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Thursday, March 10, 2011

MLB Preview: Atlanta Braves

Down 2 to 1. Bottom of the 9th. Two outs. Bases loaded. A crack of the bat. Base hit into Left Field. One run scores, winning run rounds third. A throw from Left. A slide, a tag, an umpire.

Safe. Safe at the plate.

With that, the Atlanta Braves beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 3-2 in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. Since that day, the Pirates haven't had a single winning season.

To this day, when I think of the Atlanta Braves, that's the image that enters my brain. I used to watch the highlights from that game over and over and over on a video tape called "The Year in Sports 1992" that came with our Sports Illustrated subscription that year. I literally wore out the film. I can still hear the announcer's voice as he yelled, "Safe at the plate!" in a Dave Flemming voice crack. I can still see the Braves dog-piling on top of Sid Bream at home plate.

The real video is here: Here's what's on YouTube:

Needless to say, the Braves are not exactly near and dear to my heart. They sent the Pirates into the longest streak of losing season in the history of professional sport. But even putting that bias aside, there's still something I don't like about the Braves. Maybe it's Ted Turner. Maybe it's just because they've been so darn good during my life. It could be the Tomahawk chop, which joins USC's "V for Victory" as the most Nazi-esque fan display in sports.

But to be fair, it's probably the winning more than anything else. The Braves won their division 14 straight seasons during my formative baseball years. And those division titles also happened to coincide with the Pirate's ongoing streak of futility.

But with long-time skipper Bobby Cox out and new manager Fredi Gonzales at the helm, the Atlanta Braves will begin a new era in 2011. Luckily, the Braves have a group of players capable of starting a new era where the last one ended: in the playoffs, or as Snoop D-o-double-g might say, "right back up on top of things."

The Braves enter 2011 with an incredible amount of balance, both in their lineup and pitching rotation. In Right Field, the Braves are counting on Rookie of the Year runner-up Jason Heyward to improve on his already solid first-year stats (.277/18/72) and become the outfield's leader. In Center, Pirates legend Nate McClouth is looking to show fans in Atlanta some semblance of potential after two incredibly disappointing seasons. In Left, the Braves will start 2010 spark plug Martin Prado. Prado was forced to miss the entire post-season with a hip pointer, so look for him to play with an edge in 2011. I expect big things.

On the infield, the Braves will erect a statue of Chipper Jones and place it at third base, assuming it will stop more ground balls than Chipper himself. At short, the Braves start the solid Alex Gonzalez whose 23HR and 88RBI ranked among tops of NL shortstops in 2010. At First Base, the Braves look to start 21 year old (yeah, 21) Freddie Freeman. He's already a hot pick for Rookie of the Year. In the squat will be catcher Brian McCann, the best in the league at his position.

At Second Base will be the Braves' biggest off season acquisition -- the tobacco chewing, bat waggling, ball murdering Dan Uggla. Acquired in a trade with Flordia for All-Star Omar Infante, Uggla will try to remedy Atlanta's .385 slugging percentage against left handed pitching. Uggla runs the risk of hitting for a low average, but he's the most intimidating infielder in the National League. I wouldn't want to piss him off.

On the mound, the Braves feature arguably the 3rd best rotation in the NL behind the Phillies and Giants. Even at 37, Ace Derek Lowe is still be one of the top arms in the NL. Behind Lowe is the 35 year old Tim Hudson who many forget went 17-9 with a 2.83 ERA in 2010. Third up is Tommy Hanson who after exploding onto the scene in 2009 is pitching like a #2 starter in his own right. These three could make up a hell of a trio. After a down 2010, 4th starter Jair Jurrjens will look to regain his 2009 form. Youngster Mike Minor will round out the rotation. He has only 8 games experience in the Big Leagues so he will be something of a question mark.

The Braves bullpen is likely the team's weakest link heading into 2011. With longtime closer Billy Wagner gone for good, it will be up to one of the Braves' young arms to earn the right to replace him. For now the job belongs to baby faced Craig Kimbrell, who nearly threw Eric and I a batting practice ball before Game 2 of the NLDS. But keep an eye on Australian Peter Moylan as he could easily get the nod if Kimbrell struggles.

This will be an exciting season in Atlanta. Without the guidance of Bobby Cox, the Braves are entering uncharted waters, starting a new chapter in their franchise's history. But as the great Stark County Treasurer Candidate Phil Davison once said, "In the middle off opportunity lies diff -- in the middle of diff -- IN THE MIDDLE OF DIFFICULTY LIES OPPORTUNITY!"

Credit should be given to the Braves front office for putting together a team that can bridge the gap between the greatness of the Cox era and, hopefully for Braves fans, the greatness of the future.

The 2011 Atlanta Braves
C: Brian McCann
1B: Freddie Freeman
2B: Dan Uggla
SS: Alex Gonzalez
3B: Chipper "Larry" Jones
LF: Martin Prado
CF: Nate McClouth
RF: Jason Heyward
P: Derek Lowe
P: Tim Hudson
P: Tommy Hanson:
P: Jair Jurrjens
P: Mike Minor
CL: Craig Kimbrell

Best Case Scenario
2011 gets off to a smooth start in Atlanta as this balanced squad chugs along to a 45-35 start. Jason Heyward solidifies his place as one of the best Right Fielders in the NL with a .284/29/105 season. Brian McCann and Dan Uggla join Heyward at the All-Star Game at which point the Braves are only 4 games back of the Phillies. After Kimbrell and Moylan fail to hold the Closer spot, the Braves trade for Brian Fuentes who  excels immediately.

As the calender turns to September, the Braves are only 3 back of Philadelphia and have a 7 game lead in the Wild Card race. Unsatisfied with being just a Toon Leader to the Phillies' Commander, the Braves forget the Wild Card and go for the Division crown. While they end up finishing 1 game behind the Phillies, the Braves storm into the playoffs as the league's hottest team. In the NLDS the Braves easily dispatch of the St. Louis Cardinals and meet their old foes, the Phillies, in the NLCS. In a 7 game series for the ages, the Braves top their Division rivals and win the NL. Brooks Conrad is named NLCS MVP after hitting a Grand Slam in Game 7.

The Braves are defeated in the World Series by the Boston Red Sox in 6 games. But after topping the Phillies behind monster performances from young studs like Heyward, Freeman and Hanson, the Braves are declared the team to beat in the NL for the foreseeable future.

Worst Case Scenario
After a franchise worst 5-20 start, Atlanta pushes the panic button. After a 10-35 start. They push it again. Failing to get a stand-out performance from a single hitter, the Braves lineup goes from one of the league's most promising to its most disappointing. Jason Heyward enters a severe sophomore slump, bringing a .230 batting average into the All-Star Break. Nate McClouth stays healthy, but puts up worse numbers than in 2010 when he had a concussion. His confidence shaken after being repeatedly mistaken for the bat boy, Freddie Freeman goes 15 for his first 100 at bats and is sent down to AAA.  Dan Uggla fails to get acclimated in his new home and during a trip to Miami takes his aggression out on the Florida Marlins mascot, earning himself a 20 games suspension.

As rumors begin to circulate that Bobby Cox is considering a return to the Braves' bench, Fredi Gonzalez is fired and replaced by Real Housewives of Atlanta star Nene Leakes. Quickly, fans realize from the multitude of TV cameras on the field that Ted Turner has in fact signed a contract to turn the rest of the Brave's busted season into a reality TV show on the Bravo Network. Braves on Bravo is a hit. While attendance plummets, TV ratings skyrocket, leaving the Braves a hefty net profit.

In the season's coup de gras, the Pirates win the NL Central for the 1st time in what will become a streak of 15 straight division titles. The Braves, meanwhile, begin the first of 19 straight losing seasons. Stan Belinda is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

1 comment:

  1. That video is nothing but win. I'm glad your best case scenario doesn't have us winning the division; it scares me that some people are picking us to finish on top.

    And although the worst case scenario makes Ted Turner involvement seem like a bad thing, I wouldn't mind if he owned the team again and dumped oodles of money onto our payroll instead of the United Nations. What's a UN anyways?