Last year’s record and finish are in parenthesis with projected improvement/decline indicated by plus or minus.
Atlanta Braves (79-83, 3rd in the NL East) +4 games
Get Crunked: The Braves are like a good mix tape; a healthy blend of rising stars intertwined with oldies but goodies. The oldies but still goodies include John Smoltz, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, and Bob Wickman. Smoltz is still one of the best starters in the league, and probably my choice to start a World Series game for an NL team. Chipper, despite injuries, has seen some of his highest OPS totals in the past two seasons. Andruw Jones has likewise seen his power go up each of the past two seasons. Wickman was lights out after being traded to Atlanta last year. Brian McCann was arguably as productive behind the dish as Joe Mauer last year, but hardly anyone knows it. Jeff Francoeur has the pop, he just needs to cut down on his K’s.
Party Foul: Scott Thorman, Kelly Johnson, and Ryan Langerhans are all projected to be regulars for the team. Need I say more? OK, well in that case, Mike Hampton is already hurt, and the options to fill-in his spot are nothing short of pathetic, be it Kyle Davies or Lance Cormier.
What’d my GM do: He let Marcus Giles and Danys Baez go, and he traded 1B Adam LaRoche to Pittsburgh, as well as Horacio Ramirez to Seattle (three of the four moves help the bullpen). While Mike Gonzalez is a fine reliever, I’m not sure that Thorman can replace LaRoche’s bat — which was just emerging last year. Then again, with Wickman a dozen donuts away from ending his career, it’s nice to have a closer waiting. Make that two closers waiting, since Rafael Soriano was acquired in the trade with Seattle — a very fine move. Danys Baez was too expensive too keep, not that he’s any good. But for what Marcus Giles signed for, I can’t understand why he wasn’t retained.
Lay it on me Straight: Ever since the Braves began cutting payroll, the margin for error became very thin. Therefore, this team will be completely reliant on staying injury-free, which they haven’t been able to do the past few seasons. They cannot afford to have Hudson, Hampton, and Chipper all go down if they hope to win.
So where my boys gonna finish right now: Probably around the .500 mark, and definitely out of the division race for the second year in a row. They simply cannot hang with the Mets who have put together a stellar lineup, and the Phillies who drastically improved their rotation.
Can we be better than that: Yes, a lot better. If Chuck James pitches as well as last year, Tim Hudson returns to form, the key players stay healthy, and two of these four (Johnson, Thorman, Francoeur, Langerhans) have good years, they will be knocking on the division leader’s door.