To be fair, the Atlanta Braves did not stand completely pat this offseason. They did update their uniforms for the first time since 2005! That ain’t nothin, right?
The Braves famously missed the playoffs in 2011 by a single game. The last game of the season, as it turns out. They are clearly talented with youth in many of the right places. But their total lack of improvement this offseason is troubling, isn’t it? Might the Braves regret not stepping up to improve their roster ahead of the 2012 season?
The Braves divisional rivals didn’t sit idly by and hope for the Phillies to get old overnight. The Marlins loudly spent huge piles of money, making significant improvements in their infield and rotation (while paying a lot for a marginal increase in the bullpen.) The Nationals went a little crazy, improving their rotation in terms of its durability and quality. The Mets, well, they’re the Mets, alright!
The Phillies, while older, get similar full season improvements with Hunter Pence on their roster from Day One. Pence was a beast for the Phils during his 50-odd games in the NL East, walking a ton while hitting 11 home runs, good for a .405 wOBA. Losing Ryan Howard hurts the Phillies though his value at first base doesn’t quite equal his reputation.
Based on current projections, the Phillies still sit atop the division with 92 wins, according to the CAIRO projection system. The rotation is still unreal and Jonathan Papelbon — detestable as he might be — is one of the premier relief pitchers in baseball. The same OLIVER system has the Nats finishing with 86 wins, one ahead of the Atlanta Braves. Drama! Intrigue!
There is no doubting the Braves talent. A full season of Michael Bourn and a return to form from Jason Heyward suggests the Braves have plenty of room for improvement already in their clubhouse. Bourn didn’t produce much during his time in Atlanta but, ahead of his first foray into free agency at age 29, his skills and track record suggest a significant upgrade over the half season of Jordan Schafer and Nate McLouth.
Should Jason Heyward rebound from his less than stellar 2011 and Dan Uggla manages to put an entire 162 game season together, the Braves get the best kind of upgrade to the lineup: the kind that costs nothing. The production of two above-average regulars instead of the 2ish Wins each man contributed in 2011.
The Braves do not lack top-end talent at the skill positions. What they do lack is durability. The Braves must employ a full-time Chipper caddy as the Jones, one of the best switch hitters to ever play the game, is all but guaranteed to miss a minimum of 40 games in 2012. Chipper’s inevitable trip to the DL exposes the Braves lack of depth as Martin Prado must step in to play third base. This pushes another marginal outfielder into Prado’s left field role and so on and so forth.
Prado is probably a better utility player, covering for Chipper when needed and taking the occasional spell in the outfield. By not finding a better left field alternative, the Braves are left to fill in with Eric Hinske or Matt Diaz. Diaz and Hinske are useful pieces in a platoon role at best. In the pitching rich NL East, league-average at best hitters probably aren’t going to get it done.
The rotation saw its fair share of injuries, as well. Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy, and Jair Jurrjens missed time with injury. Only two starters made 30 starts for Atlanta. One of those hurlers, Derek Lowe, went to Cleveland in a bit of salary relief for the Braves.
The Braves operate under a tight budget and are very, very reluctant to spend money on the free market. They reportedly shopped Prado and Jair Jurrjens this offseason but didn’t pull the trigger on any trades. The Braves minor league talent pipeline is robust enough to survive moving a proven (if declining) rotation piece like Jurrjens.
The Braves won 89 games in 2011, warts and all. One game too few but this is not a bad baseball team by any stretch of the imagination. A full season from Brandon Beachy while Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Mike Minor, and possibly Arodys Vizcaino battle for starts is not a bad problem to have.
Preventing runs wasn’t the problem in 2011. A lack of innings from the rotation putting undo pressure on the great bullpen (11th in the NL) and offense (10th in the NL in runs scored) are really what let them down last season. Other than hoping/assuming/praying for health in 2012, the team hasn’t gone to any great length to address these deficiencies. Considering how much the teams around them improved (or were better in the first place) the Braves could end up wishing they seized the chance while they had it.