It was a great, great weekend for fans of the Atlanta Braves as the franchise icon and rookie stud made impressive debuts. Much ballyhooed 1B Freddie Freeman was 3 for 3 (All doubles to all 3 fields!)in his Grapefruit League debut Saturday(February 26th) vs the New York Mets . This week’s Sports Illustrated cover boy(Feb 28th issue, along side 2010 ROY Jason Heyward) looks to be every bit as good as the hype.
Meanwhile future hall of famer 3b-OF Chipper Jones made an early return from his August knee injury(Torn left ACL) Sunday. The face of the Braves was not projected to be back before Mid March originally but DH-ed vs the New York Mets Sunday February 27th. Jones was 1 for 3 and even attempted to break up a double play with slide in the fourth inning. Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez plans to use Chipper at DH until March 6th then he hopes to put him in the field while the player hopes to take reps at 3rd in the next week . All signs point to Jones being able to play his stated goal of 130 games.
After a busy offseason that saw the Atlanta Braves add an elite bat at 2B, one of the more interesting camp battles is who will replace all time great Billy Wagner at closer in 2011. New manager Fredi Gonzalez has maintained that both LH Jonny Venters and RH Craig Kimbrel will both get 9 inning work,dependent on match-ups. Kimbrel’s power stuff and numbers say closer while anytime you have a southpaw pitching the 9th it gives the the defensive team a distinct advantage. This should fun to watch all year and could become a nice problem with multiple options late in games.
Meanwhile, position players wise lets assume much ballyhooed rookie Freddie Freeman is the opening day first basemen. The biggest question might be where does IF-OF Martin Prado play. Prado will be in the lineup almost everyday but which position is dependent on the health of future hall of famer Chipper Jones, who continues his come back from late season ACL knee surgery. If Chipper is good to go, Prado will be in left field, Jones at 3B. If he is not, Prado will play third with a young player in left. Obviously, the Braves are much better club with Jones healthy and reports have been positive so far.
With less than 24 hours before the start of the Fredi Gonzalez era in Atlanta, followers of the Braves have much to look forward too. In this week’s issue of USA Today Sports Weekly, the publication posted their annual Top 100 Names you need to know in 2011, basically listing top rookies, break thru young players and so forth. Amazingly, Atlanta has 2 of the top 3 names and another at 8! Closer candidate Craig Kimbrel is #2 and rookie 1b Freddie Freeman is third while RH SP Julio Teheran is 8! The depth of the organization is further enhanced when you have rotation candidate Brandon Beachy #30. RHP Kimbrel averaged 14.4 strikeouts per 9 innings in 3 minor league seasons and was incredible when called up late in the 2010 season, boosting the number to 16.9 in 25 combined regular season and playoff innings. Freeman, a close friend of 2010 Rookie of the year and Atlanta RF Jason Heyward, hit .319-.378-.521 with 18 home runs and 87 rbi in 461 at bats at Triple A in 2010. The 6’5, 225 pounder is also adapt with the glove and enters camp as the starting 1st baseman. Teheran, a 19 yr old phenom, threw a career high 142 innings in the minors last season and while he has been invited to spring training, the club has other options in the rotation and Teheran would have to be Sandy Koufax-Dwight Gooden good to start the year in Atlanta , barring injury and/or trade. Beachy , a former non-drafted free agent, enters spring training as a top rotation candidate. The right hander went 0-2 with a 3.00 era in 3 starts(15 innings) after being called up late in 2010.
After an exciting offseason that was hi-lighted by adding all star 2B Dan Uggla the Atlanta Braves still face some questions entering the 2011 campaign. The health of veteran team leader INF-OF Chipper Jones(ACL surgery) is one but the final spot in the starting rotation is another. The top 4 slots are filled by veterans Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens and that group is solid. The big decision that new skipper Fredi Gonzalez faces is who will man the 5 spot. 2009 1st round pick Mike Minor(3-2,5.98 in 9 ML games(8 starts) in 2010) has to be the odds on favorite and he set a franchise rookie record with 12 strike outs last year. The southpaw was 3-0 with a 3.91 in his first 4 starts but the 1st year pro appeared to fatigue over his final 4 starts(0-2,9.37). Minor believes the experiences of 2010 will aid his development. Veteran free agent signee Rodrigo Lopez(7-16,5.00 and a ML high 37 hrs allowed for the Diamondbacks in 2010) and undrafted signee Brandon Beachy are the other candidates. Lopez threw 200 innings last year while Beachy(1.73 in 120 innings) led the minors in era despite not even being invited to Braves spring training. In 3 September starts, he went 0-2 with A 3.00 ERA.
Many people wonder why the names and numbers change on the back of the uniform yet the Atlanta Braves continue to win and play consistent baseball. About 2 weeks ago, we saw evidence why. 26 Braves prospects participated in a week long rookie-development camp, an idea hatched by Atlanta GM Frank Wren. Veteran stars addressed the group with Tim Hudson speaking on recovering from injury while all star C Brian McCann talked about staying up after reaching the majors. 2010 rookie sensation RF Jason Heyward used his own experience to focus on meeting expectations.
3b Chipper Jones also spoke to the group and has made great progress coming back from season ending knee surgery. He has started swinging in a batting cage yet has not run or played the field. Both Jones and Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez are confident the future hall of famer will be ready by opening day.
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