Confident Braves healthy, reloaded entering '11
NL Wild Card winners set to challenge Phils in NL East
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Coming off their club's first postseason appearance in five years, many of the Braves' veterans arrived in camp confident about this year's journey. As they exited camp earlier this week, Chipper Jones felt a sense of familiarity that was present when he and his Atlanta teammates were in the process of capturing 14 consecutive division titles.
"We feel like we have the kind of confidence that when we walk out on that field we expect to win," Jones said. "That's a good feeling to have. That's the feeling we had the first 12 years I was here. We kind of lost it for a couple of years, but that winning mentality is starting to come back."
Minus retired closer Billy Wagner, the Braves return this year with essentially the same core they utilized to capture the National League's Wild Card entry last year and stage a tightly-contested Division Series against the eventual World Series champion Giants.
As long as Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters are capable of proving dependable in the role vacated by the retired Wagner, the Braves actually have reason to believe they'll be better than last year's bunch, which didn't benefit from the kind of power Dan Uggla will supply at second base this year.
Enhancing the Braves' optimism is the fact that both Chipper Jones and Nate McLouth came to camp and proved they could be key ingredients in this new-look lineup. Jones' surgically-repaired left knee appeared sound as he crushed opposing pitchers throughout the exhibition season.
"Chipper looks phenomenal," Braves Opening Day starter Derek Lowe said. "It doesn't look like he's at all hampered by anything. He's huge for our team. A guy like that is so important because he is going to get on base and he is going to walk 100 times in a year. Our lineup is probably a little bit better at this point than it was last year."
When the Braves acquired Uggla from the Marlins in November, they were confident they acquired the right-handed power the lineup lacked last year.
But it wasn't until this last month that Braves general manager Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez could truly be confident about what to expect from Jones, who tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in August, and McLouth, who endured a nightmare while hitting .190 last year.
"You can't take a breather against anybody in our lineup," Jones said. "Nate has swung the bat outstanding down here so far. What everybody was deeming question marks before we got down here, namely myself and Nate, I think we've put those to rest."
In the process of answering these questions, the Braves seemed to steadily grow more respect over the past month.
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
"I can't wait to see what this team can do," Braves left fielder Martin Prado said. "Everybody is saying the Phillies are the best team. That's fine. It takes a lot of pressure off our team's shoulders. Everybody is going to watch the Phillies and they're not going to care about us. That's fine."
When the Braves acquired Uggla, Prado accepted the decision to move him to left field and spent the past month proving he is athletic enough to make a smooth transition.
The other change to this year's lineup centers around the addition of first baseman Freddie Freeman, who teams with right fielder Jason Heyward to give the Braves a pair of 21-year-old players in their lineup.
From a pitching perspective, the most significant changes were made in the bullpen, which no longer can benefit from Wagner's dependability and veteran leadership. Right-handed reliever Scott Linebrink has accounted for some of those leadership responsibilities and by the end of Spring Training, there wasn't much reason to doubt whether Venters and Kimbrel were capable of sharing the closer's role.
"It's a luxury we have that we have two guys that have closer-stuff," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "Whether [Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell] decide to go that way, that's up to them. But we have that luxury."
The Braves also have the luxury of once again forming their rotation around Tim Hudson, who proved to be a strong Cy Young candidate most of last year, and Lowe, who still seems to be carrying the confidence he gained while going 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA in five September starts last year.
The optimism surrounding the Phillies significantly grew in December when Cliff Lee joined a rotation that already included Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.
But with Hudson and Lowe being supported by Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens and Brandon Beachy, the Braves feel they also have a pretty special rotation.
"We definitely have a very tough division," Hanson said. "But with our lineup and our pitching, we're definitely going to have a chance. Every night we go out there we're going to compete. I think everybody in here feels really good about our team and going up against anybody."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.