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.

White Sox reportedly considering Ian Desmond

Ian Desmond
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Many have speculated on a potential match between the White Sox and Ian Desmond this winter, but we haven’t heard much in the way of legitimate interest. That could be changing with spring training right around the corner, as MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reports that Chicago is among the teams considering the free agent shortstop.

After turning the page on Alexei Ramirez this offseason, the White Sox currently have Tyler Saladino in line to serve as their starting shortstop in 2016. The 26-year-old is considered a strong defender, but he batted .225/.267/.335 with four homers over 254 plate appearances as a rookie in 2015. Desmond is coming off a nightmare of a walk year and has seen his strikeout rate climb by 8.5 percent since 2012, but he possesses more offensive upside and it’s not hard to imagine a bounceback campaign while calling U.S. Cellular Field home.

Similar to fellow free agents Yovani Gallardo and Dexter Fowler, Desmond is attached to draft pick compensation after turning down a one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from the Nationals. It’s a big reason why a potential deal with the Rays is reported to be a “long shot.” Chicago’s No. 10 overall pick in this year’s draft is protected, so they would give up their No. 28 overall pick if they sign a qualifying offer free agent like Desmond.

Pirates sign reliever Eric O’Flaherty

Eric O'Flaherty
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Left-hander Eric O'Flaherty has agreed to a minor-league deal with the Pirates that includes an invitation to spring training.

O’Flaherty was one of the best relievers in the league for the Braves from 2009-2013, posting a combined 1.99 ERA in 249 innings, but Tommy John elbow surgery derailed his career and he struggled for the A’s and Mets in 2015 while dealing with shoulder problems.

It’s tough to know if O’Flaherty is healthy at this point, but the 31-year-old southpaw certainly has a chance to be a nice reclamation project for the Pirates on a no-risk contract.

Mariano Rivera to get his plaque in Monument Park on August 14

Mariano Rivera
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The greatest closer in history is going to get the ultimate honor the New York Yankees bestow on August 14. That’s when Mariano Rivera will get his plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium before a game against the Rays.

There was some chatter in the last year or two about whether the Yankees were somehow lowering their standards out there, what with guys like Tino Martinez getting honored. But if that’s something you care about it won’t matter in this instance. Rivera would’ve been worthy even if the old snobby ways had held and only inner-circle types got a plaque, what with him being a key member of five World Series-winning teams and his status as the all-time saves leader in the regular season and the postseason.

The Yankees retired Rivera’s No. 42 in 2013. He’ll get his plaque in August. Then, on the first ballot for which he is eligible, he’ll be voted into the Hall of Fame, likely with a percentage in the mid-to-high 90s.

Dodgers “trying to trade” Alex Guerrero

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Alex Guerrero is a potentially good right-handed bat without a position to play in Los Angeles, so Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reporting that the Dodgers are “trying to trade” him makes sense.

Guerrero, who signed with the Dodgers out of Cuba for $28 million in October of 2013, spent last season in the majors hitting .233 with 11 homers and a .695 OPS in a part-time role that generated 230 plate appearances. He logged a total of just 355 innings defensively, mostly as a left fielder and third baseman.

Guerrero could be intriguing–particularly to an American League team for whom his defense isn’t much of an issue–because he hit .329 with 15 homers and a 1.113 OPS in 65 games at Triple-A in 2014 and was consistently a .300 hitter with an OPS around 1.000 in Cuba. He’s also 29 years old, so Guerrero is no doubt looking to play regularly.