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Springtime Storylines: Did I pick the Braves to win the NL East because I'm a fanboy?

Mar 30, 2010, 9:00 AM EDT

Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30
teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally
breaking down their chances for the 2010 season.  Next up: a switch over to the senior circuit, which kicks off with the Atlanta Braves — yes, the Atlanta Braves — as my first place pick.


The
big question: Did I pick the Braves to win the NL East because I’m a fanboy?

No! Well, maybe. Look, I’m basing this on the merits, I swear. It’s a rotation thing, mostly. The Braves finished third in the majors with a 3.57 ERA last season, and that’s with a swooning Derek Lowe, a mostly absent Tim Hudson and with Tommy Hanson not making his debut until June. Sure, Javier Vazquez is gone, but the Braves’ rotation is arguably the best in the league and no one who is coming back had a freakishly good year in 2009. I have this strange feeling that Lowe is going to have a bounceback season. The amount one fretted about the team giving up Vazquez was inversely related to how much one remembered how good a pitcher Tim Hudson was before his surgery. Jair Jurrjens and Hanson are legitimate studs. It’s not going to be easy to score runs against these guys.

At the same time, the Braves’ fatally-flawed 2009 offense stands to take a great leap forward. The notion that Jason Heyward isn’t going to dramatically outperform Jeff Francoeur (68 OPS+ while with the Braves) in right and Nate McLouth isn’t going to dramatically outperform Jordon Schafer (62 OPS+) in center is redonkulous. Chipper Jones’ second half slump was unprecedented in his career. While his MVP-candidate days are certainly over, he should round back into nice form for a late-career Hall of Famer. Think nice OBP and average with reduced power. Troy Glaus at first base is certainly a risk, but if he can stay healthy he will improve on the woeful production the Braves got from their first basemen last year as well.

So what else is going on?

  • The above optimism about the lineup and the rotation notwithstanding, the make or break of this team is going to be the bullpen. I like the additions of Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito, but I’d be lying if I said I thought they’d each hold up well this year. Let’s face it: they’re old. If they do, Katie bar the door. If they don’t, well, we’ll just chalk this whole winning-the-NL-East thing up to springtime optimism, OK?
  • Let’s talk about Heyward. I have no doubt that he’s going to be a great one, but we have to be realistic about what he’ll do in 2010. He’s 20. He’s played 50 games above A-ball. The fact that he forced his way onto the 25-man roster despite his age and the fact that the Braves traded for a major league outfielder just this winter speaks well of his potential, but he’s going to get schooled by a lot of big league pitchers who are close to being old enough to be his father. As alluded to above, the key to Heyward is not to see where he stacks up on the leader boards, because he won’t register much of a blip there. The key is to see how much he outperforms the dreck the Braves trotted out to right field last season. First let’s watch him lap Jeff Francoeur three or four times. Then we can talk about the text of his Hall of Fame plaque.

  • This is Bobby Cox’s last season, but I’m not going to abide much in the way of “Let’s win it for Bobby!” baloney. Baseball players are professionals. They’re always trying to win it. The notion that anyone apart from maybe Chipper Jones, who has worked for the guy for the past 16 or 17 years is going to get some kind of emotional boost out of the last hurrah is the stuff of simpletons, and come to think of it, I don’t really believe even Chipper Jones is wired that way. 
  • Though none of the Big Three actually pitched in Atlanta last year, it is worth noting that this truly is the first season since 1986 when neither Tom Glavine, John Smoltz or Greg Maddux will have any bearing on the Atlanta Braves on-field prospects whatsoever (last year Glavine had that rehab assignment drama). Show of hands: how many of you weren’t alive in 1986? For those of you who were alive, what were you doing? I turned 13 around the time of the All-Star break, had a crush on a girl named Anne that I hoped might one day lead to kissing of some sort (it didn’t) and was not yet aware that my Huey Lewis & The News tapes — yes, tapes — really, really sucked.  

So how
are they gonna do?

Am I wearing rose-colored glasses? Probably. Am I drinking the Jason Heyward
Kool-Aid? Sure, I’m not gonna lie about it. But the fact is that there
is good reason to think that multiple aspects of the Braves’ attack will
improve in 2010 and no strong reason to think that any aspect of it is
going to seriously regress. I think it might just be enough to steal
this thing from the Phillies. Besides, I’ve hewed pretty closely to the conventional wisdom with these picks so far that it’s about time I go out on a bit of a limb here. If it’s going to break while I’m on it I’d rather it be a limb with my team’s name on it.

Prediction: First place in the NL East, Bobby Cox retires a winner and Chipper Jones is named player-manager for 2011. Why not?

Click
here for other Springtime Storylines

  1. GBSimons - Mar 30, 2010 at 9:09 AM

    Fanboy!!

  2. The Common Man - Mar 30, 2010 at 9:12 AM

    In 1986, I was playing with Transformers in my room, begging my parents to get me a Nintendo, and wondering what the name of the team was that had a baseball glove for a logo on the 1987 Topps cards. Girls sucked.

  3. Jonny5 - Mar 30, 2010 at 9:25 AM

    Atlanta? 10 games back from Philly at the end of this season. Bank on it. What’s with this BTW Craig? Look where Shane Victorino is on this retarded list from NBC!!! Starting pithing? Happ tier 8 of 9??? Victorino right next to Adam Dunn? C’mon what did they draw names from a hat or what? http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/j/NBCSports/Components/Slideshows-NBC_sports/MLB/2010%20MLB%

  4. Jonny5 - Mar 30, 2010 at 9:27 AM

    pithing = pitching. Hey, it’s early still……

  5. BC - Mar 30, 2010 at 9:30 AM

    In 1986 I was most likely in a drunken stupor. That and still seething over the Mets falling short in 1985 (it was all good later in the year however). I had a great time in college from what I recall.

  6. madhatters - Mar 30, 2010 at 9:53 AM

    Braves will finish in solid second or third depending on how the Marlins play. The Tribe probably has the second best pitching staff to the Phillies, but their offense won’t come close to the Phillies or the Marlins so I think that is their major problem.
    The only 20 year-old to ever meet or exceed expectations in their first year was Alex Rodriguez and he may have been cheating the whole time…so I suspect Heyward will struggle, .250ish batting average 16homers and will not be the everyday starter by July. In my opinion the Braves would be better off letting him start in AAA and if the team is playing for something bring him up to the show in late July/early August.
    But yes you are a Fanboy, just like as a Phillies Fanboy I believe they will win 162 games this year.

  7. Rays fan - Mar 30, 2010 at 10:12 AM

    I was in med school & thus had no time to watch baseball that year.
    Fanboys are allowed to dream and to pick their teams first even when it appears unlikely to happen.

  8. Jimmy marlins fan - Mar 30, 2010 at 10:18 AM

    marlins win the division by 3 games over the phils and 5 over the bravos

  9. ralphdibny - Mar 30, 2010 at 10:18 AM

    Did you hear the Huey Lewis theme for Pineapple Express? Man, that would’ve been a big hit in 1986.

  10. Grant - Mar 30, 2010 at 10:49 AM

    I was born in 1986. After Opening Day.

  11. Old Gator - Mar 30, 2010 at 11:38 AM

    Braves will finish in solid second or third depending on how the Feesh play? Madhatter, like the song says, the ones that mother gave you didn’t do anything at all. The Feesh will have to be divinely lucky to play spoilers to the Bravos – I mean, they play in the sunshine when it isn’t raining and nothing spoils faster in the sunshine than Feesh.
    .
    Jimmy, I can’t help but love another Feesh fan, even if only out of sympathy for a fellow sufferer, but even if they had a starting rotation that you could depend on after Josh and Ricky, or even if they had a manager with a mind in his brain, you should accept from the git-go that that bullpen is going to leave the Feesh’s late innings looking like a Haitian hospital after the quake. That way, if by some manifold of the miraculous the team bus drives through a chronosynclastic infundibulum on the way to FLL and shows up in an alternate universe where Andrew Miller does television ads for Aqua Velva, you can be pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, if the coming season remains firmly rooted in reality as we know it (a pretty awful place, except during stone crab season), you won’t be as embittered as I am come October 1st.
    .
    Ah, Craig. I see you’ve led the camel back to the stall after your visit to the Heyward Child and come back to the league where real baseball is played. Welcome home. Hope you kept you head covered; the sun is brutal out there, and it has clearly affected your assessment of the division. It’d take a miracle greater than a virgin birth to keep the Feelies from taking this division, aortal plaque from those horrible horsemeat and velveeta sandwiches an all.

  12. Jonny5 - Mar 30, 2010 at 11:44 AM

    Just a dose of reality for ya craig.
    http://www.philly.com/philly/sports/20100330_Breaking_down_the_NL_East.html?page=1&c=y

  13. Chris - Mar 30, 2010 at 11:46 AM

    Craig, you forgot to mention that a full season of Prado over the half season train-wreck that was Kelly Johnson before Prado took over the daily duties at 2B last year. Plus, I feel like if Saito fails or gets hurt, Medlen is ready to step in and be a key to the bullpen.

  14. carlos - Mar 30, 2010 at 12:23 PM

    Second Place NL East and a wild card birth.
    And I don’t need no stinking “bank on it” cause I ain’t no Miss Cleo. Neither are ya’ll.

  15. Scott - Mar 30, 2010 at 12:54 PM

    No one is going to point out what a freakishly lucky season Jair Jurrjens had? Especially since Craig made a point of saying no one on that staff had a freakishly good year? His ERA/FIP/xFIP were 2.60/3.68/4.34 (he got lucky in all 3 of the “luck” stats – BABIP, HR/FB, and Strand Rate). He was one of three pitchers who managed to have an ERA-FIP of over a run (behind only Happ and Millwood).
    Regression, you are a fickle lady.

  16. Lashman - Mar 30, 2010 at 1:33 PM

    Craig, here’s why you’re wrong, and you are wrong.
    (1) The Braves high hopes will fade exactly like they have the past couple seasons. McCann will hit like gangbasters for the first month and then lose effectiveness as catching takes its toll, Chipper will miss forty games and only be okay for the rest, it will take Heyward two years to fill the hole in his swing so that he is feared in big moments, and Hudson is still Hudson. But that’s not the biggest reason they won’t win the division.
    (2) When the Braves were winning all those titles it wasn’t just because they had the pitching and some ok hitting, it was because Chipper and Smoltz and Maddox wouldn’t let them lose. Whenever they started fading, Chipper would blast the team and then blast a homerun and they would be back on top. A bad game, a players’ meeting, and then a streak to a title. How often had that doomed the competition? They were just mentally tougher. Now it’s the Phillies that have that toughness. Until Utley and Rollins lose their effectiveness, the Phils are just too tough mentally to beat, as long as they have the horses, and the Phils still have the horses. And it’s funny, I think, that they learned how to do it by watching the Braves kick their butts all those years.

  17. Nick C - Mar 30, 2010 at 2:19 PM

    I agree with you on the Braves. I think their rotation and bullpen are better than the Phillies’ units and their offense is nearly as good. The only concern I have is with the defense. McClouth is not very good in center, Chipper is a year older at 3B, Escobar is sometimes specatcular at short but inconsistent and who knows how Glaus will hold up at first.

  18. Mark R - Mar 30, 2010 at 3:34 PM

    Same here. I could have provided some late-season baby heroics, but that would have been it.

  19. Andy L - Mar 30, 2010 at 4:21 PM

    Turned 3 that October. Also, lost my virginity. A good year.

  20. Tony S - Mar 30, 2010 at 4:56 PM

    Phillies have only gotten better this year. Polanco is flying under the radar because of the Halliday deal. Their offence is best in majors with him hitting 2nd or 3rd. Now that Victorino is batting later in the order, there is no one to pitch around. Braves will be fighting it out with the Mets for 3rd in the division. Cox will be retired before the playoffs even start. Happy retirement you old goat! Go Phils.

  21. Patrick - Mar 30, 2010 at 6:16 PM

    In 1986, I had reached the ripe old age of one, and I was probably having my diapers changed by God knows who during some custody/deportation battles that occurred between my parents around when I was born…. … :D

  22. scatterbrian - Mar 30, 2010 at 7:08 PM

    In 1986 I was rooting for a 21 year-old Cuban rookie in Oakland. I was also wondering why I spent money to see “The Golden Child”.

  23. smsetnor - Mar 31, 2010 at 10:27 AM

    In 1986 I was dominating in my second year of T-Ball with my blue glove or playing Rad Racer on Nintendo.
    And the Braves are gonna be sneaky good this year, depsite what the Philly fanboys say. But I gotta say I like the Braves being able to play the “No one believed in us card.” Perhaps they don’t win the division, but I’d put money down that they make the playoffs.

  24. smokehouse - Mar 31, 2010 at 12:24 PM

    Well that’s 4 straight one stupid or another bury the Quakers before the season starts and all they do is win NL east titles (3), NL Championships (2) and World Series (1). It must be nice to be ignorant.

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