2010 Atlanta Braves Predictions
by Robert Ferringo - 3/29/2010
The Atlanta Braves enter 2010 as a perfect example of how the cold, cruel, unrelenting seven-month grind of a Major League Baseball season could potentially ruin an otherwise magical season. The promise of Spring Training and the best-laid plans are one thing. The harsh reality of the actual season is something completely different. And how the Braves cope with that reality this year will go a long way in determining how things in the National League shake out.
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Scanning the Opening Day rosters of the teams in the National League I can say that if I had to rank the clubs according to which I would want to back in a seven-game series for my soul, the Braves would probably be third on my list. I think that Philadelphia is still the class of the N.L, followed by St. Louis. But beyond that – going player for player – I think that Atlanta has a playoff-ready roster set to do some damage and may have the third, fourth and at least the fifth-most talented team in the N.L.
The problem is that the MLB season isn’t a seven-game series. It’s an unforgiving endurance trial that tests every portion of a team’s resolve. For my 2010 Atlanta Braves predictions I will focus on this team’s solid, but potentially frail, lineup.
The heart of this Atlanta team is in a starting rotation that rivals any in the N.L. in terms of depth and quality. The Braves had so many talented arms that they were forced to make a ridiculous, absurd, nonsensical deal with the Yankees this offseason to shave off some payroll. They dealt Javier Vasquez essentially for mediocre Melky Cabrera and spare change. However, what they left behind is still solid.
Derek Lowe looks to bounce back from a disappointing 2008 (15-10, 4.67 and 111 K’s) and is the anchor of this staff. He’ll be followed up by former staff ace Tim Hudson, who is back after losing the majority of the last two years to Tommy John surgery. Hudson looked sharp at the end of last year and has been a stud this spring. That one-two punch is as talented and experienced as any in the N.L.
The back end of the rotation might even be stronger than the front. Jair Jurrjens had a breakout season in 2009, going 14-10 with a 2.60 ERA and 152 strikeouts. Tommy Hanson, a home grown 23-year-old phenom, went 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA after a mid-season call-up. Hanson allowed more than six hits in just two of his last 10 starts and displayed dazzling proficiency early, giving up just a combined six hits and no runs in back-to-back starts against the Yankees and Red Sox in his fourth and fifth career starts, respectively.
Quietly effective Kenshin Kawakami, who was just 7-12 but posted a solid 3.86 ERA in 156 innings of work, rounds out the rotation.
While that 1-5 starts the season as, dare I say, the best rotation in the division it is not without some question marks. Lowe is going to be 37 this year and has at least another season’s worth of pitches on his arm from all of his postseason appearances. Hudson has been brilliant, but will his arm hold up after surgery? And Hanson and Jurrjens are young studs. But Jurrjens threw 215 innings last year and Hanson 128 – by far the most work either of these young arms has gotten – and both are prime candidates for injury this season.
And there is the reoccurring theme with the Braves: if they can avoid injury, even with guys that are prone to or primed for them, then their rotation is money. But all it takes is one or two arms to go down and this team will look back on that ill-fated Vasquez deal as poison in the water supply.
It’s the same story with the bullpen.
Atlanta (wisely) jettisoned cocky closer Mike Gonzalez and setup man Rafael Soriano. They were an effective eighth and ninth inning duo last year. Veterans Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner have replaced them. Both Saito and Wagner are more accomplished and flat-out better than their predecessor. But at 40- and 38-years old, respectively, and with both having experienced a significant arm injury within the past two years, I would say that the new back end of the ‘pen is far from a sure thing. If they hold up, these guys could be a savvy bullpen. But if one or both of them get hurt then this team is in big, big trouble.
It’s the same story with the lineup.
Atlanta’s lineup is as potent as it has been since the 2007 team that finished No. 9 in the Majors in runs scored. The infield features two professional hitters in Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus. Catcher Brian McCann has been slaughtering the ball this spring and is primed to jump into the stratosphere of stars. And shortstop Yunel Escobar remains an enigmatic X-factor. He’s one of the team’s most clutch players and has a world of talent, but has been at odds with Cox in the past. But all in all, it is a solid core.
The outfield is versatile, even if it lacks a true power threat. Nate McClouth is a former All Star looking to bounce back from a dreadful 2009 (.257, 11 homers, 36 RBI). Melky Cabrera brings some experience and a left-handed bat. Matt Diaz smokes the ball and, I feel, should be an everyday player. But he’ll be the fourth outfielder as another young Braves phenom – rookie right fielder Jason Heyward – breaks into The Big Show as a starter.
There are vets on the bench and a nice blend of potential and proven commodities. However, there are still question marks. Jones is a future Hall of Famer. But he has played more than 137 games just one time in the last six years and is coming off a season in which he hit a career-low .264. Glaus played just 14 games last year due to a series of injuries and has started all of six games in his career at first base. Heyward is a potential star, but he is just 20 years old and has had all of 11 at bats above Double-A ball. McClouth has been terrible this spring, Cabrera isn’t that good, and Cox might have a low tolerance for Escobar’s nonsense this year.
So the lineup is solid. But, again, the Braves are relying on critical players to avoid injury. I also am not sure that they have enough pop in the outfield or if the youngsters patrolling the grass will be able to perform at a playoff-caliber level for a full 162.
Further thickening the plot for this team is the Bobby Cox situation. This season will be the final one on the Atlanta bench for baseball lifer Cox. He has manned the Braves bench for 24 years and enters the season just 87 wins shy of 2,500 for his career. Only three managers in baseball history have eclipsed that mark.
There is no doubt that Cox’s swan song has added an extra layer of motivation for Atlanta this summer. The man is a legend in the sport and generally considered one of the nicest guys in baseball. You know that the Braves want to earn him one more shot at the playoffs and will walk through fire to get him there. But will it be enough?
So that’s it. These are the Atlanta Braves. If they can avoid the injury bug and have one or two of their young players break out than this can be a very dangerous team that competes step for step in the National League East. But I would have to say that the odds of all of their vets actually staying healthy for the full season are slim to none. So now the question is where is the boat going to spring a leak? Is the bullpen going to collapse first? Will the arms in the rotation start wearing down in May? Will Glaus and Jones be forced to limp through another hot Atlanta summer?
There are a lot of questions left to be asked and answered around Atlanta. But that makes them one of the more intriguing teams in the Majors this year and potentially one of the most profitable. But whether we are banking betting on or against them is the biggest question of all.
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