Braves aim to surpass expectations in '17

Veteran Kemp, young Swanson could be key to club's ascension

Braves aim to surpass expectations in '17

With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Braves squad each day this week. Today's topic: The perfect season

ATLANTA -- While it is certainly wise to remain somewhat realistic about the expectations expressed within the optimistic period known as Spring Training, it is also every fan's right to allow themselves to dream about the possibility of delighting in the unexpected turn of events every baseball season can bring.

It would be nothing more than a guess or an expression of hope for a Braves fan to predict this year's team will match the worst-to-first run the 1991 Atlanta team made through Game 7 of the World Series. But unlike the past two years, this fan base does at least have reason to think positively about what this summer might bring.

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As the Braves entered the 1991 season with Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery slated to be in their rotation, they decided these talented and still unproven arms would benefit from a defensive upgrade. Thus, in his first year as Atlanta's general manager, John Schuerholz added third baseman Terry Pendleton, shortstop Rafael Belliard, first baseman Sid Bream and center fielder Otis Nixon.

Across the Majors, goals set for 2017

Pendleton produced a .601 OPS for the Cardinals in 1990 and then was named the National League's MVP after his first season in Atlanta. Glavine won his first Cy Young Award. Avery notched 18 wins and Smoltz was nearly unbeatable after July arrived. That just happened to be one of those special years where everything seemingly went right.

The additions of Pendleton, Bream, Belliard and Nixon weren't overwhelming enough for pundits to drastically alter their expectations for the Braves, who had secured their third straight last-place finish in 1990. Nor did this winter's additions of Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, Jaime Garcia and Sean Rodriguez lead the masses to predict the Braves are primed to pass the Nationals and Mets in the NL East.

But given how the Braves finished last year and then followed the blueprint of the 1991 Braves by filling some immediate needs during the offseason, it wouldn't necessarily be shocking to see them finish the upcoming season with a winning record and possibly enter the final weeks of September in playoff contention.

Some of the Braves' most significant alterations were actually made in August, when they added Matt Kemp and Dansby Swanson to what is now a legitimate and potentially formidable lineup. As Atlanta won 20 of its final 30 games, Freddie Freeman, Kemp and Ender Inciarte helped the offense overcome the 5.19 ERA that the starting rotation produced within this span.

Providing further reason to recognize the rotation as an immediate weakness, the Braves targeted Colon, Dickey and Garcia as one-year solutions who are capable of stabilizing the rotation this year while bridging the gap toward the organization's next wave of starting pitching prospects.

With the addition of Rodriguez, the Braves gained a versatile defender who can consistently man the second base position and also further lengthen a lineup. His success this year will be heavily influenced by whether Freeman, Kemp, Inciarte and Nick Markakis can extend last season's strong performances in the latter part of the year.

Markakis' two-run homer

The Braves have some questions to answer within their bullpen, but they also have depth in this department to guard against Arodys Vizcaino's health or the possibility that Mauricio Cabrera or Jose Ramirez are reintroduced to the command issues they'd battled before showing some improvement last year.

If Ozzie Albies quickly distances himself from the fractured right elbow he suffered in September and outfielder Dustin Peterson continues to make strides with his development, the Braves would gain what seems to be some much-needed depth within the position player department.

Fortunately for the Braves, they do appear to have much more optimal pitching depth than they did in either of the past two years. Now, they can only hope that Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair or possibly Sean Newcomb are ready when called upon at some point to fill one of those holes that will inevitably form within the rotation.

Many will continue to argue that it's unrealistic to label the Braves as potential playoff contenders. However, this won't deter many of Atlanta's fans from distancing themselves from what has transpired over the past few years with optimism about what this season might bring.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.