Just wait until next year.
That was the rallying cry of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, but it couldn’t have been a more fitting sentiment for Braves fans after last season.
Atlanta was expected to be a decent team in 2010, but not much was expected from the Braves aside from a farewell tour for the departing Bobby Cox. But then the Braves caught fire, and with a weaponry of great pitching and a seemingly endless supply of clutch hits, they reached the postseason for the first time since 2005.
Now, Atlanta returns with their pitching still in great form and with another year of experience under the belts of last year’s emerging young stars.
For the first time in quite a while, opening day should be viewed as the start of something special in the heart of every Braves fan as a division title is a definite possibility for the 2011 squad.
At the forefront of the charge will be the pitchers toeing the rubber at Turner Field. The great Braves teams of the 90’s all started with the pitching and this year should be a nostalgic return to form. Atlanta will run out five quality starters — all with previous big league experience — and one of the best bullpens in baseball will ensure that opposing teams will never face a comfortable situation while at bat.
The offense should also be improved from last season as Jayson Heyward enters his second full season and Freddie Freeman appears ready to be an everyday MLB player.
Chipper Jones has returned from last season’s ill-timed injury that killed a lot of Atlanta’s playoff momentum, and his experience will only serve to help the team — even if he can’t be relied upon to play more than 120 games or so.
Of course, while the present and future for the Braves looks bright, there’s still that elephant in the room.
I’m speaking, of course, of the Philadelphia Phillies.
While the Phillies have mostly powered their way to the last four National League East titles, their offseason acquisition of Cliff Lee joins Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt to form what, on paper, could be one of the best starting rotations ever assembled.
Philadelphia has a laundry list of problems on its hands entering the season as Chase Utley, Brad Lidge and Domenic Brown are all on the shelf with injuries, but the Phillies overcame significant health issues in each of the last three seasons to remain atop the division.
At the end of the day, I see this season turning into one of the better division races in recent memory.
The Braves have the talent to win and clearly aren’t intimidated by anyone while the Phillies are proven champions.
Atlanta will have the early advantage with its health, but all of that pitching in the city of brotherly love will come back to bite the Braves again.
The Braves are on the doorstep to becoming the preeminent power in the National League, but it may have to wait one more season.
I see the Phillies catching Atlanta with a late run, with the Braves running away with a wild card bid into the playoffs.
The Braves will fare better in the postseason this year, beating the upstart Brewers in the first round before ultimately succumbing to the Phillies — who will take down the Giants in their first round matchup — again in the NLCS.
In the American League, the Red Sox will roll to a division title with one of the best offenses ever assembled while the White Sox and Rangers will take the crown in the A.L. Central and West, respectively. Look for the Yankees to outlast the Twins for the wild card slot in the playoffs.
Assuming that they can eventually get back to full strength, I predict that the Phillies will walk away with this year’s World Series. The Fightin’ Phils have proven themselves to be a great second half team, and with the addition of Lee to go along with their already potent starting staff, it will be tough for any team to get the upper hand on Philadelphia.
Of course, this is all speculation.
It’s opening day and there are 162 games of triumphs, tragedies and surprises that will ultimately weave the web of the 2011 season.
Every season has its ups, downs and unknowns, so for the next six and a half months, let’s play ball.
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.