Tommy Hanson came to the majors as one of the most touted prospects in the entire system. I was able to see one of his first starts, when the Braves were at Camden Yards for an interleague game in June. That one was a so-so game, but when all was said and done, Hanson had gone 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA and shown all the markings of an ace. He’s backed up Jair Jurrjens, who had a 2.60 ERA and won 14 games, but needs to get healthy this spring. The rotation is filled out with Kenshin Kawakami, more than respectable as middle-of-the-rotation arm and Kris Medlen, a serviceable fifth guy with the potential to be more. But the most heartening development was the return of Tim Hudson, who threw 42 innings as he tries to make his way back at this late stage in his career, and had a 3.61 ERA in last year’s limited work.
Atlanta strengthened the bullpen in free agency, signing Billy Wagner to close. The former Phillies and Mets’ closer missed most of last year with an elbow problem, but a September trade to Boston gave him the chance to prove he could still pitch. In a setup role to Jonathan Papelbon, Wagner put up a dazzling 1.72 ERA and should make the ninth inning secure for Bobby Cox this year. Another veteran who stopped over in Boston has made his way to Atlanta in Takashi Saito, who had a good year in the Hub last year. Peter Moylan, with a 2.84 ERA is the one holdover from last year.
The offense was strengthened with last year’s midseason acquisition of Nate McLouth, the latest in a long line of good players the Pirates have given away for next to nothing. McClouth is a legitimate threat as both a leadoff man getting on base, and showing a little pop in the bat. He could use some work on defense, but is still a good young asset for this organization. Alongside will be Melky Cabrera, who was one part of a deal with the Yankees that shipped out Javier Vazquez. Cabrera is an excellent acquisition, solid on defense and pesky at the bottom of the order. He won’t put up huge numbers, but if he hits in the eight-hole, look him for to turn the lineup over frequently, and preventing his team from having the pitcher lead off innings. Right now he’s penciled in for left, although Cox might be better served flipping him and McClouth in the field. Those two will be joined by Matt Diaz, who played 66 games last year and flashed serious potential with the bat, with a.390 OBP and .488 slugging.
Beyond these rising stars and new acquisitions, the Braves still have their old holdovers. Brian McCann’s the best offensive catcher in the National League. Chipper Jones can still produce at third base. Yunel Escobar had a .377 on-base percentage in 2009. Troy Glaus has been signed to play first base, and even if he can’t make it back from the shoulder problems that cut his Cardinal tenure short, Atlanta can score runs.
Cox, one of the game’s truly great men, is nearing the end of the line. He’s got all the talent on hand to make a serious push for the playoffs and perhaps even challenge the Phils.
Up Next: Minnesota Twins on Monday
Final NL East Picks & Preview: March 29