The Atlanta Braves have almost everything a good baseball team could want. What they need is to avoid having another month like last September, when they threw away an 8.5-game lead in the National League wild-card race and finished out of the playoffs.
The Action: Apparently general manager Frank Wren feels the pieces are already in place to field a competitive squad, because he wasn’t very busy in the off-season with any high-profile deals or signings. Starter Derek Lowe was traded to the Cleveland Indians for minor-league lefthanded reliever Chris Jones, and Jack Wilson was signed as a backup infielder; meanwhile, longtime shortstop Alex Gonzalez was allowed to go elsewhere.
It’s A Lock: Manager Fredi Gonzalez has a young and promising pitching staff at his command. Among them is Brandon Beachy (who is learning from his mistakes early this spring), Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and National League All-Star and rookie of the year closer Craig Kimbrel.
First baseman Freddie Freeman finished second to Kimbrel in the voting for top rookie honors, and the sweet swinger is widely counted on to continue his development at the major-league level. Speedy CF Michael Bourn should help the Braves get more runs in his first full season with the club.
Right fielder Jason Heyward is a source of concern because of his disappointing 2011 campaign, where nagging shoulder injuries restricted him to 14 homers and a .227 batting average. Being only 22, though, Heyward should be able to bounce back and improve his numbers overall if he can stay off the injured list.
Hedge Your Bets: Chipper Jones will likely be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but now he’s just trying to stay healthy for what could be his final season. It’s a good thing the Braves have so many lively arms, because starter Tim Hudson isn’t getting any younger either and is recovering from off-season back surgery. Catcher Brian McCann and 3B/OF Martin Prado are other veterans who are also recovering from various maladies, and 2B Dan Uggla’s beefy power stroke belies a hideous batting average and on-base percentage.
Rookie Tyler Pastornicky has been handed the shortstop job in spring training, but the 22-year-old hasn’t been doing well at the plate to this point. Of course, it’s still spring and Opening Day is more than three weeks away, but Pastornicky only has a handful of game experience above Double-A.
The Payoff: The MLB futures betting should reflect the fact that Atlanta has a healthy shot at making a run for the division title, the league pennant and the World Series. They’ll likely battle the mighty Phillies all season for dominance in their division, or dueling with the likes of the Brewers, Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Giants and Reds for wild-card spots. There ought to be plenty to cheer for in the land of the Tomahawk Chop in 2012.