For the Atlanta Braves, whatever pressure had been felt in recent years to return to post season play to resurrect the fourteen season span of National League East dominance, not previously seen in team sports history, is becoming a faded memory.
The Philadelphia Phillies with a World Series win in 2008 and a National League pennant in 2009 have replaced the Braves as the dominant team in the National League East. This year, the Braves have another reason for motivation.
According to this year’s official Spring Training Program, this is Bobby Cox’s 51st major league spring wearing a major league uniform. Most of us fans recognize Bobby for the last 20 years in which he has worn the uniform of the Atlanta Braves and helped turn a major league doormat into one of baseball’s most dominant organizations.
Last year, Cox announced his plans to retire after this season, but the Atlanta Skipper being a creature of habit insists this season will be treated the same as any in the past. If the Braves are to return to that glory and honor their favored leader with a trip to post season, it will fall on the players’ shoulders.
General Manager Frank Wren has made some changes in the off season that may or may not help the Braves to that goal.
Melky Cabrera and Troy Glaus have been added to off set the loss of Garrett Anderson and Adam LaRoche, in the outfield and at first base respectively. If preseason numbers can be trusted, both will be more than suitable in the tradeoff. However, the core strength for the Braves, as it was last year, starts with the pitching.
Atlanta led the National League East in almost all pitching categories last season: first in home runs allowed, ERA, slugging percentage and runs scored. If it were not for the Marlins late season surge and the Phillies mid season addition of Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez to their rotation, the Braves may have overcome those obstacles and won the division last year.
From the mound, the Braves decided to part ways with Javier Vasquez and given his success for the Braves was probably Wren’s toughest decision in the off season, but with the likes of Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrgens coming off outstanding seasons themselves and anchoring that same returning staff of Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, and Kenshin Kawakami, Wren had to feel pretty confident in his decision.
Changes in the bullpen will likely shape the team’s chances for this year as well. Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito were brought in to replace the closing roles shared by Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez. Mid relief should remain strong with Peter Moylan leading that group, but the Phillies have not ignored the Braves pitching superiority in the off-season either.
While Cliff Lee left, he was replaced by Roy Halladay who more than filled his shoes and now, along with Cole Hamels, the Phils have a chance to dominate in pitching the way they have dominated the offensive numbers in the NL East over the last few years.
The Braves will be looking to their home grown farm system to even the playing field.
Jason Heyward, the 2009 Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year, has settled into right field for the Braves this spring and looks to be the team’s best hopes of taking the next step necessary to make Bobby’s last season his best.
Between the broken windows of cars parked beyond the right field wall at the Lake Buena Vista camp, unexpected stolen bases by the big man and patience at the plate more reserved for veterans like Chipper Jones than a rookie, Heyward has caught the imagination of Braves fans young and old. He has rekindled a spark just recently extinguished.
The home grown McDonough native has the type of ability that can transform a team from a contender to a champion. While Cox and others have reveled in comparisons of the Atlanta rookie to Willie McCovey and Daryll Strawberry, what most comes to mind are David Justice and Fred McGriff. Any way you look at it, it is all good and hopefully all Cox has to do is stay out of the way and watch.
Editor's note: This is a spring preview of the Atlanta Braves from Bryan County News sports writer Terry Logan, who recently visited the team during a spring training session in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.