May 27, 2019

Why the Braves Will Win

April 3, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

On the eve of the 2010 season, the National League East race seems like it might be decided by the disabled list.

The Philadelphia Phillies, seeking their third straight divisional crown, sent three key players to the DL: closer Brad Lidge, set-up man J.C. Romero, and No. 3 starter Joe Blanton.

The New York Mets, longshots anyway, have already sidelined centerfielder Carlos Beltran for up to two months, first baseman Daniel Murphy for a possible six weeks, and shortstop Jose Reyes for part of April.

That leaves the Atlanta Braves in the Survival of the Fittest.

Only Nate McLouth, who capped a horrible spring training with returning hamstring problems, has caught the injury bug this spring. And Melky Cabrera, the ex-Yankee who’s had a fabulous time in his first National League venture, seems primed to replace him — both in center field and at the top of the lineup.

Since Atlanta’s starting rotation had the best earned run average in the majors last season, the Braves are best where it counts most.

Adding Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito to the back end of the bullpen is an upgrade over the erratic Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, and sidearming Australian Peter Moylan deserves a lot more credit than he gets. Consider the fact that he worked 87 times last season without ever giving up a home run. That’s relief!

Moylan has added a changeup this spring that should make him much more effective against lefthanded batters. He could be a future closer, although the Braves have a kid named Craig Kimbrel pegged for that spot. All he did last year was lead Organized Ball with 15.9 strikeouts per nine innings in the minors.

Although manager Bobby Cox is pushing 70, he handles kids well. That’s a good thing, since the talk of baseball this spring is the arrival of Jason Heyward, a 20-year-old rightfielder with a Fred McGriff build but an Andre Dawson arsenal. He not only hits for average and power but runs, fields, and throws like a veteran.

The best prospect to come out of the minor leagues since Andruw Jones, Heyward is the same age Hank Aaron was when he started. It’s just coincidental that he plays the same position.

If Heyward is as good as advertised, he’ll make Braves fans forget the ill-advised trade of Jeff Francoeur for Ryan Church. A future No. 3 hitter for the Braves, Heyward adds punch to an outfield that also includes the underrated Matt Diaz and the switch-hitting Cabrera, with McLouth a late starter if hamstring problems persist.

The infield seems stronger, especially if free agent acquisition Troy Glaus takes to first base like a duck to water. Honed at the opposite corner, he got a crash course at the gateway this spring and seemed to thrive — especially at the plate. His righthanded power will make it harder for pitchers to work around Chipper Jones, whose average dipped 100 points last summer.

Jones, a switch-hitter whose career average still hovers on the sunny side of .300, returns at third, where his defense was deficient last year, but has plenty of backups in Glaus, Omar Infante, and versatile Martin Prado, whose normal spot is second base.

Prado and shortstop Yunel Escobar form a fine young double-play tandem that doesn’t disappoint at the plate. Both should finish at or above .300 and combine for 30 homers.

A four-time All-Star who’s never been selected to start, Brian McCann is nonetheless the best catcher in the National League. Now that his vision problems seem behind him, he should produce more than two-dozen homers and knock in 90 runs. He’s another probable .300 hitter.

The lineup will get another boost when Freddie Freeman surfaces from the minors. A lefty-hitting first baseman already compared to Keith Hernandez, he’s ticketed to be next year’s most-discussed rookie. Freeman’s presence, plus Glaus’ injury history, is the main reason Frank Wren gave the veteran only a one-year contract.

Wren has feathered his nest with a plethora of pitching. Having Tim Hudson (Tommy John surgery) and Tommy Hanson (promoted last June) from the start more than makes up for the absence of Javy Vaszquez (traded for Cabrera). With Jair Jurrjens also in the rotation, the Braves have three solid starters — and should have four if Derek Lowe’s sinker sinks. He led the club with 15 wins last year but had 13 bad games, leaving him with an inflated ERA.

Kenshin Kawakami, a hot-shot in his native Japan, could be pressed for the fifth job by Kris Medlen, who excelled in the minors before a midseason promotion to the Atlanta pen last summer.

To be fair, Atlanta has a lot of what-ifs. What if Chipper Jones can’t shake the three-month slump that ended his 2009 season with a whimper? What if Glaus finds his customary spot on the DL? What if Saito and Wagner succumb to the vagaries of advanced athletic age? What if Wagner and Hudson show the lingerings effects of Tommy John surgery?

On the other hand, all the pieces seemed to fall into place this spring. There’s great clubhouse chemistry, with everyone anxious to send Cox into the sunset carrying a trophy. On a team loaded with pitching, it just might happen.

Here’s how the races look from this perspective:

NATIONAL LEAGUE

East                                                 Central                                    West

1. Braves                                       1. Cardinals                            1. Rockies

2. Phillies*                                    2. Reds                                     2. Giants

3. Marlins                                      3. Cubs                                     3. Diamondbacks

4. Mets                                            4. Brewers                              4. Dodgers

5. Nationals                                   5. Astros                                 5. Padres

6. Pirates

(*) wild-card winner

AMERICAN LEAGUE

East                                                     Central                                     West

1. Yankees                                     1. White Sox                           1. Mariners

2. Red Sox*                                   2. Twins                                    2. Angels

3. Rays                                            3. Tigers                                    3. Rangers

4. Orioles                                       4. Indians                                 4. Athletics

5. Blue Jays                                   5. Royals

(*) wild-card winner

POST-SEASON

Braves over Rockies; Phillies over Cardinals; Braves over Phillies (NL)

Yankees over White Sox; Red Sox over Mariners; Yankees over Red Sox (AL)

Yankees over Braves (World Series)

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author of The 300 Club: Have We Seen the Last of Baseball’s 300-Game Winners? The 80,000-word illustrated hardcover, with a foreword by Mets broadcaster Wayne Hagin, can be pre-ordered through amazon.com.

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