All winter Braves fans wondered what kind of move Frank Wren would make to improve the ball club. Something had to happen after such an epic collapse. Right?
Well to the disappointment of many Braves fans, myself included there was not a major move made this off season. At first glance I was concerned that Wren wasn’t taking enough action and that it would be a bad idea to put the same exact club out there again. How could we possibly take the next step with the same team?
I was very much in favor of Frank Wren making a move. I’d be lying if I said now that I believed this team would be fine without one. However as Spring Training is coming to an end I have begun to realize that this team is DIFFERENT then last years. The adjustments were minor but some of them could have MAJOR affects on this ball club as we head into 2012.
Jason Heyward: This is not the same Jason Heyward that we saw last year. Yes, I was very concerned about Heyward making the proper adjustments to improve his game. Well guess what? He has. He’s slimmed down to the tune of almost 20lbs. This should make him much lighter on his feet; improving his base running and his range in the outfield. He’s also managed to close up his stance quite a bit which has really improved his swing. I’m expecting him to hit the ball a lot harder this year and hopefully we can avoid the horrible scene of him repeatedly grounding out to 2nd base. With these adjustments I believe Heyward will be back in full form the season and will be a very dangerous hitter for Atlanta as he lurks in that 6-7 spot in the line up.
Dan Uggla: Dan Uggla couldn’t hit a beach ball with a tennis racket for the first half of last season. We’re talking a stretch of roughly 80-85 games. That really hurt the Braves offense as they desperately tried to keep pace with the Phillies during the opening months. What are the chances that Uggla will struggle like that again this season? If you ask me it’s VERY unlikely. Uggla is entering his 2nd season with the Atlanta Braves and I’m expecting him to be a lot more comfortable. He knows the city, he knows his teammates and the pressure of his contract won’t be on his mind as much this year as it was last year. I’m expecting Uggla to get off to a fast start this season which will hopefully act as a trickle down affect for the rest of the Braves hitters.
Deeper Bullpen: Yes the biggest strength of last years Braves team has improved. We know the O’Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel are the best 7,8,9 guys in all of baseball. The numbers they posted last year were not an accident or a fluke. This Braves bullpen is young and talented. These guys give us the chance to make any game a 6 inning affair. That will be critical once we reach the post season but the key is we actually need to get there. Enter Livan Hernandez and Kris Medlen. These guys can provide a TON of depth for this Braves bullpen and both can act as “spot starters” if need be. Fredi Gonzalez can plug these guys in for 2 or 3 innings without even thinking twice about it. This will save A LOT of wear and tear on the bullpen which as we saw last year lead to our demise.
Michael Bourn: Yes, we’re going to have one of the fastest guys in all of baseball at the top of our line up for a FULL season. Bourn is going to be the guy that makes this offense go. He needs to get on anyway he can and create havoc on the base paths. I believe he will do just that. This guy is capable of hitting over .300 and stealing 60+ bases. We really need him to be a 100 run guy. Getting him at the trade deadline was an exciting move but he still needed to get adjusted to a new team and then we suffered through a brash of injuries. Having a true lead off man from opening day on will greatly improve the Braves chances of being successful in the N.L East. Not to mention Bourn represents a great glove out in center field.
Youth Gains Experience: Part of having a young team is dealing with the “growing pains” of their development. Well this Braves team is another year older and another year wiser. Guys like Heyward, Freeman and all of the young arms have had some time to further develop their games and improve on their weaknesses. Freeman needs to avoid Heyward’s “sophomore slump” and Beachy/Minor/Delgado/Teheran need to work on pitching deeper into games. We can’t have a repeat of last year where they were out of the game by the 5th inning.
OTHER THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND:
The Phillies are the biggest competition for the N.L East crown. Yes the Nationals and Marlins have improved but they are not on the same level as the Phillies. The Marlins were 72-90 last season. This left them in last place, 17 games behind the collapsing Braves as the season came to a close. Despite playing HORRIBLE baseball for the entire month of Sept the Braves were still 17 games better in the win column then the Marlins. Are the Marlins additions good enough to improve their record by 17 games? Possible but unlikely. And even if they were to improve that much, it’s also very unlikely that the Braves would play that poorly for an entire month. The Nationals appear to be an impressive club but I still don’t think they’re quite there yet to compete for this division.
Back to the Phillies. This team is riddled with injuries. When you look at their projected Opening Day line up you have to wonder if this team can score enough runs to get off to a fast start…
Jimmy Rollins SS
Placido Polanco 3B
Shane Victorino CF
Ty Wigginton 1B
Hunter Pence RF
John Mayberry Jr LF
Carlos Ruiz C
Freddy Galvis 2B
This line up is still better then many other N.L line ups despite the injuries but there’s no way that anyone can sit there and say that without Utley and Howard in there that this team can still be a high powered offense. Ryan Howard is going to be out for at least 2 months with the injury that he suffered on the last day of the season last year. Chase Utley has bad knees. There’s no way around it. Can this guy stay healthy enough and be affective enough for this team to win the division? Both of these guys could miss significant time to start the season which means the Braves MUST get off to a fast start and capitalize on these injuries.
The Braves have a history of not playing very well within their own division. Last year they played around .500 baseball against all of the N.L East teams. That’s not good enough to get it done. Games within the division are the quickest way to gain ground and also the quickest way to lose ground. A weekend sweep against a division opponent gains you 3 games instantly in the standings. It’s imperative that the Braves take to the old Bobby Cox philosophy of always taking 2 of 3 against every division opponent, every time out. That’s how Atlanta managed to win 14 straight division titles.
By: Bob McVinua