They’re the feel-good team of the Grapefruit League. They’re the Atlanta Braves, and everywhere you turn someone else is gushing about them.
Buster Olney of ESPN.com picks them to finish second in the National League East and to win the wild card. (Link requires registration.) Writes Olney: “The Braves look tremendous this spring. Jason Heyward looks great; Tim Hudson looks great. ‘The two best teams I saw this spring — the two teams that looked the most crisp — were the Braves and Rays,’ one evaluator said.”
And here’s Albert Chen of SI.com giving his reasons why the Braves can finish ahead of Philadelphia:
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.”
Chen on Tim Hudson:
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, [Jair] Jurrjens, and Derek Lowe — could give the Braves the deepest rotation in the division.
Chen on Glaus:
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.”
Gee whiz. Faced with all this optimism, I’m almost sorry I picked the Braves to finish third behind Florida and Philadelphia. Almost.