ATLANTA- After getting dominated by the Minnesota Twins in the World Series, the Braves come into season 6 with some difficult expectations- anything short a WS title will be a complete disappointment. With an aging pitching staff, this may also be the last chance Atlanta has before the pitchers file for social security and the team rebuilds with youth.
So far this offseason GM Shaka Zulu has already made some moves that could improve a team that has averaged over 104 wins per season since he took over, including a WS title in season 3. The first big move was to acquire slugging 3B Stew Hanson from the Royals.
"We wanted Stew last year, but we just couldn't get the right package together," Zulu said. "Fortunately this time we were able to work it out. He's a younger guy who's put up some real nice numbers in the past and we feel that in the middle of our lineup he's only gonna hit better."
Hanson will be one of two new additions to the lineup, joining free agent acquisition Paul Wang. Wang had a down year offensively in season 5, so the Braves are hoping that he can return to the form that made him a two-time All-Star and Silver Slugger. With Wang joining the outfield, Zack Rusch will move from RF to 2B- this transition has many worried that the defense will let down the NL's 3rd best pitching unit from season 5. Management is clearly counting on the offensive improvement to outweigh any deficiencies in the field. With last season's batting champ Garrett Woodson and season 4 MVP Miguel Martin preceding Hanson, Wang and Rusch in the lineup, they might just be right.
While the defense may suffer, the pitching staff was bolstered by the trade for 2-time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year, Calvin Hyun. He'll have big shoes to fill, as he takes former Cy Young winner Vinny Andrews' spot in the rotation. After another great season, management decided Andrews would better serve the club coming out of the bullpen after seeing his IPs decrease each of the last two seasons. Andrews will be counted on to anchor a bullpen full of question marks after the loss of last season's workhorse, Yuniesky Romano, following Romano attacking rookie catcher Carlos Oropesa after getting lit up in Game 3 of the World Series.
But the man toeing the hill on opening day may be biggest question of them all. Acquired prior to season 3, Sam Betemit made a historic conversion from reliever to starter punctuated by a Cy Young Award and a WS title. Each season since then his innings pitched have gone down while his ERA and WHIP have gone up, and after a terrible season 5 postseason performance some think he may be headed back to the bullpen before long.
Returning the bulk of the roster from last season's 102-win team, it's tough to see this club failing to make a sixth consecutive trip to the postseason. But with the incredible strength of the NL South- Houston and StL joined Atlanta in the playoffs with 103 and 92 wins, respectively, while Florida won a very respectable 77- nothing can be taken for granted. On paper things seem to have improved slightly from a season ago, but the Braves are still an injury or two away from watching the playoffs at home. Shaka Zulu insists he isn't done improving the team yet, as he still covets a good right-handed reliever and another bat to come off the bench. With the Rule 5 draft approaching, and plenty of time to swing more trades, chances are this isn't the finished product.