FROM THE CHEAP SEATS: I.J. breaks down the Braves position-by-position and gives his prediction on where they finish

It’s been 12 years since I covered the Atlanta Braves on an everyday basis for the AJC, but one thing never changes: Columnist Mark Bradley loves to make an early prediction on the team.

This year my ol’ friend has the Braves finishing third in the division.
That’s a safe call, considering there is no reason to think the Phillies are about to fall on hard times and the Marlins have plenty of talent and like to make noise from time to time.
I’m not sure I’m ready to say that this team is going to win the division, but we could see an amazing three-team race with the Phillies and Marlins come September.
Last year, Florida finished six games behind Philadelphia’s 93 wins and the Braves were just one game behind the Marlins, with 86 wins. Let’s break the team down and look at the strengths and weaknesses. I always enjoyed doing this when I was the team beat writer and while I am nowhere near as close as I once was, I still follow the team very closely.

Starting rotation: I hated to see starter Javier Vazquez go. For me, he was the most consistent arm in the rotation last season and throws a lot of innings. Veteran Derek Lowe won 15 games last season but slipped in the second half. If he matches his ERA of 4.67 from last season, this team will have a touch time getting to October. On the other hand, Tim Hudson appears healthy and strong and may be ready to rejoin the group of baseball’s elite pitchers while young arms Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson give the team a chance to win every time they go out on the mound. But fifth starter Kenshin Kawakami worries me though he will not have to be used too much early in the season because of the off days. If healthy, this rotation is as good as any in the league.
Bullpen: The Braves are taking a chance on closer Billy Wagner, who had been one of baseball’s best before having Tommy John elbow surgery. It’s a big gamble because of the departure of the team’s late-inning relievers (Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano) but they were not that dependable because of injuries. For me, Peter Moylan could eventually end up in that late role and the addition of Takashi Saito should help. Still, come August I think it is a pretty good bet the Braves are looking for relief help.
Lineup: It’s better than last year with the young Jason Heyward making the team and the addition of Troy Glaus at first. Glaus worries me because of injuries as he has played just three full seasons since 2003. On the other hand, no reason to think catcher Brian McCann won’s put up big numbers again and the team is getting better up the middle with the improvement last season of Yunel Escobar at short and Martin Prado at second. This may be the last season we see Chipper Jones in a baseball uniform though it wouldn’t surprise me to see the third baseman provide some fireworks. The outfield is going to be depending a lot on how quickly Heyward can contribute as Nate McLouth, Melkey Cabrera and Matt Diaz can all be all solid contributors but can’t carry this team.
Manager: This is it for Bobby Cox as he will say goodbye after 29 major league seasons as a manager. Obviously, it would be a great story if the team could find a way to win it all though I’m not sure if the team has enough offense to be that kind of threat. Either way, Cox is assured a spot in Cooperstown as his run has been astonishing. It’s going to be interesting to see who they replace him with and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was bullpen coach Eddie Perez as a lot of times catchers make good major league managers.
Prediction: The team certainly has a new look with Heyward in right, Glaus at first and Wagner as the closer. There is a nice blend of youth and experience and like most teams that win the World Series, staying healthy is the key. If the Braves can keep their number of days on the disabled list at a minimum, this team can contend in the division. If Chipper, at 38, has one more great year in him, this team could find a way to get to the World Series. For now, they are my wild card team in the National League.

Excuse me while I brag on one of my daughters. Ashley, a junior at Centennial High School, won Roswell Neighbor Female Athlete of the Week after having a great meet at the Roswell Relays where she won the pole vault, finished first running the 200 meters in the medley relay and third in the 4×100 meter race. The other twin, Lindsey, also had a strong day at what is the oldest high school track invitational in Georgia as she was fifth in the long jump and came back the next weekend and was fifth in the triple jump at the Fulton County Championships. For this old sportswriter who always covered the boys when I was doing it fulltime, I never thought I would become such a big fan of girls’/women’s sports and suggest to all you fathers out there to push your daughters to play, whatever it might be. It sure will keep them busy, which, if you know what I mean, isn’t such a bad thing.

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