The Braves made the playoffs in the final season of manager Bobby Cox's 25 years with Atlanta. But the end of the Cox Era corresponds with a wave of young talent that should keep the Braves in the playoff hunt for several more years. Jason Heyward finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting last season and is the most touted member of the new wave of talent. More of that wave arrives this year in Freddie Freeman, Mike Minor and Craig Kimbrel. And behind him is a crop of pitching talent that features some of the top prospects in the game (Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Arodys Vizcaino) along with amazing depth.
The new talent will augment a strong pitching staff that was third in NL ERA last season. Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens all return with Minor likely to be added as the fifth starter. The major question mark is in the bullpen where the team will try to find replacements at closer (Billy Wagner) and for their top setup man (Takashi Saito).
The Braves finished sixth in runs per game in the NL last season, but could improve this season with the acquistion of Dan Uggla from Florida. While Heyward was a success in his rookie season, the rest of the outfield struggled. Rather than trade for an outfielder in the offseason, the Braves traded for Uggla and decided to move Martin Prado to left field. But the lineup has some uncertainty with Chipper Jones coming back from a torn ACL in his left knee, the Braves relying on previously disappointing Nate McLouth in center field again and with Freeman expected to perform right away as a rookie at first base.
New manager Fredi Gonzalez may not have the stars on his roster to match those in Philadelphia, but Atlanta is deep and should be in the playoff hunt once again.
Traded Mike Dunn and Omar Infante to Florida for Dan Uggla.
The Braves get an upgrade at the plate at second base for two players who were not impact players. The Braves then signed Uggla to a five-year, $62 million contract extension, which may have been a bit much for a player who isn't an asset at fielding his position. While the contract may limit Atlanta in a few years if Uggla has to move from second base, his bat will help improve the lineup. With the acquisition, the Braves elected to move Martin Prado to left field.
Billy Wagner retired.
With Wagner deciding to retire, Craig Kimbrel is likely to take over the closer role, although he faces competition from Jonny Venters There was some uncertainty over Wagner's retirement initially because, he remained on Atlanta's roster much of the winter. He was technically on Atlanta's 40-man roster because he was set to be paid a $250,000 buyout if he was released before spring training began. He doesn't get paid the buyout if he retires or fails to show up for spring training, so he should be off the roster shortly. Meanwhile, both Wagner and his agent have affirmed his status as retired.
Traded minor league pitcher Kyle Cofield to the White Sox for Scott Linebrink.
Linebrink posted his second straight season with a 4.00-plus ERA and a WHIP on the wrong side of 1.300, but his walk rate of 2.7 BB/9IP was a welcome improvement over an ugly 4.7 BB/9IP in 2009. He was traded to Atlanta in the offseason and will likely be used as a key setup man. He allowed just a .647 OPS against righties despite unspectacular overall numbers, which suggests he can improve if he solves - or isn't used as much - against lefties.
The Braves don't enter the spring with any outright job battles. If Chipper Jones can show he's healthy after knee surgery, he'll start at third base. Nate McLouth is the heavy favorite for the center field job, mostly because of a lack of alternatives (Jordan Schafer may be the fallback option). Freddie Freeman should win the first base job unless he has a horrible spring. Martin Prado moves from second base to left field after the acquisition of Dan Uggla, but he'll also get time in the infield.
1. Martin Prado LF
2. Jason Heyward RF
3. Chipper Jones 3B
4. Brian McCann C
5. Dan Uggla 2B
6. Freedie Freeman 1B
7. Nate McLouth CF
8. Alex Gonzalez SS
The Braves bring back every member of last year's rotation with the only a battle for the fifth starter job. Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy and Rodrigo Lopez are competing for the fifth starter job. Minor has to be the favorite given his pedigree as a first-round draft pick, while Lopez likely only wins the job if the other two get hurt.
1. Tim Hudson
2. Tommy Hanson
3. Derek Lowe
4. Jair Jurrjens
5. Mike Minor / Brandon Beachy / Rodrigo Lopez
The primary battle in the bullpen is for the closer role between Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters. And manager Fredi Gonzalez has also said the two may share the role initially or all season. Peter Moylan is likely the top right-handed setup man, but Scott Linebrink could have a significant role.
CL: Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters
Key bullpen members: Peter Moylan, Scott Linebrink, Eric O'Flaherty, George Sherrill
Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:
As the Braves approach spring training the biggest questions are:
1. Will Chipper Jones be ready for Opening Day?
Jones suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in August. He had surgery and hopes to be ready for the start of spring training, but it typically takes a full year before players are ready to return from similar knee injuries. So far this spring Jones has shown all signs he'll be ready as he hasn't had any major setbacks and has started games at third base. He'll just need to overcome a final hurdle is to make sure he can hold up after several weeks of play. Still, while it looks like Jones will be ready to start at third base, he turns 39 in April and has struggled to stay on the field with nagging injuries the later part of his career. Any setback to his knee could cascade to problems elsewhere in his body, so his return to full health isn't a given.
2. Who wins the closer role?
The Braves lost the top two relievers for the club for the second year in a row as Takashi Saito signed with Milwaukee and Billy Wagner retired. The Braves will fill both roles with younger players in 2011. Craig Kimbrel is the closer of the future but he'll need a strong spring performance to avoid sharing the job initially with Jonny Venters, as manager Fredi Gonzalez has said he may use both in the closer role initially. Venters is more likely to become the primary set-up man as a lefty, however it's also possible the two could share closing duties all season.
3. Who wins the fifth starter job?
Minor has to be a heavy favorite in this competition given his pedigree (seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft) and strong 2010 minor league numbers (3.44 ERA and 146:46 K:BB ratio in 120.1 innings). Beachy has pitched well early in the spring and could make the race surprisingly close. Lopez is nominally in the mix, but he likely just adds depth at Triple-A.
4. Can Nate McLouth hold down the starting center field job?
When the Braves traded for McLouth in June 2009 it appeared they'd solved their problems in center field. But after a miserable season, his role with the Braves in 2011 is uncertain. McLouth began the season as the starting center fielder but started slow and slumped into June, hitting just .176/.295/.282 before the All-Star break. The only end to his slump was when he missed a month after suffering a concussion in June. He was then sent to Triple-A in July. It looked like he'd languish in the minors or on the bench, but he was called up in September and moved back into the starting lineup when others slumped. He responded by hitting .273/.359/.527 the final month with three home runs.
So far this spring he's continued his comeback from September as he's already had more hits than he did last year amid a miserable spring (6-for-51). If he does win the job, one worry is that he struggled against left-handed pitching (.378 OPS) last season. He could be platooned in center field eventually as a result. Working in McLouth's favor is that there are few other options if he doesn't win the center field job. Jordan Schafer looks fully healthy this spring after two seasons of wrist injuries, but he's not a proven commodity in the majors. If McLouth struggles, the Braves could trade for a center fielder to try to solve the problem again.
Starting pitching, several high impact prospects.
Outfield production, experience in the bullpen.
Rising: Craig Kimbrel is the leading candidate to replace the retiring Billy Wagner as Atlanta's closer in 2011. The 2008 third-round pick averaged 95 mph on fastballs in the majors last season and also features a nasty hard curveball. He was dominating at Triple-A with a 1.62 ERA and 13.5 K/9IP and shuttled between Triple-A and Atlanta several times before getting regular duty in September, when he threw 11 scoreless innings with a 23:5 K:BB -- often in crucial situations. He also thrived in the playoffs by giving up just one run and one walk with seven strikeouts in 4.1 innings. Many times the best pitching prospects are not closers in the minors. However, this is a case where a top prospect was a minor league closer. And so far everything he's shown in the minors and in his brief time in the majors suggests he'll thrive in the closer role with the Braves -- as long as he can win the job this spring.
Declining: Alex Gonzalez put up a career-high 23 home runs and 88 RBI last season and enters 2011 as the starting shortstop for the Braves. Gonzalez hit 17 home runs with a .793 OPS in Toronto before he was traded to Atlanta in July. He didn't hit as well in the NL (.676 OPS), and hit six home runs in 72 games with the Braves. Gonzalez has a strong glove (sixth-best UZR among all shortstops last year) and good power for a shortstop, but there are reasons not to overpay for last year's stats. He doesn't draw walks which makes his batting average a risk, he's been injury prone in his career but was healthy last season and his home-run numbers have been erratic during his career.
Sleeper: Mike Minor, the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft, began the season at Double-A and ended the season in Atlanta's rotation. After dominating at Double-A (11.3 K/9IP with strong control), he had a 1.89 ERA with a 37:12 K:BB ratio in 33.1 innings at Triple-A and was called up to Atlanta in early August. He began his career with three quality starts and had a 5.84 ERA and 47:9 K:BB ratio in 37 innings in his first seven starts. He then lasted less than two innings in his next two outings and the Braves pulled him from the rotation over worries about fatigue. While his overall 5.98 ERA may not look like he held his own in the majors, his 43:11 K:BB ratio in 40.2 innings shows he can be a frontline starter. He'll need to keep the ball in the park (six home runs), but he gave up just nine home runs in 129.1 innings in the minors the past two years. He'll likely begin 2011 as Atlanta's No. 5 starter and has the makings of a future star. The only worry for 2011 is the Braves may once again limit his innings after a big leap in workload last season.
Supersleeper: Jordan Schafer's career has spiraled downward since he hurt his wrist shortly after he was named Atlanta's Opening Day center fielder in 2009. Schafer hit just .201/.268/.255 between three levels last season and was demoted from Triple-A to Double-A at one point as the wrist continued to be an issue. When healthy, his power/speed potential and an ability to draw walks made him a top prospect. While he won't need additional surgery on his wrist, his health remains uncertain heading into 2011. Still, Atlanta GM Frank Wren said Schafer will be given a chance to win the backup center field job this spring.
Here's a rundown on the rest of the team not mentioned above.
Brandon Beachy - The undrafted free agent from Indiana Wesleyan is a bit old at 24 to be considered a top prospect, but he had a breakout season in 2010 that could put him in the mix for major league job at some point in 2011. Beachy showed stellar control and strikeout potential in Double-A, posting a 1.45 ERA and 100:22 K:BB ratio in 74.1 innings. He then looked even better at Triple-A, even if it was just seven starts (48:6 K:BB ratio in 45.2 innings). After his Triple-A season ended, Beachy was a surprise callup when an emergency starter was needed and had a strong debut in three big league starts (15 strikeouts in 15 innings) and was even included on the postseason roster. He'll compete for a bullpen role this spring, but likely opens the season in the Triple-A rotation. He could surprise, but he may need to get his break elsewhere amid a deep Atlanta rotation.
Brooks Conrad Conrad had big impact on the Braves last season with several game-winning hits, but also had several key errors in the playoffs. He's not as much a fantasy factor since he's a utility player who mostly pinch hits. He's shown good power in the minors and draws walks at a decent clip, so there's some upside if he finds regular playing time. However, the playoffs showed he likely doesn't have the glove for regular duty.
Tommy Hanson - He duplicated his strong rookie season to become Atlanta's second ace at the top of the rotation. Hanson has great control with strong strikeout rates and keeps the ball in the park. He's also durable as he went six innings or more in 22 of 34 starts. Perhaps the only complaint is that he doesn't have the exceptional strikeout rates he posted in the minors, but striking out 7.7 K/9IP with his control is still strong enough to maintain his recent success.
Jason Heyward - Heyward entered 2010 as the top hitting prospect in baseball and didn't disappoint. He finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting after hitting .277/.393/.456 with 18 home runs while playing outstanding defense in right field. Heyward won the starting right field job in spring training and started off hot by hitting eight home runs with a 1.033 OPS in his first 31 games. However, he strained a ligament in his thumb on May 14 and continued to play with the injury before landing on the DL in July (and missed taking the field after being named to the All-Star Game), hitting .222 with a .689 OPS over that stretch. Once healthy, he hit .302 with a .875 OPS in the second half. Heyward has as much upside as any player in the game with excellent power, great strike-zone judgment, speed and an outstanding glove and arm in right field. He turned just 21 last season, so his initial performance in the majors shows he could quickly improve, especially given that he struggled with a hand injury much of the season. But there are some reasons for concern. Heyward struck out 128 times (75 percent contact rate) and hit just . 249 with a .755 OPS against lefties. Still, he drew walks at a strong rate (15 percent of plate appearances) and should see more power as he grows. It may not be too long before he's one of the best players in the game.
Eric Hinske - While Hinske ended a three-year streak of making the World Series, a bounce-back season with Atlanta may have earned him a shot at a full-time role or at least a meatier platoon role. Hinske has a good eye at the plate and decent power. While he's passable in the outfield and first base, he's best served as a DH or pinch-hitter. One worry is that he's faded in the second half each of the last three seasons (.598 OPS after the All-Star break last year). Outside of that trend, he could offer cheap power in a utility role for the Braves again this season.
Tim Hudson - He surprisingly looked better in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery than at any point in his Atlanta career. The average velocity on his fastball climbed above 91 mph -- a level not seen since 2004 with Oakland. He also had the best groundball rate (64.1 percent) of his Atlanta career. The results were 17 wins, a 2.83 ERA and his most innings pitched since 2003. While Hudson looked better than ever, there are some signs he pitched worse than his numbers indicate. He still had just an average strikeout rate (5.5 K/9IP) with mediocre control (139:74 K:BB ratio). However, he's had a strong career without dominating peripheral numbers. He'll be counted on again as Atlanta's No. 1 or No. 2 starter.
Jair Jurrjens - Jurrjens struggled with injuries last season and couldn't recapture the form that made him one of the NL's best starters in 2009. He was already having a rough first month (6.38 ERA) before landing on the DL with a strained hamstring at the end of April. He returned in late June, but then suffered a knee injury in September that required surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear. The results sandwiched around the injuries saw a slight decline in his velocity and a big drop-off in his groundball rate to where he gave up more flyballs than groundballs for the first time in his Braves career. It's possible Jurrjens was just never right after getting off track with injuries, but his success before last season was always much better than his peripheral numbers suggested. He never had a great strikeout rate, owns mediocre control and while he induced groundballs, it was never extreme. He'll enter 2011 as the No. 4 starter for the Braves, but fantasy owners should make sure he's healthy and be wary of a return to his 2009 form.
Scott Linebrink - Linebrink posted his second straight season with a 4.00-plus ERA and a WHIP on the wrong side of 1.300, but his walk rate of 2.7 BB/9IP was a welcome improvement over an ugly 4.7 BB/9IP in 2009. He was traded to Atlanta in the offseason and will likely be used as a key setup man. He allowed just a .647 OPS against righties despite unspectacular overall numbers, which suggests he can improve if he solves - or isn't used as much - against lefties.
Derek Lowe - Lowe's first season in Atlanta in 2009 after signing a four-year, $60 million contract looked like a bust after he posted a 4.67 ERA, but his second season was a somewhat surprising return to form. Lowe won 16 games and has won 12 or more games in nine consecutive seasons. He increased his strikeout rate, slightly reduced his walk rate and slightly improved his usual strong groundball rate (58.8 percent groundballs allowed). However, the better explanation may be a decline from the second highest BABIP in his career in 2009. Either way, Lowe is still durable at age 37 and should produce similar results as Atlanta's No. 3 or No. 4 starter.
Joe Mather - The Cardinals rarely gave Mather the playing time that his powerful bat commanded, but it's not like he did much with the opportunities he's had. A .702 OPS in the majors isn't going to cut it from a corner outfielder. The Braves will give him another chance in 2011, but he's already 28 and it looks like he's going to be relegated to the bench on his new team as well.
Brian McCann - He seemed to have declined at the plate slightly last season with a career low in RBI and batting average, but his underlying stats show he remains perhaps the top hitting catcher in baseball. McCann put the vision problems that slowed him in 2009 behind him and hit 18 or more home runs for the sixth consecutive season with a .375 OBP. McCann has good skills behind the plate and plenty of power, plus enough plate discipline to believe his batting average will bounce back to his .289 career average. He's also durable for a catcher, playing over 138 games in each of the last five seasons. At age 27, he could easily take the mantle as the best catcher in baseball.
Kris Medlen - Medlen finally got his shot at the Atlanta rotation after working out of the bullpen late in 2009 and initially last season. He looked like a future star with a 3.86 ERA and 62:16 K:BB ratio in 84 innings over 14 starts. However, he hurt his elbow in August and will likely miss all of 2011 after Tommy John surgery.
Peter Moylan - Moylan's second season back from Tommy John surgery looked similar to the rest of his career, but there are some signs of concern. While his velocity increased to an average of a 90 mph fastball, it's still short of his pre-surgery form (he averaged 91-92 mph on fastballs from 2006-08). He also saw his walk rate climb to 5.2 BB/9IP - the highest of his career. Still, the sidewinder induced 67.8 percent groundballs and he held right-handed hitters to a .589 OPS. He should be one of the primary setup men for the Braves, but his problems against lefties (3:22 K:BB ratio and .987 OPS) may limit his chances to battle for the closer role.
Eric O'Flaherty - O'Flaherty was having another strong season as a lefty specialist for the Braves when he came down with mononucleosis in July and only threw 12.2 innings after the All-Star break. Before getting sick, he saw his velocity increase on fastballs (to an average of 92 mph) and he also improved against right-handed hitters (.690 OPS allowed last season compared to a previous .803 OPS career average). Meanwhile, he continued to dominate lefties (.588 OPS allowed). He'll likely be limited to middle relief as a lefty specialist, but his growth last year suggests he could see more high-leverage situations or a move into a setup role. However, he needs to reduce his walks to right-handed batters (17:13 K:BB ratio last season).
Martin Prado - Prado continued to improve at the plate last season as he hit a career-high 15 home runs, made his first All-Star Game and finished seventh in the NL batting race. He's gone from a utility player in 2008, to regular in the lineup in 2009, to hitting in key spots (leadoff, third) in the lineup last year. Prado makes good contact and has surprising power, plus he can play multiple positions in the infield and outfield. He began last season at second base and moved to third base after Chipper Jones' knee injury. The Braves might use him in left field, where his bat will be less of an asset, but he more likely starts at third base for at least the first part of the season until Jones returns from a knee injury. He'll likely be used across the infield in any scenario. He missed the last week of September and the playoffs after suffering a hip pointer and torn oblique muscle, but is expected to be at full strength by the start of spring training. He'll qualify at second base and third base for fantasy owners wherever he ends up playing or batting in the order, and could deliver a big season in his prime at age 27 this season.
Dave Ross - Ross provides a solid backup to Brian McCann and offers some pop at the plate. He draws enough walks that his batting average shouldn't be a drag if he gets extended at-bats. However, McCann's durability limits his playing time.
George Sherrill - He took a huge step back in 2010, posting a 6.69 ERA in 36.1 innings for the Dodgers, a mark that resulted in his being non-tendered following the season. Sherrill, though, was again dominant versus left-handed hitters, allowing southpaws to bat just .192/.286/.288 against him. That line got Sherrill a one-year $1.2 million deal from the Braves, for whom he'll presumably work as a left-handed specialist if he's unable to regain his pre-2010 form
Dan Uggla - Uggla kept on keepin' on, racking up his fourth straight 30-plus HR season and his first 100-RBI effort. Contract talks with the Marlins went nowhere, though, and he was dealt to Atlanta in the offseason. While his home/road splits (.841/.833 career OPS) don't scream for a need to get out of south Florida, hitting in Turner Field shouldn't hurt him much.
Jonny Venters - Venters looked like an odd addition to the 40-man roster last winter as he's had mediocre strikeout rates in his minor league career despite a mid-90s fastball. A strong spring training saw him get called up early in the season and he suddenly became a dominate reliever by averaging just over 10.0 K/9IP with good control. By the stretch run, Venters was being used in high-leverage situations late in games. Entering 2011, he's potentially a part of the Braves' ninth-inning solution following the retirement of Billy Wagner.
Julio Teheran - Teheran may be the best pitching prospect in baseball after moving up three levels and climbing to Double-A last season at age 19. He has a mid-90s fastball and plus changeup, along with a baseball IQ rare for his age. After posting a 1.17 ERA with a 45:10 K:BB ratio at Low-A Rome, he was even more impressive at High-A Myrtle Beach with a 2.98 ERA and 76:13 K:BB ratio in 63.1 innings that included striking out 14 batters in one game. He more than held his own as a 19-year-old at Double-A with a 3.38 ERA and 38:17 K:BB ratio in 40 innings. He'll likely begin the season at Double-A, but a trip to the majors in September isn't out of the question. He could be pitching at the top of Atlanta's rotation before 2013.
Randall Delgado - Delgado looks set for a rapid rise to the majors after dominating at High-A Myrtle Beach as a 20-year old. He had a 2.76 ERA with a 120:32 K:BB ratio in 117.1 innings at Myrtle Beach before holding his own with a 4.74 ERA and 42:20 K:BB ratio in 43.2 innings in eight starts at Double-A. Delgado can reach 96 mph with his fastball and improved his control last season. A strong start at Double-A could see him in the majors as early as the second half of 2011. He has the potential to be a No. 1 or No. 2 starter with his combination of velocity, control and success at an early age.
Arodys Vizcaino - Vizcaino was traded to the Braves in the Javier Vazquez deal and quickly climbed to become one of Atlanta's top prospects. After going 9-4 with a 2.39 ERA and 68:9 K:BB ratio in 14 starts with Low-A Rome, it looked like he was on the fast track to the majors. However, he was shut down in June after just three starts at High-A with a partial tear in a ligament in his right elbow. He returned in late August to make two appearances and isn't expected to need offseason surgery. Vizcaino has a 90-95 mph fastball and a very good curveball. If he shows his elbow is healthy and has a strong start at High-A, he could be with the Braves in September.