7. Solidify the fifth starter position
—Top prospect Mike Minor and surprise stud Brandon "Life's A" Beachy spent the duration of Spring Training in a heated battle for the fifth and final spot in the starting rotation. Despite posting a sub-1.00 ERA during the spring, it was announced last week that Minor would begin the season in Gwinnett as Beachy was subsequently anointed as the fifth and final starter. The Braves' 1-4 starters are one of the best units in baseball, but solidifying the fifth spot in the rotation could make it the best—yep, that includes the Phillies.
6. How much can you bench?
—With the loss of All-Star utility man Omar Infante, Atlanta's lineup flexibility and pinch-hitting prowess took a noticeable hit. The Braves re-signed Eric Hinske and have Brooks Conrad back, but they'll need more than two options to turn to in the eighth and ninth innings if they want to build off of last year's dramatic late-inning success.
5. Jurrjens needs to be effective, healthy
—Jair Jurrjens struggled to stay on the field in 2010 and even when he did make his scheduled starts, he struggled even more—posting a 4.64 ERA in just 116.1 innings of work. Jurrjens left his final Spring Training outing last week with an apparent rib cage injury and has had his first scheduled start of the regular season pushed back to April 6. The Braves not only need Jurrjens to remain healthy in 2011, but they need him to pitch like he did in 2009 when he pitched 215 innings and received a vote for the Cy Young Award.
4. Overcome defensive inefficiency
—As fans across Atlanta witnessed last postseason, defense can play an integral part in whether or not you advance in the playoffs. Brooks Conrad's three in Game 3 of the NLDS cost the Braves a chance to take a commanding 2-1 series lead and ultimately ended their season. New acquisition Dan Uggla is perhaps the best offensive second baseman in the league, but he isn't known for his defensive prowess. Chipper Jones' mobility is certainly in question at third base, which makes half of the Braves' infield as potential error magnets.
3. Heyward's health need not be an issue
—Rookie sensation Jason Heyward had an All-Star rookie season despite missing 20 games and playing a portion of the season at less than 100 percent after suffering a thumb injury less than two months into his rookie campaign. Heyward missed a handful of games this spring due to a stiff back and it's unclear as to what effect that injury will have on his durability in 2011. The Braves need Heyward to be a run-producer this year and in order to do so he'll have to play in 150-plus games.
2. What's left in the tank for Chipper?
—Once again pegged as Atlanta's No. 3 hitter, Chipper Jones enters his 17th Major League season looking to return from ACL surgery and become a key contributor even as his 39th birthday fast approaches. Jones led the Braves this spring with 4 home runs and 15 RBIs while batting .387, but can he transition that success into the regular season and—most importantly—can he stay on the field in order to do so?
1. The odyssey of Nate McLouth
—After batting just .190 at the Major League level and spending time with AAA affiliate Gwinnett last season, Nate McLouth has plenty of motivation to turn his career around in 2011. McLouth appeared more confident this spring as he hit .295 with a .397 on-base percentage. He also showed signs of hitting for power as he slugged .426 in his 61 spring at-bats. If McLouth can settle into the No. 2 hole behind Martin Prado and become a consistent contributor by getting on base ahead of the Braves 3-4-5 hitters and hitting around 14-17 home runs—in addition to his Gold Glove-caliber defense in centerfield—there's no telling how dangerous this Atlanta offense could be.
There you have it—that's what has to happen if the Braves want to win the World Series in 2011. Like it? Hate it? Hate me? That's cool...let me hear about it on the ol' comment board.
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