Their four-year playoff absence over, the Atlanta Braves entered the postseason last October with high hopes to send longtime manager Bobby Cox out a winner. Those hopes were quickly dashed when Atlanta met the San Francisco Giants
in the NLDS and was sent back to Peach City in four games by the eventual World Series Champions.
Atlanta may have made a quick exit to deny Cox his last hurrah, but he still certainly went out a winner. A veteran of 29 seasons as an MLB manager with over 2,500 wins, one World Series title, five NL Pennants and 16 trips to the postseason, the absence of Cox in the dugout this season is by far the biggest change the team will have to deal with.
The man charged with making the tough transition is Fredi Gonzalez, canned mid-2010 by the Florida Marlins. Gonzalez brought in his bench coach with the Fish, Carlos Tosca, but did retain pitching coach Roger McDowell plus base coaches Terry Pendleton and Brian Snitker from Cox's staff. The good news here is Gonzalez wasn't brought in to manage his way but to manage the Braves' way, so unless he just completely alienates himself with the players there shouldn't be much trouble trying to fill a legend's cleats.
Gonzalez also will have another holdover from the Cox Era with Chipper Jones trying to give it one more go after missing most of the last half of '10 with his left knee injury and surgery. Jones will make one last stand in his 18th season, assuming his soon-to-be 39-year-old body allows.
Late injuries took their toll
The Braves would've given the Giants at least a better challenge in the NLDS had it not been for the injuries. Jones' August injury was part of it, but Cox still had supersub Omar Infante to help out then. Martin Prado's absence in the late season and playoffs was the real clincher. That forced the Braves to go with longtime minor leaguer Brooks Conrad at second and the results were, well, ugly.
Jones and Prado could start a new injury domino fall this year as well that would end up severely testing the club's depth. Going in, Jones is at third and Prado is in left for the bulk of the projections. Infante is gone, so Conrad is still part of the picture in the infield though I think it's a blue moon or two at least before you see him play second for the Braves.
The infield that started during the NLDS has but one returning in a starting role, shortstop Alex Gonzalez. To his left at second is offseason prize Dan Uggla. And to Uggla's left is highly touted rookie Freddie Freeman. Prado is the backup just about everywhere on the dirt outside of catcher where Brian McCann is entrenched with a capable backup in David Ross.
Jason Heyward is in right after a solid rookie campaign that was well-publicized. How the 21-year-old handles the pressure on him to be even better in '11 is another paramount condition on this team's playoff repeat goal. But even if he slacks a bit, of bigger importance is the defense and offense the club gets from it center field position. Nate McLouth has to produce at both the plate and with the glove, or this offense has a big hole, and that's something that a lineup lacking depth to begin with cannot afford.
Rotation intact, changes in the 'pen
Atlanta's starting rotation returns pretty much as it was for 2010 with Tim Hudson leading the group by default as the staff ace. He, Tommy Hanson and Derek Lowe combined to take the hill to begin 101 of Braves regular season games a year ago -- Atlanta 57-44 in those games -- and Hanson could very well gain control of the ace title this year and for several more years to come.
Jair Jurrjens is the fourth arm after ending the season with an injury, and the new kid trying to survive as the rotation's only left-hander is Mike Minor. Atlanta's alternatives if he doesn't pan out are Brandon Beachy and the well-traveled Rodrigo Lopez, leaving the team wide open for pitfall if one of it's top-4 in the order go down.
Change is afoot in the bullpen. Yet another key blow to the Braves late last season on the health front was losing closer Billy Wagner. He's toast according to all reports and holding off his official retirement announcement for the near future. Even if he can return somehow, Craig Kimbrel will be closing things out of the gate for the Braves. Atlanta has both lefty Jonny Venters and righty Peter Moylan returning along with Eric O'Flaherty and possibly either Beachy or Rodrigo Lopez the long arm if spring training goes right.
Beat the Phillies or repeat as the wild card
That's the demand on the Braves as far as futures odds go. Atlanta opened with a season win total of 86½ a year ago, the 'over' juiced, and easily beat that with a 91-71 record. Win totals this time should be in the 89+ area, and my simulations averaged 86 wins with a high of 92 and a low of 80.
I like this team, I really do. The potential is there for this rotation to stand toe-to-toe with Philadelphia's. Still, my pick is 87 wins during the regular season and I'm not sure that's going to be enough to get into October.
The current numbers at Bodog have the Braves 22/1 to win the World Series, tied with the Rockies among NL clubs behind the Phils (13/4) and Giants (14/1).