Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spring Training Spotlight: Atlanta

(L to R) Glavine, Smoltz, and Maddux
dominated hitters for 7 seasons together
For 11 straight years, there were six divisions in baseball--but only five of them were really competitive. Every year, the Atlanta Braves won the division; every year, fans in Montreal, Philadelphia, Florida, and New York watched Bobby Cox lead his team to the playoffs. Every year, pitchers like Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux would mow down opposing hitters, winning 15+ games so often it was almost unfair. All three are likely Hall-of-Famers, with Smoltz the first pitcher to win 200 games while saving 100, while Maddux and Glavine might be two of the last pitchers to amass 300 wins. It didn't help that the Expos (now the Nationals) and Phillies were under horrible management, playing in outdated stadiums, while the Braves had still-popular Turner Field as well potentially the best coaching staff in the league, with Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone putting out quality team after quality team, led by those unflappable pitching staffs. 

After 11 years, however, the dynasty crumbled--Atlanta didn't make the playoffs from 2006-2009, with their highest win total at 86 (their lowest during the 11-season streak? 88 wins, in 2001). Not to say that wasn't expected--in today's game of parity, even quality franchises are going to have down years--but it's about how quickly teams rebuild that keeps the fanbases intact. In the Braves case, they've managed to put together a solid playoff contender just a few years after losing some of the best pitchers in the last few decades, by adding pieces from around the league as well as within--plus one old vet hoping to bridge the gap. All winter, the talk the NL East has been about the Phillies and their dominating pitching staff--but with the Phils getting hurt, do the Braves have what it takes to win a division? Hit the jump to find out.

Chipper Jones has been a Brave ever since he was selected as the first pick of the 1990 draft, was a Brave for all 11 NL East titles, and now has a chance to be the Brave that leads his team back to the World Series for the first time since they got swept by the Yankees in 1999. This might be Chipper's final season in a Braves uniform, as he played just 93 games last season while hitting .265, a full 41 points below his career average. He's having a pretty good spring, however, hitting .387/.433/.710 in 62 at-bats, just as many as the other Braves regulars (other than Martin Prado who has a ridiculous 80 spring at-bats). Not only that, Chipper leads the team in spring homers (4) and RBIs (15), as well as doubles (8). Does this mean Chipper's in for a career revitalization at 39 years of age? No, I would say probably not--but it shows he's not willing to fade away, either, and the best switch-hitter in recent baseball memory wants to make the playoffs badly.

Heyward was rated the best prospect in 
all of baseball before the 2010 season
The good thing for the Braves is that to balance out Chipper's age, they've got some very talented youth on this team. Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman are both turning only 22 later on this summer, and the hype surround the pair has been massive. Last summer, Heyward, a right fielder, hit a home run in his first at-bat en route to hitting .277/.393/.456 in 520 at-bats with 18 long balls and 72 RBIs, being named to a few all-rookie teams, and voted to start in the 2010 MLB All-Star game. If Heyward manages to avoid that powerful sophomore slump, he could launch himself to a superstar career with a big season in 2011. He's joined on the team by Freeman, a fellow left-handed-hitter but a first baseman, drafted in the second round back in '07 (one round after Heyward). Freeman got 24 at-bats in a September call-up last season and did have one solo homer for his only RBI, but hit just .167 in a very limited opportunity. Now, however, the first base job is his, and the fate of the Atlanta Braves might rest on how the right side of the field hits. That also includes the new second baseman, Dan Uggla. Uggla, who comes over from the Florida Marlins, is off to a characteristically slow spring (.212, after hitting .206 in '09 and just .197 last year), and could add some more pop to the bottom part of the Braves lineup. Uggla's 31 already, but hit .287 and drove in 103 runs last year for Florida, and was definitely a good pickup by the Braves front office.

Where the Braves are strongest is in their starting rotation, another tie back to the run of division titles throughout the 90s. Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson are both veteran pitchers with great sinkerballs (a good thing to be in Turner Field, especially with a plus defensive lineup around the horn), and though both of them are in the later half of their 30s, they are still extremely effective. Adding to the pair are young, 25-year-olds Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, who have shown quite a bit in their few years in the majors. In two seasons, Hanson has a not-so-great 21-15 record but a fantastic 3.16 ERA and 1.18 WHIP (Walks+Hits/Innings Pitched), while Jurrjens has a 37-27 career record with a 3.52 ERA and 1.30 WHIP--not exactly numbers to scoff at either. Last season, Hanson, Lowe, and Hudson combined for a Wins over Replacement (WAR) of 9.6; while Jurrjens put up a 0.0 even though he was only able to pitch 110 innings. If he stays healthy this season (he hurt a hamstring last year), the quartet could easily put up a WAR somewhere in the 12-13 range, which is an unbelievable boost from the rotation. It'll be interesting to see which rotation ends up better: the Phillies, or the Braves. It's going to take some run from Atlanta to win this division, but the talent--both young and old--as well as the pitching is right there.

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