When you think of the Braves, you think of old guys. The Braves have had remarkable continuity over the past two decades: even the biggest departures, from John Smoltz to Tom Glavine to John Schuerholz to Bobby Cox, have remained or returned to the fold with the team. (Schuerholz is team president, Cox is a consultant, Glavine is a special assistant to the president, and Smoltz is a color commentator.) All four first joined the team more than 20 years ago — as did Chipper Jones, drafted in 1990 by GM Bobby Cox. And the new manager, Fredi Gonzalez, was hired precisely because he didn’t think too far outside the box. As Jones explained, “The way I see it, we just got a younger version of Bobby.”
But the Braves are a young team in an old team’s image. The faces of the franchise are two 21 year olds on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The names on the lockers have changed, but this is still a team built around young pitching and young talent up the middle. With the injuries on the Cardinals pitching staff, it might be the second-best team in the league. But is that good enough?
The Projected Starting Lineup
1. LF Martin Prado (27 years old)
2. RF Jason Heyward* (21 years old)
3. 3B Chipper Jones^ (38 years old)
4. 2B Dan Uggla (30 years old)
5. C Brian McCann* (27 years old)
6. SS Alex Gonzalez (34 years old)
7. 1B Freddie Freeman* (21 years old)
8. CF Nate McLouth* (29 years old)
* left-handed, ^ switch hitter
The 2010 Braves weren’t a terrific offensive team: they scored 738 runs, fifth in the NL and 13th in baseball. The main deficiency was power. No Brave has hit 30 homers since Adam LaRoche and Andruw Jones in 2006, and the 2010 Braves slugged .401 as a team, tied with the Cubs for 9th in the NL and 17th in baseball. Yet they were fourth in baseball in OBP. They left a LOT of runners on base. Unfortunately, with Freeman and Heyward in the majors, there’s almost no power left on the farm, and none whatsoever in the upper minors. So they moved to address that by trading for Dan Uggla and almost immediately extended him for four more years.
The Braves batted Heyward 7th to start the year and are likely to do the same with his roommate, Freddie Freeman. And Freddie’s the real X factor of the offense. If he keeps hitting like he did in the minors last year — when he was the MVP of the International League as well as its youngest player, producing a Minor League Equivalent OPS above .750 — then he could make it a lot easier for them to turn their lineup over. Regardless of his production, though, their offense is likely a bit better than it was last year, when the team endured career-worst years from Nate McLouth, Melky Cabrera, and Yunel Escobar. But with Uggla as the team’s only real power threat, the team will still probably be better at getting ’em on than slugging them in.
They don’t have anyone named Roy, but the Braves still have one of the best pitching staffs in the league. What else is new? They allowed the fourth-fewest runs in baseball: only the Giants, Padres, and Athletics kept more runs off the board than the Braves. A year removed from Tommy John surgery, Hudson was an All-Star, though his ERA was so far below his FIP that he’s a likely candidate for regression. The team’s best pitcher was Tommy Hanson, and that will probably be the case for many years to come, as long as he avoids the injury bug that plagues nearly every young pitcher. Jair Jurrjens had an injury-plagued lost year, but he was a 3.8-win pitcher in 2008 and 2009, and if healthy, he can repeat that.
At the back of the rotation are a youngster and an oldster, Derek Lowe and Mike Minor. Lowe isn’t very good, but he’s alright — he’s averaged 2.7 WAR in each of his two seasons as a Brave, just fine for a #4 — and he rarely misses a start, having thrown at least 32 starts and 182 innings in each of the past nine seasons. Mike Minor is the Freddie Freeman of the staff, a rookie left-hander whose prospect stock zoomed up the charts in 2010, who will begin the year at the bottom of the heap among the starters but who is projected as a stalwart of the middle of the rotation (in Freeman’s case, the middle of the order). Minor could very likely be one of the best fifth starters in the league.
The bullpen will be headlined by three men who had successful debuts in 2010: Kimbrel and Venters, who may share closer duties, and Brandon Beachy, an undrafted player who jumped from single-A to the majors in less than two years, who will probably be tapped as a long reliever/spot starter. Groundball specialist Peter Moylan tired at the end of the year, as did O’Flaherty, who battled mononucleosis; they’re the ROOGY and LOOGY of the bullpen. But the bullpen will live and die with Kimbrel and Venters: with his filthy stuff and your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine control, Kimbrel could be a second Carlos Marmol; and with his mid-90s sinker, Venters was nearly as effective a one-pitch pitcher as Mariano Rivera. On the other hand, one of them has no control and the other basically only has one pitch. So success isn’t exactly guaranteed.
In each of the past several years, people have written that the key to the Braves season was the health of Chipper Jones. No more. The key to the 2011 Braves is Jason Heyward. After completing the best season by a 20-year old Braves right fielder ever, he’s probably the team’s best player, and as soon as this year, he could be one of the top five to ten players in the league. As long as he stays healthy. His minor league career was marked by a seemingly unrelated series of nagging injuries, as was his rookie year. If he settles in as a 145-game a year player rather than a 160-game a year player, the team will be able to endure, but the Phillies rotation ensures that the Braves will be battling for the Wild Card for the next year or three. Every game counts, and at this point in their respective careers, the Braves can afford to lose Heyward far less than they can afford to lose Jones.
The Braves have a solid mix of young players and veterans, and the organization is one of the best-run in baseball. They won the Wild Card in 2010 and are a solid bet to repeat that in 2011. For better and for worse, their talent is pretty well spread out: they have a few four- to five-win players — McCann, Hanson, Heyward, and potentially Uggla — but, unless Heyward takes a quantum leap forward, no one true superstar. Like the Braves of old, they’re a good bet to make the playoffs, but not a great bet to go deep within them. Again, what else is new?
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.