published Sunday, March 27th, 2011

Greeson: Five questions for Braves

Can Chipper stay healthy?

Chipper Jones now is the last link between the dominant Braves of the 1990s and today, and the veteran third baseman’s role is far more important than elder statesman or clubhouse leader.

Coming back from a serious knee injury suffered last August, Jones being available as an everyday player is critical for a talented Braves team that is short of depth. With Jones, this Braves lineup appears at worst solid. Without Jones, converted left fielder Martin Prado would move back to the infield and the options in left look rather pedestrian.

Jones has looked up to the task this spring, hitting .411 with a team-leading four homers and 15 RBIs through Friday.

A .400 average is not expected from Jones, of course, but if he can get to 400 at-bats this season—Jones’ 18th in the majors—that could be just as valuable.

Will two closers be better than one?

The adage that “If you think you have two quarterbacks, you really have no quarterbacks,” also applies to baseball closers.

The Braves are going to go into the start of the season with youngsters Johnny Venters and Craig Kimbrel as the back-end options for what should be a strong bullpen.

Both guys have electric stuff, but closing games is every bit as much about a player’s perspective as it about his pitches.

If neither takes command of the closing role, the Braves will be sketchy in ninth-inning situations all year. If Venters and Kimbrel can settle into an eighth-inning and closing routine — however it works out — the Braves’ pitching staff will rank among baseball’s best from front to back.

Hey, who’s that guy with the lineup card?

For the first time since June 1990, the Atlanta Braves will be managed by someone not named Bobby Cox.

How Fredi Gonzalez fares will depend greatly on how he handles a young lineup that appears to be flush with talent and short on depth.

Plus, the ups and downs of a 162-game schedule are inevitable, and one of the reasons Cox will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in a few years was his impeccable ability to deflect and absorb the criticism that would have landed on his players.

Gonzalez must be his own manager and manage to honor the Cox legacy — not exactly the easiest spot to handle.

Is Tommy Hanson ready to make the leap?

Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson give the Braves arguably the second-best rotation in the National League.

National League East rival Philadelphia has a rotation stacked with aces, there’s no doubt, and for the Braves to make the seasonlong run to compete with the Phillies, someone in that group must emerge as the staff’s No. 2 starter behind Hudson, last year’s Comeback Player of the Year.

Hanson figures to be the best option, but whether the young, hard-throwing right-hander is ready is hard to know. He battled some back stiffness late in spring training, but his numbers appeared solid before the physical ailments.

The Braves’ rotation may not be able to match the Phillies’ in star power, but if Hanson takes the next step, Atlanta will not be far behind in production.

Didn’t you used to be Nate McLouth?

When he was acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh, the hope was that McLouth, who won a Gold Glove with the Pirates and has a nice power-speed combo offensively, would be the everyday centerfielder for the foreseeable future.

Last year, that future was more likely for the AAA Gwinnett Braves than the big-league club in Atlanta.

The 2010 season was easily McLouth’s worst in the big leagues. After hitting 20 or more homers, stealing no fewer than 19 bases and hitting .256 or better in each season from 2007 through ’09, McLouth hit .190 with six homers and seven steals in his first full season with the Braves.

If McLouth can revert back to his pre-2010 numbers — and he has enjoyed a good spring — near the top of the order, the Braves lineup could be among the NL’s most balanced and most dangerous.

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