MLB 2011 Preview: Atlanta Braves Biggest Threat to Phillies in NL East
Previewing the 2011 MLB season, we’ve already named the Phillies, Yankees, and Red Sox the top World Series favorites. We’ve already looked at the NL Central, and this week we’ll take look at the NL East. Since the Phillies have already been named a World Series favorite, we’ll start with the Atlanta Braves; Tuesday: Florida Marlins.
Off-Season Moves: The Braves lost their top two first basemen, Troy Glaus and Derrek Lee, to free agency. They acquired second baseman Dan Uggla from the Marlins in a trade that sent young lefty Michael Dunn and super utility man Omar Infante to Florida. Atlanta also released last year’s primary left fielder Melky Cabrera.
Strengths: Offensively, the Braves are about average in most categories except for on-base percentage. Atlanta finished last season third in the majors with a .339 team OBP. This year’s team should be able to come close to replicating that, losing some good OBP guys in Lee (.347), Glaus (.344) and Infante (.359), but gaining Uggla’s .369. Last season’s team leader (min. 400 at bats), Jason Heyward (.393, pictured above), will have to avoid a sophomore slump to set the pace again. Rookie first baseman, Freddie Freeman, struggled in just 20 major league games last season, but had a .378 OBP in 124 AAA games last year.
The starting rotation looks strong as well. Tim Hudson (17-9, 2.83, pictured at right), Derek Lowe (16-12, 4.00), Tommy Hanson (10-11, 3.33) and Jair Jurrjens (7-6, 4.64). Jurrjens’ 2010 was hampered by injury, but he won 14 games and had a 2.60 ERA in 2009. The fifth starter is yet to be determined, but rookie Mike Minor looks like the early favorite. Minor went 4-1 with a 1.89 ERA in six AAA starts last year.
Weaknesses: Defense is going to be the biggest question for the Braves this year. Atlanta commited 126 errors last season, one less than the two teams tied for worst in the majors, the Nationals and the Pirates. Their .980 team fielding precentage was tied for second-worst in baseball. Uggla is known more for his bat than his glove, but his arrival pushes utility man Martin Prado, who had a .987 fielding percentage at second last season, to the left field spot vacated by Cabrera. The move can be attributed less to Prado’s versatility defensively — he’s only played 25 career games in the outfield — than to Uggla’s lack thereof. Prado reportedly has been working very hard to learn the position, but there’s sure to be a learning curve that will hurt the Braves.
Summary: One thing that could trip this Braves team up is the retirement of former manager Bobby Cox. New manager Fredi Gonzalez has seen mixed results in his four managerial seasons — all with the Marlins — so he’s a wild card for this team. More often than not it comes down to the players, so this year’s Braves will likely finish north of 90 wins, as they did last year, and in the thick of the wild-card hunt once again.