Posts Tagged ‘Nate McLouth

08
Dec
10

Frank Wren dazzles with Dan Uggla acquisition

During my hiatus on this site, the Atlanta Braves surged to their first postseason appearance in five years — winning the 2010 National League Wild Card — and endured the subsequent retirement of venerable skipper Bobby Cox. It’s safe to say the Braves were anything but idle during my absence.

While the hot stove is now burning for most Major League teams at this year’s Winter Meetings, the Braves have already settled most of their offseason business after landing Dan Uggla from the Florida Marlins. The slugging second baseman fills Atlanta’s most pressing need — a right-handed, middle-of-the-order power bat to help balance out a predominantly left-handed lineup.

Braves General Manager Frank Wren set the tone for this offseason’s inevitable flurry of deals, pulling off one of the shrewdest moves so far this winter on Nov. 16. Wren coerced Uggla — a free agent at the end of the 2011 season — away from the division rival Marlins by only relinquishing super utilityman Omar Infante and left-handed reliever Mike Dunn in return. The Fish balked at Uggla’s demands of a five-year, $71-million dollar contract extension thus sparking the trade.

Uggla, 30, is a two-time All-Star and the 2010 National League Silver Slugger recipient at second base. He hit .287 with 33 HRs and 105 RBI last season.

To put into context what Uggla’s bat means to Atlanta’s restructured lineup: After entering the league in 2006, Uggla’s 154 home runs are second to only Albert Pujols’ 207 among National League right-handed hitters during that span.

More impressively, Wren was creative in his approach of finding the Braves’ new masher.

Seemingly entrenched at second base for Atlanta was All-Star Martin Prado, who is recovering from a hip pointer injury this offseason. With the exception of Jason Heyward, the NL’s Rookie of the Year runner-up, the 2010 Braves sported a rather inferior, patchwork outfield consisting of Matt Diaz, Eric Hinske, Nate McLouth, Melky Cabrera and Rick Ankiel. With Cabrera, Ankiel and Diaz all gone and Hinske re-signed as the team’s primary pinch-hitter, it was assumed a bat would be acquired to bolster the outfield corps.

Instead, Wren found the best available right-handed bat — in the form of Uggla — and traded for him, before announcing Prado would move to the outfield. A rather savvy move indeed, considering Prado’s past history playing left field in winter ball leagues.

Now, with Wren’s move being lauded among fellow GM’s and baseball personnel, the only question remaining is: When will the Braves begin talking contact extension with their new slugger?

According to David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, chatter emerging from the Winter Meetings yesterday suggest that the Braves anticipate opening such dialogue with Uggla and agent Terry Bross soon.

While Uggla stands to earn in the neighborhood of $10 million in arbitration in 2011 before becoming a free agent, Atlanta hopes to ink the Columbia, Tenn. native to a multi-year deal sooner rather than later.

With familiar ties to new manager Fredi Gonzalez — having played under him in Florida — and growing up a Braves fan with his family and friends now able to travel a shorter distance to watch him play, Uggla seems to have a strong desire to work out a long-term deal with Atlanta, too.

It appears to be a perfect match for both sides, but only time will tell if and when Uggla decides to sign.

In the meantime, for the Atlanta Braves and their gritty second baseman, the future is now.

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10
May
10

Observations of the Braves from a weekend at Citizens Bank Park

My cousin Jaime (left) and I enjoy a game at Citizens Bank Park.

Being born and raised just outside the Philadelphia area, I make it a tradition to see at least one Braves-Phillies series a season.

This year, I made my first trip to see the 2010 Braves in a weekend set against the Phillies on May 7-9.

The results weren’t pretty.

On Friday night, Derek Lowe was on the mound for the Bravos. He was opposed by the 86-year old Jamie Moyer.

I kid, but from a pitcher’s standpoint, the dude is old.

However, he carved up the Braves lineup like he was Tim Lincecum, enroute to a 7-0 victory in the series opener.

At age 47, he is the oldest player in Major League history to toss a shutout.

While, Moyer steamrolled through the Braves lineup, it didn’t come as a surprise to me.

I knew the Braves were in trouble from the moment I took my seat, in the first row nonetheless, and heard the starting lineup announced.

This is how it read:

Omar Infante

Martin Prado

Chipper Jones

Troy Glaus

Matt Diaz

David Ross

Melky Cabrera

Nate McLouth

Derek Lowe

Yikes.

The first thought that ran through my head after hearing our starting nine was—”Who are these Braves?”

I didn’t mean it in a literal sense.

Of course I know who these guys are and what their different roles are with the club.

I meant it more figuratively—and, symbolically.

The Braves are unrecognizable these days.

Sure, missing on this night due to various injuries or ailments were the team’s regular cleanup hitter Brian McCann, along with their dynamic shortstop Yunel Escobar, and the phenom himself, rookie sensation Jason Heyward.

But still, these are not the Braves that fans, management and the league had all grown accustomed to over the years.

While the names on the back of their jerseys had to change and players moved on or retired, the aura of excellence and swagger that this team use to possess is gone.

The Braves, who use to be one of the elite teams in baseball, are now spitting mediocrity like any average major league club.

Although, on paper, it looks even worse.

Atlanta has performed below average as of late becoming victims of their sputtering offense and numerous injuries, which has them dwelling in the cellar of the National League East.

When I left the ballpark Friday night, I took comfort in knowing that the Braves are not this bad.

They have serious issues that go far beyond their injuries, but they are not the hopeless cause they appear to be on the field.

However, it doesn’t make them any easier to watch right now.

When it was reported that the Braves clubhouse resembled a morgue after Friday’s embarrassing defeat, I was not surprised.

The Braves are their own harshest critics.

They know how bad they are right now.

But, they also know they can and will get better.

A small beacon of hope emerged on Saturday afternoon when the Braves snatched a victory out of the jaws of defeat.

Atlanta was getting no-hit, yet again, through four innings against Phillies hurler Joe Blanton and trailed 1-0 after five.

In the sixth, the Braves bats woke up and Atlanta rallied for three runs against Blanton, and added an insurance in the ninth after Troy Glaus’ RBI single.

There were many positives to take from this game besides the “W”.

The Braves pitching was excellent, top to bottom.

Kris Medlen, who was called upon from the bullpen to make the start for the injured Jair Jurrjens, gutted through 4 1/3 innings, allowing only a single run.

Medlen pitched out of numerous big jams, one of which came in the bottom of the third, when he struck out Ryan Howard and got Jayson Werth to hit into an inning-ending double play.

Following Medlen were six relievers who combined to shutout the Phillies the rest of the way, allowing Atlanta’s offense the time to rally to secure the 4-1 victory.

The Braves bullpen has been the unsung hero for the team so far this season.

They have been nothing short of brilliant.

What is unfortunate is due to the Braves prolonged woes with the bats, Atlanta hasn’t been afforded the luxury of having a deep bullpen.

It doesn’t do a team any good to have a lights-out setup man and closer when they can’t get the ball to them with a lead.

But, what is reassuring is that when the Braves right the ship from an offensive standpoint, they have a strong bullpen to fall back on and depend on.

A reliable bullpen is an asset that many contending teams lack so Atlanta should feel so fortunate.

The Braves tapped Kenshin Kawakami to start the rubber game of the series against Phillies starter Cole Hamels.

It was an ugly beginning for the winless Kawakami.

He staked the Phillies to an early 4-0 lead before finding his groove in the later innings.

With the Braves rallying to within one, Kawakami didn’t allow another run until Shane Victorino’s solo home run in the bottom of the 7th inning sealed his and Atlanta’s fate.

For the day, Kawakami allowed five runs and seven hits in 6-2/3 innings pitched.

While it was the first time he pitched into the six inning all season long, he still suffered his sixth loss of the season.

For the Braves, they have now lost five of six road series, and dropped two of three from Washington and Philadelphia on this current nine-game road stretch that concludes with a trip to Milwaukee that begins Monday night.

Offensively, they have only mustered a .211 average over their past 17 road games.

After witnessing their performance in person, I offer you my observations of their offensive woes and some suggestions on how to fix them:

1) No game plan: It seems many of these hitters come to bat with no approach.

I am watching too many guys swinging at first pitches and I’ve come away with a general sense of a far too aggressive, almost reckless approach at the plate.

I am not seeing enough plate discipline, which is resulting in too many frequent short at-bats and quick innings for opposing pitchers.

The Braves hitters aren’t working counts and they aren’t executing the fundamentals in run producing situations.

They are also not advancing guys when their are runners on first and second with less than two outs, which is a crippling rally killer.

I’m also not seeing enough sacrifice bunts, hit-and-runs, sacrifice flies, and contact hitting with runners on base.

This team strikes out too much and runners are stranded left and right.

As a result, the team squanders far too many scoring chances and wastes the opportunities they do generate.

2) Listless at Leadoff: The Braves have no answer at the leadoff spot, that much is crystal clear.

Cox has toyed with too many different guys in the leadoff spot, and now I feel that’s creating more harm than good.

In the Phillies series alone, both Omar Infante and Nate McLouth served as the leadoff hitter. Yunel Escobar has also seen time at that spot throughout the early portion of the season before going down with an injury.

Consistency can serve a team well.

And, it might also spark one of these guys to get going.

It is hard to produce when a player isn’t comfortable at the plate and comfortable in their role.

It is important that Cox make a decision about the leadoff spot and stick with it, at least for the immediate future, or until a replacement is brought in.

This patch quilt attempt to find his answer at the top of the order hasn’t been working.

It’s time to commit to a change.

3) Lineup Roulette: To go along with my observation and suggestion for the leadoff spot, I offer a similar approach be taken with the overall lineup construction.

While a certain good can come from juggling a lineup to find a formula that works, too much maneuvering can become chaotic.

Too many of the Braves hitters are struggling to find their stroke right now that moving them up and down in the order isn’t serving much of a purpose at this time.

Case in point—If you take a look at Sunday’s starting lineup excluding the pitcher, the Braves had three players in Matt Diaz, Brooks Conrad, and Nate McLouth who were hitting below .200.

Cox might find that settling with one lineup combination over the next couple of weeks could prevent the guys from pressing any further and allow them to relax into their defined spots.

While this is a unique circumstance because the Braves are subbing many players into the starting lineup due to injuries, the message I feel remains the same.

When this team gets healthy, they still need consistency in the lineup, beginning at the leadoff spot.

From there, the Braves can see what they have to work with and what moves they need to make from the outside to fix this mess.

The end of the downward spiral begins with a baby step.

It is time for Cox and these Braves to take the first one.

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28
Apr
10

Atlanta Braves in midst of downward spiral as losing streak reaches seven

Watching the Atlanta Braves these days is like pulling teeth…no pun intended.

As I recover from mouth surgery this week and try to figure out just what has happened to the Braves, I can’t help but remain flabbergasted by their sudden and shocking downward spiral.

After experiencing one of the most exhilarating wins in franchise history over the Phillies on April 20, the Braves now find themselves in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, in which their offense has plummeted to new, disturbing lows.

I wrote a blog a couple weeks back about seeing signs of concern, or cracks in the armor, in Atlanta’s batting corps.

While, I also discussed the importance of not panicking too soon in the early going, my fears have proven to be right, and this team is getting dangerously close to digging itself a hole that may be too deep to overcome later.

I’m less bothered by the consecutive losses (the Braves aren’t THIS bad folks), and they will find a way to stop the bleeding.

But, in what appears to be a competitive and improved division from top to bottom, the Braves don’t have much longer to fix what ails them.

So, just what and where has it all gone wrong for Atlanta?

I’m about to throw out some stats, but I caution, these numbers are not for the faint of heart.

* The Braves’ current seven-game skid is their longest since 2006.

* Their leadoff woes have reached record heights, or should I say, record lows: As recently as April 26, the Braves were hitting a Major League-worst .091 at the top of the order.

The major league average is .252.

YIKES.

Detroit, in the meantime, who beat out Atlanta for Johnny Damon’s services, was hitting .323 with Damon atop its order.

(Insert salt in wound.)

The Braves will wrestle with issues at the top of their order all season long unless they can trade for a prototypical leadoff hitter.

Where they will find him, I don’t know just yet, but hoping that Nate McLouth or Yunel Escobar (who Bobby Cox has recently experimented with atop the order) will be the answer is naive and without merit.

Neither is the answer, and sadly, neither is anyone else currently in a Braves uniform.

That’s the cold, hard truth, boys. It’s time to fix this longstanding issue now, out of house.

* Troy Glaus isn’t just bad—he’s detrimental to the team and to my health.

Speaking of sickly, that would be a fair assessment of Glaus’ numbers so far this season.

He is batting a miserable .200 on the season and an even worse .133 (4-for-30) with two RBI, four walks, and 12 strikeouts in nine home games at Turner Field.

Magnifying the problem is that, statistically, Glaus has his best months in April and May.

So, this may be as good as it gets for the Braves’ veteran first baseman.

(Insert sarcasm.)

* Rookie phenom Jason Heyward is battling his first slump of the season.

Granted, I’ve cautioned Braves fans over and over not to expect Heyward to be Superman all season long, and Atlanta’s ultimate saving grace.

He is no doubt a special kid and will figure prominently in the team’s success this season and beyond, but he is, after all, 20 years old.

And, there are going to be rough spots along the way and adjustments that he will need to make.

The scrutiny he is facing is unquestionably intensified because of the team’s overall struggles with the bat right now.

Still, Heyward has hit that first rough patch of his young career.

Since hitting .429 with two homers and seven RBI in a six-game stretch through April 16, Heyward was since batting just .103 with four RBI and 12 strikeouts before last night’s contest.

The cause?

Cox feels his young rookie is taking way too many pitches.

While Heyward has often been praised for displaying great plate discipline, it seems he may have taken it to an extreme.

The result?

He’s taking too many pitches for strikes and has since only seen one pitch an at-bat to swing at.

Not to worry, J-Hey will adhere to his manager’s advice and he will be just fine.

* To reiterate, just how bad is this offense as a whole?

Before dropping another game to the Cardinals last night, Atlanta entered Tuesday’s game with a lowly .229 average with nine runs and NO home runs during its six-game skid.

That skid has now been extended to seven, and it is unacceptable.

The Braves have also blown two early, multi-run leads in their past two games against St. Louis.

The lone positive in their otherwise disturbing tailspin is the fact that the club is still getting quality starts from its rotation on a nightly basis.

That fact is encouraging and makes you believe the Braves may not be a lost cause after all.

The bottom line, though, is that the offense’s inability to provide sufficient run support has ruined some beautifully pitched ball games and has zapped any confidence the team has exuded as a result of their starting staff.

While my issues with many holes in the Braves lineup remain, it is still safe to say that some of these players, like Yunel Escobar, for example, have yet to hit their stride.

With time, that will come.

My main concern is that this slump will become mental.

Atlanta looks as if they are battling through a case of the “yips” right now, and it is only a matter of time before that psychological issue can snowball on a team’s season.

If the Braves start expecting the worst, they will in turn play not to lose instead of playing to win.

The worst thing the Braves can do right now is to play conservatively. They must take an aggressive approach and literally hit, or hopefully smash, their way out of this rut.

But I digress.

It is now time for you to weigh in.

Can the Braves be saved—and, how would you fix them?

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21
Apr
10

Braves stun Phils with improbable comeback win

Just call him Nate McClutch.

The Braves center fielder, who was hitting a mere .138 with just one RBI all season, sure picked a good time to break out of his slump.

McLouth hit a leadoff 10th-inning solo blast against Jose Contreras to cap Atlanta’s stunning comeback 4-3 win over division rival Philadelphia.

The Braves have now won five of their last six games and find themselves in a first-place tie with the Phillies atop the National League East standings.

For McLouth, his heroics couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.

This is the first walk-off home run he’s recorded at any level of ball he’s played in, from Little League up to the Majors.

McLouth got a chance to be a hero in the 10th thanks to back-to-back two out homers from Troy Glaus and Jason Heyward in the bottom of the ninth.

The Braves may have enjoyed other improbable comeback wins in the past, but this stunning turnaround is one of the most unpredictable and character building victories in team history.

For 8 2/3 innings, Atlanta only managed four hits and was an out away from being shutout.

Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick, who was sporting an ugly 17.47 ERA this season, put the Braves offense on the defensive.

This isn’t the first time struggling pitchers have faced the Braves lineup and left the game looking like Cy Young.

The difference now is that this team didn’t fold.

Kendrick handed the ball to Ryan Madson in the ninth, who is filling in for the injured Brad Lidge at closer, and suddenly the Braves found new life.

Madson walked Chipper Jones with one out and then retired Brian McCann, which brought Troy Glaus to the plate.

The Braves fans’ new whipping boy, who again was the target of the hometown faithful’s wrath after committing a costly error earlier in the game, couldn’t possibly come through with two outs—could he?

He did.

Glaus smashed a two-run blast, sending a jolt through Turner Field and giving the Braves a sliver of hope.

While still down a run, the Braves turned to their No. 6 hitter in the lineup to keep the game alive.

On a normal night, that would be Yunel Escobar.

But, not on this night.

No, on this night, Bobby Cox adhered to the ongoing chatter of moving rookie stud Jason Heyward up from the seventh spot in the lineup.

So, there he was, “Joltin’ Jason” as some are now calling him—with a chance to tie the game, again.

If you remember, Heyward was the hero in Sunday’s come-from-behind win over the Rockies with a two-out, bases loaded single in the ninth.

No way he does it again, does he?

He does.

Heyward’s shot heard ’round the world tied the game and made Cox look like a managerial genius again.

From there, pandemonium ensued.

Jason Heyward found himself in the middle of two unlikely heroes.

Who would have thought Troy Glaus and Nate McLouth would deliver late-inning home runs, when they’ve been the subject of boos and ridicule all season long?

And, with each passing day, the legend that is the “J-Hey Kid” grows even larger.

For two straight games, the 20-year-old sensation has helped usher the Braves to back-to-back comeback victories.

He leads all major league rookies in home runs (four) and RBIs (16) by a large margin.

But, Heyward’s impact on the Braves is not just all in the numbers.

The electricity that he’s brought to the table has lit a fire under the entire team and has them playing their most inspired and exciting baseball since, well, 1991.

Yes, the year the Braves went from worst-to-first in their division and came within one win of being crowned World Champions.

That year began the rich, glory days of excellence that Atlanta had then enjoyed for 14 consecutive seasons.

But, that competitiveness and winning attitude that has been missing since 2006, appears to finally be resurfacing.

As I said yesterday, the Phillies know all too well what a young, rising superstar can bring to the clubhouse.

What Howard did for the Phillies when he came on the scene in 2005 is what Heyward is doing for the Braves in 2010.

Howard began a new era of winning baseball in Philadelphia.

And, now it seems Heyward is bringing that mantra back to Atlanta.

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14
Apr
10

Paging the Braves offense: We still have a problem

It would be easy to look at Monday’s ugly 17-2 loss to the Padres and panic.

But, I won’t.

Every team over the course of a long 162-game season endures an embarrassing and lopsided loss.

It just happens.

There is often no rhyme or reason as to why, but on any given night a pitcher’s poor misfortune is an offense’s playground. For Jair Jurrjens and the Atlanta Braves, that night was Monday. They were such victims of the Padres shelling at Petco Park for San Diego’s home opener.

Personally, I am just happy the Braves got their whooping out of the way in April.

Amen.

But, what’s more alarming to me is Atlanta’s proclaimed “improved” offense’s collective showing since their 16-run outburst on Opening Day against the Cubs.

I realize we are only seven games into the season, and it’s a tad early to raise the red flag, but warning signs are definitely already apparent in the Braves lineup.

Let’s take a closer look:

Lackluster at lead off : Melky Cabrera, Atlanta’s off-season “answer” for atop the batting order, is hitting a dismal .103.

If the Braves’ table setter isn’t getting on-base and creating scoring opportunities and subsequent mayhem on the base paths, the entire order is going to suffer considerably.

And so far, it has.

Middle-of-the-order misery : Free agent signee Troy Glaus, who has hit fifth in Atlanta’s order thus far, has yet to record an extra-base hit, while only batting .231.

If you factor in Glaus’s seven strikeouts and inability to produce with runners in scoring position, the magnitude of his struggles intensify.

Still in Spring Training mode : Nate McLouth had a very poor and public Spring Training.

His .118 average in Grapefruit League games warranted extra at-bats at the Minor League level while still in camp.

The season is now underway and McLouth is hitting .118 so far in games that matter.

It seems his Spring Training hiccups have transitioned into April.

So, while Atlanta exploded for 16 runs on Opening Day, they’ve managed just 19 runs in six games since.

Ouch.

In spite of those troublesome numbers, there have been a few positives for the Braves batting corps this season.

Martin Prado, I repeat, Martin Prado leads the National League in hitting.

Yes, that is correct. No typo here.

Brian McCann is quietly going about his usual business boasting a .300 average.

And, Chipper Jones has produced when he’s been in the lineup.

The key word in that sentence is: when.

Jones has already battled a strained oblique and back in the early going this season, and his health and ability to stay in the lineup will figure prominently in the success of the Braves this season.

Following Tuesday’s off-day, the Braves are hitting just .230 as a team.

With the exception of Monday’s blowout loss, Atlanta has again enjoyed strong pitching from its starters.

It is easy to see many similarities and make comparisons between this year’s squad and last year’s group.

What the Braves have to do to prevent their lineup’s woes from snowballing over the course of the season is to make adjustments now and to regain the improved plate discipline that made headlines during Spring Training.

If the offense continues to sputter, Cox could look to juggle the batting order.

Glaus could be moved down and Escobar and Heyward could be moved up.

And, while I might disagree, I can’t imagine Cox putting his 20-year-old rookie into high pressured RBI situations so early into the season and his Major League career.

Only time will tell if the Braves are just getting off to their very typical April slow start, or if this lineup is in serious need of restructuring.

But, if the first week is any indication, it looks like Atlanta’s offense still has a problem.

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06
Apr
10

Heyward steals show on Opening Day

He’s arrived.

The bigger the stage, the higher the expectations, the larger the results.

After smashing a tie-breaking, three-run home run in his first major league at-bat off Chicago Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano, the legend that is Jason Heyward just grew a little bit larger.

In front of a record crowd of 53,081, the fourth-largest crowd in Turner Field history and biggest day crowd in Atlanta Braves history, chanting, “Let’s go Hey-ward!  Let’s go Hey-ward!” the young phenom delivered a bomb, sending an already raucous crowd into an even bigger frenzy.

It was the first swing of Heyward’s major league career and it landed in the Braves bullpen beyond right field at a jaw-dropping distance of 446 feet.

Zeus, is that you sporting No. 22?

The gifted and talented 20-year-old began writing the first page of his legacy yesterday all the while, stealing the show on Opening Day.

Heyward ended the afternoon with two hits and four RBI, aiding in Atlanta’s 16-5 pounding of the Chicago Cubs.

Yunel Escobar powered in 5 runs for the Braves and Nate McLouth made a couple of flashy defensive plays in Atlanta’s victory.

However, much like its been all spring, the day and the spotlight belonged to Heyward.

J-Hey got a huge ovation from the Atlanta faithful as he was circling the bases following his dinger, and another when he trotted to his right field position the next inning.

Turner Field hasn’t been this electric in years, if ever.

While, the outpouring of crowd support is welcoming to a club hoping to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2005, the players only hope the fans will sustain it.

As Heyward’s legend continues to grow larger with each passing day, Atlanta’s rejuvenated fanbase looks to follow suit.

But the fans aren’t the only ones enthralled with the power-hitting rookie.

His teammates and even home run king Hank Aaron’s eyes are on the sensational marvel that is Jason Heyward.

Baseball’s home run king threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Heyward, in what many surmised as the passing of the torch.

It took less time for Heyward’s first blast to travel over the bullpen wall than for the comparisons between the two to pick up steam and hold more merit.

It was a symbolic start to what promises to be a career for the ages for Atlanta’s new superhero.

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05
Apr
10

Atlanta Braves: 2010 Season Preview

It’s that time of year again… Major League Baseball Opening Day.

Today, hope springs eternal for all baseball enthusiasts as every team starts with a fresh slate as the 162-game marathon officially gets underway.

For Braves fans, this is the first year since the team’s past four October-less seasons, where there is a true sense of optimism surrounding Atlanta’s chances of returning to the postseason.

Last year, the Braves made an improbable late run at the National League Wild Card and stayed in contention for the spot until the final few games.

The remarkable turn of events had fans and the media buzzing about the “return” of the Atlanta Braves.

After an offseason in which the club decided to re-sign Tim Hudson and trade Javier Vazquez, add Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito to the back end of the bullpen, sign Troy Glaus to serve as the team’s new first baseman while penciling in No. 1 prospect Jason Heyward in right field, the pre-season hype about the Braves seems legitimate.

Many preseason national pundits have predicted the Braves to indeed make the playoffs in 2010, offering a sense of excitement around the team’s loyalists.

It is no secret that this team has something to play for.

Iconic manager Bobby Cox is in his final year at the helm, and his players desperately want to send their skipper out on a high note.

However, the “win one for Bobby” mantra will only get this group so far.

And, they know it.

While, the players have added incentive and extra motivation to win which may serve them well in the dog days of summer, the talent also appears to be in place for Atlanta to once again taste October glory.

Chipper Jones believes this Braves club could win 90 games, if they stay healthy.

And, it is easy to see why.

Despite the loss of Javier Vazquez, Atlanta’s returning starting rotation comprised of Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Kenshin Kawakami still figures to be one of baseball’s best.

Lowe looks to rebound from one of his most disappointing seasons in 2009.

Yet, despite an uncharacteristically high 4.67 ERA, D-Lowe still won 15 games for the Braves last year, which tied him with Vazquez for the team lead in wins.

Jurrjens has established himself as one of baseball’s best young hurlers, finishing last season with a 2.60 ERA, third-best among National League starters.

Hanson made his highly anticipated rookie debut in June and went on to win 11 games last year, which was good enough for a third-place finish in the 2009 Rookie of the Year balloting.

Atlanta’s top pitching prospect is more seasoned and mature heading into Opening Day, and the Braves rotation stands to benefit greatly from getting a full year out of Hanson in 2010.

Japanese standout Kawakami won 7 games in his rookie season in the U.S. for Atlanta last year, but proved he could go up against any elite starter, besting some of baseball’s top aces last season, including countryman Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Kawakami figures to improve upon those numbers this season, as he has now grown increasingly comfortable with the pitching style in the states and has made the necessary adjustments this spring.

The Braves also boast an improved bullpen this season.

Atlanta added one of the game’s best closers in Billy Wagner to replace last season’s dual closers Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez.

Takashi Saito was also brought in as a set-up man to Wagner, but his wealth of prior closing experience gives the Braves great depth late in games this season.

Atlanta’s offense, which undoubtedly derailed the team’s postseason aspirations last year, seems to have at least been marginally improved.

The Braves’ additions of Troy Glaus, Melky Cabrera and Eric Hinske this off-season along with the emergence of Jason Heyward gives Atlanta a more well-rounded and deep batting corps than last year’s group.

The team still lacks a prototypical “big bopper” on paper, but with Glaus serving as the team’s clean-up hitter, protecting both Chipper Jones and Brian McCann, the pieces are in place for a solid middle of the order unit.

That is, of course, if all prove to stay healthy.

The key to Atlanta’s success will be if Glaus, Jones and McCann, who are all overcoming past health concerns, can stay on the field and out of the trainer’s room.

Jones, a future Hall of Famer, is expected to rebound from his career-worst season at the plate in 2009.

McCann, who was slowed early last season by vision problems, should benefit from his second Lasik eye procedure this winter.

The wild card for the success of the Braves offense is whether Jason Heyward can make an immediate and profound impact at the Major League level.

There is no doubt J-Hey is the real deal.

The question is: Can he can serve as a consistent force in the Braves lineup and help power what last season was an often punchless offense?

With the additions of the switch-hitting Melky Cabrera and super utility man Eric Hinske, the Braves are afforded a great deal of versatility this season.

Cabrera will likely serve as the team’s leadoff hitter when he plays and can man left or center field, depending on the pitching matchup and Cox’s preference of playing Matt Diaz or Nate McLouth at the other spot.

I believe Chipper said it best, in terms of assessing the team’s lineup in 2010.

This offense is not “sexy,” but it is balanced top to bottom.

There are no easy outs, and if a player does go down, there are veterans with experience and depth who can step right in and contribute immediately and effectively.

Moreover, the Braves are a more confident and a much more cohesive unit then they’ve been in years.

The club has always enjoyed a great deal of chemistry over the years, especially during their run of 14 consecutive division titles, but never before have the personalities meshed quite like this year’s troops.

Chipper Jones and Tim Hudson credit the closeness and camaraderie among this bunch as a significant intangible that can’t be overlooked.

They’re right.

How often do you see a team stacked with superstars top to bottom but the egos couldn’t play together and the success on paper never quite translated to the field?

To build a winning roster, you need a group that is talented, versatile and that can compliment each other well.

That’s the makings of a true “team.”

The Braves are far from the most talented group assembled on paper in the Majors, and they aren’t even the cream of the crop in their own division.

However, funny things happen over the course of a marathon season.

Legends are made, heroes emerges and storylines develop.

I can’t help but think that Jason Heyward could be that legend and that any number of heroes could stand up to help cement the greatest storyline of the year sending Bobby Cox out as a winner.

Oh, the beauty of Opening Day…where no dream is too big.

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