After years of having many of the same players on the roster, the Atlanta Braves have seen a lot of changes the last few seasons.
Only four players (Tim Hudson, Brian McCann, Chipper Jones, and Matt Diaz) remain from the 2007 opening day roster. And when this year's roster is introduced Monday at Turner Field, only 10 were on the roster last year on opening day.
That's 15 new players, and some were brought in during last season. Atlanta's offense struggled, and over the course of the year changes were made to the lineup.
Jordan Schafer, who won the center field job last spring, struggled in May and was demoted. It was later learned Schafer played through a wrist injury. He was replaced by Nate McLouth, acquired from Pittsburgh the first week in June.
Kelly Johnson failed as the Braves' leadoff man and was benched in favor of Martin Prado, who took over as the second baseman. Prado hit .318 after June 1.
Right before the All-Star Break, Jeff Francoeur was traded to the New York Mets. Matt Diaz got the majority of playing time in right field and hit .321 in the second half of the season.
And then right at the trade deadline on July 31 Atlanta traded Casey Kotchman, who had hit only 6 home runs in 298 at bats as the starting first baseman. They brought back Adam LaRoche, who became a threat in the lineup with 12 home runs in 212 at bats.
It's very rare to see half of the starting eight position players change during the season. But the additions made a difference, as the Braves went 52-30 from June 28 through September 28 to be in the wildcard race until the last week of the season.
The improved offense complimented the best starting rotation in the game. And now, with a few more tweaks to the batting order, the Braves hope that same formula will work in 2010.
"The moves that were made midseason last year really were part of the things we could count on going into this year," said Frank Wren, starting his third season as the Braves' general manager. "We needed to keep adding to that."
Wren did that by signing Troy Glaus, a four-time All-Star at third base, to play first base. Atlanta needed to bring in a right-handed power bat with all the lefty hitters in the lineup, and Glaus has that ability. He's hit 25 home runs or more seven times in his career.
When Wren needed to trade a starting pitcher, he got Melky Cabrera from the New York Yankees as part of the price for Javier Vazquez. Cabrera is a switch-hitter who can play all three outfield positions.
"He's just a good baseball player," Wren said.
Cabrera had a good spring, and with McLouth struggling, there's a good chance Cabrera will be leading off in the opener Monday against the Cubs.
The lineup will also include a 20-year-old rookie. Jason Heyward is the consensus top prospect in the game, and he's been the talk of baseball. Heyward can hit for power, hit for average, run the bases, cover ground in right field, and he has a great arm.
That's how you describe a five-tool player, and Heyward might be even better than that.
"I'm not so sure he's not a seven-tool player," Wren admitted. "He's got plate discipline off the charts, and he's got makeup off the charts. So when you add that to the physical tools, that's more than the complete player."
The results with the new players for the lineup were positive in spring training, as the Braves averaged almost 5.5 runs per game. But there were other signs that have the Braves excited.
"I'm most encouraged about the patience our hitters have shown all spring long," Wren said. "We've really had a lot of really good at bats."
"We've historically been a very aggressive, swing early in the count, lot of strikeout-type lineups," said third baseman Chipper Jones. "This is not one of those. This is a lineup that has more walks than strikeouts and who make pitchers work."
Jones must rebound after seeing his batting average drop 100 points from his batting title season in 2008. He believes the protection he'll get from Heyward, Glaus, four-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann, and shortstop Yunel Escobar will make a difference.
"One through eight in the lineup we are tough outs," Jones said. "We've got guys who are going to go out and hit .300. We've got guys that will have .380 to .420 on base percentages. All those things, one through eight, make it really tough on pitchers."
There are more questions about the lineup, and Atlanta's ability to score runs, because there are not as many concerns about the pitching staff. Last year the Braves' rotation was the best in the game, and there's no reason to believe there will be a drop off this year.
Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson will be in the rotation from day one this season. Hanson won 11 games as a rookie after coming up in June, while Hudson had seven starts late last season after returning from Tommy John surgery.
Expect Hudson to be the anchor of the staff. He's been with the Braves longer than anyone in the rotation, and the other pitchers look to Hudson as the leader.
Jair Jurrjens is back for his third season in Atlanta. The Braves are confident he'll be as effective as he was in his first two years with the club.
Derek Lowe will start Monday's season opener against the Cubs. While he did win 15 games last season, two rough stretches pushed his ERA up to 4.67. The Braves will need more consistency from Lowe this year.
And Kenshin Kawakami rounds out the rotation as the fifth starter. The former Japanese star will be in his second season playing in the major leagues.
"He's more comfortable," said pitching coach Roger McDowell. "Everything that he came over and experienced last year was a new experience for him. He pitched some really quality games. I thought he was very, very good."
Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez are now gone, and instead of using a two-headed closer the Braves will turn to veteran Billy Wagner in the ninth inning. Wagner has 385 career saves, and he's already made a strong impression in the Atlanta clubhouse.
"He comes to work every day, and there's not a day off," McDowell said. "Billy is going to bring a tremendous amount of stability and knowledge and experience to the back end of the bullpen."
"Wags is an absolute peach," said fellow reliever Peter Moylan. "He just rolled in here with his country hat on, and his jean jacket and jean shirt and I was like, ‘wow.' He's just been a breath of fresh air. He's always happy and is just awesome."
Moylan and Takashi Saito, signed the day after Wagner last December, will be the main setup men in the bullpen. Moylan was second in the majors last season with 87 appearances, while Saito was effective in Boston pitching the eighth inning.
Eric O'Flaherty and Kris Medlen will probably rack up a lot of games pitched. They'll be joined by Jesse Chavez, acquired in the trade for Soriano, and lefty Jo Jo Reyes. Veteran Scott Proctor could join the pen sometime early in the season.
After going to the playoffs for fourteen straight seasons, the Braves have now missed the postseason four years in a row. With this being Cox's last season as manager, everyone around the team really wants to be playing in October once again.
"Bobby is always a great barometer for me," Wren explained. "When I go and visit with Bobby, when he's in a good mood and laughing and having fun, I know he likes our team. When he's more serious, I know he's got concerns. He's in a great mood right now."
"The one word that I've used to describe this team is solid," said Jones. "It's not sexy. You look at the names on the back of the jerseys and it doesn't jump off the page at you. But there have been some awfully solid teams, one through twenty-five, that have won World Series. We know we can compete with anybody on a daily basis. It's just a matter of going out and putting a solid 162 together. This team is built, more so than the last four or five teams that have been here, to be able to do that."
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Atlanta Baseball 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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