Braves set to enter a new and promising era
The last time the Braves opened a season against the Phillies, Jordan Schafer homered in his first career at-bat and Jeff Francoeur homered in his first at-bat of the season. Derek Lowe further subdued Philadelphia’s World Series celebration by allowing two hits over eight scoreless innings in his Braves debut.
All of this occurred on April 5, 2009. The calendar indicates this was just four years ago. But to many of you, that was simply a celebratory night that occurred in what is now recognized as the Braves’ distant past.
The last time the Braves opened a season at home, Jason Heyward electrified Turner Field by using the first swing of his Major League career to hit a three-run home run deep into the home bullpen beyond the right-center field wall. Lowe notched the second of his three consecutive Opening Day wins for Atlanta on that afternoon. (Please keep reading. The previous sentence was not an April Fool’s joke.)
Three years later, Heyward is a seasoned 23-year-old veteran and the face of the new-look Braves, who will introduce the Upton brothers and enter a promising era with tonight’s Opening Day matchup against the Phillies at Turner Field.
Over the past two months, Braves fans have basked in the hype created by the offseason additions of B.J. Upton and Justin Upton. Over the next six months, we will learn whether this reconstructed and potentially lethal lineup is indeed potent enough to allow the Braves to realize their aspirations to play deep into October.
How strong is this lineup? Well six-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann will likely be sidelined until at least late April while recovering from shoulder surgery. Instead of wondering if the Braves can stay afloat during this stretch, most are simply wondering how much better this lineup will be if a healthy McCann returns to form and takes advantage of one last audition before hitting the free-agent market after the season.
While it is hard to predict exactly how things will shape up in the challenging National League East race, there is certainly reason to assume this year’s Braves will challenge the franchise record for both home runs (235 in 2003) and strikeouts (1,289 in 2012). Shortstop might be the only position where the Braves do not record at least 15 home runs and at least 100 strikeouts.
When I asked Chipper Jones about this year’s team back in early February, the large number of swings and misses will erase a number of scoring opportunities for this year’s Braves. In other words, the value of the one-out double or triple could be frequently erased when the next two batters follow with strikeouts.
This is bound to happen. Get over it and get used to it.
But while it has been easy to peg this year’s club as one that will feature power, it is not necessarily one that will live and die with the long ball. There have been other clubs who have had three outfielders who are capable of hitting at least 20 home runs. But the uniqueness of Atlanta’s new outfield trio comes via the fact that Heyward and the Upton brothers are also all capable of frustrating pitchers with their speed.
There has been a lot of talk about each of the outfielders recording a 20/20 season this year. While this is a possibility, stolen bases equates to just a portion of the value they will bring their legs. Each is capable of scoring from first base on a double and going first-to-third on a single.
But what stood out during Spring Training was the aggression that Heyward and the Upton brothers showed on the base paths. Their willingness to take extra bases will increase the team’s number of scoring opportunities. If the percentages play out over the course of six months, this should reduce the negative effect of what will be an alarmingly high number of strikeouts.
When Spring Training began, the Braves were widely recognized as having the game’s best bullpen. Optimism surrounding this pen has been blemished by the fact that Jonny Venters could miss at least the season’s first month while attempting to get his left elbow right. Venters visited Dr. James Andrews today and a diagnosis should be available later today.
Early indications are that Venters’ elbow is structurally sound. If this is true, he would not need to undergo a second Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. But the continued discomfort he has battled dating back to last year could indicate he is dealing with a bone spur or bone chip. Either way, he will likely need to rest for a couple of weeks before being cleared to begin rebuilding his arm strength.
Venters’ absence increases the potential value the Braves could receive from right-handed reliever Jordan Walden, who recorded 32 saves for the Angels two years ago. Walden nearly a month of the Grapefruit League season because of a bulging disc in his back. But he has not had any more setbacks over the past couple of weeks.
General manager Frank Wren was lauded for his ability to get both Upton brothers this winter. But I think it was every bit as impressive that he got a reliever of Walden’s caliber in exchange for a decaying Tommy Hanson. My assumption was that the Braves were going to have to non-tender Hanson or settle for a trade that would have brought them a less attractive pitching prospect.
Even with the emergence of Kris Medlen as a front-line starter and the great turnaround Mike Minor enjoyed last year, there are some questions about the rotation. Tim Hudson has made 405 starts, or 91 more than Paul Maholm (216), Minor (53), Medlen (30) and Julio Teheran (4) combined.
But when speaking of new eras in Atlanta, 91 is not a bad number. It might once again signal the start of something special.