A sturdy farm system served as the foundation of the Atlanta Braves' run of fourteen straight division championships, which began in 1991. From the arrivals of Chipper and Andruw Jones in the mid-90s, to Rafael Furcal's ROY campaign in 2000, to Jason Heyward's breakout 2010, homegrown talent has been a cornerstone of the Braves franchise. This year has been more of the same.
Atlanta rookies Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel have been outstanding in 2011, ably filling the roles vacated by the departures of Derrek Lee and Billy Wagner.
So impressive has the duo been that they are likely the leading candidates for the NL Rookie of the Year Award.
Early in the season, with Jones slowed by injuries, Heyward and Dan Uggla mired in deep slumps (Heyward remains in his), and long before the additions of Michael Bourn and Jose Constanza added some much-needed speed to the Braves' lineup, Freeman played a huge role in keeping the offense afloat. Hitting just .222 with a .687 OPS entering play on May 8, the hulking lefty has been on a tear ever since. He enters Tuesday night's play sporting a .291/.353./.463 split. His .354 wOBA is 5th highest among NL rookies, and Freeman has more than twice as many at-bats as each of the 4 players in front of him. He's been excellent with the glove, too. Freeman has saved countless runs with his deft ability to handle errant throws from an infield including Jones and Uggla, 2 of the weaker defenders in MLB.
Kimbrel has been everything his brief 2010 cameo (during which he posted a 0.44 ERA in 20.2 IP) indicated he might be. His 40 saves lead all NL closers and is tied for the MLB rookie record, set by Rangers closer Neftali Feliz last season. His 3.2 WAR is highest among rookie pitchers, and nearly a full win higher than Josh Collmenter's 2.3. Kimbrel's 1.67 ERA trails only Philadelphia's Antonio Bastardo, who doesn't pitch in high-pressure 9th innings. Kimbrel has been unhittable in his last 33 appearances, posting a flawless 0.00 ERA in 32.3 IP with 57 Ks and and just 10 BBs. His high-90s fastball and devastating slider have proven a formidable foil for NL hitters.
Most baseball experts expected at least a slight dropoff in the Braves' bullpen when Wagner retired following a resurgent 2010. Atlanta simply replaced an aging, hard-throwing, undersized southpaw closer with a younger, right-handed version. Freeman, meanwhile, has been the only Braves' regular not named Brian McCann to avoid a prolonged slump or injury this season, providing reliable offense in a lineup that, until recently, was devoid
Regardless of which of the 2 rookies winds up winning the hardware, it's fair to say that the Braves would not be entrenched as the NL Wild Card leaders without the contributions of either. When the experts credit Uggla's monster second-half of the season and the Bourn trade for propelling Atlanta to another postseason berth, they aren't wrong. But it's important to remember that much of the Braves' success this year is attributable to 2 products of Atlanta's most reliable performer: its farm system.
Rob Smith is a contributing writer for the Business of Sports Network. He can be reached on Twitter @RobSmithUSF or on his personal blog, http://smithersports.blogspot.com/
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