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After sending longtime skipper Bobby Cox out with one last playoff appearance, their first since 2005, the Braves got right to work on 2011, turning to former Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez to usher in a new era.
But really, that era already began during their years without a playoff appearance. It began with players like Brian McCann and Jair Jurrjens and continued with Tommy Hanson and Jason Heyward over the last two years. And it's about to get a whole lot better.
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Returning to their roots of standout starting pitching, the Braves have stockpiled a system with more arms than they can fit into a starting rotation. We got a first glimpse of it last year with Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy, who will compete for a rotation spot this spring, but the best is yet to come with the elite trio of Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino, all of whom have the upside to push Hanson for opening day honors over the next decade or so.
Of course, they'll have to continue developing for now. The Braves still have veterans Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe anchoring the staff, not that they're any sort of letdown. Throw in a young bullpen that has strikeout artist Craig Kimbrel ready to step in for retired closer Billy Wagner (and an equally impressive Jonny Venters backing him up), and the Braves shouldn't have any needs on the mound this season.
But what about their lineup? Freddie Freeman joins Jason Heyward in the team's transition to the future, but the veteran presence remains. Chipper Jones may never be the same coming off knee surgery, but the Braves insured themselves with the addition of Dan Uggla, who gives All-Star second baseman Martin Prado the flexibility to play left field or third base and the lineup as a whole its first 30-homer threat since Mark Teixeira left in 2008.
Breakout ... Jason Heyward, OF
Heyward is almost too obvious here. He was practically a must-start in Fantasy last year even though he had a month when he hit only .181 and even though he finished with just 18 homers. The rookie barely scratched the surface of his potential, yet he still found a way to contribute, showing adaptability well beyond his 21 years of age. He ranked 10th among full-time players with a .393 on-base percentage, which means his progression is mostly a matter of him getting comfortable and developing physically. In other words, he could take off as a .300-hitting, 30-homer machine any day now. Even an offseason of rest for his troublesome thumb -- the reason for that one poor month -- could make a world of difference. Heyward comes with an abundance of hype for the second straight season, but he's worth drafting ahead of his numbers as a top-12 Fantasy outfielder given the likelihood he'll finish in the top five.
Bust ... Alex Gonzalez, SS
Granted, nobody thinks of Gonzalez as a savior at the shortstop position, but his performance last year might lead some people to believe he's more useful than he actually is. Truth is he was a one-trick pony, and that one trick -- his 23 homers -- equaled a career high. The 34-year-old isn't at an age when career highs come easily, and this one wouldn't have happened without an especially hot start with the heavy-hitting Blue Jays. After he went to the Braves, he hit a modest six homers in 267 at-bats. Gonzalez's free-swinging ways have always made him one of the worst on-base players in the game, leaving him with nothing to fall back on if he regresses to his usual 12-15 home runs. Shortstop is as weak as ever, meaning Gonzalez no doubt has his place in Fantasy, but he has the potential to go undrafted in mixed leagues.
Sleeper ... Nate McLouth, OF
Fantasy owners were quick to jump off the bandwagon with McLouth, whose fall from grace last year was just as abrupt as his rise to glory in 2008. Some say his demise made all the sense in the world, that he was an overachiever due for a letdown. But to fall that far that fast? He wasn't just fourth-outfielder bad; he was out-of-the-major-leagues bad, spending almost all of August in the minors. But he returned to hit .273 with three homers and three steals in September, looking like the power-speed threat of old. The Braves certainly liked what they saw, giving him the ultimate vote of confidence by entering spring training without a real fallback option in center field. Power and speed are two attributes that tend to stick around for players in their late 20s, making McLouth a bounce-back candidate no matter what the naysayers say. And the best part is he'll cost next to nothing on Draft Day.
|Projected Lineup||Pos.||Projected Rotation|
|1||Martin Prado||LF||1||Tim Hudson||RH|
|2||Nate McLouth||CF||2||Tommy Hanson||RH|
|3||Chipper Jones||3B||3||Derek Lowe||RH|
|4||Brian McCann||C||4||Jair Jurrjens||RH|
|5||Dan Uggla||2B||5||Mike Minor||LH|
|6||Jason Heyward||RF||Alt||Brandon Beachy||RH|
|7||Alex Gonzalez||SS|| |
|8||Freddie Freeman||1B||CL||Craig Kimbrel||RH|
|Top bench options||SU||Jonny Venters||LH|
|R||Eric Hinske||1B/OF||RP||Peter Moylan||RH|
|R||Joe Mather||OF||RP||Eric O'Flaherty||LH|
|R||Jordan Schafer||OF||RP||George Sherrill||LH|
|Won't make the biggest impact long-term, but expected role should make him instant success in Fantasy.|
|Projected starter perhaps not as ready as Heyward was last year, but long-term potential is similar.|
|Some doubts when taken seventh overall in 2009, but strikeout rate confirmed top-of-rotation stuff.|
|Pedro Martinez type has most upside in system. Could force way into crowded rotation by midseason.|
|Crazy numbers put him on map last season. Not as much upside as Minor but could beat him for job.|
|Best of the rest: Randall Delgado, SP; Arodys Vizcaino, SP; Matt Lipka, SS; Brett Oberholtzer, SP; J.J. Hoover, SP; Carlos Perez, SP; Edward Salcedo, SS; Christian Bethancourt, C; Erik Cordier, SP; Juan Abreu, RP; Brandon Hicks, SS; Mycal Jones, SS; Adam Milligan, OF; and Tyler Patornicky, SS.|
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