12/27/10 10:00 AM EST
In '10, Braves gave Cox memorable send-off
Retiring skipper guided Atlanta to one last postseason berth
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
While saying goodbye to one legend, the Braves were saying hello to a heralded prospect who might one day secure his own legendary status. It remains to be seen where Jason Heyward's tremendous talents will carry him, but everyone will be able to remember 2010 as the year it took the All-Star outfielder just one swing to provide the reminder that he could be something special.
Heyward's three-run homer on Opening Day propelled the Braves on a journey that ended rather rudely with elimination by the eventual World Series champion Giants, who might have suffered a different fate had Brooks Conrad's glove not deserted him, or if they had been forced to compete against the cast Cox's troops had before injuries sidelined Chipper Jones, Martin Prado and Billy Wagner.
For Cox, the journey ended sooner than desired. But for his successor, Fredi Gonzalez, the pieces are in place for the Braves to build off of 2010's success.
Here is a look at the top five storylines from 2010:
5. Moving forward: Even before the Marlins freed him by dismissing him in June, Gonzalez was the leading candidate to serve as Cox's successor. The former Atlanta third-base coach was formally announced as the Braves new manager just two days after the NL Division Series concluded. His arrival marked just the beginning of a promising offseason for general manager Frank Wren.
During the first day of November's General Manager Meetings, Wren secured the right-handed power hitter he was seeking by acquiring All-Star second baseman Dan Uggla from the Marlins in exchange for utility man Omar Infante and left-handed reliever Mike Dunn. The Uggla trade proved to be the most significant move of an offseason that has also included the re-signing of the popular Eric Hinske and the acquisitions of veteran relievers Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill.
4. Hudson regains his status as an ace: When Atlanta gave Tim Hudson a three-year contract extension in November 2009, Cox said the right-hander would once again prove to be one of the game's top pitchers. The veteran manager proved correct as Hudson was a Cy Young Award candidate through the end of August.
One year after coming back from Tommy John surgery, Hudson found himself as the NL Comeback Player of the Year and a legitimate ace of a rotation that fed off his consistency. After struggling in the early portion of September, he made two starts on short rest during the regular season's final two weeks. His strong effort against the Phillies on the regular season's final day clinched the NL's Wild Card berth.
3. Prado's persistence pays off: After battling for playing time the previous two seasons, Prado took full advantage of the everyday role he was provided in 2010 and reaped the benefits when he served as the National League's starting second baseman in July's All-Star Game. The determined Venezuelan provided a much-needed spark when he became a leadoff hitter in May and undoubtedly proved to be the club's most valuable player by the time the year concluded.
Officially, the Braves' run to the postseason concluded with a Game 4 loss to the Giants on Oct. 11. But truthfully, their World Series dreams ended Sept. 27, when Prado made one of the year's most fantastic defensive plays and in the process suffered both a torn oblique muscle and hip pointer. The season-ending injuries devastated this lineup that had already been depleted by a season-ending knee injury that Jones suffered in August.
2. Heyward introduces himself to the Majors: Heyward entered the season as the game's top prospect and then managed to increase the hype surrounding him by hitting a three-run homer with his first Major League swing in front of an Opening Day crowd at Turner Field. The suburban Atlanta native certainly didn't appear to be just 20 years old when he exited May as a legit MVP candidate.
A thumb injury doomed Heyward in June and prevented him from accepting the honor he received from the fans who elected him to serve as one of the NL's starting outfielders during the All-Star Game. Heyward enjoyed one more impressive stretch during the season's second half. But the thumb ailment prevented the young phenom from regaining the power and promise he displayed while producing a 1.017 OPS through May 30. Still, he finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting and exited the season with reason to believe he'll be even better in 2011, at the age of 21.
1. Cox's final season: From the time players arrived at Spring Training, they started mentioning the importance of making Cox's final season a memorable one. By the end it proved to be one of Cox's most successful seasons. He kept his club focused after it suffered a nine-game losing streak in April and again in September, when it lost its three-month stranglehold on first place.
At the beginning of the season, the players dreamed of helping Cox at least advance to one more World Series. While this goal went unfulfilled, Cox did receive a fitting goodbye just moments after his team had been eliminated from the NL Division Series. When he stepped back on the field, the hometown fans bid adieu and the Giants stopped celebrating long enough to tip their caps to one of the game's greatest figures.
About an hour later, Cox found himself sitting on a clubhouse couch, telling stories and laughing with the players he had come to love. This was an experience he'll never forget and a season that certainly proved memorable despite the fact that it lacked the desired ending.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.