Posts Tagged ‘Tommy Hanson

22
Feb
12

Hope springs eternal: The Braves are back to right wrongs

Pitchers and catchers are in camp and the Braves’ spring workouts have commenced.

This year in particular, players were itching to get to camp to erase the dubious end to their now infamous and tragic 2011 meltdown. What’s encouraging to note is that a majority of position players have arrived early to camp and have begun their workouts, poised and more determined than ever to start fresh in 2012.

Unlike the Boston Red Sox, who also suffered a monumental collapse to their season in 2011, the Braves chose to not play the blame game — for that, they should be applauded.

Whether you agree with General Manager Frank Wren’s decision to keep his roster almost entirely intact, you have to respect that a knee-jerk reaction did not take place in Atlanta.

Sure, the Braves embarrassed themselves to a lowly 8-18 record after September 1 and squandered a seemingly insurmountable 10 1/2 game lead in the NL Wild Card to the eventual World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.

What’s unfair to the Braves is that they are being judged and evaluated solely on how they finished their season in shame. While it’s without question, inexcusable — they’ve been punished enough.

Let’s not forget that this same team that Frank Wren is returning in 2012 had the fourth-best record in the majors through the first week in September.

The Braves suffered the loss of two of their best starting pitchers Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson for most of the second half. Jason Heyward’s sophomore season was a colossal disappointment and Dan Uggla didn’t find his stroke until after the All-Star break.

They watched two of their perennially clutch performers, Brian McCann and Martin Prado, rush back from injuries in the late summer months but never quite hit their stride down the stretch.

Most alarming of all, the Braves’ greatest strength — O’Ventbrel — the triple threat of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Rookie of the Year closer Craig Kimbrel at the back end of the bullpen, faltered mightily down the stretch. The threesome posted a remarkable 60-3 record when leading after 7 innings from April-August before going 7-5 in September. They also saw their ERA rise from a collective 3.34 to an inflated 4.17 in the season’s final month, according to Jayson Stark of ESPN.com.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez received a lot of criticism for the overuse of his bullpen after the Braves narrowly missed the playoffs on baseball’s final day. Jonny “Everyday” Venters earned his nickname, being called upon a Major League-high 85 times in 2011. Kimbrel’s 79 appearances were more than any other closer in baseball.

While the second-guessing is surely warranted, the Braves did partake in 55 one-run games, which was tied with the San Francisco Giants for most by any National League team with a winning record, Stark reported. They also played in 26 extra-inning games, which took an even greater toll on their relief corps.

It’s almost incredulous to reflect upon the Braves’ final month of the season — and how everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

This team didn’t have the character issues or the dissention in the locker room that the Red Sox had. In fact, it was the exact opposite. The Braves possess one of the most harmonious clubhouses in baseball. They are a tight-knit group that never pointed fingers and placed blame on each other. They took their lumps as one collective group and exuded tremendous class and dignity in defeat.

I don’t doubt Frank Wren wanted to improve his club, if the right deal came along. But I also think he was right not to panic because he has given his troops an invaluable gift — confidence.

It’s early but players have seemingly come into camp with a positive outlook and a renewed sense of hope and optimism. They also have something to prove to themselves and the rest of the league — that last year was an aberration and that they’ve learned from it.

Jason Heyward is reportedly in fantastic shape, having shed over 20 pounds this winter. He’s worked tirelessly with new hitting coach Greg Walker this offseason in an effort to revamp his swing. The early results have been lauded by his teammates, who claim Heyward has begun to regain his old form and power.

Jair Jurrjens was fitted for orthotics after a troublesome toe contributed to his knee discomfort. Now Jurrjens claims to feel better physically than he has in months and doesn’t appear to have any limitations this spring.

Tim Hudson underwent back surgery this offseason and his recovery is going smoothly. Hudson won’t be rushed back to the rotation and his projected timetable for return is May. The Braves will turn to one of their many talented young arms to pick up the slack in Hudson’s absence.

Tommy Hanson suffered a minor concussion after blowing his tires on the way to the Braves’ Spring Training facility. He shouldn’t fall behind the other pitchers, even taking a few days offs, since he began his throwing program early this offseason.

Hanson altered his delivery in an effort to take pressure off his balky shoulder and back and also to limit the number of stolen bases against him in 2012. Hanson allowed a major-league leading 30 steals in 22 starts before being shut down for the season.

The Braves attribute a lot of last season’s late struggles to an injury-depleted rotation, an overworked bullpen and atypical performances from their biggest sluggers. If their arms stay healthy, their bullpen rested and they see a resurgence from some players who had poor years, they’ll be able to contend with the rest of the very competitive National League East.

There are a lot of questions and ‘what if’s’ surrounding the Atlanta Braves this season, but there is no shortage of talent and potential.  They may be receiving criticism for not being proactive, but sometimes the answers really do lie within one’s own roster.

It’ll become apparent quite early if Wren’s decision to give this group another go together was best in the long-run. I believe the Braves deserve the chance to right their wrongs in 2012, and hopefully write a storybook ending in the process.

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18
Nov
11

Braves’ offseason full of questions… what’s next?

Will Prado return to the Braves in 2012?

The Braves franchise is known as an illustrious one — rich with accolades, adornment and achievement.

Surely, adding a colossal, historic collapse to their resume of excellence wasn’t part of their master plan. Before the 2011 season, a team who had an eight-game lead for a postseason berth in early September has never missed the playoffs. Luckily for Atlanta, Boston suffered the same unfortunate fate this year and shared a good portion of the criticism and ridicule by fans and media alike.

Needless to say, the Braves’ failure to secure a playoff spot left a black mark on their legacy and a sour, bitter taste in the mouths of management, players, coaches and fans.

So, what’s next for Atlanta?

How does this team respond after such a traumatic, abrupt end to their 2011 season?

They fire their hitting coach, of course.

But all joking aside, that was 100% the right move — the only move — for the Braves to make whether the team made the playoffs or not.

Larry Parrish was not the right voice for these Braves hitters. While widely respected around the league for being a great baseball man, Parrish and his players suffered from a disconnect and lack of communication that couldn’t be bridged.

The popular sentiment around the league was that the Braves would turn to Triple-A Gwinnett hitting coach Jamie Dismuke to take over the reigns next season.

The majority of Braves sluggers, including Chipper Jones, endorsed Dismuke but the organization went an unconventional route.

Frank Wren hired not one but two men to tackle the job that Parrish had failed to master.

Wren tapped former White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker, as well as a former Colorado Rockies infield coordinator Scott Fletcher, in a newly created hybrid role of assistant hitting coach. The Braves believe this tandem will compliment each other well in an effort to improve the overall hitting philosophy within the team.

Walker comes highly recommend by slugger Paul Konerko for helping him to evolve into the hitter he is today.

Fletcher, meanwhile, will provide another set of eyes for Walker and is expected to work closely with Jason Heyward. While searching for their new hitting coach, the Braves emphasized the importance of finding a voice that could reach the struggling Heyward.

The “J-Hey Kid” is coming off a brutal sophomore slump of a season, but has surprising ties to his new assistant hitting coach. Fletcher has watched Heyward play since he was 12 years old — his son Brian, now in the Royals system, played youth ball with the Braves’ right fielder.

If Walker and Fletcher can serve as mentors to Heyward and help the fallen young star rediscover his stroke, the Braves’ offense will be substantially better in 2012.

Despite the team’s decision to fire Larry Parrish, the powers-that-be have made it clear that they are not panicking. There will be no fire sale this offseason. Management firmly believes they have the key pieces in place already to compete for a playoff spot next year.

It is important to remember that a big part of Atlanta’s struggles came down the stretch when the team’s exceptional pitching staff became unhinged. Officials are confident that Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens will return healthy next season.

The questions surrounding Jurrjens are not related to his health, however, but rather whether he will return to the Braves or not?

Speculation around the league and media fodder suggest that Jurrjens could be traded this offseason in an effort to improve Atlanta’s shoddy offense — they are seeking a power-hitting outfielder in any deal.

But, it would surely take an enticing package for the Braves to pull the trigger on a deal for Jurrjens because despite his injury-laden past, the right-hander is still young at age 25 and two years away from free agency. He would be quite valuable to many pitching hungry clubs.

While I’m sure the Braves would love to keep an arm like Jurrjens’ in the fold for the long-term, the reality of that is unlikely. Super agent Scott Boras, whose relationship with the Braves is acrimonious, represents Jurrjens and he will demand a hefty salary that the Braves will not pay.

And why should they?

Atlanta has never had a shortage of arms and this upcoming year is no different. The Braves tout a new crop of young, prized pitchers who could easily fill Jurrjens’ shoes, if the club does deem him expendable.

Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, Randall Delgado and Mike Minor have all gained experience at the Big League level due to the team’s rash of injuries last season — the lone upside during the Braves’ September slide. Kris Medlen also returned from Tommy John surgery late in the year and was effective in some high pressure situations.

The Braves felt so confident those guys will figure into the mix in 2012 that they dealt 38-year-old veteran hurler Derek Lowe to the Cleveland Indians.

This move was also a pure salary dump for Atlanta, who many believed would be stuck with Lowe’s entire contract in 2012. The Tribe absorbed $5 million of Lowe’s exorbitant $15 million dollar contract, giving the Braves some financial relief to sign a shortstop and pursue an outfielder.

For the second year in a row, Frank Wren entered the trade market early by dealing Derek Lowe. Last year, he acquired second baseman Dan Uggla from the Florida Marlins before the hot stove was even boiling.

The question that remains now is will the Braves stay relatively quiet for the duration of the offseason, like they did after trading for Uggla last year. Or, will they make a splash and deal Jurrjens and/or infielder turned left fielder Martin Prado?

Prado is the epitome of a super utility star. When the Braves gave him a chance to play everyday at second base in 2010, he thrived. But last season when the team moved him to left field to accommodate the Uggla trade, Prado and his production suffered.

At season’s end, a lot was made of Prado’s staph infection affecting his stroke and also rigorous Spring Training and early season pre-game workouts that might have burnt him out before the stretch run.

Will he get a chance to rebound in Atlanta or will it be elsewhere?

I think there’s a fairly good chance that Prado will get moved — a far greater likelihood than the team dealing Jurrjens, in my opinion.

However, I wouldn’t put too much stock into the Prado-for-Delmon Young rumors. The Braves don’t appear interested in Detroit’s Young and I don’t see Wren pulling the trigger on that deal straight-up. The Colorado Rockies are the newest team to express interest in Prado, but surely won’t be the last.

Still, Wren has expressed a willingness to listen to all offers this offseason — and who can blame him.

After last season’s heartbreaking conclusion, the Braves’ GM is exploring any and all ways he can ensure his team is never on the wrong side of history again.

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17
Nov
11

Braves face uncertain future after 2011 collapse

They say acceptance is the final stage of the grieving process. After one’s been in denial, gotten angry, spiraled into the depths of depression comes the “epiphany” — the moment when one must accept a harrowing loss so the healing process can begin.

For the most loyal of fans, the 2011 Atlanta Braves’ late season collapse very much mirrors the loss of a relationship that one holds dear. Many diehard Bravos’ supporters find themselves struggling to cope with what was such a bitter, excruciating, downright cruel end to what appeared to be such a promising season.

For the majority of the year, the Braves held one of the four best records in all of baseball. At the All-Star break, their sparkling starting rotation was led by All-Star Jair Jurrjens and All-Star snub Tommy Hanson — who helped lessen the load on an offense that struggled mightily all season and never quite found its stride.

Still, the infamous baseball adage claims that good pitching always beats good hitting. And, Atlanta’s hurlers were second to none.

The 2011 Braves started strong with Jurrjens and Hanson at the helm of a rotation that was also comprised of the ever consistent Tim Hudson, veteran Derek Lowe and one of the team’s biggest surprises — rookie Brandon Beachy. They also rolled out one of the most feared and vaunted bullpens in all of baseball. Atlanta’s relief corps were led by a three-headed monster, which was affectionately coined, “O’Ventbrel”. The talented trio of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny “Everyday” Venters and rookie baby-faced closer Craig Kimbrel set the Braves apart from the rest of the league and seemed destined to shine their brightest in October.

But, destiny and fate can often offer up cold, hard dishes of reality and that’s exactly what occurred in late-August and September for Atlanta.

The Braves held what looked to be an insurmountable lead in the NL Wild Card — a 10 1/2 game cushion over the St. Louis Cardinals on August 25. It would take a miraculous comeback by the Cardinals and an unforeseen, epic meltdown by Atlanta for these Bravos to not play postseason baseball.

The Red Birds went on to win 23 of their last 31 games and the Braves, well, you know the rest.

They returned from three idle days off following Hurricane Irene only to go 10-19 the rest of the way. But that’s only one scenario in which you’d drive yourself crazy asking, “what if”?

What if there was no hurricane?

What if Atlanta had won at least ONE game and avoided a sweep against St. Louis in early September?

What if Chipper Jones didn’t lose a ground ball in the lights at Florida?

But, alas, I digress.

The Braves could stew over all the unfortunate mishaps about the end of their 2011 season or they could use the embarrassing finish as fuel to come back better and with more heart, determination and resiliency than ever in 2012.

All excuses aside, the Braves did see their team besieged by injuries after the All-Star break.

The aforementioned Jurrjens and Hanson, who both factored so heavily into the team’s early success, were sidelined by injuries late in the season and remained out of commission for the club’s ill-fated stretch drive.

“O’Ventbrel” proved to be overworked, overused and overexposed by Fredi Gonzalez and the Braves coaching staff. The threesome showed signs of exhaustion from a heavy workload throughout the early portion of the season and faded down the stretch.

Venters led the NL with 85 appearances, Kimbrel was tied for third with 79, just ahead of his teammate O’Flaherty’s 78. To make matters worse — Kimbrel, the eventual and well-deserved 2011 NL Rookie of the Year, also surrendered the save in Game 162 — one the Braves needed to win to force a one-game playoff with St. Louis to keep postseason dreams alive.

As for the Braves bats, well, they too went deadly silent.

Martin Prado, who was given the nickname “MVP-RADO” by the Atlanta faithful due to his knack for clutch hitting, couldn’t  find his stride after a staph infection that many believed was the culprit for his career-worst slump.

Brian McCann, often one of the team’s most clutch and dependable sluggers, suffered the ill effects of an oblique injury and his numbers slid when it counted the most. B-Mac hit a mere .180 when he returned to the Braves lineup  in mid-August.

A Braves offense that was picked up all year long by superb pitching couldn’t rise to the occasion when the injury bug struck its hurlers. Instead, the Braves coiled and crumbled — along with the hearts of Braves Nation.

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01
Mar
11

Can the 2011 Braves surprise in the National League East?

Can David defeat Goliath in the battle for NL East supremacy?

The 2011 Atlanta Braves will seemingly be overlooked by most experts and pundits to best the Philadelphia Phillies for division bragging rights. How could last season’s NL Wild Card winners possibly hold their own against the Phillies’ vaunted starting rotation — who many have already deemed one of the best ever assembled?

Sure, they haven’t thrown one pitch in a meaningful game as a collective unit, but on paper, how could anyone argue that Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels will not equate to a historic starting staff?

Perhaps it’s because a lot can happen over a taxing season. Players must still suit up and play the schedule — a full 162-game marathon. The injury bug so often rears its ugly head, throwing a wrench into any team’s — even the most talented’s — presumed destiny.

Big time egos don’t always mesh together — credit the manager who is able to cohesively mold a “team” together above all individual’s own personal goals and accolades. A club that puts the “I” before the “WE” can and WILL self-destruct. It’s happened before and will happen again.

It’s not to say that these Phillies — the projected favorites not only in the East but in the National League — won’t live up to expectations. It’s not to say that their “sexy” starting rotation won’t go down in history as the best ever. They very well could. But, the beauty of America’s favorite pastime is that baseball wins and division championships aren’t decided on paper or based on sheer talent, projection or expectation.

Any team can still beat you on any given day and the unlikely squad you didn’t see emerging out of camp — hello, 2010 San Francisco Giants — can still defeat the odds and be crowned champions of baseball. The 2010 Giants were the epitome of the “little team that could” — and they gave hope to many lower budget, up and coming clubs that they, too, could eclipse baseball’s perceived powerhouses.

One of those teams believing in such hope is the Atlanta Braves. With an acclaimed starting squad of their own — which they are returning in 2011 — the Braves’ rotation figures to once again be among the game’s elite. Anchored by Derek Lowe, who was dynamite down the stretch last season, and complimented by a resurgent Tim Hudson, emergent Tommy Hanson and a healthy Jair Jurrjens — Braves’ starters stand to give their share of fits to hitters in their quest for a second straight postseason appearance.

And while their rotation is strong in its own right, it’s Atlanta’s bullpen that could emerge as their ace in the hole. Equipped with two young fireballers who could both excel in the closer’s role — Craig Kimbrel and Jonny “Everyday” Venters — Atlanta’s relievers possess the skills to round out a dominant relief corps.

If you’ve come to expect one thing from the Braves over the years, it is a team that can and will consistently pitch well. The question marks have usually risen with the club’s offense and lack of power at its heart. But, this year’s lineup is deeper than ever — with the offseason addition of Dan Uggla as the right-handed, middle-of-the-order bat that the Braves had so desperately coveted. Uggla’s presence alongside fellow All-Stars Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Martin Prado and, if all goes according to plan, a healthy Chipper Jones — could pack a potent offensive punch.

Few would argue against this team’s legitimacy as a contender. But, to win the division and dethrone the big, bad Phillies — well, that just sounds asinine, right?

Wrong.

Despite the Phillies’ nasty rotation, the club has many other questions that make them appear to be vulnerable. ESPN‘s Buster Olney suggests the Phils never addressed their biggest offseason need — a right-handed power bat to replace slugger Jayson Werth — who departed for the Washington Nationals via free agency.

Philadelphia lacks balance and experience in their lineup, placing a heavy offensive burden on talented but unproven youngsters Ben Francisco and Domonic Brown. The defending NL East Champs are also an aging bunch who saw a significant portion of their squad — they had 170 games lost to injuries in just the infield alone in 2010 — on the disabled list last season.

Jimmy Rollins’ OPS has dropped for three consecutive seasons now, and the franchise’s golden boy Chase Utley’s own OPS has sputtered the last two. Ryan Howard’s postseason struggles were well-documented last season and could be attributed to an increase in off-speed pitches away he saw from opposing pitchers that he never was quite able to adjust to.

Even Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, who was at Phillies’ camp as an instructor, called out Rollins, Shane Victorino and other offensive stars for their lackluster production last season. The Phillies are not without flaws — which the Braves or any team in the league can hope to exploit — they just expect their superior starters to carry the load and mask the holes in their bullpen and lineup.

Can they? Sure. Will they? That’s why they play the games.

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20
Apr
10

It’s early but it’s big… Braves and Phils set to collide

For 14 years, opponents knew they had to go through Atlanta to get to the playoffs—and, to the World Series.

For the past three years, they go through Philly.

It may only be April 20 and the first of many meetings between these two divisional foes, but for the Braves it is never too early to make a good impression.

After all, first place is up for grabs.

The Phillies hold a one-game lead over the third-place Braves in the NL East standings coming into tonight’s series opener at Turner Field.

Atlanta spent over a decade at the top of the National League East, but in recent years they have taken their lumps in an effort to regain the level of excellence they had come to expect.

The Braves haven’t tasted October since 2005, but last season after a strong, albeit late push for the NL Wild Card, they got one step closer to returning to the playoffs.

This year, they are billed as the Phillies chief competition in the NL East.

While an April series isn’t make-or-break for either club, the buzz surrounding this series is unmistakable.

Last year, the Braves knew they waited too long before making their playoff run and just ran out of games.

It is these pesky games early in the season that often count just as large as the ones in September, but are long forgotten when a team comes up a game or two short of the postseason.

Still, don’t expect these Braves to put too much stock in this series outcome.

Atlanta won’t wave the red flag if they lose the series and they surely won’t become complacent if they win it.

But, what a series win would do for the Braves is send a message to the Phillies that the preseason hype surrounding this club was legit.

And, let’s not forget that last season, Atlanta handled Philly with relative ease in the early going.

The Braves were winners of seven of the first nine meetings between the teams, including a series sweep just before the fourth of July.

Then, Ryan Howard happened.

Howard torched the Braves over the final nine games between the clubs, of which his team won six, blasting eight home runs.

However, Atlanta still won the season series 10-8, but still fell short of the playoffs.

The Braves know at the very least, a series win is expected again this year if they hope to reach the postseason.

And, if they hope to make a legitimate run at the World Series, they figure they will see these Phillies again in the NLCS.

The hope and buzz surrounding this year’s squad lends credence to the belief that the Braves can compete with any team in the league even the big, bad Phillies.

With Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe lined up to pitch in this series, the Braves expect their starters to go toe-to-toe with Philadelphia’s.

No surprise there.

The Braves have always won with pitching, and their staff has rivaled if not exceeded the Phillies starters over recent years.

But what the Bravos have this year, that they haven’t had in the past, is their very own one-man wreaking crew.

His name is Jason Heyward.

While the comparisons between Heyward and Howard have begun, it is far too early in the youngster’s career to pit him against Philly’s RBI machine.

But for those of you looking to add to the fodder, in the season’s first two weeks, Heyward does have one more RBI.

The Phillies are about to get their first glimpse at the beast that is the “J-Hey Kid,” and pardon me if they don’t feel a little deja vu.

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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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03
Mar
10

Braves young guns impress in grapefruit league opener

It’s no secret that Jason Heyward and Tommy Hanson are being touted as the future stalwarts of the Atlanta Braves.

In Tuesday’s 4-2 Grapefruit League opening loss to the New York Mets, the young guns lived up to the billing.

Making his spring debut, Major League Baseball’s top prospect made an immediate impact in his 4 1/2 innings of work.

Heyward reached base in all three of his plate appearances and finished the day with a hit, two walks, and a stolen base.

Not too shabby for the 20-year-old whiz kid who hopes to win a starting job in the Braves outfield this season.

Hanson, last season’s rookie sensation, picked up right where he left off. The 23-year-old phenom struck out three batters over two scoreless innings.

Kris Medlen succeeded Hanson and was equally as impressive, throwing up zeros in his two innings of work. Medlen departed with the Braves leading 1-0 after four innings.

The wheels came off when the Mets line-up tagged new Brave Jesse Chavez for three runs in the fifth, which proved too costly for Atlanta to overcome.

Despite the loss, the talk after the game centered around Heyward and Hanson’s performances.

Hanson continues to lend credence to the belief that he will one day anchor Atlanta’s rotation, and be the ace of the staff for years to come.

The hype around Heyward has been astounding, but the 6 foot 5 245 pounder has a lethal combination of skills that make him truly special.

While his power and high on base percentage set him apart from other young hitting prospects, it is the level of poise and maturity he’s already displayed that leaves no doubt that this kid will one day be a bonafide superstar.

It’s just a matter of when.

Offensively, Heyward appears ready. If he can impress Cox with his defense this spring, the Braves’ next “Chosen One” may begin his reign in Atlanta this April.

Stay tuned…

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