Atlanta Braves ready for special season

sports@macon.comMarch 30, 2013 

As a fan, it’s human nature to have optimism going into a new season. Regardless of how good or bad your team might be entering the year, it’s always more fun to believe it will do well, even if it might not be totally true.

Take the Atlanta Braves back in the late-1980s. If you loved the team, you wanted to believe in your heart the Braves were ready to turn things around. You might have believed those big acquisitions of Damaso Garcia and Dion James were going to make a difference.

That was thinking with your heart. If you had used your head, you would have known the Braves were headed for another dismal season and that Garcia and James were simply not very good.

I plead guilty as charged to drinking the Kool-Aid from time to time. Call me crazy, but I even believed the Braves were going to win the division the year they got Nick Esasky and Jim Presley in December 1989 for the infield.

Whoops.

It became easier in the 1990s when the Braves were always good. It was easy to believe they were going to have a special season when you knew they really were.

That’s the feeling a lot of fans have this spring. The Braves don’t have Chipper Jones anymore. Martin Prado and David Ross, two very important players the past few years, are also gone. Yet this might be the best Braves team, at least on paper, we’ve seen in a while.

There’s no doubt the Braves will have to find new leaders, as those three provided tremendous leadership in the clubhouse. But talent should outweigh obstacles like a team searching for a new leader.

This year’s team looks like a very good team. Sure, there are a few questions, but it’s almost like you’re nitpicking to find the negative. This is the best this franchise has looked going into a new season in perhaps 10 years.

Remember, the 1990s are over. The Braves haven’t gone to the World Series since 1999. They haven’t advanced to the second round, the NLCS, since 2001. So the era of great baseball has been over a while. There have been good seasons, but the greatness that was Braves baseball has really been over for a while.

This season could be the turning point. Remember how the Braves won in 1991, which happened to be the season after they had traded Dale Murphy? You have to wonder if the latest changing of the guard, with the retirement of Jones, could have a similar outcome.

Perhaps this franchise needed to be re-energized. Perhaps it had gone a bit stale and needed a facelift.

That’s what has happened. The Braves will have 16 players on the opening day roster Monday who were not on the opening day roster a year ago. That’s significant, and it shows how this team is not like the one that has been somewhat stuck in neutral the past few years.

There’s tremendous talent on this team. The additions of B.J. Upton and Justin Upton have made this team much better. Sure, they might strike out a lot. But compare what the Upton brothers could do compared to what Prado and Michael Bourn did last season, and you’ll realize the potential difference.

The defense is going to be remarkably good, as the Uptons are both elite defensive players. Put them with Jason Heyward in the outfield, and you might have the best trio in the big leagues. If the three can combine for 80 or more home runs, look out.

Atlanta’s pitchers are going to not only love the outfield defense, but there are two special players in the infield, as well. Andrelton Simmons is going to be a daily highlight film with his plays at short, and we’ve seen for two years how great Freddie Freeman is at first base.

Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson, who will both play third, could combine for 25 or more home runs. If the Braves can get 20 or more home runs from behind the plate, with Evan Gattis and eventually Brian McCann in the lineup, it could be a nightly home run derby.

Heck, I’m even so optimistic I’m holding out hope for Dan Uggla. Sure, I’ll probably be screaming at him in about three weeks if he goes 1-for-15 in a four-game weekend series. But maybe Uggla will embrace not being counted on so much, as he was in the previous two seasons, and he’ll just go hit.

Atlanta’s pitching staff? I think it’s strong. The Washington Nationals might be a bit better, but all five of the Braves’ starters could have solid seasons. And the bullpen is led by the best closer in baseball in Craig Kimbrel. Teams are going to have to get to the Braves early if they want to win.

This is a deep roster, and the Braves have the financial resources to get better if needed. Yes, the injury to Jonny Venters is a concern. But if he’s out for long, general manager Frank Wren simply will go get a reliever at some point this season.

The buzz around the talent on this team has been infectious this spring. Fans are genuinely excited and believe this could be a special season.

I’ll say 96 wins for the Braves. Washington will win the division, but the Braves will avoid an infield fly rule this time around and win the play-in game. They’ll win the next two series before losing to Detroit in the World Series.

But you know what? That’s almost the same thing I said in March 1987 before the Braves started with Garcia and James in the lineup. It’s just what we do as fans. Although this time around, we might all be right.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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