NL East: Atlanta Braves
I really have no rational reason why the Braves will come in first other than, well, they're the Braves. Atlanta has won a division title every season since 1991, and while this team is no where near as talented as the Braves teams that advanced to five World Series during the 90s, or even the teams that lost Division Series after Division Series in the earlier part of this decade, it is good enough to make Met fans wonder whether all the money their team spent will only result in a second place finish. This is a very young Braves team, but it is very talented.
Lineup: Nothing has changed in that the lineup is anchored by the Jones', although Andruw certainly surpassed Chipper last season. Andruw had a career season, hitting 51 home runs with a .575 SLG, and would have won the MVP award had Albert Pujols not put up his typical monster numbers. Chipper struggled with injuries again, but when he was healthy was unstoppable, with a .412 OBP and .556 SLG. He's not going to win any more MVP awards, but I still don't want him up with the game on the line. The corner outfield spots are filled by youngsters Ryan Langerhans and the immensly overrated Jeff Francoeur and his whopping 11 walks in half a season of work. Adam LaRoche will need to improve on last season's OPS, but he also young, and should improve with time. Brian McCann established himself as a good catcher last season, and figures to be a steady figure behind the plate for years to come. Veteran Todd Pratt backs him up. Rafael Furcal left for Los Angeles, and will be replaced by Edgar Renteria, who strugglied mightily in Boston last year, but should bounce back now that he's in the National League. At second base, Marcus Giles is the starter, and has become one of the top second basemen in the league, posting a career OBP/SLG of .366/.465, and he has some speed as well. The bench is solid, with Pratt, Wilson Betemit, Pete Orr, Kelly Johnson, and Matt Diaz all solid hitters. Aside from the Jones' and Giles, the lineup lacks explosiveness, but assuming the young players improve, shouldn't be a hinderance. The Braves lineup is an excellent mix of youth and experience.
Starting Rotation: Although it is not the same rotation that dominated baseball in the 90s, the Braves figure to have a very good starting rotation. However, the biggest story is the departure of famed pitching coach Leo Mazzone. He has recieved a lot of the credit for Atlanta's pitching dominance, and it remains to be seen whether the Braves pitchers can succeed without him. The staff is headed by John Smoltz, who made a triumphant return to the rotation after a stint in the bullpen. Smoltz may be getting up in years, but he hasn't shown it. Tim Hudson, while not having lived up to his performance with Oakland earlier in the decade, remains a good 2nd starter, posting a 3.52 ERA. At 30, he still has some good years left. John Thomson fell off from 2004, posting a 4.47 ERA in over 98 innings. Before coming to Atlanta, he was a well-traveled veteran, and there is no guarantee he will post good numbers. Jorge Sosa was a pleasant surprise last year, and while he won't have a 2.55 ERA again, he should remain a good mid-rotatio starter. The back of the rotation is anchored by Horacio Ramirez, who had a 4.63 ERA in 202 innings in 2005. He's had several other good years, and at 26, has many good years ahead of him. Kyle Davies could get a chance as well. Smoltz and Hudson are the only stars, but all in all, the rotation is still better than most other ones in the game.
Bullpen: The bullpen is by far the Braves weakest link. After losing Kyle Farnsworth, the closer situation is unsettled, and will be filled by Chris Reitsma, who is a good reliever but has not had success closing games. The rest of the bullpen is even weaker. Blaine Boyer pitched 37 innings as a rookie last year, posting a 3.11 ERA. The Braves need him to equal that performance this season, because their only other setup men are similarly unproven John Foster and Oscar Villarreal, who has not has not had a good season since 2003. Lance Cormier is the only other reliever to have pitched significant innings last season, but his 79.1 innings of work only yielded a 5.11 ERA. Youngsters Macay McBride, Joey Devine, and Anthony Lermier will also have a chance to prove themselves. Devine is the most highly regarded of the bunch. Overall, this is an extremly weak group.
X Factor: Chipper Jones. While his production is as good as ever, he hasn't had over 500 at bats since the 2003 season. Without him in the lineup everyday, the Braves offense will be weak.
Biggest Strength/Weakness: Starting Pitching/Bullpen
Prediction: 1st place in the NL East
Win Range: 86-91