Atlanta Braves (86-76, third place in the NL East in 2009)
Happy Easter, everyone, Christ is Risen, and so are the Braves.
I hate this team. I know those Phillies fans who only started following baseball in 2007 think the Mets are the Phillies’ biggest rivals, but for those of us who came of age during the 1990s, there will always be a special dark place in our hearts for the Braves. The 1990s Braves were clean, boring, methodical, reeked of Southern passive-aggressiveness, and ruthlessly dominant. Of course, since 2005, the tables have turned somewhat, with the Braves missing the playoffs each of the past four seasons and the Phillies winning three division titles, two pennants, and a World Series.
While the Braves stumbled through a purgatory of mediocrity for four years, they seem to have figured things out and are being tipped by many pundits to give the Phillies the strongest challenge for the division title.
Since the departure of most of the stalwarts from the 1990s dynasty, the Braves’ greatest strength has been local scouting. They’ve studied and gobbled up high school prospects from Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, and it’s paid off quite well. That process netted Brian McCann, one of the top three hitting catchers in baseball, world-beating outfield prospect Jason Heyward, and other assets who were traded later, including Jeff Francoeur and Adam Wainwright.
The Braves also were able to make the most of their Caribbean scouting department, bringing in Phillie-killer Jair Jurrjens from the Netherlands Antilles and Yunel Escobar (who, depending on how Jimmy Rollins and Jose Reyes do this year, might be the second-best shortstop in the division) from Cuba. Martin Prado is a solid average guy who plays multiple positions.
The Braves, with Heyward, Matt Diaz, Nate McLouth, and Melky Cabrera, have tremendous outfield depth, and a formidable starting rotation. While no Atlanta pitcher is quite up to the standards of Roy Halladay, they legitimately go four or five deep with reliable, quality starting pitchers.
I predict Atlanta’s return to the playoffs this season, but as the wild card team. In Bobby Cox’s last year, the organization has given him one more shot at a World Series title.