How will the Braves fare without Bobby Cox for the first time in decades?
Let the tape roll on Fredi Gonzalez’s tenure as Braves manager as he takes over for the retired Bobby Cox. He’s got a rotation largely intact from a year ago and a new 30-homer bat in Dan Uggla, who played second base for Gonzalez when he was manager of the Marlins. In Uggla, the Braves added badly needed thump but still have looming questions at third base, where Chipper Jones is attempting a comeback from knee surgery, and center field, where Nate McLouth hasn’t swung the bat well in two years. The Braves have a tough task to try to unseat the Phillies, winners of the last four NL East titles. Atlanta finished six games out of first place last year — and that was before the Phillies added Cliff Lee to pitch alongside Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. The Braves found a new way into the playoffs — their first-ever wild card berth. They might need to try that route again. But the way they figure, they’re not far off. They came a strike away from taking a 2–1 lead in the Division Series on the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants.
It’s not as glamorous as the Phillies’ foursome, but the Braves’ first four — Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens — should match up well with almost every other team in the league. Jurrjens is healthy after missing significant time to hamstring and knee injuries last year. Hudson was in the Cy Young hunt for a while, winning NL Pitcher of the Month in August, only to be outdone by Lowe in September. Lowe went 5–0 with a 1.17 ERA in five September starts. He’ll try to build on the momentum he found by pitching inside and mixing in more sliders. Hanson just needs a clean slate after getting miserable run support in a 10–11, 3.33 ERA season. Lefthander Mike Minor, the Braves’ top 2009 draft pick, showed his poise in a late-season call-up before tiring at the end. He has the upper hand for the fifth starter’s spot over Brandon Beachy, the undrafted free agent who made three starts in last year’s pennant race.
What the Braves give up in retiring closer Billy Wagner, they hope to gain in hard-throwing rookie Craig Kimbrel. The 22-year-old is all but being handed the closer’s job. He solidified his candidacy by pitching 11.1 scoreless innings with only five walks and 23 strikeouts in his fourth and final stint in the majors last year. If Kimbrel isn’t ready, the Braves can turn to lefthander Jonny Venters, who opened eyes as a rookie with his 95 mph sinker. Without Wagner’s veteran influence, the Braves added Scott Linebrink (via trade) and lefthander George Sherrill (via free agency), both looking to rebound from off years while counseling younger relievers. The Braves have known commodities in side-armer Peter Moylan and lefthander Eric O’Flaherty, who returns healthy from a season marred by mononucleosis.
It’ll be an all-former Marlins double-play combination for the Braves, who traded for shortstop Alex Gonzalez at the All-Star break and second baseman Uggla after the season. Combined, they provide more pop than what some teams get from their corner spots. Uggla led second basemen with 33 homers last year, and Gonzalez was third among shortstops with 23 home runs with the Braves and Blue Jays. Uggla has belted 154 home runs in his first five seasons in the major leagues. He has a reputation for shoddy defense; he made three errors in the 2008 All-Star Game. But Fredi Gonzalez says many of Uggla’s errors come on aggressive plays, and he makes up for it with toughness turning double plays.
The Braves have unknowns on the corners, which is strange to say for a team with Jones, a veteran of 17 seasons. But since he’s coming back from a torn ACL at age 38, the Braves aren’t taking anything for granted. Jones won’t know how the knee responds until spring training. If he falls short, the Braves plan to move Martin Prado from left field to third base. The Braves are handing the first base job to 21-year-old Freddie Freeman. He hit .167 (4-for-24) in a cup of coffee last year and saw his Arizona Fall League cut short by a thumb injury. But Freeman showed his potential with his first major league home run off Roy Halladay and some slick defense at first.
An obvious place to add power was the outfield, but with Uggla available, the Braves decided instead to add it at second base and move Prado to left field. Prado was an All-Star in his first season as a full-time starter. He was also probably the Braves’ MVP. He moved from second to third when Jones got hurt in August; now he’ll have to show his versatility again by moving to a position he’s only played during winter ball in his native Venezuela. Jason Heyward returns in right after an impressive rookie season when he finished runner-up to Buster Posey for NL Rookie of the Year. Heyward showed his unique combination of power (18 homers) and discipline (.393 on-base percentage, fourth among qualifying NL hitters). McLouth is a wild card in center field. The Braves couldn’t trade him given the $7.75 million he’s owed, so they’ll send him back out hoping he turns a corner.
While still battling vision problems the first month, Brian McCann emerged as the top-hitting catcher in the National League, leading NL backstops in home runs (21) and RBIs (77). He won his fourth Silver Slugger in five seasons and has made the All-Star team each of those five years. McCann improved his throwing late in the season, which can be attributed in part to the work he did with backup David Ross, who’s got one of the most accurate arms in the league. The Braves signed Ross to a two-year extension for his defense, his clubhouse presence and his power.
The Braves will miss Omar Infante, the NL’s first All-Star utility player last year. He and reliever Mike Dunn were traded to the Marlins for Uggla. The Braves claimed Joe Mather off waivers from the Cardinals in hopes he is recovered from his wrist problems and can be their versatile presence in Infante’s absence. Mather can play both corner infield positions and all three outfield positions. The Braves also parted ways with bench fixture Matt Diaz but by resigning Eric Hinske return experienced left-handed punch. The bench was one of the Braves’ greatest strengths last year. Without Infante and Diaz, that will be hard to match.
Gonzalez has assured players his style will be similar to Cox’s. But he also won’t hesitate to bring his own twists, like having players stretch as a team on the field before games. This is the second major league managing job for Gonzalez, who was 276–279 in three-plus seasons with the Marlins. He was the only choice of Braves general manager Frank Wren, who got bonus points not only from fans but also his own players for the swift moves he made this offseason. He hired Gonzalez on Oct. 13. He traded for Uggla on Nov. 16. He re-signed Hinske two weeks later. He could come under fire if the Braves don’t get production from center field and third base, but so far thumbs are up.
After advancing to the playoffs for the first time in five years, the Braves have the makings for a return trip. The Phillies won’t make it easy, though, with their gaudy rotation. The Braves will rely on good starting pitching, hope a young closer comes through and continue to thrive on good clubhouse chemistry. They believe intangibles helped them win 25 times in their final at-bat and 46 games when coming from behind, second-most in the majors. Chances are they’ll be trying to come from behind against Philadelphia, but they’d like to keep it close enough to set up an interesting season-ending series with the Phillies in late September.