Wednesday, March 27, 2013

My excitement highest for start of Braves season since 1974

I know it is a stretch to say this is the most excited I have been for the start of an Atlanta Braves season since 1974, but I feel that way.
As a boy back then, Hank Aaron was on the verge of passing Babe Ruth to become the home run king. I remember the disappointment I felt when the 1973 season ended and 'The Hammer' was stuck at 713. It was a long winter indeed, but fortunately, we did not have to wait long for Aaron to get the deed done when the 1974 season started.
He pasted a homer off Cincinnati's Jack Billingham on April 4 to tie the Babe at 714, and then, of course, he took the Dodgers' Al Downing deep on April 8 to break the record. It was a remarkable accomplishment, but unfortunately for fans, it was only a brief oasis as the Braves struggled mightily from then until the ‘90s. Only the Western Division title in 1982 brought relief.
The Braves have had tons of success in the last twenty years or so, but I cannot recall the sense of anticipation I am feeling since back in 1974.  Maybe I should plead guilty to being a fan who caught a bad case of complacency as the team won 14 consecutive divisional titles. Sustained excellence can take the edge off even the most devoted fans.
The Braves won 94 games last year and look locked to produce a strong season. Seriously, what is not to like?
The outfield has the potential to be the best defensive outfield in the National League. Jason Heyward won his first Gold Glove award last year, and Justin and B.J. Upton both have range (along with Heyward) that will make it difficult for batters to find the outfield gaps.
First baseman Freddie Freeman is emerging as one of the better players at his position. Despite seeing his batting average drop to .259 last year, his swing is too sweet to remain that low. A batting line-up including Freeman, Heyward, and the Upton brothers is formidable, and if this group does not deliver a combined 100 home runs, it will have to be considered a major disappointment.
At third base, the retirement of Chipper Jones leaves a void so it only seems logical that a platoon would be needed to plug it. Both Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson have power and should bring stability with Johnson chipping in at first base on occasion as needed. A combined 20 home runs is not out of the question for this platoon and their free-swinging ways should produce a nice breeze on sultry nights at Turner Field.
Of course, there are concerns. As much upside as shortstop Andrelton Simmons has, it remains to be seen what he can do during a 162-game stretch especially if he hits lead-off.  Also, second baseman Dan Uggla’s power followed his batting average south last year as he struggled with 19 home runs. At this point, anything gotten from Uggla will have to be considered a bonus and expectations for him should be cautious.
As for the pitching, the Braves have arguably the best bullpen in baseball, and if the offense can just get them the lead by the sixth inning, they will win a lot more than they lose. Craig Kimbrel had 88 saves in the last two seasons, and he will be set up by stalwarts Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters (who is currently experiencing elbow problems), and Jordan Walden.
As for the starters, can Kris Medlen continue his hot streak (10-1, 1.57 ERA last year)? Probably not to the degree from last year, but he appears capable of big things. Though aging, Tim Hudson still looks dependable and capable of delivering 15 wins.  Underrated Paul Maholm is dependable, and if Mike Minor can pitch for the entire season like he did in last year’s second half, he should be on everybody’s fantasy team.
So, the excitement is there. Can the Braves deliver on such promise? Time will tell.

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