New manager, same expectations for Braves
The clickety-clack of spikes has been replaced by nice, quiet
sneakers. Otherwise, it’s hard to detect much of a difference
between Fredi Gonzalez and the guy he replaced in the Atlanta
The expectations certainly haven’t changed.
The Braves were used to winning with Bobby Cox as their manager.
They don’t expect anything to change with Gonzalez running the
”It’s an easy transition,” the new manager said.
Indeed, it’s hard to remember such a significant changing of the
guard going as smoothly as this. Cox retired after leading the team
to 15 playoff appearances in his two decades as manager, a record
that will surely land him a spot in Cooperstown. He was quickly
replaced by Gonzalez, a former Braves third-base coach who comes
with the Cox seal of approval.
”Obviously, Bobby made a big impact in my baseball thinking,”
While there were a few changes in spring training – most
notably, early workouts were held on back fields instead of the
main stadium – Gonzalez has chosen to keep things largely the way
they were under Cox.
They do have differing preferences in footwear. Cox was one of
those old-school managers who insisted on wearing spikes, just like
his players. The 47-year-old Gonzalez is a little more modern in
”No spikes for me,” he said. ”I have enough trouble walking
without any spikes.”
Otherwise, no need to shake up a good thing.
The Braves are coming off a 91-win season and their first
postseason appearance since 2005, claiming the wild card despite a
rash of injuries down the stretch. They lost to eventual World
Series champion San Francisco in a a thrilling four-game playoff
series, each contest decided by one run.
Having reclaimed their once-customary spot in October, Atlanta
is intent on going even farther this season.
”On paper, we’ve improved a lot,” said outfielder Jason
Heyward, the team’s breakout star of 2010. ”I feel like we can
build off last year. We had a great year. Guys are coming back with
that same feeling.”
Perhaps the most notable guy returning is the one who’s been
around the longest: Chipper Jones.
The 38-year-old third baseman was mired in such a dreadful slump
early last season that he had decided to retire. Then, after
changing his mind and regaining his stroke, he went down with the
second major knee injury of his career, missing out on the
That motivated Jones to return for another season, and he looked
like the Chipper of old in spring training, hitting .407 with a
team-leading four homers and 15 RBIs.
”This club has got me excited,” he said. ”I think we’ve got a
great opportunity this year to get back. I would love to experience
what I missed at the end of last year.”
If Jones can get through the season in relatively good health –
no guarantee, considering he’s been plagued by injuries since 2004
– and hold down his customary third spot in the batting order,
there should be plenty of pop behind him.
The most significant acquisition of the winter was slugging
second baseman Dan Uggla, who brings some much-needed right-handed
power to a lineup that leaned heavily to the left with Heyward and
catcher Brian McCann. Landing Uggla also allowed the Braves to fill
another major hole by moving All-Star Martin Prado from second base
to left field.
If rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman comes anywhere close to
matching what Heyward did in his rookie season (.277 with 18
homers, 72 RBIs and a .393 on-base percentage) and centerfielder
Nate McLouth can regain the form he showed in Pittsburgh, the
Braves lineup looks pretty stacked.
The biggest concern is a lack of speed. Heyward is the lone
projected starter who had double-figure stolen bases (11) last
season, so the Braves will have to maximize their chances with
smart baserunning and probably a lot of hit-and-runs.
That said, pitching will likely play the biggest factor in
Atlanta’s success, especially in the same division as four-time
defending NL East champion Philadelphia. The Phillies made the
biggest splash of the offseason, adding left-hander Cliff Lee to a
rotation that already included Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole
Hard to match the Four Aces, but the Braves aren’t complaining
about their own rotation of Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson
and Jair Jurrjens.
Hudson was a 17-game winner coming off Tommy John surgery, Lowe
added 16 wins and the other two are young right-handers with
The 24-year-old Hanson (10-11, 3.33 ERA) was plagued by a lack
of run support but has all the makings of a staff ace. The
25-year-old Jurrjens won 14 games with a 2.60 ERA two years ago,
then struggled through a series of injuries last season. He hopes
all that misery is behind him, though a ribcage injury late in
spring training raised doubts about whether he’ll be ready for
While the starters look solid, the bullpen is more of a question
mark after Billy Wagner followed through on his pledge to retire
despite a brilliant season (37 saves, 1.43 ERA). Rookie Craig
Kimbrel and second-year pitcher Jonny Venters are expected to share
the role, at least in the early going.
Both have closer-like stuff. While Kimbrel spent most of the
season in the minors, he had 40 strikeouts in 20 2-3 innings during
two separate stints with the Braves, claiming a key role by the
time the playoffs started. Venters was the primary setup man for
Wagner, going 4-4 with a 1.95 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 83
”In a perfect world, you want it to be one guy,” Gonzalez
said. ”But sometimes, it’s not so perfect.”
At least the Braves feel they have the perfect replacement for
”It been as seamless,” general manager Frank Wren said, ”as
any transition I’ve ever seen.”