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Braves look to improve in 2010
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After their most successful season in four years, the Atlanta Braves traded away 2009’s staff ace, parted ways with their best hitter of the season’s final two months, and declined to resign the duo that accounted for 37 of the team’s 38 saves.

So why are so many experts saying the 2010 team could be just as good, if not better?

Part of that answer could be that the 2009 team was a different club in the second half of the season. After reshaping the team in June and July, the Braves won more than 60 percent of their games in final three months.

And despite the departures of some key pieces, the 2010 squad looks more like that team than one that began the 2009 season last April.

But have they really improved?

With question in mind, a position-by-position comparison of last year’s opening day roster vs. this year’s:

The rotation

2010 vs. 2009

First, the obvious: Javier Vazquez, who finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting, and led the team in wins and strikeouts last season, is now a Yankee.

That’s difficult to overcome, but the strength of the 2010 rotation is its depth, and that’s the reason Vazquez, as good as he was in 2009, was considered expendable.

The 2009 staff began the season with three (relatively) known commodities: Vazquez, Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens. The four and five spots were held down by Kenshin Kawakami, a 33-year-old MLB rookie, and variety of guys keeping a seat warm for Tommy Hanson.

This season begins with five true starters. Tim Hudson is back and threw well in the spring, Hanson was as good as advertised in his rookie year, and Jurrjens posted a staff-best 2.60 ERA last year.

Though it didn’t show in his win-loss record, Kawakami improved in the second half of the season, lowering his ERA and walk totals. Lowe could be the biggest question mark. He finished 2009 with a 4.67 ERA, including 5.05 after the All-Star break.

Edge: Even

The lineup

2010 Infield vs. 2009 Infield

The advantage at first base isn’t clear-cut: Casey Kotchman produced little-to-no offense, but played Gold Glove-caliber defense. Troy Glaus can’t do that, but his offensive upside is intriguing. Call it a push for now.

Martin Prado standing in for Kelly Johnson would have be considered an upgrade, and shortstop Yunel Escobar is getting better every year and just entering his prime.

Chipper Jones, on the other hand, had his worst season 1995 and could be on the downside of a Hall of Fame career.

Edge: 2010

2010 Outfield vs. 2009 Outfield

Last year’s rookie to watch, Jordan Schafer, has been bumped by Jason Heyward, the team’s most hyped prospect since Chipper Jones.

Many felt Schafer was elevated to the pros ahead of schedule last season, but a torrid start to 2009 Spring Training earned him the starting spot in center field. Shortly after, a wrist injury hampered his production and eventually ended his season. Barring injury, it’s hard to imagine Heyward not trumping Schafer’s .204/2/8 rookie line.

Jeff Francoeur and his woeful on-base percentage have headed north, replaced by solid, if not spectacular Nate McLouth. Melky Cabrera will get the opening day nod in left field, in place of Garrett Anderson, who was below average in every aspect during his one-year Atlanta stint.

A clean sweep for the new guys.

Edge: 2010

The bullpen

2010 vs. 2009

No player in this year’s bullpen saved more than two games last year. 2009’s back end, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, has been replaced by the aged but reputable duo of Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito.

Wagner missed most of last season with an injury, but pitched well in Boston, where he was paired in a set-up role with Saito.
Peter Moylan and Eric O’Flaherty excelled in their roles last year, and Medlen has the makings of a reliable middle man, but the question marks in the late innings overshadow all else until they prove capable of closing out games on a daily basis.

Edge: 2009

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