Scott Michaux

Sports columnist for The Augusta Chronicle. | ScottMichaux.com

Don't count out Braves in East

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The warning signs are everywhere.

Fredi Gonzalez (left) enters his first season as manager of the Braves with a solid lineup and talented pitching staff. Many see Philadelphia as the East's best, but Atlanta should challenge.   Associated Press
Associated Press
Fredi Gonzalez (left) enters his first season as manager of the Braves with a solid lineup and talented pitching staff. Many see Philadelphia as the East's best, but Atlanta should challenge.

The Phillies rotation is invincible (blah, blah, blah).

The SI cover jinx is in play (la-di-da).

Larry the Unstable Guy's rebuilt old knee is already a little sore (OK, that one really is a little worrisome).

The Atlanta Braves are not favored to win the National League East this year. Philadelphia and its formidable four starters is firmly penciled in as the team to beat.

Yet it is impossible not to be optimistic about this year's Braves. Maybe it's just spring training fever, but there are more reasons to be excited about this Atlanta team than any in the past 10 years. The polarizing blend of old and new is simply irresistible to daydreaming.

Fredi Gonzalez -- the younger, bilingual clone who replaced managerial fixture Bobby Cox -- inspires a comfortable confidence by doing most things the same ways that have worked fairly well for 20 years. Not a discouraging word has been uttered about the regime change.

It's the other new pieces that really get the juices flowing about this year's team. Pieces like power-hitting second baseman Dan Uggla and prized prospects Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel.

All reports out of Disney this week point to Uggla being the perfect fit for the Braves, who spent $62 million to fill a glaring need in both the middle infield and the batting order. The 30-year-old right hander averaged better than his age in home runs the past five seasons with the Florida Marlins. Those 30-plus dingers will figure nicely in a lineup that should be stout from top to bottom.

That bottom piece will likely be Freeman, the 21-year-old first baseman ranked the 17th best prospect by Baseball America . Freeman was pictured with his old roommate Jason Heyward on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated , raising red flags among those who believe in curses. Maybe the wounds haven't healed since Jeff Francoeur was hailed as "The Natural" on an SI cover six years ago, but here's betting these kids are alright.

Freeman, Heyward and Uggla should hold down the right side of the Braves defense for years to come. The left side of the field is a lot more fragile.

The key is nearly 39-year-old Chipper Jones at third base. Back from a surgically repaired left knee, Jones is back for one more shot at a World Series. The Braves can only hope to get maybe 100 games out of him before he starts his five-year countdown to the Hall of Fame ballot.

The lineup, without question, looks a lot more impressive with Chipper (resembling his old self) in the No. 3 spot behind Martin Prado and Nate McLouth and in front of Uggla, Brian McCann, Heyward, Alex Gonzalez and Freeman.

Should Jones' health breakdown again, Prado will move to third base with a healthy Jordan Schafer or Eric Hinske filling the spot in the outfield. It's not a crushing blow, but still a blow nonetheless if the last link to the Braves' glory days of the 1990s is lost.

Of course, the key to any major league team's success is pitching. While I'd take the Braves bats any day over the weakening lineup of the Phillies, the Atlanta rotation pales in comparison to the Halladay-Oswalt-Lee-Hamels juggernaut in Philadelphia.

But the Braves starters are not slouches. A healthy rotation of Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens is more than capable of delivering another postseason run, especially backed up with a relief staff that the Phillies would dearly love to have. Hudson, 35, showed his age a little down the stretch last season, but the Braves need him to be the ace once more before having to lean more on youngsters Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor or No. 1 prospect Julio Teheran.

The most critical pitching theme, however, is whether Kimbrel can fill the closer role vacated by Billy Wagner. The 22-year-old certainly has the tools as he showed with his 0.44 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 21 relief appearances last season. It's clear the Braves would like him to assume the role and keep Jonny Venters among the setup staff.

All in all, there is a lot to feel good about with these Braves -- both for the future and the present. Everyone already measuring the Phillies' fingers for rings might want to hold off until October.

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