You can find your Atlanta Braves tickets for the 2011 season on SeatGeek.

Danny Hong writes  for the Atlanta Braves blog, Talking Chop.  You can follow Talking Chop on Twitter @gondeee.

Atlanta Braves 2011 Season Preview

To say that the 2010 season was an exciting season for the Atlanta Braves is a bit of an understatement. 2010 saw a season in which the Braves started their season with a bang, drubbing the Chicago Cubs on Opening Day, highlighted by rookie phenom, Jason Heyward launching a three-run homer in his very first career major league plate appearance. The Braves would then slump through a miserable nine-game losing streak to end April, only to rebound with a torrid 20-8 May, where they went from worst-to-first in the division, and would hold this lead for 99 straight days. As a whole, the Braves won 91 games, 46 of them coming from behind, 25 of them in their last at-bat, and 13 being of the walk-off variety. The Braves sent five players to the All-Star game, with catcher Brian McCann taking home MVP honors, and the season culminated with a return to the playoffs, the first since 2005.

One of the biggest off-season questions for the Braves is can they do as well, if not better in 2011? On paper, it would seem as if such a conclusion should be easily attainable, as a lot of the components that contributed greatly to the success of the 2010 staff are still around. But there are some changes here and there that are worth analyzing, before coming to any pre-season conclusions.

Key Departures

Manager Bobby Cox (Retired)
RP Billy Wagner (Retired)
RP Takashi Saito (Released)
RP Michael Dunn (Traded)
RP Kyle Farnsworth (Released)
OF Matt Diaz (Released)
OF Melky Cabrera (Released)
OF Rick Ankiel (Released)
1B Derrek Lee (Released)
1B Troy Glaus (Released)
UT Omar Infante (Traded)

Key Additions

Manager Fredi Gonzalez
2B Dan Uggla (Trade)
RP Scott Linebrink (Trade)
RP George Sherrill (Free Agent)
RP Anthony Varvaro (Waivers)
OF Joe Mather (Waivers)

A Changing of the Guard

After twenty-five total years of managing the Atlanta Braves, legendary skipper Bobby Cox, stepped down after the conclusion of the 2010 season. Taking his place is long-time friend, former Braves third-base coach, and former coach of the Florida Marlins, Fredi Gonzalez. The popular notion is that not too much will feel different with the Braves going into 2011, as Gonzalez’s managerial style is much learned from his former mentor. Gonzalez may be a little more open-minded to embracing creativity and statistics, but is also not averse to the over-managing that sometimes bit Cox during his managerial career.

Despite the fact that Fredi Gonzalez is well known to Braves fans, as well as a good bit of the current roster, it’s still a major change, and there will still be some adaptation necessary for a harmonious, cohesive, team. Gonzalez has never managed a team into the playoffs, and at his best, won 87 games with the Marlins in 2009. It’s debatable that he may never have had the disposal of organizational talent at multiple levels he will have with the 2011 Braves as he did with the Marlins, but as the head honcho of a proud, reputable organization, if the Braves are going to be a playoff-bound team again, it’s going to be a little bit of unfamiliar territory for Fredi Gonzalez.

Starting Rotation

Much has been made over the gauntlet of top-tier pitching talent that the Philadelphia Phillies have on paper, but the Braves aren’t exactly famished in the starting pitching department, either. Certainly one of their strengths, the Braves will have the luxury of trotting out most of the same starters as they did in 2010.

1. Tim Hudson
2. Tommy Hanson
3. Derek Lowe
4. Jair Jurrjens

The fifth starter is one of the most puzzling decisions for the Braves going into 2011. They have the luxury of three arms capable of bringing up the rear, but financial situations, as well as value building could dictate who actually will be the one to be responsible for the glut of innings in this role. The much maligned Kenshin Kawakami, in the final year of his contract, is very much sought to be traded, but after a horrendous 2010 season, his value is at an all-time low, and may get a chance to start some games to bring his value back up. Brandon Beachy, the undrafted free agent, made a splash last year, tearing up the Braves’ AA and AAA affiliates before ultimately being called up to the Braves for the stretch run is thought to be a potential trade chip, which might necessitate some time to showcase his abilities for future suitors. Or Mike Minor, the intelligent lefty out of Vanderbilt who started his share of games in 2010 out of necessity. Minor is certainly a part of the future, but the desire to potentially trade Kawakami and/or Beachy could lead to some alternative decisions, come Opening Day.

The Bullpen

The bullpen was one of the greatest strengths of the 2010 Braves, but with the (impending; still yet to be made official) retirement of Billy Wagner, and the departure of Takashi Saito, the bullpen of 2011 is going to look very different.

Assuming the closer duties will likely be young, 22-year old flame-throwing right-hander, Craig Kimbrel, who is often referred to as “the right-handed Billy Wagner,” based on his physical stature, side-armed delivery, as well as his ability to get up to pitch speeds excessive of 98 mph. Alternatively, is young lefty, Jonny Venters who had a solid 2010 campaign, appearing 79 times, and limited the opposition to a 1.95 ERA. With good velocity, and demonstrated ability to keep the ball low, closing does not seem out of the realm for Venters, either. In a perfect world, the closer would be dependent on the upcoming lineup for the ninth inning, but Gonzalez, much like Bobby Cox, tends to favor official designation of one closer, over the match-ups.

The contingency plans are two new acquisitions, righty Scott Linebrink, and lefty George Sherrill. Both have a wealth of late-inning experience, and in the event that one or both Kimbrel and/or Venters proves to be ineffective at closing out ballgames, expect Sherrill and Linebrink be thrust into closing games, in that order. Sherrill previously served as the Orioles’ closer in 2008 and 2009, and Linebrink is thought to have closer stuff, if needed.

Rounding out the relief corps will likely be Peter Moylan, Eric O’Flaherty, Scott Proctor, and a long-man of either Cristhian Martinez, or possibly an ousted starter, such as Beachy or Kawakami.

The Bench

The bench was a gigantic asset throughout the 2010 season for the Braves. Injuries and necessity thrust several guys into excessive duty, exposing their weaknesses, but in their appropriate limited action, the Braves had an excellent bench, and have the luxury of essentially bringing back the same members for 2011. Returning is Eric Hinske, who can backup at first and left field, David Ross, who was statistically the best backup catcher in the entire National League in almost every offensive category, and pinch-hitting specialist, INF Brooks Conrad who actually delivered more extra-base hits off the bench than singles, including two grand slams. Other bench candidates being Joe Mather, claimed off waivers from the St. Louis Cardinals, once-heralded outfield prospect Jordan Schafer, or outfielder Matt Young.

Predicted Opening Day Lineup

CF Nate McLouth
LF Martin Prado
3B Chipper Jones
2B Dan Uggla
C Brian McCann
RF Jason Heyward
SS Alex Gonzalez
1B Freddie Freeman

SP Tim Hudson

The most noticeable change to this lineup compared to 2010 is the obvious addition of All-Star Dan Uggla, acquired from the Florida Marlins, for Omar Infante and Michael Dunn, and then extended to a five-year deal, ensuring that he’ll be a Brave until 2015. In Uggla, the Braves now have the legitimate right-handed power bat they have lacked since Andruw Jones, filling one of their biggest needs, and giving hope to better avoiding the offensive droughts that oft-plagued the last three seasons.

Also notable is the presence of rookie first baseman, Freddie Freeman. The reigning International League Rookie of the Year currently faces zero competition for the every day first baseman position, and is essentially regarded to be ready for the big leagues, going into 2011. At the ripe age of 21, he will bring athletic fielding, along with decent doubles power from the left side, which Braves fans will be hoping will mature into improving home-run power as he ages, for the next few years.

Otherwise, 2011 will be a lot of the same names and faces from the previous year, and lots of hopes for improvements or bounce backs from several players. Martin Prado will look to build on his 2010 season, which saw him start the All-Star Game, as well as set career-highs in several statistical categories, despite the positional change. Jason Heyward will be expected to develop on his outstanding rookie campaign in which he was also named an All-Star, and impressed the baseball world with his outstanding plate discipline as a 20-year old. Nate McLouth will be hoping to bounce back come 2011 – getting back to the numbers which put his name on the map while a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates might be a pipedream, but anything better than the season before is a definite improvement. The usual excellence from reigning All-Star MVP Brian McCann is expected as the team’s leadership is gradually transitioned to him from the old man, Chipper Jones, whom initially declared retirement after 2010, is thinking differently after suffering a season-ending ACL tear, and is defiantly opposed to the idea of allowing the baseball world’s final memory of him being one sprawled out, and helped off the field.

The X-Factors

1. How will Fredi Gonzalez do in his first year? Many assume it will be business as usual, in light of the Coxian way that Fredi Gonzalez manages, but Fredi Gonzalez is still not Bobby Cox. It will be a differently managed team, and the question is, just how will this looks-good-on-paper team actually perform?
2. Chipper Jones – returning or not? The only thing that is assured at this point is that Chipper Jones is planning to prepare for Spring Training. He has still not given a definitive answer that he will be playing in 2011 or not; although Braves Country collectively is assuming he will, but he still hasn’t given a clear-cut answer, instead using the idea of off-season preparation as a measuring stick to whether or not he can return or not for one more year. The importance of the answer lies in the fate of Martin Prado – whom in his entire career, Majors and Minor has played a total of five games as an outfielder. Chipper stays, than Prado remains slotted for left field, or Chipper retires, and Prado becomes the third baseman, and then the Braves have to figure out what to do with left field.

3. How will Craig Kimbrel and/or Jonny Venters anchor the bullpen? This could very well be the biggest factor that determines the fate of the 2011 Braves. In a perfect world, Kimbrel and Venters are a lockdown one-two punch late in games that turns all contests into seven inning affairs. Worst-case scenario is that both crumble to the pressure, their confidence is shaken, and Linebrink and Sherrill assume duties of finishing out games. The reality is, wondering where in between both scenarios will this bullpen end up?
4. How will rookie Freddie Freeman handle the pressures of being the every day first baseman? He proved himself to be up to the challenge of handling AAA competition at the young age of 20, and the Braves are giving him every possible chance to take the job of starting first baseman for the major league team. But the reality is that he will still be just 21, and the major leagues are not AAA. A regression from his AAA numbers is to be expected, but the question is how does he approach these challenges, and how will he adapt and adjust to the majors?

Conclusion

Can this team make the playoffs again? Absolutely. They’ve retained much of the starting pitching that got them there last year, and added some much needed power to the offense in Dan Uggla. Health is an issue with the Braves as it is an issue with every team in baseball, and the Braves are going to be hoping the timing of injuries isn’t as bad as it was in 2010, having lost both Chipper Jones and Martin Prado, going into the playoffs. The bullpen is mostly untested, but has the physical tools to be very good. Their strong bench is intact, and as is often the case, the Braves’ minor league system is rich, whether it is needing more pitching, or the necessary trade chips in order to acquire the answer to problems.

I’m predicting that the Braves can win 89-91 games in 2011. With the Phillies’ expected rotation, it’s questionable to whether or not such a win total would be enough to secure a playoff berth via the Wild Card, let alone the division, but that’s why the games are played on the field, and not on paper.