Braves ready to compete in an interesting NL East race
The Braves officially announced their Opening Day roster via a release this afternoon. I guess this means there is not an expectation of any more aging pitchers to be released by another club before tomorrow afternoon’s game against the Mets.
If you were already aware that Nationals castoff Chad Durbin was signed yesterday because the Braves view him as a better option than Yohan Flande, then you are up to date on all necessary roster news.
But if you are wondering why Tim Hudson is beginning the season on the disabled list, then I say welcome back and offer you a belated Happy Thanksgiving. While you were gone, the Marlins and Nationals became widely regarded as the two teams most likely to end the Phillies’ dominance at the top of the National League East standings.
Some of you have asked for my reaction to predictions that the Braves will finish fourth in the division this year. I’d say it is virtually the same reaction I had to predictions the club would reach the World Series last year.
That lofty World Series prediction seemed realistic until the arrival of Hurricane Irene spun last season out of control. Likewise a fourth-place finish is certainly not out of the question for any of the NL East members this year. After spending hours arguing about where the Phillies, Nationals, Marlins and Braves will finish, the only thing we might agree on is the belief that the Mets will not win the division.
I am also not buying into the possibility that the Nationals are ready to win the division this year. Henry Rodriguez will stabilize a talented bullpen until Drew Storen returns and the lineup has plenty of potential. But the thought of Stephen Strasburg being on an innings limit (approx. 160 innings) keeps me from thinking this is year the NL East crown ends up in Washington D.C.
When starting this blog entry, I was leaning toward choosing the Phillies to win the division again. My thinking was that in a division filled with uncertainty, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels provide the greatest certainty. We’ll likely never see the MVP-caliber Chase Utley again and we don’t know what to expect from Ryan Howard (torn left Achilles) once he is cleared to return. But Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence will keep the lineup respectable.
That line of thinking seemed reasonable until I took another look at the Marlins and deemed them to be the better pick. There are concerns about Josh Johnson’s shoulder and Hanley Ramirez’s ability to remain happy in a clubhouse that now has more potential distractions than lockers. Plus, I’m not crazy about this bullpen beyond the closer, Heath Bell. But if Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Reyes and Ramirez all live up to expectations, this lineup could take of most pitching-related concerns.
But as good as the Marlins lineup could be, the Braves actually have the potential to have the division’s best lineup. Yesterday’s blog entry gave you a sense of what I think Jason Heyward has in store this year. When you look at his first two seasons on a game-by-game basis, you see that he has had three sensational months (April 5 -May 30, 2010 and Aug. 21-Sept. 17, 2010) and nine others that have been injury-riddled or mediocre at best.
Instead of saying that Heyward will hit .285 with 25 homers and a .925 OPS, it seems more reasonable to predict this will be the year that you start to see his tremendous talents on a more consistent basis.
While Heyward is obviously a very important component of this lineup, the Braves have plenty of other weapons. Dan Uggla is exiting the finest exhibition season of his career filled with confidence and Freddie Freeman spent the past couple weeks showing some of that opposite-field power that creates reason to wonder how many 40-homer seasons could be in this 22-year-old’s future.
The Braves are excited about having Michael Bourn’s speed over the course of a season and Martin Prado is excited about the fact that he will likely not have to attempt to act like a leadoff hitter at any point this season. Coming off the worst season of his career, Prado eased some concerns as he hit .356 in 73 Grapefruit League at-bats.
When asked last week if he was happy to see what Prado did during Spring Training, Brian McCann said, “Anybody who had concerns about Martin Prado does not know anything about baseball.”
Those who know a thing or two about baseball certainly understand that the Braves should once again have a great bullpen. Some might be concerned about how closer Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty bounce back from last year’s workload. But the presence of Kris Medlen should at least ease the burden placed on these three relievers.
If Medlen is not used to occasionally spell Venters and O’Flaherty in some setup opportunities, then it is a waste to have him in the bullpen. But given what transpired last year, I think manager Fredi Gonzalez understands the tremendous value Medlen can bring.
The rotation gained a big boost when Tommy Hanson finished the exhibition season strong and Hudson (offseason back surgery if you were still wondering) provided more reason to believe he will return by the end of this month. Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor both seem to be heading toward bright futures.
As for Jair Jurrjens, the two strong outings he enjoyed against split-squad Astros teams to conclude the exhibition season were not as telling as what he said following the outings. He was genuine when he admitted he had been scared to test his right knee while pushing off the rubber in his first four exhibition starts. The fact that he has seemingly overcome this fear before the start of the season is encouraging.
Encouraging can also be used to describe the early portion of the Braves schedule. Nine of the first 12 games will be played against either the Mets or the Astros. A four-game series against the D-backs stands as the most formidable series during an opening month that concludes with seven games against the Dodgers and Mets.
So upon further review, maybe this is indeed will be the year the Braves prove their doubters wrong and finally unseat the Phillies as division champs.
We’re going to end this now. I’m getting hungry and I’m afraid that if I keep writing I might try to convince you why the Mets should be considered the favorites in this division.