Every day in spring training until we finish the entire league, Big League Stew takes a brief capsule look at each team we visit in the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues. Next stop is the campus of Walt Disney University, where the Braves are moving on — and up, they hope — without their legendary manager.
2010 RECORD: 91-71, second place in NL East, lost in NLDS to San Francisco Giants
BIGGEST ACQUISITION: He's been among the top slugging middle infielders in the majors, but Dan Uggla(notes) is coming off a career season — 33 homers, .877 OPS — and is probably the Braves best hitter after Jason Heyward(notes).
BIGGEST DEPARTURES: It has to be manager Bobby Cox, of course, who was synonymous with the Braves for more than two decades. Among the players, closer Billy Wagner(notes) has retired after bowing out in the playoffs with an injury.
FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BRAVES
1. Is the right team favored in the NL East? This can be answered with a big ol' "probably, but ..." The Phillies are working on a five-peat, but they're limping around right now — especially on offense with Chase Utley's(notes) gimpy knee and Domonic Brown's(notes) fractured hand. The Braves had a seven-game lead in late July and were up three games in Sept. 1. From top to bottom, the Braves might have as much or more pitching depth as anyone in the NL. They can keep it close.
2. What changes with Fredi Gonzalez in the manager's seat? Look at it as a continuation, of sorts. Gonzalez was Cox's top lieutenant from 2003-2006 — and managed in Triple-A before that — so he knows the organization and several of the current players. It's a different relationship when you have to be in charge, but Cox has hailed Gonzalez's communication skills (something Cox was known for) and added that Gonzalez might have fresh ideas to help get the Braves over the top. It's more important for GM Frank Wren to keep the players coming, but Gonzalez will know what to do with them.
3. Can Craig Kimbrel(notes) be the man in the ninth? Billy Wagner was superb in his career swan song, striking out 104 in 69 innings, so that's a tall order. He's just 22, with 20 2/3 major league innings logged so far, and he's gotten off to a slow start this spring. His stuff is electric, and they're giving him the opportunity, but with relievers being so flighty as a group, it's tough to simply assume he'll get 30 saves in his first full season.
4. Which Nate McLouth(notes) are they going to get? Not to be mean, but McLouth was just horrendous in 2010, finishing with a .620 OPS. He actually hasn't been all that great since his breakthrough season in 2008, but the Braves don't need McLouth to be an All-Star. Just, you know, good. One of his teammates — who sounds a lot like a hitting coach here — likes what he has seen from McLouth in the spring:
"He seems to have a little bit of a different mentality," Chipper Jones(notes) said. "We need him to. He’s hitting the ball the other away, getting base hits. You’re seeing him swing and miss a lot less. Wherever he hits [in the lineup]. I love the fact he can handle the bat.
"What I want to see him do is come unglued on 2-0 pitches, 3-1 pitches. He’s a guy who can hit 20, 25 home runs in a good year. I just saw him too passive in those situations. We want to see him pull the trigger. There’s a time to draw your walks, there’s a time to be aggressive; 2-0 and 3-1 is the time to be aggressive. He can do ultimate damage and we need that from him."
5. How much does Chipper have left in the tank? Jones hit a long home run Sunday and played flawlessly at third base. He was most pleased that he felt no pain in his surgically reconstructed left knee. He's had a couple of rough seasons in a row after winning the batting title in 2008. He's 38 years old. He looked really good, if not fast, running the bases. I think he's in for a bit of a renaissance. Who's with me?