Brian McCann hit .281 and had 21 home runs last season, but he really couldn't see well.
He was forced to wear glasses at the plate after having trouble seeing in April. The four-time All-Star then had another Lasik surgery in the fall, and now he believes he's going to be even better this year. The early results have been positive, with McCann hitting .500 in 42 at bats during spring training. McCann just turned 26 years old in February, so he could still have his best years ahead of him. There is no doubt he is a run-producer, driving in an average of 91 runs over the last four seasons. Defensively, McCann must get better throwing people out, but there is no doubt he is a field general behind the plate. And the pitchers love throwing to him. This is slowly becoming Brian McCann's team.
The Braves have a top first base prospect in 20-year-old Freddie Freeman, but he's another year away. So the team had to go find a veteran stopgap. Atlanta signed Troy Glaus, who will make the switch from third base to the other corner position. Glaus missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, but the Braves are confident there will be less stress on his arm at first base. Glaus was really brought in to be a huge power threat in the lineup. Glaus has played in 149 games or more in seven of his 12 seasons in the big leagues, and in those seven seasons he's averaged 35.5 home runs a year. So when he's played a full season, Glaus has hit home runs. Atlanta needs him to be their first real cleanup hitter since Andruw Jones hit 41 home runs in that spot in 2006.
Kelly Johnson lost his starting job at second base last June when he hit only .125 in 85 at bats. Martin Prado took advantage and hit .359 in June to win the job for the rest of the season. Now the Braves are anxious to see what Prado can do over the course of the full year. Prado was a career .302 hitter in the minor leagues, and he's done even better in his 779 career at bats in the major leagues hitting .307. So there's no doubt Prado can hit. Prado is a perfect number two hitter for the batting order, with the ability to move a runner over and be patient at the plate. Prado started the 2007 season in Triple-A Richmond with Yunel Escobar as his double-play partner, so the two should have good chemistry in the middle infield.
Like Prado, Escobar has done nothing but hit since he put on a Braves' uniform. He's a career .301 hitter in his two-plus seasons in the majors. At times Escobar drives the Braves, and especially manager Bobby Cox, crazy. He can act immature, like when he made a gesture at the official scorer last year after being charged with an error. After a few incidents Cox and Escobar got on the same page, and then when Escobar was moved down in the order he became a huge threat. This year the lineup is more balanced, and the Braves need Escobar to anchor the bottom third of the batting order. There is little doubt about Escobar's talent, but he's got to stay in control and not irritate his teammates. Defensively, Escobar has a bullet for an arm and despite occasional lapses plays the position well.
The Braves desperately need Chipper Jones to bounce back with a productive season. For the first time in his career Jones did not have more than 20 home runs, hitting only 18 last season. And his batting average dropped 100 points from the season before, when Jones won the National League batting title. Jones turns 38 years old later this month, and there just aren't many starting third basemen that old in the major leagues. Jones played in more games last season (143) than any season since 2003, which makes the decrease in his production even more troubling. Jones should have more protection in the lineup, with Glaus and McCann hitting behind him. But if Jones struggles again, will Bobby Cox move him down in the order? Jones tinkered with his swing last winter and vows to once again be a threat in the middle of the lineup.
The revolving door in left field continues, as Garret Anderson's stint was short. Now Melky Cabrera joins holdover Matt Diaz, who has played the position for parts of four seasons. Cabrera came over from the Yankees in the Javier Vazquez trade. He's a good player and does a lot of things well, but Cabrera is not a star. Cabrera is a switch-hitter, and he could get the first shot at leading off. Defensively Cabrera has good range and an above-average arm. Diaz is a career .310 hitter, and there is no doubt he's successful against left-handed pitchers. Last year Diaz hit .412 versus southpaws, and his career average is .347 against lefties. Will Cox platoon these two, or will one emerge as the everyday starter? It might depend on how well Cabrera does at the plate, and if he gets additional time in center field.
This position is now somewhat of a question mark after Nate McLouth struggled in spring training with a .118 batting average. The Braves will likely be patient with McLouth, since he's averaged 23 home runs and 21 stolen bases the last two seasons. There's a chance McLouth has already lost his job as the leadoff man, and if he doesn't hit first, McLouth might drop down to eighth in the lineup. If McLouth continues to struggle, the Braves will simply put Cabrera in center and give Diaz more consistent playing time in left. Don't forget about Jordan Schafer. Last year's opening day starter is still coming back from his wrist surgery, and he could be a factor by midseason if needed. The Braves gave up a lot to get McLouth last June, so they need him to get going and be a force in the lineup.
The Braves traded Jeff Francoeur last July knowing right field would soon be played by Jason Heyward. This spring Heyward has been the talk of baseball, with everyone trying to figure out how good Heyward might be this season. He's been compared to Willie McCovey, Dave Parker, Ryan Howard, and Albert Pujols. Heyward is a legit five-tool player, and even though he's only 20 years old the maturity and makeup are off the charts. The Braves feel confident Heyward will be able to work through the normal struggles for a rookie. The only drama will be where he hits in the lineup. If Heyward starts out lower in the order, don't expect that to last long. Cox will have to find a place higher so Heyward can be another power threat. It's a new decade, and with Francoeur gone and Jones getting older, Heyward is the future of the franchise.
Atlanta general manager Frank Wren believes this is the strongest bench the Braves have had in years. David Ross might be the best backup catcher in baseball, and he could start for some teams. Ross is the perfect fill-in when McCann needs a break. Omar Infante has been a strong reserve the last two seasons for the Braves. He can play second, short, third, and all outfield positions. Eric Hinske was brought in to back up Glaus at first and Jones at third. If either goes out for an extended period, Hinske could step in and provide power. Hinske can also play the corner outfield spots. Brooks Conrad beat out Joe Thurston for the last infield job. Conrad has played all eight positions on the diamond throughout his pro career. And whoever doesn't start in left field, Diaz or Cabrera, could be the first bat off the bench.
The Braves rotation led the majors last season with 99 quality starts and a 3.52 ERA. But now it's changed a bit, with Javier Vazquez gone. Plus, Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson are in the rotation from day one. Hudson is the anchor of the staff. He might not be the best starter, but Hudson is a veteran who cherishes the role as a leader. Hudson is completely healthy and was dominant in March. Hanson, in fact, might be the best starter, and he and Jair Jurrjens could be the best young pitching duo in baseball. The Braves need Derek Lowe to have a better season. He won 15 games last year, but the ERA must go down and Lowe must avoid tough stretches. Kenshin Kawakami is more comfortable in his second season in the States, and he could be the best fifth starter in the game.
Billy Wagner has wanted to pitch in Atlanta for years, and he finally got his wish when the Braves brought him in to replace Rafael Soriano. Wagner is getting older, but after having Tommy John surgery he's now healthy. Wagner has fit in perfectly in the Atlanta clubhouse, and the other pitchers really look up to him. Takashi Saito needs to find the magic he had a few years ago in Los Angeles, when he was a dominant pitcher. Peter Moylan and Eric O'Flaherty are back, and both are workhorses. Kris Medlen could be Cox's favorite this year, and he could start if needed. Jesse Chavez came over for Soriano, and despite a bad spring the Braves like him a lot. Jo Jo Reyes moves from the rotation to the pen, at least until veteran Scott Proctor returns from elbow surgery. If healthy, this group of relievers is very strong.
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly column for The Macon Telegraph. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.
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