Braves, not Phillies, may be the best team in N.L. East

Jason Heyward, Chipper Jones and Frank Wren may look up at division pennant after this year.

Jason Heyward, Chipper Jones and Frank Wren may be looking at division title this year.

When they were hanging banners for 14 straight seasons, the Braves had more than merely great parts. A team that wins so often and for so long develops a confidence and a belief that can’t be taught, it has to be experienced.

“You want to get back to that point where you walk onto the field every day and you just expect to win,” Chipper Jones said Tuesday. “That was something we had back in the 1990s and early 2000s. That mentality of, no matter what happens, things will fall right.”

The Braves may be at that point again.

Two years ago, they were hovering barely above .500 in early  September. Then they rose, as Don King once put it, “from the media pallet of death.” They went 15-2 and pulled to within two games of the wild card lead, only to eventually start dropping parts on the highway. Last year, we watched a perfect blend of imperfect players get back to the postseason despite a blur of injuries and lineups. The last spasm in game No. 162 got the Braves in. They eventually lost to San Francisco, the team that would win the World Series.

They are better now. More importantly, the majority players on this roster can draw on success that their predecessors from the previous few years couldn’t.

Yes, on paper, Philadelphia has one of the greatest starting pitching rotations ever assembled.

But on the field, the Braves project like National League East Division champions.

“We’ve got to play the games – we’ve got to play 162 games,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said when asked how he felt about the fact most are picking the Phillies to win the East. “They have a great pitching staff. But we feel pretty good about ours, too. So in September, let’s see where we’re at.”

The Braves’ last division title came in 2005. It was the last time they hung a banner in Turner Field until team officials decided to commemorate last year’s wild card team with a flag on banner row — only the sixth of 17 wild card participants to do so.

“Making the playoffs is special and it should be recognized,” general manager Frank Wren said.

This team could be more special. Adding Dan Uggla gives the lineup the potent right-handed bat it needed. Jason Heyward is no longer a prospect — he’s a given. Martin Prado is as good an all-around player as there is in baseball. Nate McLouth looks better. Chipper Jones made it through spring without a limp.

The starting rotation isn’t Philly’s but it is top 10 — at least. Closer Billy Wagner is gone. But Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters might be good enough to fill the void.

Think I’m drunk on the Kool-Aid? Maybe. But a lesser team won 91 games last season with a lineup that on some nights looked like that old stuffed bear you kept as a kid, despite the missing arm and the partially detached head.

About the Phillies: They’re good. They’ve won the division four of the last five years. They have a ridiculous top four in the rotation: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt. (Joe Blanton is Gummo Marx in this exercise.)

But Philadelphia has significant issues:

♦ Chase Utley has been “their heart and soul for the last several years,” Wren said. But he has patellar tendinitis, bone inflammation and something called chondromalacia. That’s Latin for: “My knee hurts.” Utley has risked public humiliation by sitting on a stool while fielding ground balls. His goal is to be back for the All-Star break. Not his projection – his goal. Doctors don’t even believe surgery would help. They’re basically declaring his right knee terminal.

♦ Closer Brad Lidge may not pitch this year. He is one hiccup away from mutating into Mike Hampton. He has had elbow problems, knee problems, biceps problems. Now his shoulder hurts. His tombstone will read: “Doctor, it hurts when I go like this.”

♦ Jayson Werth is gone. He signed a ridiculous $126 million contract in Washington, but that doesn’t diminish what he meant to the Phillies. He brought needed right-handed power.

Philly is more than beatable.

Jones again: “They’ve earned that moniker as the team to beat. But as long as we’re in the mix and people are talking about us, it’s good.”

It will be very good.

By Jeff Schultz

Follow me on Twitter @JeffSchultzAJC; friend me at Facebook.com/JeffSchultzAJC

295 comments Add your comment

dawg4u

March 29th, 2011
6:58 pm

Enter your comments here

clusters are back

March 29th, 2011
7:00 pm

Wher r u clusters

skip defabs

March 29th, 2011
7:01 pm

Jeff- what is your predicion for the year? i think realistically we could go 95-67 and that would be good enough for NL champs… fair? or foul?

dawg4u

March 29th, 2011
7:04 pm

I agree that the Braves may well be the division champs this season. Our starting 8 looks better with the Phils not having Utley or Werth. Our bullpen should again be better and hope that Venters and Kimbrel can consistently throw strikes. Utley’s injury is bad because anytime he moves laterally or tries to plant to make a throw the pain is excrutiating. I feel two big keys for us are McLouth and Freeman. The rotation the Phils have is the best I have seen since the ‘93 Braves though.

Younger Than That Now

March 29th, 2011
7:06 pm

There ya go Schultzie… that’s the way to start the season!!

GO BRAVES!!

clusters are back

March 29th, 2011
7:06 pm

For the folks that bash posters claiming first… yeah on most blogs it would be silly- on a sports blog, I think its funny. The bloggers dig to compete.I love it that my F150, gets like twelve mpg.That means I win. Unless you have a Ram.

Jeff Schultz

March 29th, 2011
7:13 pm

Hey folks — it’s baseball season. Almost.

FYI – Wrote an earlier blog on the wild card banner. For what it’s worth, it’s now covered. Braves plan to unveil it at the first home game a week from Friday.

NagoyaBrave

March 29th, 2011
7:14 pm

Nicely put. I agree. But we need all our moving parts to win this thing yeah?

Jeff Schultz

March 29th, 2011
7:14 pm

Clusters are back — new nickname?

Jeff Schultz

March 29th, 2011
7:15 pm

Skim Defabs — 95 wins could indeed win the division title. I like that possibility.

Jeff Schultz

March 29th, 2011
7:16 pm

Younger than that now — Thanks.

Sonny Clusters

March 29th, 2011
7:18 pm

Jeff, we was wondering . . . did Chipper really say, uh, “moniker”? Did you hear him say it?

We are so glad it is finally baseball season again. Clusters never miss a game.

Jeff Schultz

March 29th, 2011
7:18 pm

Martinez works easy inning in 1st. Coming off for the Braves: Prado, McLouth, Jones.

Jeff Schultz

March 29th, 2011
7:18 pm

By the way, teams using the DH today.

Kyle

March 29th, 2011
7:18 pm

Jeff- Heyward looks bigger this year can you confirm?

Coach (2011 and Fredi G. a GO!)

March 29th, 2011
7:20 pm

Awesome camera angle Jeff, it’s right over the pitchers mound and allows the viewer to see the movement of the ball out of the pitchers hand. Not to mention being able to call balls and strikes from my easy boy :)

Jeff Schultz

March 29th, 2011
7:20 pm

Kyle — Not aware that he’s bigger via weight program or anything but he’s still growing. Just a kid.

Sonny Clusters

March 29th, 2011
7:21 pm

Jeff, is anybody there?

ATL FAN

March 29th, 2011
7:21 pm

Way better than the injury prone Phils

Pond John

March 29th, 2011
7:21 pm

Ok folks in celebration of OPENING DAY:
WEDS. MARCH 30 @ EDDIE’S ATTIC in Decatur- It’s the annual salute to baseball, featuring multiple Grammy nominee John Mc Cutcheon & Chuck Brodsky AND special guest : BRAVES organist Matt Kaminsky. PLUS A Secret local celebrity singing the national anthem! This concert of baseball tunes from two of Americas best singer songwriters both of whom have played at the hall of fame in Cooperstown. Don’t miss this !!!

Jamie

March 29th, 2011
7:23 pm

dantheman

March 29th, 2011
7:23 pm

anyone that can settle this once and for all? who is the closer gonna be? I love Venters but can we afford to let Kembrel go to waste?

Coach (2011 and Fredi G. a GO!)

March 29th, 2011
7:23 pm

That wasn’t Prado’s fault, the hit and run was on. He just got caught in no man’s land.

Sonny Clusters

March 29th, 2011
7:23 pm

We was always like that when we was playing ball back in school. Clusters was always getting bigger and stronger and better looking each year. It really wasn’t fair to the girls. They couldn’t resist us when we was hitting like a state championship hits.

Jeff Schultz

March 29th, 2011
7:23 pm

Prado leads off with a single but that’s it. We’re scoreless. (How’s that for insightful commentary?)

skip defabs

March 29th, 2011
7:25 pm

just so you are all aware, i live in Idaho and will be coming out for my annual turner field party sometime in july!! Gotta show my braves some love!

Jeff Schultz

March 29th, 2011
7:25 pm

Scott Linebrink comes in for Martinez. Expect this . . . every inning.

Sonny Clusters

March 29th, 2011
7:25 pm

We already miss Chino. Fredi’s coaches appear to be in better shape and their uniform pants fit better.

Coach (2011 and Fredi G. a GO!)

March 29th, 2011
7:25 pm

dantheman, Fredi has stated that he will use both Kimbrel and Venters as closer, but I really think it’s going to be counter productive. Fredi should just name one on them as his go to guy in the ninth.

Joe Tess Fish House

March 29th, 2011
7:26 pm

Why is Chiper Jones stil on this team? He is over the hell and no good. He is alwas injrued and they have to keep him a way from Hoters!

Jeff Schultz

March 29th, 2011
7:26 pm

Sonny Clusters — Yes, Chipper actually said moniker. He has expanded his vocabulary.

Joe Tess Fish House

March 29th, 2011
7:27 pm

Anoter thing why did the Braves hire a loosing managar with a loosing record?

Jeff Schultz

March 29th, 2011
7:28 pm

Joe Tess Fish House — I’m not familiar with Hoters. Are their wings as good as Hooters?

Sonny Clusters

March 29th, 2011
7:29 pm

If we was there tonight we’d try to talk with Chipper about wanting to be a broadcaster bad. We’re not sure that’s what he meant to say but, if it is . . .

Joe Tess Fish House

March 29th, 2011
7:29 pm

I would nt no cuz I am a Church going man we we dont vist places of the flesh and niether should Chipper

Sonny Clusters

March 29th, 2011
7:30 pm

We was thinking Chipper may think Moniker is Lewinsky.

Justafan

March 29th, 2011
7:30 pm

Joe tess fish house….same reason they serve rotten fish at your fish house.

Jeff Schultz

March 29th, 2011
7:31 pm

Prado gets an error, no RBI. Run scores 1-0.

Coach (2011 and Fredi G. a GO!)

March 29th, 2011
7:32 pm

We just saw Prado’s inexperience in LF and he over ran the ball. I think we will see more of these mistakes early on during the season until Martin gets more playing time out there.

Joe Tess Fish House

March 29th, 2011
7:32 pm

Gonna B a long session 4 the Braves……Loosing manager.

Dirty Jacket

March 29th, 2011
7:33 pm

what channel the game on? i have directTV and it is not on the FSSO channel…

Dave

March 29th, 2011
7:33 pm

The optimistic view: The rotation and bullpen are as good as last year; even if he struggles, Freeman won’t be any worse than pre/post-May Glaus; McLouth can’t possibly be worse than last year; Uggla adds needed pop to the lineup; Chipper is healthier; and the team is loose and confident, and should contend.

The Pessimistic View: Last year, the Braves had 45 come-from-behind wins, and 25 wins in their last at-bat. History tells us that such phenomena don’t repeat themselves year-to-year. Gonzalez can’t hit, can’t even make contact, and makes too many bonehead plays that counter his sweet double-plays; McLouth can’t hit, and his one good year in Pittsburgh was an aberration; Chipper is going to get hurt; no one knows what Freeman will do; Hudson is good, but not as good as he pitched last year; no one knows if Jurrjens will be ever be healthy; Kimbrel has a history of control problems; and Venters will probably go the way of Medlen and Moylan and wind up under the knife after Bobby ran him out there day after day last season.

ATL FAN

March 29th, 2011
7:34 pm

George Sherrill will kill this team.

Joe Tess Fish House

March 29th, 2011
7:34 pm

Jeff who du you thing will be the biggest bust this year? Last year no dout was Jay Hayword

Justafan

March 29th, 2011
7:34 pm

dawg4u

March 29th, 2011
7:35 pm

I wish Gonzalez would at least get our fourth or fifth starter some innings tonight.

Joe Tess Fish House

March 29th, 2011
7:35 pm

Direc tv 649

Joe Tess Fish House

March 29th, 2011
7:36 pm

Oh grate Hayword up 2 bat

Sonny Clusters

March 29th, 2011
7:36 pm

Nobody ever called us a looser and nobody better do it now.

Jeff Schultz

March 29th, 2011
7:37 pm

Double header. Another base runner waster. This season is going down the drain! … Joe Tess Fish House: That was just for you.