Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Spring Training Spotlight: Atlanta Braves

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-Digger's Daily-

2011 marks the first time in 20 years spring training began without Bobby Cox managing the Atlanta Braves. A new era of Braves baseball has begun. Atlanta's new manager Fredi Gonzalez takes over a very talented group of players. The Braves are in somewhat of a transformation stage. GM Wren did a masterful job assembling the 2011 roster. Injuries to key players on division rival clubs leaves Atlanta sitting pretty and ready to play ball.

When National League pitching is discussed most quickly bring up Philadelphia and San Francisco. Little attention has been focused on these four names: Derek Lowe (16-12, 4.00), Tim Hudson (17-9, 2.83), Tommy Hanson (3.33) and Jair Jurrjens (2.60 in '09). All are sound. All give deep innings and quality starts. Braves front four will keep games close. Lowe and Hudson are steady vets. The future is bright for Hanson and Jurrjens. Hanson may actually churn out an Cy Young caliber season.

Braves bullpen is intriguing as they bring a new look staff into '11. Remember the name Craig Kimbrel. He's a flame thrower auditioning to become their new full time closer replacing retired Billy Wagner. A great future awaits this kid if he keeps his head screwed on straight. Good luck getting hits against the likes of Venters, O'Flaherty, Moylan, Linebrink, Sherrill and possibly Proctor. Gonzalez has plenty of options for key late inning match-ups. An injury free staff guarantees Atanta will be in the playoff hunt all season long.

The face of the Braves returns for one more season. Chipper Jones looks great recovering from MCL surgery. How well he holds up against the rigors of everyday play remains to be seen. Braves traded for 2B power man Dan Uggla. I like this move. Uggla's young and Atlanta secured a great lefty/righty power punch coupled with RF Heyward. Unfortunately, sophomore Heyward is battling back issues in spring training. Which McLouth will show up 2011? .190 from one year ago? Or the slick fielding 20 homer, .260 guy? Uggla's arrival shifts Prado to LF which has been problematic in Atlanta for a few seasons. Prado's a perfect fit. All Star backstop McCann hopes to remain healthy. He'll see plenty of RBI situations. 1B is Atanta's unknown. Freddie Freeman (who?) gets a shot to win the job. He's been okay so far during spring games. Veteran Hinske is backing up and main man off the bench in key pinch hitting situations.

I think Atlanta has a great formula for success in 2011. Key injuries most likely hurt Phillies chances of running away with the NL East opening the door for Atlanta. Overall excellent health, solid lineup and excellent pitching gives manager Gonzalez all the tools needed. All he has to do is find a way for the pieces to gel. Atlanta has a serious shot at World Series glory.


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