The Braves have arguably the best overall catcher in the game in Brian McCann, who lost weight over the offseason and hopes to be stronger in the second half this season. McCann was gone for most of March with the WBC, and then when he returned got banged up a bit. McCann will probably be the team’s cleanup hitter, and in a lineup that will need power McCann will be counted on to duplicate or improve on his 23 home runs from last year. Expect the 25-year-old McCann to take on a greater leadership role with the Braves this season.
Casey Kotchman begins his first full season starting at first base. Acquired from the Angels in the Mark Teixeira trade last July, Kotchman struggled in his first few weeks in Atlanta. He hit .180 in August before leaving to be with his ailing mother. When Kotchman returned, he hit .305 with 15 RBI in 82 September at bats. Kotchman won’t be the power hitter Teixeira was, but his defense will be just as good. Kotchman’s teammates with the Angels hated losing him, and a consistent season could show the Braves why he can be a valuable player in the infield.
It’s year three of the Kelly Johnson at second base experiment. Consistency will be the key for Johnson at the plate. Last year he did well in May (.355 batting average) and September (.398), but hit only .239 in the other four months combined. While Johnson will sit occasionally against tough lefties, his .333 average against southpaws last year could mean more consistent playing time. It could also depend on where Johnson is in the lineup. Johnson still has lapses defensively at second base, but the Braves still have faith he is improving with every inning he is at the position.
The Braves flirted with trading Yunel Escobar for pitching help this offseason and bringing back Rafael Furcal. They didn’t want to get rid of Escobar, but believed he could bring in a premium arm. After the Jake Peavy talks died and Furcal went back to the Dodgers, Escobar reclaimed his position. The rumors didn’t seem to bother Escobar, who played well this spring. With the new starting pitchers being ground ball specialists, Escobar’s solid defense will be a huge key this season. At the plate, Escobar could once again be the leadoff man, at least until Jordan Schafer settles in.
Armed with a new long-term contract that will keep him in a Braves’ uniform for the rest of his career, Chipper Jones is back after missing most of the WBC with an oblique injury. Jones seems to be okay, but once again the Braves will be holding their collective breath. Jones averaged 157 games played in his first eight full seasons with the Braves, but over the last five years he’s averaged only 124 games played. The Braves are clearly a different team with him out of the lineup, so Jones’ health will be a huge key to the season.
Ken Griffey, Jr. decided to go back to Seattle instead of signing with Atlanta, so the Braves turned to veteran Angels’ slugger Garrett Anderson. They really needed a right-handed power hitter for the position, but the market was just not there. Anderson is a left-handed hitter and won’t provide much power (average of 15 home runs the last five seasons), but he is very consistent. Anderson has never hit below .280 in his fifteen years in the big leagues. A calf injury limited his time in the Grapefruit League in March, but the Braves are confident Anderson will be ready.
The Braves rewarded Jordan Schafer with the starting job in center after his impressive spring training. It’s quite a comeback for the 22-year-old, who was suspended last April for HGH. But an improved attitude and his outstanding defensive skills impressed the Braves coaching staff. Schafer also hit this spring, and the team is really anxious to see what he can do with the bat. He’ll probably hit eighth in the order early on, but don’t be surprised to see Schafer lead off if he gets off to a good start. Schafer could also give the Braves speed on the bases.
Will Jeff Francoeur bounce back after a miserable 2008 season? That will perhaps be the most important question when looking at the lineup. Francoeur worked with Texas Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo over the winter, and the result was a new, more relaxed stance at the plate. Francoeur looked more comfortable, hit over .300, and cut down on his strikeouts in spring training. In a predominantly left-handed hitting lineup, the right-handed hitting Francoeur will be extremely important. The Braves believe Francoeur has too much talent to struggle as he did last season, but he must prove it on the field.
The Braves are extremely happy with the depth and versatility of the reserves. Matt Diaz is in great shape and had outstanding spring training. Diaz will undoubtedly get playing time in left field. Greg Norton will back up at first base, along with playing the corner outfield positions. Both Omar Infante and Martin Prado can play all over the field, along with providing solid offense when in the lineup. With newcomer David Ross starting the season on the disabled list, Clint Sammons will be the backup catcher. There’s not a speedster in the group, but that’s the only negative.
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.