The view from most baseball observers is that the Philadelphia Phillies have already won the 2011 World Series. Adding Cliff Lee certainly makes the Phillies formidable on paper. The Atlanta Braves, meanwhile, have added Dan Uggla to a team that was at times offensively challenged last year. Bobby Cox is gone and the Braves will be doing the Freddi. After what seemed like an improbable playoff run last year, do the Braves have any shot at staying up with the Phillies?
There is reason for optimism. Chipper Jones should be back at third base after working hard this off season to rehab his rebuilt knee. If he can hit .280 with his typical .400 OBP, the front side of the batting order with Prado, Heyward, Jones, Uggla and McCann looks pretty strong. Prado was in new territory last year and he broke down and faded a bit at the end. Plus there is the question of where he will play. But we'll get to that later because where everyone will play is a huge question. The point here is that the Braves will improve offensively after finishing fifth in the National League in runs scored in 2010.
Jones is an important piece. If he can't go at third, then Prado slides in that spot and while Prado is a nice player, he has no where near the line up presence that Jones has. Prado is best as a support piece and not a cornerstone. Jones has been a cornerstone for so long that you have to believe the outcome might have been different in those three one-run games the Braves lost to the Giants in the playoffs.
You also have to believe that Jason Heyward is ready for a monster year. You never quite got the feeling that Heyward fully recovered from the injury he suffered before the All Star Game last year. His power certainly didn't recover. Even so, he hit 18 homers and should hit 30 this coming season. Heyward will be a huge star and this Fan can't wait to see what he can do.
Uggla, for all the Fan's needling of him over the years, is a great pick up for the Braves. They would be somewhat foolish to sign him long term, but that is their problem and won't be a problem for 2011 where Uggla should continue to be a solid pop in the Braves' line up. He'll hit his 30 homers and probably drive in over 100 once again this coming season.
Prado is the real thing at the plate. Last year seemed like a surprise, but that was only because he played full time for the first time in his career. But he has batted over .300 every year with an OPS over .800 every year for the last three. There is no doubt he can repeat those kinds of numbers. The big question is where he will play. Uggla is now the second baseman. Jones will be back at third. The Braves really would like Freddie Freeman to take over first base, especially after he hit well over .300 with 18 homers in Triple A last year. So where does that leave Prado? If this Fan ran the Braves, Uggla would learn how to play left field and Prado would slot into second base, his best position. As this Fan has stated many times, Uggla is terrible at second and couldn't be much worse in left field.
The real odd man out is Omar Infante. Infante hit .321 in in 506 plate appearances last year. If Prado moves to left or second with Uggla in left, where does Infante play? He doesn't. Heyward will play right and McLouth (for lack of a better option) will probably play center. One supposes that Infante could play center. He's played there 32 times in his career. But you would think that would be a defensive liability. Infante's best position is at shorstop, where he is terrific (a little known fact it seems) Where the Braves put people will be one of the more interesting story lines of the 2011 Spring Training. Though Alex Gonzalez is penciled in as the 2011 shortstop, it wouldn't hurt the Braves to put Infante there and let Gonzalez, who is now 33 and slowing down, be the utility guy. **UPDATE** Well duh. Infante was traded to the Marlins in the Uggla deal.
McCann, of course, is one of the best offensive catchers in baseball. Long overlooked and considered not to be a great defensive catcher, McCann is a great cog in the Braves' wheel. He has been their version of Jorge Posada. McCann had an off year by his standards in 2010 and still put up a 124 OPS+.
The Braves have a nice offense on paper and if the pieces all fall into place, they should finish as one of the top three teams in the NL in scoring. Which would be great because they still have a strong pitching staff.
The Braves were fourth in the majors last year in Runs Allowed and third in the National League. There is no reason to suggest that should change this year. Lowe really found something heading down the stretch, Hudson is back after various maladies and was terrific last year and of course, Hanson should continue to get better and better. That's a top flight top three with plenty of experience. If Jair Jurrjens can forget all about his lost 2010 and return to his 2009 status, that would give the Braves a rotation not that far behind the Phillies.
The fifth starter will be up for grabs between Brian Beachie, who looked good in three starts last year, and Kris Medlen, who also looked good at times last year. Mike Minor probably pitched his way out of contention last year and Kawakami is as welcome in the rotation as a thaw on Christmas Day.
The loss of Billy Wagner will hurt. Wagner had about as good a swan song season as you could possibly write up. But Venters was fabulous and the Braves are counting on Craig Kimbrell to step into an important role in 2011 after a successful debut in September. Moylan and O'Flaherty were very good and Michael Dunn seems to be a strikeout machine. The bullpen should be fine.
As you can see, the Braves have a strong team. There are some questions such as whether Freeman can produce in the majors and what the Braves will do with centerfield. But other than that, this team can hold their own and there is no reason to doubt that the Braves can again contend in 2011. They will at least make it interesting.