The Atlanta Braves returned to the postseason last year for the first time since 2005.
But they did it as a wild-card team.
Is this the season the Braves return to the top of the National League’s Eastern Division?
For 14 consecutive seasons — 1991-2004 minus the strike-marred season of 1994 — the Braves were division champions. Of course, the first few of those were NL West titles as the geographically challenged Major League Baseball saw fit to have the Braves compete in the West.
But for the Braves to win another division title, they will have to overcome the Philadelphia Phillies. There is a clear separation between those two teams and the rest of the division — the Florida Marlins, New York Mets and Washington Nationals.
The Phillies went out and added Cliff Lee to an already stellar pitching rotation that includes Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, all No. 1 starters for any team.
That foursome is as good as any in major league history, rivaling even what the Braves had in the 1990s with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and either Steve Avery or Mike Hampton, or what the Baltimore Orioles had in the 1970s with Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNalley and Pat Dobson.
But while the Phillies staff is formidable, the Braves can throw a pretty good rotation out there as well. Derek Lowe clearly found something when he made some adjustments to his delivery late last season. In September, Lowe went 5-0 with a 1.73 ERA.
Former Glenwood, CVCC and Auburn standout Tim Hudson won the National League Comebacker Player of the Year honor last season. The right-hander went 17-9 with a 2.83 ERA.
Tommy Hanson is just now learning how to pitch. The hard-throwing right-hander went 10-11 last season despite having just a 3.33 ERA.
The question mark in the rotation is Jair Jurrjens. He must bounce back from an injury-plagued season in which he went 7-6 with a 4.64 ERA. Just two seasons ago, Jurrjens looked like he was ready to become one of the best pitchers in the game, going 14-10 with a 2.60 ERA.
And despite having a good spring, Jurrjens suffered yet another injury and likely will start the season on the disabled list.
And while you would have to give an edge in the rotation to the Phillies, the Braves clearly have a better bullpen.
The Phillies will open the season with closer Brad Lidge on the DL for 3-6 weeks, so that leaves a pair of former starters to fill that role in Ryan Madson and Jose Contreras. Meanwhile, the Braves have Craig Kimbrell and Jonny Venters, both of whom have overpowering stuff. However, it must be noted that neither one ever has been the closer.
Both teams have question marks in other parts of the roster.
The Phillies will open the season with perennial All-Star second baseman Chase Utley on the DL. He still is hoping to avoid knee surgery, which likely would shut him down for the season.
They also lost right fielder Jayson Werth to the Nationals. Left fielder Raul Ibanez is clearly in decline. After hitting 34 homers in 134 games two years ago, he hit only 16 in 155 games last season.
The Braves have three big question marks.
One is how well third baseman Chipper Jones will fare after tearing his knee late last season. Jones has had a tremendous spring, but he is 39 and has been injury prone for the past several seasons.
Another is in center field. After the disastrous season he had last year, the only reason Nate McLouth was brought back was because he had too big a contract for the Braves to trade or cut.
McLouth has shown signs this spring that he is ready to return to the form he displayed in Pittsburgh. But after a year-and-a-half of disappointment from McLouth, it is hard to count on him.
The third big question mark is Freddie Freeman. The big first baseman tore up the minor leagues, but he will be a rookie for the upcoming season. The Braves need him to carry his minor league success with him into this season.
Going into the season with that many question marks makes it difficult to think the Braves can overcome the Phillies’ rotation and win the NL East.
Look for the Braves to finish second by a game or two and qualify for the playoffs again as a wild-card team.