2011 Atlanta Braves: Will the winning continue without Bobby Cox?

2010 Record: 91-71, 2nd NL East
2010 Prediction: 90-72, 2nd NL East
Diff: 1
2011 Prediction: 2nd NL East

Impact Player: OF Jason Heyward
Impact Pitcher: RHP Tommy Hanson
Best Reliever: LHP Jonny Venters
Top Prospect: RHP Julio Teheran

General Manager: Frank Wren
Manager: Fredi Gonzalez (1st Season)

Significant Acquisitions:
RHP Scott Linebrink, LHP George Sherrill, 2B Dan Uggla, OF/1B Joe Mather

Significant Departures:
1B Troy Glaus, OF Melky Cabrera, INF Omar Infante, OF Matt Diaz, 1B Derrek Lee, OF Rick Ankiel, OF Gregor Blanco, LHP Billy Wagner, RHP Takashi Saito, RHP Jesse Chavez, RHP Kyle Farnsworth, LHP Michael Dunn

The Braves are one of those organizations that you have to love.  Not only are they built to win now with a team that could rival just about anybody in the National League, but they are built to win for years with young stars like Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson.  Their minor-league system continues to churn out young stud prospects and with pitchers Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, and Craig Kimbrel ready to make an impact very soon.

GM Frank Wren has built a team that wins every year, keeping up with the tradition of the 90s and early 2000s.  The Braves have not won a division title since 2005, but they made the playoffs last year as the NL Wildcard and have posted just two losing seasons since 1990.  With one of the best rotations in the NL, the Braves should not only get back to the postseason, but could be considered a World Series contender

Starting Rotation
Even with Teheran probably at least a year away from cracking the rotation in Atlanta, The Braves are four-deep on front-line starters in 2011.  Tim Hudson came back from his injury last year and won 17 games with a 2.83 ERA, but the 35-year-old wasn’t quite as good as those numbers suggest.  He had a pedestrian 1.88 K/BB ratio and a 4.09 FIP.  He’s still a very good pitcher who, even at his worst is probably a solid number-three pitcher.

38-year-old Derek Lowe is back again in 2011 after a 16-win season with a solid 3.89 FIP.  He’s advancing in age, but is still a consistent pitcher who keeps the ball on the ground and has adjusted to stay effective with an eroding skill set.

Hanson was the best starter on the team last year despite a 10-11 record.  He had a 3.33 ERA, a team-leading 3.31 FIP and he threw over 200 innings for the first time.  Out of all the young starters that the Braves have, Hanson may end up being the best.

Jurrjens struggled last year after a breakout 2009.  He was limited to 116.1 innings of work due to an injury and wasn’t very sharp when he did pitch.  His 4.64 ERA was lessened by a somewhat better 4.19 FIP and he posted an oddly low groundball rate in 2010.  If he brings that back in line with his career-norm and stays healthy, he’s another top-of-the-rotation talent.

The fifth spot in the rotation is expected to be won by either Minor or Brandon Beachy.  Minor has the inside track after dominating at times in the majors last year.  If he becomes more consistent, he’s yet another high-ceiling talent.  Beachy on the other hand has made only a few starts above the AA-level so will have to be really good to make the team.

Non-roster invites Kenshin Kawakami and Rodrigo Lopez are each coming off of terrible seasons, but if both Minor and Beachy struggle, one of them could end up filling out the rotation.  Kris Medlin may also be an option late in the year as he’s recovering from Tommy John surgery until likely August.

Bullpen
Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez says he’s  going to platoon his closing situation at least to start the 2011 regular season with two young flamethrowers.  Right-hander Kimbrel dominated in just over 20 innings at the major-league level last season posting a 0.44 ERA and 1.53 FIP.  His most impressive stat had to be his 40 strike outs.  If Kimbrel can figure out his command issues, he could be a special reliever.  The left-handed side of the closer platoon will be Jonny Venters who could end up sticking full time if Kimbrel doesn’t appear quite ready to be a regular major-leaguer.  Venters pitched in 83 innings in 2010 and had a 1.95 ERA and 2.69 FIP.  He keeps the ball on the ground and misses a lot of bats.

Setting up the closer duo in Atlanta will be a couple of one-out-only guys.  Right-hander Peter Moylan had a 2.97 ERA in 2010, but his FIP against lefties was 9.37 so he’ll face righties pretty much all the time.  Left-hander George Sherrill was signed away from the Dodgers and is the prototypical LOOGY.  He had a 3.32 FIP against lefties and a 7.58 FIP against righties.  All of the situational options for the new Braves’ manager could be a nightmare for opposing offenses.

The rest of the bullpen will be filled out by left-hander Eric O’Flaherty who had a 2.45 ERA last season and was solid against both lefties and righties, and veterans Scott Proctor and Scott Linebrink.  Linebrink was acquired from the White Sox for prospect pitcher Kyle Coefield and is coming off two bad years on the South Side.  He’s an expensive reliever with a salary of $5.5-million for 2011, but the Braves are hoping he can improve outside of homer-happy U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago where he put up a terrible 1.58 HR/9 rate over his three years there.  Proctor posted a 7.08 ERA in AAA last year and could end up being released if he doesn’t make the team.

Other possible bullpen arms for Atlanta include Erik Cordier, Juan Abreu, and Cristhian Martinez.  Martinez looked decent in 26 big league innings with the Braves last year.

Catchers
Brian McCann has become one of the best catchers in all of baseball over the last couple years.  Even in a “down” year in 2010, he posted a .269/.375/.453 slash line with 21 home runs.  He’s also an above-average defensive player who ended up with a 5.3 WAR last season.  At 27, McCann is in his prime and could be a perennial all-star for many more years.

Backing up McCann will be David Ross who has become one of the better backups around.  Last season he put up a very good .289/.392/.479 slash line.  He is a very patient hitter who can drive the ball and is solid defensively.  At 34, he’ll likely never be a starter, but fits his role perfectly.  McCann and Ross make one of the better catcher pairings in baseball.
Infielders
Third baseman Chipper Jones is now 39-years-old and is coming off another knee injury which limited him to a career-low 95 games in 2010.  He hates the city of Toronto was still a decent player last year when he did play exhibiting terrific patience and his usual solid power.  He had a 2.7 WAR despite his lack of at-bats.

The Braves tired of Yunel Escobar’s cockiness last year and dealt him to Toronto in a trade that brought veteran Alex Gonzalez back the other way.  Gonzalez is back again this season at short, but had a .294 OBP in 2010.  He hit a career-high-tying 23 homeruns and is still a very good defensive player, but at 34 will have a hard time replicating what was an overall average 2010 season.  The Braves may come to regret that trade sooner than later.

Wren dealt utility infielder Omar Infante and reliever Michael Dunn to the division rival Marlins to land slugging second baseman Dan Uggla in the offseason.  Uggla has a career .488 slugging percentage and although he’s terrible defensively, he’s one of the best offensive middle-infielders in the game.  He signed a five-year extension with the Braves just a few weeks ago, but many believe he’ll have to move to third base or the outfield in the coming seasons.  Martin Prado is a better defender, but will be moved to leftfield.

At first base, the Braves are expected to go with rookie Freddie Freeman who was one of the best pure hitters in the minors last year.  In AAA-Gwinnett, Freeman posted a .319/.378/.518 slash line with 18 homeruns.  He’s an on-paper frontrunner for the NL Rookie of the Year.

Brooks Conrad and Eric Hinske are both back and should provide some depth.  Conrad can play anywhere in the infield, but has trouble defensively and Hinske can play the infield and outfield corners, but is far removed from his AL Rookie of the Year campaign with the Jays in 2002.

Outfielders
Rightfielder Jason Heyward was a 5.0 WAR player at the age of 20 in his rookie season after posting a .277/.393/.456 slash line and a .376 wOBA.  He’s a five-tool player who does everything very well and could find himself with a trophy case full of MVP awards at the end of his career.

The rest of the outfield in Atlanta is a bit of a question mark.  Prado will start the year as the leftfielder after playing mostly second and third base over the past few years but could make his way back in if Jones isn’t healthy.  Prado had another very good year in 2010 with a .307/.350/.459 slash line.

Centerfield is a bit of a problem for the Braves after Nate McLouth put up his worst season by far in 2010.  He hit just .190 with a .283 wOBA.  Combining that with his terrible defence and McLouth is probably no longer a quality everyday player.  Unfortunately, there are very few other options for Atlanta, which could lead Wren to acquire a centerfielder.  Given that Tony LaRussa hates his centerfielder Colby Rasmus in St. Louis and the Cardinals need a starting pitcher with the injury to Adam Wainwright, perhaps trading a Tim Hudson or a Derek Lowe in a deal for Rasmus wouldn’t be a terrible thing.  Just a thought.

Joe Mather was picked up off waivers from the Cardinals and could be in the extra outfielder mix along with Jordan Schafer, Matt Young, and non-roster invites Brent Clevlen and Wilken Ramirez.

For a chart breaking down the Braves’ lineup, click here.

Overview
The Braves won 91 games in 2010 and were sent packing by the World Champion Giants in the NLDS despite probably having the better team.  They are bringing back virtually the same team with the addition of a slugging second baseman to improve on a team that finished 5th in the NL in runs scored.  One of the deepest rotations in the NL and a bullpen with a very high ceiling should get the Braves back to the postseason in 2011.
Final Prediction: 95-67, 2nd NL East.

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