Atlanta Braves 2010 preview

The Braves hope to reclaim the NL East title in manager Bobby Cox's final season.
The Braves hope to reclaim the NL East title in manager Bobby Cox’s final season.

After a run of 14 consecutive division titles, Bobby Cox’s Braves haven’t been to the postseason since 2005. Atlanta would like nothing more than to make another October run in what will be Cox’s final season. The Braves won 86 games in 2009 and finished with the majors’ sixth-best run differential (+94) but fell six games short of the postseason. Pitching will lead their charge this season, though good health also will be vital.

Three questions

1. Is the pitching staff better?
With a surplus of starting pitchers, the Braves sold high on Javier Vazquez, who had a career year in 2009 (15-10, 2.87 ERA, 238 strikeouts). They also lost their top two relievers, trading Rafael Soriano (27 saves, 2.97 ERA) and allowing Mike Gonzalez (10 saves, 2.42 ERA) to leave via free agency. Signed to take their place: setup man Takashi Saito and closer Billy Wagner, both of whom finished the 2009 season with Boston.

Even without Vazquez, the Braves boast arguably the deepest and best rotation in the National League. Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens finished 2009 with sub-3.00 ERAs, and Tim Hudson will be a year and a half removed from Tommy John surgery. "Their starting rotation, one through five, is going to hold some teams down," Braves TV analyst Brian Jordan said. "The bullpen looks great. I really think they upgraded the bullpen."

2. Can Troy Glaus stay healthy?
The Braves hope a move from third base to first base, where Glaus has played only six games as a major leaguer (he has played thrice that many games at shortstop), will reduce the wear and tear on his shoulder. Because of shoulder surgery, Glaus didn’t play until Sept. 2 last season and hit just .172 with no homers in 32 plate appearances. However, he hit 27 homers in 2008 and is only four years removed from a 38-homer season.

Braves first basemen hit just 19 homers last season — tied for 22nd in the majors — and 12 of those came from late-season acquisition Adam LaRoche. They finished tied for 24th with 86 RBIs, with LaRoche accounting for 40 of those. A healthy and productive Glaus would go a long way toward the Braves’ reaching their goal of more run production.

3. Will Jason Heyward break camp with the team?
As promising as the 20-year-old prospect is and as badly as the Braves need offense, it is important to note that Heyward has played in just 50 games above the Class A level and just three games at the Class AAA level. With Nate McLouth, Matt Diaz and Melky Cabrera as starting options, there is no need to rush Heyward.

Still, a strong spring by Heyward could make it impossible for the Braves to turn to anyone else as their starting right fielder. Heyward can hit for average (.318 in the minors) and power (17 homers last season), can run (26 steals over three seasons) and throw (12 outfield assists last season) and has a career .391 on-base percentage in the minors.

Atlanta's formidable rotation includes Tommy Hanson, who is coming off a stellar rookie season.
Atlanta’s formidable rotation includes Tommy Hanson, who is coming off a stellar rookie season.

Projected lineup

1. CF Nate McLouth: .208 average at Turner Field in ’09.
2. 2B Martin Prado: Hit .300-plus four of six months.
3. 3B Chipper Jones: Average dropped 100 points in ’09.
4. 1B Troy Glaus: .236 career average as cleanup hitter.
5. C Brian McCann: 57 of 94 RBIs came after break.
6. SS Yunel Escobar: Career highs in ’09: 14 HRs, 76 RBIs.
7. LF Matt Diaz: Hit .412 vs. lefthanders.
8. RF Melky Cabrera: Career-best 13 HRs in ’09.

Projected rotation

1. RHP Tim Hudson: 3.61 ERA in seven starts in ’09.
2. RHP Derek Lowe: 3.44 through June 9, 5.59 ERA after.
3. RHP Jair Jurrjens: 16th in MLB with .237 BAA.
4. RHP Tommy Hanson: 33 of 46 BBs were vs. lefthanders.
5. RHP Kenshin Kawakami: Seven home losses, despite 3.65 ERA.

Projected closer

LHP Billy Wagner: 26 K’s in 15 2/3 IP after return.

Grades

Offense: C. Atlanta was 17th in runs and OPS and 22nd in homers in 2009. And it didn’t acquire the big bat — either in free agency or in exchange for Vazquez — that many felt it needed. Glaus could provide the power the Braves desire, and a bounce-back season form Chipper Jones also would be welcome.

Pitching: A. The Braves finished third in the majors with a 3.57 ERA last season and could be even better if Wagner and Hudson are 100 percent. Hanson, 23, and Jurrjens, who just turned 24, have yet to approach their ceiling. Derek Lowe must bounce back after a poor second half.

Bench: B. Good-luck charm Eric Hinske, who has played in the past three World Series, provides some pop and versatility. Omar Infante, who started at six positions in 2009, posted a career-best .361 on-base percentage and .305 batting average. If Heyward starts, the bench would get a boost with the addition of Cabrera/Diaz.

Manager: A. The foundation of Cox’s great Braves teams was pitching, and he certainly has the arms to return to the postseason. Known as a player’s manager, Cox will extract every ounce of effort from his squad as he attempts to add another ring and reach 2,500 career wins (he is 87 short).

Sporting News prediction: Atlanta should close the gap on the Phillies in the NL East, but its main focus will be on a hotly-contested race for the NL wild card.

Coming Thursday: Mets preview.

Chris Bahr is a senior editor for Sporting News. E-mail him at cbahr@sportingnews.com.

The Braves hope to reclaim the NL East title in manager Bobby Cox's final season.
The Braves hope to reclaim the NL East title in manager Bobby Cox’s final season.

After a run of 14 consecutive division titles, Bobby Cox’s Braves haven’t been to the postseason since 2005. Atlanta would like nothing more than to make another October run in what will be Cox’s final season. The Braves won 86 games in 2009 and finished with the majors’ sixth-best run differential (+94) but fell six games short of the postseason. Pitching will lead their charge this season, though good health also will be vital.

Three questions

1. Is the pitching staff better?
With a surplus of starting pitchers, the Braves sold high on Javier Vazquez, who had a career year in 2009 (15-10, 2.87 ERA, 238 strikeouts). They also lost their top two relievers, trading Rafael Soriano (27 saves, 2.97 ERA) and allowing Mike Gonzalez (10 saves, 2.42 ERA) to leave via free agency. Signed to take their place: setup man Takashi Saito and closer Billy Wagner, both of whom finished the 2009 season with Boston.

Even without Vazquez, the Braves boast arguably the deepest and best rotation in the National League. Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens finished 2009 with sub-3.00 ERAs, and Tim Hudson will be a year and a half removed from Tommy John surgery. "Their starting rotation, one through five, is going to hold some teams down," Braves TV analyst Brian Jordan said. "The bullpen looks great. I really think they upgraded the bullpen."

2. Can Troy Glaus stay healthy?
The Braves hope a move from third base to first base, where Glaus has played only six games as a major leaguer (he has played thrice that many games at shortstop), will reduce the wear and tear on his shoulder. Because of shoulder surgery, Glaus didn’t play until Sept. 2 last season and hit just .172 with no homers in 32 plate appearances. However, he hit 27 homers in 2008 and is only four years removed from a 38-homer season.

Braves first basemen hit just 19 homers last season — tied for 22nd in the majors — and 12 of those came from late-season acquisition Adam LaRoche. They finished tied for 24th with 86 RBIs, with LaRoche accounting for 40 of those. A healthy and productive Glaus would go a long way toward the Braves’ reaching their goal of more run production.

3. Will Jason Heyward break camp with the team?
As promising as the 20-year-old prospect is and as badly as the Braves need offense, it is important to note that Heyward has played in just 50 games above the Class A level and just three games at the Class AAA level. With Nate McLouth, Matt Diaz and Melky Cabrera as starting options, there is no need to rush Heyward.

Still, a strong spring by Heyward could make it impossible for the Braves to turn to anyone else as their starting right fielder. Heyward can hit for average (.318 in the minors) and power (17 homers last season), can run (26 steals over three seasons) and throw (12 outfield assists last season) and has a career .391 on-base percentage in the minors.

Atlanta's formidable rotation includes Tommy Hanson, who is coming off a stellar rookie season.
Atlanta’s formidable rotation includes Tommy Hanson, who is coming off a stellar rookie season.

Projected lineup

1. CF Nate McLouth: .208 average at Turner Field in ’09.
2. 2B Martin Prado: Hit .300-plus four of six months.
3. 3B Chipper Jones: Average dropped 100 points in ’09.
4. 1B Troy Glaus: .236 career average as cleanup hitter.
5. C Brian McCann: 57 of 94 RBIs came after break.
6. SS Yunel Escobar: Career highs in ’09: 14 HRs, 76 RBIs.
7. LF Matt Diaz: Hit .412 vs. lefthanders.
8. RF Melky Cabrera: Career-best 13 HRs in ’09.

Projected rotation

1. RHP Tim Hudson: 3.61 ERA in seven starts in ’09.
2. RHP Derek Lowe: 3.44 through June 9, 5.59 ERA after.
3. RHP Jair Jurrjens: 16th in MLB with .237 BAA.
4. RHP Tommy Hanson: 33 of 46 BBs were vs. lefthanders.
5. RHP Kenshin Kawakami: Seven home losses, despite 3.65 ERA.

Projected closer

LHP Billy Wagner: 26 K’s in 15 2/3 IP after return.

Grades

Offense: C. Atlanta was 17th in runs and OPS and 22nd in homers in 2009. And it didn’t acquire the big bat — either in free agency or in exchange for Vazquez — that many felt it needed. Glaus could provide the power the Braves desire, and a bounce-back season form Chipper Jones also would be welcome.

Pitching: A. The Braves finished third in the majors with a 3.57 ERA last season and could be even better if Wagner and Hudson are 100 percent. Hanson, 23, and Jurrjens, who just turned 24, have yet to approach their ceiling. Derek Lowe must bounce back after a poor second half.

Bench: B. Good-luck charm Eric Hinske, who has played in the past three World Series, provides some pop and versatility. Omar Infante, who started at six positions in 2009, posted a career-best .361 on-base percentage and .305 batting average. If Heyward starts, the bench would get a boost with the addition of Cabrera/Diaz.

Manager: A. The foundation of Cox’s great Braves teams was pitching, and he certainly has the arms to return to the postseason. Known as a player’s manager, Cox will extract every ounce of effort from his squad as he attempts to add another ring and reach 2,500 career wins (he is 87 short).

Sporting News prediction: Atlanta should close the gap on the Phillies in the NL East, but its main focus will be on a hotly-contested race for the NL wild card.

Coming Thursday: Mets preview.

Chris Bahr is a senior editor for Sporting News. E-mail him at cbahr@sportingnews.com.

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