Take heed, Braves fans: this is the time of year for hope.
Mind you, this message emits from the same keyboard that has previously told you to abandon that cruel four-letter word until at least 2012, when the Braves’ young talent has had time to bloom and before the aging veterans begin to wilt.
But that sentiment predates the turn of events of this winter, when the Phillies stunned everybody in baseball by re-acquiring Cliff Lee and thereby forming the most intimidating rotation since Atlanta’s Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz heyday.
The Braves rode that combo to divisional domination for more than a decade, but now the shoe’s on the other foot, and should soon be applied to the backside of every team in the National League East about 12-15 times for next five summers or so.
Before that begins, though, there’s hope. And the suggestion here is that Braves fans indulge in it now before it’s considered Pollyannaish to do so.
Hope that Chipper Jones can return to the field and to All-Star form.
Hope that the Sports Illustrated jinx doesn’t hex Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman.
Hope that the pitching staff stays healthy, that Tommy Hanson becomes an ace in his third season and that Tim Hudson is again among the league’s best in wins and ERA.
All that could happen and may have to if the Braves are to contend for the division crown.
Or, just hope for a wild card berth.
Unfortunately, even those prospects are dicey thanks to MLB scheduling that slants heavily toward divisional opponents.
That means the Braves and their brethren in the East will be facing the Phillies 18 times this season, while others vying for the wild card will see the fearsome foursome of Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels less than half as often.
Those nine-plus games can make or break a playoff chase.
Astute readers will point out that the Phillies’ potential in the rotation masks the question marks in the bullpen and the fact that the lineup was weakened by Jayson Werth’s departure.
The Braves may also be improved, even after winning 91 games last season. The rotation is one of the best in the National League, the addition of Dan Uggla is a significant upgrade in the middle of the lineup, and Jason Heyward appears to be a superstar in the making.
But improvement in theory doesn’t necessarily mean more wins in reality when the competition is getting better, too.
The Marlins, who cut ties with new Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez midway through the season and Uggla in November, could still have the division’s best offense if second-year studs Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison follow through on the promise shown last season.
The Mets, who solidified the back end of their rotation and should be getting Johan Santana back for the last half of the season, won’t be a pushover.
And aside from the Phillies, no team beat the Braves last year as many times as the Nationals (Atlanta was 8-10 against both). Washington is probably still the last-place finisher, but it should be improved by addition of Werth and Adam LaRoche.
All that to say: a return to the postseason isn’t a guarantee even if the 2011 Braves are a better team than they were a year ago.
But if they can duplicate some of the magic that carried the 2010 team, they may get there again. And this time, if they get there at full strength, things could get interesting.
That’s the hope, anyway.
Brent Holloway is the sports editor for The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/gtimesbholloway.