Spring Postcard: Deep rotation could get Braves back to playoffs
Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens and Tim Hudson give the Braves a talented rotation
Top prospect Jason Heyward has been turning heads in camp with his power
Bobby Cox is entering his last season as Atlanta Braves manager
This spring, SI.com writers are filing postcards from all 30 major league spring training camps. To read all the postcards, click here.
1. The Braves can dethrone the Phillies
On paper the Phillies are the best team in the division, and, coming off three-straight division titles and two straight pennants, some might say they are turning into the Evil Empire of the National League. But don't count Atlanta out in the NL East just yet. The Braves can overtake Philly if 23-year-old starter Tommy Hanson establishes himself as one of the league's elite pitchers; if outfielder Jason Heyward has the kind of rookie year Albert Pujols had in 2001; if the old guys (Troy Glaus, Chipper Jones, and Billy Wagner) stay healthy and have solid years. That's a lot of ifs, of course, but as GM Frank Wren says, the Braves are "without a doubt improved" a year after winning 86 games, a season in which Chipper Jones and Derek Lowe had their worst years since 2004. Over its final 88 games, Atlanta posted the best run differential in the majors. Entering the season, the Braves are still the second-best team in the division, but with a few breaks, they may very well find themselves atop the division come September. "The division as a whole is better," says Wren. "I expect the Mets to be healthier and therefore improved. Florida was able to keep the players it needed to and their starting pitching has a chance to be very good. And Washington has the players there to build around. This is a tougher division, but I like our chances."
2. They need a big year from Tim Hudson
They need big years from Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, too, of course. But while Hanson, 23, and Jurrjens, 24, should be at least as good as they were last year, Hudson -- as he enters his first full season after Tommy John surgery -- is a big unknown. The 34-year-old has looked sharp this spring ("He looks like he's almost all the way back," says a scout) thanks in part to an improved splitfinger fastball and changeup -- two pitches that he's now been able to throw consistently for the first time in several seasons. "It's been eight or nine years since my shoulder's felt this good," he says. "That allows me to get into the arm slot that I haven't been able to get into the last few years." A comeback season from Hudson -- who slots in the rotation behind Hanson, Jurrjens, and Derek Lowe -- could give the Braves the deepest rotation in the division.
3. Yes, everything you've heard about the Jay Hey Kid is true
What more is there to say about Jason Heyward? You've heard about the bombs -- how one batting practice home run shattered the sun roof of a Braves exec's car in a parking lot well beyond the right field wall. The kid also hits for average. He also plays above average defense. He also runs well. Veterans in the clubhouse like Chipper Jones rave about his off the charts makeup. What also sets him apart at his age -- he turned 20 last fall -- is his extraordinary plate discipline, according to Wren. Heyward was kept off the bases for the first time all spring on March 20. Last year the Braves kept Tommy Hanson in the minors to start the year, even as it was abundantly clear he was ready for the majors. The move might have cost Atlanta a playoff spot. They won't make the same mistake this year.
After appearing in 14 games last season in St. Louis, here is Troy Glaus in Braves camp, now 33 and beginning the second phase of his career as a fulltime first baseman. If Glaus stays healthy, he has 25-home run potential and would be huge for a club whose biggest question mark is scoring runs. "He's in great shape," says Wren. "Our scouts were telling us that if he was healthy and his shoulder was back, he could help our club and the middle of the lineup. What we've seen so far is that he's healthy. Seeing him make the plays at first -- the off balance throws and awkward throws -- he hasn't hesitated with anything, and that tells me that his shoulder is fine."
Prospect to Watch
Aside from the second coming of Hank Aaron? There's first base prospect Freddie Freeman, the No. 2 prospect in the Braves system. A 2007 second round pick, Freeman should be starring in The Show in 2011 -- unless, perhaps, there's an injury to Glaus before then. Freeman has showed promise this spring. "He's a tremendous athlete," says a scout of the 20-year-old. "He's not going to hit 40 home runs, but he'll give you a high average with nice doubles power and is an above average fielder. He'll be there soon."
Not Done Yet
The Braves, of course, would like nothing more than to win a World Series in Bobby Cox's final season. The pieces are in place for the Braves to make one more run with Cox at the helm. "What a great capstone it would be to a marvelous career for him to win another world championship," says team president John Schuerholz, who won't discuss the future Hall of Famer's replacement. "We're going to let the spotlight stay on Bobby," he says.
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