MLB In Full Bloom - Phillies Preview - 3/19/2014

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12– Number of days until Opening Day

86,231– Number of signatures at www.budweiser.com/openingday to make Opening Day a National Holiday

Philadelphia Phillies Preview

The question facing the Philadelphia Phillies this year is can all the key pieces stay healthy? The Phillies 2013 season was a combination of injuries, aging, and false hopes that resulted in the team's worst record since 2000. They were 48-48 in the first half record and somehow masked a 45 run differential  that convince general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. not to sell off assets at the trade deadline. This offseason has been considered a success by many Phillies fans, if only because Amaro did not give anyone an ill-advised long-term contract. This relative lack of activity, combined with Amaro's view that the roster as constructed has one more good run left in it, has the Phillies in a bad spot for 2014 and beyond.

Key Additions: A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd, Roberto Hernandez

Key Departures: Roy Halladay

OFFENSE: Not much changed from the veteran Phillies lineup that has been in place for the better part of the past seven years. Marlon Byrd, who had a fine 2013 with the Mets and Pirates, returns to the club that he broke into the majors with after signing a two-year deal in free agency. Ryan Howard is the big X-factor for the Phillies. He tore his Achilles at the end of the 2011 NLDS and kept him out of action until the second half of the 2012 season. He was gimpy and unproductive. He seemed to rebound somewhat in the first half of the 2013 season, but his season ended when he tore his meniscus. The thought has been that if Howard can have a completely healthy season, he can go back to being one of baseball’s feared sluggers. Chase Utley is an above average defender and should be one of the more productive players on this team. Domonic Brown broke out for the Phillies in 2013, his first season as a starter. He finished with 27 home runs and earned a spot on the NL All-Star roster with a 12-homer May. Brown, however, struggled defensively and pitchers seemed to have a better game plan against him as the season went on. Baseball is a game of adjustments and if Brown can adjust properly, he should emerge into a reliable regular.

STARTING ROTATION: Despite all of the doom and gloom, the Phillies still boast one of the best 1-2 punches in baseball in aces Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Hamels regressed a bit in 2013, allowing a 3.60 ERA. Unfortunately for the Phillies, Hamels likely will not be ready for the start of the season due to a biceps injury. Lee went 14-8 with a 2.87 ERA and led the majors with a gaudy 6.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 222 2/3 innings in 2013. The Phillies solidified the middle of their rotation by signing A.J. Burnett. Burnett revitalized his career with the Pirates over the past two seasons and should fit nicely into the Phillies rotation. By adding Burnett, it allows right-hander Kyle Kendrick to slide into the fourth spot, provided he's able to fully return from the shoulder problem that ended his 2013 season a few weeks early.

BULLPEN: The Phillies bullpen was inconsistent last year and has a lot of questions coming into this year. Jonathan Papelbon is the closer mainly because the Phillies found no one to take his big contract off their hands. Mike Adams is coming back off a shoulder injury. Antonio Bastardo is trying to return after a 50-game suspension. The rest of the bullpen will be made up of guys trying to solidify roles in the bullpen.

2014 Prediction: Last year, the Phillies were predicted to contend for a Wild Card spot if they stayed healthy. They were never healthy, but somehow over performed their way to a 73-win season. Now a year older and a year slower, their best is that the Phillies will miss the playoffs. Ruben Amaro Jr. made this bed four years ago when he signed Ryan Howard to an ill-advised extension, and it may be up to his eventual successor to get the Phillies out. As fun as it is to hope the Phillies will have everything break right and get back into the playoffs is unlikely. Older players do break down, and the Phillies more than everyone know that for a fact. The Phillies may be better than people expect since they’ll be running Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and A.J. Burnett out to the mound three out of every five days.

Final Record: 75-87 (Third Place - NL East)

MLB In Full Bloom - Braves Preview - 3/18/2014

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13– Number of days until Opening Day

83,674– Number of signatures at www.budweiser.com/openingday to make Opening Day a National Holiday

Atlanta Braves Preview

After getting bounced from last year's National League Division Series by the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games, the Atlanta Braves did a whole lot of nothing for the next few months. Sure, there was the announcement involving a new stadium that will get the team out of downtown Atlanta, but otherwise the Braves were quiet for most of the offseason. Then, the calendar hit February and the Braves got aggressive as they were eager to lock up their young core. The Braves agreed to multi-year extensions with Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Julio Teheran, Craig Kimbrel, and Andrelton Simmons. By the time you read this, someone else may have signed a big contract too. With their young stars secure for the next half decade, the Braves will be annual front-runners in the National League East.

Key Additions: Ervin Santana, Ryan Doumit, Gavin Floyd

Key Departures: Brian McCann, Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm, Luis Ayala

OFFENSE: The Braves lived and died by the long ball in 2013. They led the National League with 181 home runs, but only hit two home runs in their ALDS loss to the Dodgers. Six players hit at least 20 homers, with left fielder Justin Upton's 27 home runs leading the way. Meanwhile, B.J. Upton was a huge bust as he hit just .184 in 446 plate appearances last year and was among one of the most disappointing players in all of baseball. The Braves will see some regression at the catcher position with the loss of Brian McCann who left for with the New York Yankees in the offseason.

STARTING PITCHING: A few weeks ago, the Braves starting rotation was one of their strengths in 2014. However, in the past two weeks, they have lost Brandon Beachy, Kris Medlen, and Mike Minor to injuries. The Braves will be without Medlen for the entire season as he will undergo a second Tommy John surgery today. Beachy could also be heading to his second Tommy John surgery, but he is getting a second opinion this week in Los Angeles before making a final decision. Minor threw his first bullpen session yesterday and reported no issues after throwing a live batting practice since experiencing shoulder tightness. Julio Teheran will slot somewhere in the rotation, possibly as high as the #2 starter in an attempt to replicate his excellent rookie season. Ervin Santana was signed last week after the Braves learned of Medlen's injury. I have concerns about Santana pitching the majority of his starts in Turner Field. It is a launch pad and certainly could cause problems. Alex Wood and Gavin Floyd will be forced into the rotation as well and while Smith has the stuff to be a solid starter, I'm not sure he is a long-term solution at this point in his young career. The Braves always seem to have starting pitching depth in their system and they are certainly going to need to rely on it this year.

BULLPEN: Craig Kimbrel is the best closer in baseball, without any debate. Backing up Kimbrel you have a solid corps that includes David Carpenter and Luis Avilan. Keep in mind that lefty Jonny Venters should be in fighting shape for the second half. Venters is recovering from his second Tommy John surgery right now, but all indications are that he should return around the All-Star break. Don't be surprised if Jordan Walden emerges as the primary right-handed bridge to Kimbrel.

2014 Prediction: There were a lot of us, including myself that were too high on the Washington Nationals last year. The Nats, though, are a better team now and it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Braves hit hard by regression at third base and catcher. A second place finish is still a fair expectation, but unless the Braves can piece together their starting rotation during the season, they could certainly miss the second wild card spot.

Final Record: 82-80 (2nd Place NL East)

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