Every day in spring training until we're finished with the entire league, Big League Stew takes a brief capsule look at each team we visit in Florida and Arizona. Next up are the Atlanta Braves, who are looking for their first NL East title since way back in 2005.
2009 RECORD: 86-76, 3rd in NL East
BIG ACQUISITIONS: Bolstered by a post-Tommy John stint with Boston and a desire to become a Hall of Famer, Billy Wagner(notes) signed a one-year contract to become the Braves' closer. ... Melky Cabrera(notes) comes over from the Yankees, but considering his cost (see Vazquez, Javier), his arrival hasn't been heralded by Braves fans. ... Troy Glaus(notes) signed a one-year deal around Christmas time after playing in only 14 games for St. Louis in 2009.
BIG DEPARTURES: After a career year, Javier Vazquez(notes) was sent to the Yankees for a second stint and the Braves will miss all the quality innings he ate. ... Keeping reliever Rafael Soriano(notes) became too expensive, so he was shipped off to Tampa Bay in exchange for Jesse Chavez(notes). ... Garret Anderson(notes) was jettisoned to the free-agent scrap heap. ... Adam LaRoche(notes) will perform his second-half feats with the Diamondbacks. ... Lefty Mike Gonzalez(notes) is an Oriole now.
FIVE QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT THE BRAVES:
1. Will the Braves send Bobby Cox out in style? Atlanta's long-time skipper is hanging 'em up after the season and letting him leave with 15 NL East titles sure seems like a nice parting gift. There's little doubt Atlanta will be a playoff contender in 2010 — the Braves were in the thick of the wild-card race last season until dropping their final six games — but standing in their way of the NL East title is a not-so-little team named the Phillies. To capture one more division flag, Cox will have to lead his team past one that has won three straight divisions and will give up about as easily as those old Braves teams did. Robbing the wild card from the Rockies seems like a more realistic plan.
2. What about Chipper Jones(notes)? Is this his final year, too? The 38-year-old third baseman is currently emphasizing that he means what he said about hanging them up if his old stroke doesn't return. After winning the NL batting title in 2008 with a .364 mark, Jones' average fell 100 points in 2009, even though he played in 143 games. Chipper says that he doesn't want to play out the string as a role player and if he really means that, you have to admire his conviction considering he'll be walking away from the final two years of his contract and a guaranteed paycheck of $28 million.
3. Now that Vazquez is gone, who is Atlanta's ace? If Frank Wren had any defense in trading Vazquez, it's that he was dealing from a position of strength when it comes to the starting rotation. Of course, Braves fans would have liked to see a higher return, but all things being equal, Cox doesn't have a shortage of above-average pitchers.
That being said, each starter comes equipped with his own question mark and you usually don't want your aces being equipped with any sort of question mark. Tim Hudson(notes) still isn't that far removed from Tommy John surgery; Tommy Hanson's(notes) workload needs watching during his sophomore season and Jair Jurrjens(notes) recently scared everyone with his shoulder pain. Derek Lowe(notes), the opening day starter, is another year older after failing to post the numbers that earned him a four-year, $60 million contract after his 2008 season with the Dodgers. Still, it's a nice group if everyone stays healthy and maybe a great one if anyone puts together a season that will earn himself a high vote total in the Cy Young race.
4. Why aren't more people gushing over Brian McCann(notes)? That's a good question. It's often been said that Joe Mauer(notes) is hogging the great hitting catcher spotlight and it's quite possible that his ungodly numbers make McCann's numbers seem run of the mill. It's also an understatement to say that McCann isn't a good defensive catcher.
Still, that doesn't mean we shouldn't applaud McCann, who has averaged 22 homers, 92 RBIs and a slash line of .296/.357/.506 over his first four full seasons (All-Star worthy campaigns, by the way). He's expecting another big season in 2010 after having another Lasik surgery to fix a botched previous attempt in 2007.
5. Will Jason Heyward(notes) be the NL Rookie of the Year? One of the best reasons to like the Braves this year comes in the fact that they have such a good mix of solid veteran and young talent with high ceilings. You've already heard a lot about Heyward, who falls in the latter camp. If (and when) the 20-year-old wins Atlanta's right field job, he'll have every opportunity to compile numbers that will put him on track to win ROY — just like his childhood hero, Derek Jeter(notes).
BLS editor Kevin Kaduk is currently on a week-long tour of spring training camps in Florida. To ride shotgun, follow him at @bigleaguestew.