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?

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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.

It’s OK to not like someone on the team you root for

St. Louis Cardinals' Yadier Molina celebrates as he arrives home after hitting a solo home run during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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There were a series of interesting comments to the Yadier Molina story this morning. The first commenter, a Cardinals fan, said he’s never really cared for Molina. Other Cardinals fans took issue with that, wondering how on Earth a Cardinals fan could not like Yadi.

While I’ll grant that Molina is a particularly popular member of the Cardinals, while I personally like his game and his overall persona, and while I can’t recall ever meeting a Cards fan who didn’t like him, why is it inconceivable that someone may not?

Whether you “like” a player is an inherently subjective thing. You can like players who aren’t good at baseball. You can dislike ones who are. You can like a player’s game who, as a person, seems like a not great guy. You can dislike a player’s game or his personality for any reason as well. It’s no different than liking a type of music or food or a type of clothing. Baseball players, to the fans anyway, are something of an aesthetic package. They can please us or not. We can choose to separate the art from the artist, as it were, and ignore off-the-field stuff or give extra credit for the off-the-field stuff. Dowhatchalike.

No matter what the basis is, “liking” a player on your favorite team is up to one person: you. And, as I’ve written elsewhere recently, someone not liking something you like does not give you license to be a jackass about it.

A-Rod’s mansion is featured in Architectural Digest

Alex Rodriguez
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For a couple of years people worried if A-Rod would sully the Yankees Superior Brand. Given how they’re playing these days I wonder if A-Rod should be more worried about the Yankees sullying his brand.

He resurrected his baseball career last year. He’s cultivated a successful corporate identity. He’s in a relationship with a leading Silicon Valley figure. It’s all aces. And now it’s total class, as his home is featured in the latest issue of Architectural Digest:

Erected over the course of a year, the 11,000-square-foot retreat is a showstopper, with sleek forms and striking overhangs that riff on midcentury modernism, in particular the iconic villas found at Trousdale Estates in Beverly Hills. Unlike Rodriguez’s previous Florida home, the Coral Gables house is laid out on just one story so the interiors would connect directly to the grounds. Says Choeff, “Alex wanted to accentuate the indoor-outdoor feel.”

There are a lot of photos there.

I don’t think I have much in common with Alex Rodriguez on any conceivable level, but I do like his taste in architecture and design. I’m all about the midcentury modernism. Just wish I had the paycheck to be more about it like my man A-Rod here.

Video: Yadier Molina does pushups after being brushed back, gets hit

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The best part of this sequence is not that Molina successfully evaded an inside pitch or that, in doing so, he hit the dirt and did some pushups. It’s not even the part where, after that, het got back up and knocked a single to left field.

No, the best part is the applause from the crowd. Very respectful fan base in St. Louis. They’d even applaud an opposing player who showed such a great work ethic. Or so I’m told.

 

Justin Verlander and Kate Upton are engaged

Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, left, and model Kate Upton pose for a photograph during second half NBA All-Star Game basketball action in Toronto on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. (Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Associated Press
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Justin Verlander and Kate Upton have been a couple for a long time. And dudes like me have been writing about them for a long time because, well, Justin Verlander and Kate Upton.

They’ve fallen a bit off the radar in recent years thanks to Verlander taking a step back from Cy Young contender status and Upton’s profile likewise receding a bit, but if anything that probably helped things out given how hard it probably is to live a life with paparazzi hovering every time you want to out and get a burger or something.

In any event, those two crazy kids have made it work. Made it work so well that Verlander gave Upton a big fat rock that she showed off at last night’s Met Ball, which is a fundraising gala for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Check it out:

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When you’re on a $180 million contract you can afford stuff like that, I guess.

Anyway, it looks like Upton enjoyed the fancy, star-studded gala in New York. I’m sure Verlander had a good time on the Tigers’ off-day in Cleveland. There’s a lot to do in Cleveland if you know where to look.