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NL East Preview: Atlanta Braves

After chasing the Braves for more years than I care to remember, the Mets finally broke through and won the division in a bit of a laugher last season. The Braves were foiled by inconsistent and oft-injured starting pitching and a porous relief corps, at least for much of the season. Overall they were far from terrible, buoyed by a terrific-when-healthy performance by Chipper Jones, another strong season from Andruw Jones, and plenty of other offensive help from surprising sources.

In fact, the Brave scored 15 more runs than the Mets (849-834) while playing in a slightly better hitter's park (97 to 95 PF). For a franchise that has been defined by pitching strength for so long, the Braves scored more runs last year than any other National League team that didn't play half of its games in Citizen's Bank Park.

In typical John Schuerholz fashion, the Braves have traded from a strength -- the offense -- to improve a weakness -- the bullpen. Back in January they dealt Adam LaRoche to the Pirates for Mike Gonzalez and then signed Craig Wilson to fill LaRoche's spot at first. LaRoche had a breakout year in 2006, but the Braves are betting that a full year of Wilson won't be an appreciable dropoff in production. Gonzalez is one of the best relievers that nobody has heard of because he has been honing his craft in Pittsburgh, a fine baseball town that nobody seems to care about.

The Braves also traded left-handed injury machine Horacio Ramirez to Seattle for remarkable-but-reportedly-injured Rafael Soriano. If healthy, Soriano and Gonzalez will provide a lefty-righty bridge to soon-to-be-erstwhile closer Bob Wickman. Their 'pen has gone from a diseased limb to a mighty appendage and should help to make up for any deficiencies in the starting rotation.

Brian McCann hit .333/.388/.572 last season as a 22-year-old and, though he still has a ways to go before he hits his prime, it's hard to believe that his offense will get any better than this. He has fairly dramatic platoon splits, but even against lefties he hit .266/.352/.457, which would have placed him near the top among NL catchers.

I really like what Atlanta has done with their bullpen, and the Mets showed last year (and hopefully this year, too!) that solid relief pitching and a potent offense can make up for serious shortcomings in the starting rotation. I'm certainly not rooting for the Braves to do so, but I think they will win more than the 79 games they won in 2006, though I don't know if they have improved themselves enough to overtake the Phillies.

Atlanta Projected 2007 Ranks

NL East Lineup Rank: 2nd
NL East Rotation Rank: 4th
NL East Bullpen Rank: 2nd