Fredi Gonzalez, new Atlanta Braves manager, speaks with guests before the start of play against the Florida Marlins  in their MLB spring training baseball game in Jupiter

Springtime Storylines: Will the Braves miss a beat without Bobby Cox?


Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The Fredi Gonzalez-led Atlanta Braves.

The Big Question: Will the Braves miss a beat without Bobby Cox?

I’ll preface my comments by saying that most of my formative years were spent watching the Braves dominate my Mets in the National League East. Irreparable damage was done to my psyche, I’ll tell you. But as much as I loved to hate those teams of the 90s and early aughts, I’ve grown to have a certain level of appreciation for familiar foes like Chipper Jones and Bobby Cox. In turn, I promise you it’s going to be just as weird for fans of opposing teams as it will be for Braves fans to see someone other than Cox in the dugout this season.

Now, don’t take that to mean that the Braves won’t continue be a pain in the neck with Fredi Gonzalez as manager. They will. They absolutely will.

While the Braves won 91 games and the National League Wild Card last season, they did so finishing 11th in the league in homers and 10th in slugging percentage. They were also 10th in the league with a .719 OPS against left-handed pitching. It was pretty obvious that they needed to add some power to their lineup during the offseason, ideally from the right side of the plate.

As luck would have it, they were able to acquire second baseman Dan Uggla, one of the consistent right-handed hitting sluggers in the game. And from one of their division rivals, no less. In early January, the Braves and Uggla agreed to a five-year, $62 million contract that will keep him with the club through 2015.

The Braves didn’t make many other changes aside from adding minor bullpen pieces like Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill, but I still think they’re improved. For example, the addition of Uggla slides Martin Prado to left field. And while Prado doesn’t fit the mold of a slugger, he should be an improvement from the pathetic .242/.302/.385 batting line the Braves got from left field last season.

Aside from Billy Wagner’s retirement, the pitching staff remains intact. And that’s a good thing. They finished third in team ERA last season, including a 3.80 ERA from their starters and a 3.11 ERA from their lights-out bullpen. I wouldn’t count on Tim Hudson to repeat his 2.83 ERA from last season, but this staff has enviable depth. When you can afford to find a better option than Mike Minor to be your fifth starter, you’re doing pretty well.

The scary part about this team is that key pieces like Tommy Hanson, Martin Prado, Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, Jair Jurrjens and new first baseman Freddie Freeman (more on him below) are all 27 years old or younger. When you figure in young pitchers like Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen (recovering from Tommy John surgery), Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters and top pitching prospects like Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado, this team is built to have success for a very long time. Happy now, Craig?

So what else is going on?

  • Fredi Gonzalez intends to have fireballing right-hander Craig Kimbrel and lefty Jonny Venters share the closer role, at least to begin the year. Fine by me. Kimbrel’s dominant stuff is tailor-made for the ninth inning – and he very well could be the primary guy before the end of the season — but he has only pitched 25 innings at the major league level (this includes the postseason) and has been prone to control problems in the minors. And while lefty closers are the exception, not the rule, Venters held righty batters to a .207/.312/.232 batting line last season. Keeping both pitchers fresh and giving opposing batters a different look in the ninth inning over the course of a series sounds like a pretty smart strategy to me.
  • Chipper Jones, who turns 39 in April, is tearing the cover off the ball this spring after undergoing career-threatening surgery to repair the ACL in his left knee last August. I’m sure he’ll miss a handful of games due to various bumps and bruises, but so far so good. He might even be a switch-hitting zombie at this point.
  • Spring training statistics don’t mean a whole lot, but Nate McLouth looks healthy and is hitting pretty well, which is quite a contrast from where he was this time last year. Is he primed for a rebound season? Perhaps. But really, can things go worse for him than they did last year? If somehow they do, the Braves have a big problem in center field.
  • For a team that is expected to contend this season, the Braves are showing an awful lot of faith in 21-year-old Freddie Freeman to be their every day first baseman. However, if everything breaks right with this team, they aren’t going to ask too much of him offensively. He’ll probably bat seventh or eighth on most days, which should take the pressure off.

So how are they going to do?

I’ll say this, I like them more for the division now than I did about a month ago. Still, I’ll go the conservative route and say they’ll finish in second place and repeat as Wild Card winners.

The Cubs’ NLCS finish was one for the history books

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 22:  Chicago Cubs fans hold a sign after the Chicago Cubs defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 in game six of the National League Championship Series to advance to the World Series against the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 22, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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The Cubs obliterated the Dodgers in Game 6 of the NLCS, riding nine shutout innings to their first pennant win since 1945. Here’s what you should know about their historic finish:

  • By virtue of the Cubs’ 71-year World Series drought, Jon Lester and Javier Baez became the club’s first and only postseason MVPs in franchise history. The World Series MVP award was first distributed in 1955, while the NLCS MVP awards have been issued since 1977.
  • Lester and Baez are also the first co-MVPs of the Championship Series since the 1990 Reds celebrated left-hander Randy Myers and right-hander Rob “Nasty Boy” Dibble following the team’s ninth pennant win (per’s Jenifer Langosch).
  • Anthony Rizzo’s fifth inning solo shot in Game 6 tied him with Miguel Cabrera, Alex Gonzalez, and Kyle Schwarber for the most postseason homers hit at Wrigley Field, with three (per Comcast SportsNet’s Christopher Kamka).
  • Rizzo and Willson Contreras’ home runs were the first Clayton Kershaw had given up in the playoffs since Game 4 of the 2015 NLDS. The twin blasts also accounted for a fifth of the total home runs Kershaw had given up in 2016.
  • Clayton Kershaw’s Game Score of 33 was not only the lowest the left-hander had put up since the start of the 2015 season, but the lowest the Cubs had seen from an opposing pitcher in the postseason since 1989. During Game 4 of the 1989 NLCS, Giants’ right-hander Scott Garrelts pitched 4 2/3 innings with eight hits, four runs, and two homers en route to a 6-4 loss and a 33 Game Score.
  • By contrast, Kyle Hendricks’ Game Score of 86 was the third-highest among Cubs’ postseason starters, ranking just below Jake Arrieta’s 11-strikeout complete game during the 2015 wild card tiebreaker and Orval Overall’s three-hitter in Game 5 of the 1908 World Series.
  • The last major league season to feature an ERA leader on the Cubs’ roster was 1945, also the last season in which the Cubs rode to the World Series. In 2016, the MLB ERA leader is Game 6 winner Kyle Hendricks (2.13 ERA); in ‘45, it was left-hander Ray Prim (2.40 ERA), who capped a dominant year with a loss against the Tigers in Game 4 of the World Series and blown save in Game 6.
  • Not to be overlooked in the lefty’s gem on Saturday night: Hendricks and Aroldis Chapman combined to face the minimum number of batters, at 27. According to MLB Stat of the Day, only the 1956 Yankees had also faced the minimum batters in a postseason game, though they did it with just a bit more panache.
  • With Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr., Javier Baez, and Addison Russell penciled into the lineup, the Cubs became the first MLB team to utilize five starters under 25 years old to clinch the NLCS (also via MLB Stat of the Day).
  • If you want to talk postseason drought, the Cubs-Indians World Series will set a precedent for combined championship-less streaks, at 174 years between the two clubs (per ESPN Stats & Info).
  • Speaking of unpleasant streaks, there’s this: with the Dodgers’ loss in the NLCS, they’ve now gone to the postseason four consecutive times without participating in a World Series showdown. According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, that’s a first in major league history.


The Cubs clinch World Series berth with NLCS Game 6 win

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 22:  The Chicago Cubs celebrate defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 in game six of the National League Championship Series to advance to the World Series against the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 22, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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After 71 years, the Cubs are headed back to the Fall Classic.

The dominance with which Clayton Kershaw attacked the Cubs in Game 2 of the NLCS was nonexistent in Game 6 as the Dodgers’ ace loaded the bases to start the first inning and scattered five extra bases and five runs over five frames. By the time Dave Roberts pulled his starter in the sixth inning, Kershaw was sitting on a Game Score of 33, the lowest he’s mustered since the start of the 2015 season. Only one of his strikes came via curveball, and whether he was having difficulty locating his off-speed stuff or felt more confident with the fastball-slider combo, it was the fewest curves he’d seen land for strikes all year (per David Adler).

Where the Dodgers were able to give Kershaw the edge in Game 2, they found themselves powerless against opposing hurler Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks turned out 7 1/3 scoreless frames with two hits and six strikeouts, preserving the Cubs’ second shutout of the postseason and the first since they bested the Giants in Game 1 of the NLDS. After his 1-0 loss to the Dodgers early in the NLCS, seeing the MLB ERA leader turn out a gem was a relief for the Cubs, especially one as spectacular as an 88-pitch two-hitter.

With Hendricks effectively stymieing the Dodgers’ best attempts to get on base, the Cubs played to their strengths at the plate. Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist cleared the bases in the first inning for a two-run lead, followed by a Dexter Fowler RBI single in the second. Willson Contreras came through in the fourth inning for the Cubs, lifting an 87 m.p.h. slider to left field for his first home run of October, while Anthony Rizzo hit his second homer of the postseason on a 1-1 fastball in the fifth.

Neither bullpen allowed a single run from the sixth inning onward. Dodgers’ right-hander Kenley Jansen took the ball from Kershaw in the sixth, scattering four strikeouts over three innings and denying the Cubs so much as a single baserunner through the end of the game. Aroldis Chapman, meanwhile, issued just one walk in 1 1/3 scoreless frames, inducing a Yasiel Puig double play to clinch the Cubs’ 17th franchise pennant.

With the win, the Cubs will face off against the Indians in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday at 8 PM EDT. And, in case you needed a reminder: