Editor's note: This column was printed prior to the trade that sent Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton Jr. to San Diego for Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin, two prospects and a draft pick.
Here we are on the eve of a baseball season, and for the first time in forever, no one knows what the Atlanta Braves are going to do. It’s unusual, for sure.
You might have to go back to 1991 for the last time it was hard to predict a Braves team. That was John Schuerholz’s first season as general manager. He had signed veteran free agents like Terry Pendleton and Sid Bream to join young stars like David Justice and Ron Gant. The Braves were waiting for young pitchers like Tom Glavine and John Smoltz to blossom, but there was no way to know that team would make it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.
But after that year, it was easy almost every spring to predict the Braves would be playoff contenders. In the past decade, since the end of the 14-season playoff run, it has been a bit more difficult to have as much certainty about their chances, but you could always find someone that would believe in the Braves.
Not this season. No magazine is going to pick them for the postseason. No one is going to go out on a limb and say the Braves will surprise everyone. This year, no one really knows what this team will do.
It’s easy to believe the Braves might not be very good at all. They’ve made a lot of changes. Can a team with 14 new faces do well quickly? How about the lineup? There are a lot of questions. But can it be any worse than last season, when the Braves couldn’t score any runs?
There’s no way anyone can predict this Braves team will win the NL East. The Washington Nationals’ rotation is very good, although they have questions in the bullpen and several position players hurt to start the season. The Miami Marlins have added a lot of players, but they are making a strong push for the playoffs. And the New York Mets have pitching, which could make them much better.
The Braves might not be great, but they’re not going to be horrible. They have pitching. The rotation has three new members (Shelby Miller, Eric Stults and Trevor Cahill), but it could be very solid. Craig Kimbrel is the best closer in the game, and the team added solid veteran setup men in Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson. It has the potential of being a very good pitching staff.
There is no doubt the offense is a concern. But count me as excited to see what Eric Young Jr. can do as a leadoff man. Maybe we’ll just be glad that Melvin Upton Jr. is not there instead. Count me as excited to see what Jace Peterson can do as the second baseman. He was tremendous this spring, and the Braves might have gotten a steal in the Justin Upton trade if Peterson can show he can be a starter in the big leagues.
Someone is going to have to protect Freddie Freeman in the lineup. Chris Johnson needs to be the Chris Johnson from 2013, when he hit .321 and had an on-base percentage of .358, and not the Chris Johnson of last season, when he hit only .263 and had an OBP of .292. Andrelton Simmons must also do better at the plate. You don’t have to worry about him defensively, but Simmons must contribute with the bat.
This is going to be a team where several have to help it win instead of relying on one player. But maybe that will work. And again, is there any way this offense can be worse than last year? If it is, then count on a long season.
But this year will not just be about wins and losses. This is about the process that the Braves have started in fixing what has been broken. It won’t happen overnight, and that’s why we have to also watch what happens with the young players in the farm system. We have to watch what happens in June with the draft. We might want to pay more attention to this team in the second half of the season, when more critical players could come up and we can see how they’ll help in the future.
The best part about this season is everyone in the front office will be on the same page. There is a goal now, and even if it is getting the team ready for the new SunTrust Park in two years, at least we know there is something to look forward to that is better than what this team had a year ago.
I’m taking the easy way out and saying the Braves will go 79-83, which, yes, was their record last season. But there is no way it will be as bad as last season. It will be frustrating at times, watching a team try to prove itself and find its identity. There will be hope, however, which will be a step in the right direction.
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 www.twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.