The Atlanta Braves seem happy right now (Photo: Bazemore, AP)

Out of the NL East frying pan, into the fire. The Redlegs (17-16, 2nd place, 2.5 GB) begin a seven-game road trip tonight in Atlanta. After a sweep of St. Louis, the Braves (22-13, $82.4 million payroll) hold a slim half-game lead over Cincinnati’s most-recent opponent, Washington. It’s a brief two-game series: tonight (7:10 pm) and Tuesday (7:10 pm).

The Reds won three of their six contests vs. Atlanta last year, but only won one of three in a late-May series in Hot-lanta.

Mon: Homer Bailey (1-3, 4.93 ERA) vs. Randall Delgado (2-3, 4.54 ERA)
Tue: Johnny Cueto (4-0, 1.12 ERA) vs. Tim Hudson (1-1, 4.50 ERA)

Randall Delgado is a 22 year-old right-hander from Panama, and when he faces the Reds tonight, it will be his first appearance against Cincinnati. Delgado had a fairly impressive run as a rookie last year on the surface; in seven games started, he went 1-1 with a 2.83 ERA. However, his FIP was 5.14 and his control was inconsistent, at best.

Delgado’s ceiling is high, but he has some learning to do. Cincinnati will have to be patient and work the count. Not exactly their strong suit, is it?

We all know Tim Hudson; over an outstanding 14-year career, Hudson has won 182 games with a 3.41 ERA. He has made three All-Star teams, and has finished in the top 5 of the Cy Young Award voting three times (and finished 6th one other time). By anyone’s measure, Hudson has had a great career.

Now, however, Hudson is a couple of months shy of his 37th birthday. Of course, before this season, he showed few signs of slowing down. In 2011, Hudson won 16 games with a 3.22 ERA. Not bad for an old guy, huh?

Last November, Hudson had surgery on his back, and he has only recently returned from the disabled list. Hudson has made three starts, and his most recent outing was his best thus far: seven innings, one run allowed on five hits against the stupid Cubs.

1. Michael Bourn (L) – CF
2. Martin Prado (R) – LF
3. Freddie Freeman (L) – 1B
4. Dan Uggla (R) – 2B
5. Brian McCann (L) – C
6. Chipper Jones (S) – 3B
7. Jason Heyward (L) – RF
8. Tyler Pastornicky (R) – SS

The Braves are second in the National League in runs scored in 2012, and fourth in OBP. Last year, Atlanta was firmly in the bottom half of the league offensively. What’s the difference this year?

Well, Uggla has started off better than he did last year (.282/.365/.450), and Chipper isn’t playing like a guy in his final season (.302/.365/.512). Most of the offensive surge, however, can be attributed to Michael Bourn and Jason Heyward.

Bourn has been a revelation in CF, hitting .333/.399/.422 with 11 SB to go with excellent defense. Heyward has begun to return to form after a miserable sophomore campaign; he has a 124 OPS+ (.252/.352/.468) with five homers.

For what it’s worth, the defense was expected to be pretty bad (especially on the infield), but it has been very reliable thus far in 2012.

One of the primary strengths of this club is the talent at the back of the bullpen. Closer Craig Kimbrel (11 saves, 2.77 ERA, 1.26 FIP), the 2011 NL Rookie of the Year, is a 24 year-old dynamo who posted a 3.2 WAR last year. Lefty Jonny Venters is equally brilliant; he has a 2.19 ERA after posting a brilliant 1.84 ERA in 85 games (1.7 WAR) last year. Kris Medlen has also done outstanding work, with a 2.49 ERA over 15 appearances.

Chad Durbin, in his first year with the club, has been bad, although that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Durbin has an ERA over 8, and it’s looking like his career may be over. I encourage Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez — in my opinion, the worst manager in baseball — to use Durbin early and often over the next two days.

The Braves were very quiet in the off-season. Other than the free agent signing of Durbin mentioned above, the only acquisition of note is a name of which you will be familiar: 3B Juan Francisco. Atlanta, as you will recall, traded RP JJ Hoover to the Reds in exchange for Francisco after the big third baseman showed up to spring training overweight and out of shape. Francisco has been pretty much the same player we saw in Cincinnati, making errors, swinging at everything, but hitting the ball hard when he can get a bat on the ball: .224/.264/.469 with 3 HR and 10 RBI. I do not miss Juan Francisco in a Cincinnati uniform.

None. The club has been remarkably healthy.

In conclusion, this Braves team is pretty good. They have some solid pitching, and a resurgent Heyward gives the offense a nice look. After their 2011 September collapse — which was no less stunning than Boston’s, but was largely ignored because BEER!!! CHICKEN!!! — and losing their first four games of 2012, Atlanta has rebounded nicely. If Fredi Gonzalez doesn’t work his bullpen to death again, and if he’ll get Heyward up near the middle of the lineup where he belongs, the Bravos could be a formidable team come September.