It’s now time to take a look at the two eastern divisions, home to five of the last six pennant winners.
After a strong second half put them in wild-card contention, the Atlanta Braves and their deep rotation are looking to challenge the Phillies in the NL East.
In his 16th season with the Braves, Chipper Jones continues to be the leader of this team.
While his numbers have dropped since his prime (it seems like Chipper has been one of the best third basemen in the game for my entire life), he still can produce.
Jones hit 18 home runs and drove in 71 RBIs last season. While both were career lows, any 37-year-old ballplayer would take ‘em any day.
Jones’ value to his team goes beyond his stats — he is the Brave’s cornerstone and locker-room leader. Look for his numbers to drop slightly this season, but for Chipper to make his money off the field as well.
Nate McLouth, who the Braves picked up from the Pirates in Pittsburgh’s annual dumping of its best player, hit 20 home runs and drove in 70 RBIs last season, while stealing 19 bases.
McLouth has been consistent over the past three years, so look for his numbers to improve this season, but only by so much.
Brian McCann has been the most consistent bat in the Braves’ lineup over the past four years, blasting 21 home runs and driving in 94 RBIs last season while hitting .281.
The Georgia native is also a solid defensive catcher, and has been selected to the All-Star Game four seasons in a row. If the Braves make a push this season, McCann will have likely something to do with it.
Melky Cabrera, who came over from the Yankees in exchange for Javier Vasquez, is looking to break out now that he is no longer hitting in the tough AL East. Cabrera is a strong center fielder with both power and speed.
Look for him to increase both his home run (13) and RBI (68) totals this season.
Troy Glaus, who spent the majority of the 2009 season on the Cardinals’ DL, hopes to make one last push before retirement playing first, and Martin Prado, who batted .307 with 11 home runs last season will start at second.
Yunel Escobar, a .300 hitter with some power who hails from Cuba will start at shortstop, and 20-year-old Jason Heyward will look to man centerfield in his rookie season.
After signing with the Braves before last season, Derek Lowe delivered with a 15-win season. His age (36) and high ERA (4.67) would make any manager nervous (especially from his ace), but Lowe has delivered the goods in each of the past eight seasons.
The Braves will need Lowe to stay healthy and keep batters off the bases if they are going to challenge the Phillies for the division.
Jair Jurrjens, coming off both a stellar season and shoulder injury, appears to be the Braves’ ace of the future. After a rookie season in which Jurrjens won 13 games, he developed his game and finished the 2009 season with 14 wins, 152 strike outs, and an unbelievable 2.60 ERA.
If he can come back from injury without any trouble, look for him to make some serious noise this season.
Tommy Hanson, brought up in the middle of last season as a highly touted prospect, did not disappoint in his first stint in the majors. He won 11 games in 21 attempts, while striking out 116 and keeping his ERA below 3.00.
If he maintains his game, he will have a big future in the majors.
Rounding out the rotation will be Tim Hudson, who will be starting his first full season after Tommy John surgery, and Kenshin Kawakami, who in his first season in the majors only won seven games but posted a respectable 3.86 ERA.
As he becomes more familiar with major league batters, look for his game to improve.
Billy Wagner will start the season as the Braves’ closer after the departure of Rafael Soriano to Tampa Bay. Takashi Saito will be setting him up.
As has been the case so many times in the recent past, the Atlanta Braves have one of the deepest pitching staffs in baseball, with five strong arms from the top to the bottom.
But in order for them to win, the rotation will have to stay healthy. If they can do so, the offense should have enough firepower for the Braves to win games.
But, more than likely one or two members of the rotation will break down, keeping the Braves from catching the Phillies. The Braves’ best shot at the postseason will be through the wild card spot, and they will have to consistently win to keep the Rockies, Giants, and Marlins at bay.
Look for the Braves to finish second in the NL East, and make a late run at the NL wild card spot.