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.

Mets leaning on Jay Bruce, Neil Walker as Lucas Duda insurance

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 12:  Pinch hitter Lucas Duda #21 of the New York Mets walks back to the dugout after striking out for the first out of the ninth inning against Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on May 12, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  The Dodgers won 5-0.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Mets have begun working outfielder Jay Bruce and second baseman Neil Walker at first base as potential insurance in the event Lucas Duda continues to experience back discomfort, Mike Puma of the New York Post reports. Duda has been sidelined recently due to back spasms and missed all but 47 games last season as a result of a stress fracture in his lower back.

Manager Terry Collins spoke about Bruce’s work at first base on Sunday, saying, “I liked everything I saw today. “It looks like he’s got the athleticism, he’s got the hands, he’s got the arm angle. He made some throws in our drills that you wouldn’t expect an outfielder to be able to make, but yet he does. If that’s where we have to go, I think we’ll be fine.”

Bruce has only three games’ worth of experience at first base at the major league level, but still has high expectations for himself. He said, “I am going to work at it. I want to give myself a chance and the team a chance. I am not going to go over there and be a butcher. It’s just not the way I go about my business on the baseball field and it wouldn’t be fair to the team if I wasn’t capable to do it, so I am going to work at it and we’ll see what happens.”

The Mets made Bruce available via trade over the offseason but didn’t get an offer that whet their appetite. As a result, Michael Conforto appears to be the odd man out in the Mets’ crowded outfield.

Jason Kipnis diagnosed with a strained rotator cuff

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02:  Jason Kipnis #22 of the Cleveland Indians celebrates after scoring a run on a wild pitch thrown by Jon Lester #34 of the Chicago Cubs (not pictured) during the fifth inning in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis has been diagnosed with a strained rotator cuff in his right shoulder, MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian reports. Kipnis has received a cortisone shot and will be shut down from throwing for the next four to five days.

There’s a lot of spring left, so it’s perfectly sensible for the Indians to play it safe with their star player. The club already had Kipnis on a shoulder strengthening program.

Kipnis, 29, helped the Indians to the playoffs after batting .275/.343/.469 with 23 home runs, 92 RBI, 91 runs scored, and 15 stolen bases in 688 plate appearances during the regular season last year. He then helped the Indians reach Game 7 of the World Series against the Cubs, where they were eventually stopped, as he provided a .741 OPS including four homers and eight RBI in 15 playoff games.