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December 23, 2010

Expanded Horizons

Just Stick to the Plan

by Tommy Bennett

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This offseason, the Philadelphia Phillies have grabbed most of the NL East headlines. Their signing of Cliff Lee was undoubtedly the biggest free agent acquisition of the offseason. But the attention paid to the newest member of Philadelphia's rotation has obscured the potential that the Atlanta Braves will improve on their strong 2010 season. Winners of 91 games last season, the Braves sport a young offensive core, increased roster flexibility and at least six viable starting pitchers. Between the lure of the wild card and the uncertainty of the 162-game season, the Braves have at least two good reasons to resist the temptation to overreact and instead focus on adhering to the plan that got them to the postseason last year.

Atlanta already made moves to shore up uncertainty in its infield. They made one of the first big moves of the offseason when they shipped utility infielder Omar Infante and reliever Mike Dunn—both viewed as bench players a year ago -- to the Florida Marlins for slugging right-handed second baseman Dan Uggla. The Braves view Uggla as a member of the infield for years to come and are currently in talks to extend his contract. Uggla's defensive limitations will pair well with slick-fielding Alex Gonzalez, who has been retained after being acquired in last July's Yunel Escobar trade.

The Braves also believe they have solved their long-term question mark at first base. Since briefly acquiring Mark Teixeira for parts of 2007-08, Atlanta has struggled to find a slugging first baseman who can hit in the middle of the lineup. Lefty-hitting rookie Freddie Freeman, who posted an impressive line of .319/.378/.521 in Triple-A last season, will be 21 years old and in the starting lineup on opening day. With Chipper Jones hoping to return in a significant capacity next season, the Braves have addressed the area where injury hampered them the most in 2010. With Martin Prado (and his career .810 OPS) still in the fold, the Braves can deploy him at third if Jones isn't healthy or in left field if he is.

Atlanta also took significant measures to add veteran presence to an extremely promising young bullpen, which was one of the most entertaining in baseball in 2010. The 22 year-old right-hander Craig Kimbrel inherits the closer role from a retiring Billy Wagner. Despite the extra pounds Kimbrel has on Wagner, and the fact that Wagner was a lefty, Kimbrel's high-90s heat may give hitters flashbacks to Wagner's big No. 1. And Kimbrel won't be the only one bringing heat out of the Atlanta 'pen: Jonny Venters can match him pitch for pitch. Venters was the horse of the staff last season; he was just two appearances short of pitching in half the team's games. Eric O'Flaherty, the team's top lefty specialist until he succumbed to symptoms of mononucleosis last year, is healthy and poised to return. O'Flaherty won't have to shoulder the left-handed burden by himself, as the Braves signed Los Angeles Dodger pariah George Sherrill as a free agent for $1.2 million earlier this month.

The Braves also return the top four of their starting rotation, which last year posted a combined 3.80 ERA. Those four—Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens—will be joined by one of either Mike Minor, who dazzled between Double- and Triple-A in his first full season, or Brandon Beachy, who is just a year older and was perhaps even better in 2010.

All of that is without yet mentioning the most hyped prospect in baseball last season, Jason Heyward, who became the first 20 year-old to have an OBP over .390 since Alex Rodriguez. That is by design. The Braves have been doing what all good teams do: acquiring the players they need, and keeping only those who are truly worth it. It's hard to identify a position at which the Braves will decline from 2010 to 2011. When last year's team won 91 games and the NL wild card, such a state of affairs can only be counted an unqualified success. It's true that other teams will do their best to win games, but that doesn't necessarily affect the way the Braves should go about planning for the future.

Consider how the Braves could handle their trio of promising young international starters (Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, and Arodys Vizcaino), each of whom spent significant time in Single-A this year. They could ship them off to acquire a player who is approaching free agency. Undoubtedly, they had minor league talent to match or exceed the package sent by the Milwaukee Brewers to the Kansas City Royals to acquire Zack Greinke. But doing so would have required a significant increase in salary and the loss of at least one of their electric arms. By not doing so, the Braves ensured that they will have plenty of options when Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson become free agents after the 2012 season.

The ultimate question, then, is whether the Braves should change their strategy to reflect the new landscape of the NL East. It's hard to see the argument that they should. Consider that the Phillies were the oldest team in baseball—on both sides of the ball—last season, meaning the Braves' chances to win will only go up as the years pass. It will be hard, but by no means impossible, for a 90-win Braves team to make the playoffs in 2010. But if the Braves stay the course, as it appears they plan to, they'll get better as a team as the competition declines. That's a formula not just for a single year's playoff berth, but for a run of success that could make the NL East exciting for several years to come.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Related Content:  Atlanta Braves,  The Who,  Braves,  Year Of The Injury

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