Posts Tagged ‘National League Wild Card

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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23
Sep
09

Cox set to retire as Braves manager after 2010 season.

Bobby Cox

Bobby Cox

It’s official.

Bobby Cox will retire as manager of the Atlanta Braves at the end of the 2010 season.

There has been much speculation in recent days about Cox’s future with the team, and today he finally went public with his decision.

The iconic Braves manager inked a one-year extension with Atlanta, ensuring he will remain in his current role with the club for the 2010 season before relinquishing his managerial duties.

At the conclusion of the 2010 season, Cox will step aside and begin the first year in a five-year consulting agreement where he will serve in an advisory role with the Braves.

Reports have surfaced as of late that the relationship between Cox and Braves general manager Frank Wren has been strained.

Gordon Edes of Yahoo! Sports reported that Cox was so upset with Wren for not being included in personnel talks and at the way John Smoltz’s departure from the team was handled this spring that he threatened to leave spring training before being talked out of it by a fellow coach.

Wren and Cox have both since denied the report, while Edes is sticking by his claims.

Whether there is any truth stemming from this report or not, it has gotten the baseball world buzzing that if indeed there was friction between the Braves GM and manager, Cox might decide to call it quits after this season.

That has not proven to be the case with today’s announcement, which I am sure both Wren and Cox are hoping will quell talk of a feud between them.

Cox, 68, will go down in history as one of baseball’s most esteemed and accomplished managers.

He has been a part of the Atlanta Braves organization for nearly 30 years. His tenure with Atlanta began in 1978 before he left to manage the Toronto Blue Jays in 1982. He later re-joined the Braves in 1985, where he served as general manager of the club until 1990, when he moved back into the dugout to resume his role as the team’s skipper.

While serving as GM, Cox was instrumental in the drafting of Atlanta’s legendary third baseman Chipper Jones with the first overall pick in the 1990 draft. Cox is the only manager Jones has ever played for, and the two have forged quite a strong bond over the years.

When Cox started his second run as Braves manager, he helped lead the team to an unprecedented 14 consecutive division titles, five National League pennants, and a World Championship in 1995.

Cox has won the Manager of the Year Award four times (1985, 1991, 2004, and 2005) and is one of only four managers to have won the prestigious award in both the National and American League.

He is also the winningest manager in franchise history, and his 2,408 career wins currently rank him fourth on baseball’s all-time managerial wins list and second among active managers.

Finding Cox’s replacement will be a daunting task for the Braves, but having the luxury of time will surely help the team ease the players and fans into the transition.

While the future of the Atlanta Braves remains up in the air, one thing is certain: The Braves’ beloved manager hopes to go out on a high note.

Atlanta has rebounded from a 90-loss season in 2008 and has put itself in the thick of the National League Wild Card race with only a few weeks left to play.

The Braves find themselves only five games back of the Wild Card-leading Rockies, but they are no longer in control of their own fate. They will need to pretty much run the table from here on out and hope for a Colorado collapse if they are to make it into the postseason.

While that scenario remains unlikely, the Braves’ surprising turnaround is sure to have been a strong factor in Cox’s decision to return.

The affable player’s manager is sure to have his troops playing hard for him in 2010 in an effort to get Cox back to the playoffs and give him the chance at one more taste of championship glory.

03
Aug
09

The state of the Braves… post trade deadline.

Adam LaRoche returns to Atlanta

Adam LaRoche returns to Atlanta

The July 31 non-waiver trade deadline has come and gone leaving many in Braves Nation wondering, does this team have the horses to be legitimate contenders for a playoff spot heading down the stretch?

Before Monday night’s game against the San Diego Padres, the Braves find themselves in third place in the National League East, seven games behind first place Philadelphia. While the division remains a lofty goal for Atlanta, it is certainly not out of reach.

The Braves have dominated the defending champions this season winning seven of nine games against them. The Bravos overwhelming success against the Fightin’ Phils coupled with the fact that the two rivals are still scheduled to meet nine more times before the season concludes, offers a definite sense of hope.

Still, Philadelphia has been riding a hot streak since the All-Star Break and with the addition of a bona fide ace to their rotation in Cliff Lee, the division does appear to be a long shot.

That means Atlanta’s best chance of playing October baseball will likely be if the team nabs the National League Wild Card.

The Braves are only five games out of the Wild Card spot but are chasing four teams, including the Florida Marlins, another divisional foe.

So, are the Braves contenders or pretenders?

With a starting rotation that ranked third in the National League heading into Sunday night’s game against the Dodgers, and a revamped line-up which has improved on the dearth of power that has plagued the team all season long, the Braves seem poised to make a run.

In July, the Braves manufactured an NL-best .828 OPS and ranked third in both runs (139) and home runs (32). That production is a stark contrast from an inconsistent and often shoddy offensive showing from the team in the season’s first three months.

The Braves also feel their mid-season acquisitions of Nate McLouth and Adam LaRoche give the club a more potent offensive punch going forward.

McLouth has been a stabilizing force in the lead-off spot, allowing the rest of the line-up to gel and settle into their roles.

LaRoche, who played for Atlanta through the 2006 season, knows the organization well and has statistically performed big in the second half of the season.

While LaRoche’s career .252 batting average leaves something to be desired, his .295 average after the All-Star break combined with his impending free agency, are reasons why the Braves decided to re-acquire their former slick fielding first baseman.

The improved offense stands to benefit what has been a solid, but often under-appreciated Braves pitching staff.

A rotation comprised of Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Javier Vazquez, Kenshin Kawakami, and rookie sensation Tommy Hanson could go up against any rotation in baseball.

And, in the coming weeks, the Braves staff looks to get that much stronger and deeper with the return of Tim Hudson from Tommy John surgery.

The Braves bullpen boasts three relievers in the top six in appearances in Peter Moylan (58), Mike Gonzalez (53) and Eric O’Flaherty (43).

While the back of the bullpen has held up thus far, the team wouldn’t mind adding another arm to the mix for the stretch run.

Any reliever acquired would have to pass through waivers, sometimes making it harder for a team to complete a deal, although the Braves are still exploring any and all options.

If the Braves could indeed bolster their bullpen, that fresh arm could provide added security to what could otherwise become an overexposed relief corps.

So, again, the question looms… contenders or pretenders?

The Braves have given every indication, on the field and off, that they are poised, confident and ready to compete for a playoff spot.

It was the team’s consistently strong starting pitching that has kept them afloat early in the season and it will be the team’s starting pitching that will give them their best shot at October.

One can never have enough pitching. Good pitching beats good hitting. These age old adages have been proven true time and time again and are the main reason why the Braves were able to win fourteen consecutive division titles.

With that being said… do the Braves still have holes?

Absolutely.

But, so does every team.

And, this team’s holes have become increasingly less glaring.

So, buckle up Braves fans. It’s going to be a wild ride to the finish.




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