Hinske can fill in at a corner if someone is injured and serves as captain of the pinch hitters. Brooks Conrad and Dan Uggla should form a support group for players suffering from nightmare fielding performances on national television. Hicks is the defensive replacement; I have no idea why Matt Young is on the team. Not a great bench, but it’s something they can rebuild on the fly.
RHP – Craig Kimbrel
LHP – Jonny Venters
RHP – Peter Moylan
LHP – Eric O’Flaherty
RHP – Scott Linebrick
LHP – George Sherrill
RHP – Christhian Martinez
This is the Braves secret strength – the ZiPS projection system predicts that six of these seven pitchers end up with ERAs league average or better. Probably the best overall bullpen in the division. Kimbrel takes over for Billy Wagner as the closer, Venters remains the secret weapon (83 innings and a 1.97 ERA last year), Moylan is the Australian one with the tattoos, O’Flaherty and Sherrill take care of lefties, Linebrick handles righties, and Martinez acts as the longman.
Up next . . . the Florida Marlins