Impact Player: C Brian McCann
Impact Pitcher: RHP Tommy Hanson
Best Reliever: RHP Craig Kimbrel
Top Prospect: RHP Julio Teheran
If it weren’t for the Red Sox collapse over in the AL, it would be the Atlanta Braves that would be garnering all the attention for blowing a September lead. On August 25th, the Braves held a nine-and-a-half-game lead on the San Francisco Giants for the NL Wilcard. The St. Louis Cardinals sat 10.5 games back. From that point on, the Braves went 10-20 and lost the wildcard lead on the last day of the season to the Cardinals who went on to win the World Series. It was the worst collapse in Major League history.
The Red Sox nearly identical collapse in a much more pressurized market took some of the national spotlight off of the Braves, but that is likely little solace for the team or its fans who both had a long winter to sit and think.
The Braves, however, should be commended for winning 89 games given the complete lack of offense the team had. They finished tenth in runs scored and ranked above only the anemic Padres and Giants in on-base percentage finishing with just a .308 mark. The struggles of Jason Heyward, Dan Uggla and Martin Prado along with the fragility of third baseman Chipper Jones were the chief reasons the Braves just simply couldn’t score and ultimately, it cost them a playoff spot.
Like the Red Sox in the AL, the Braves are still a very good team and despite their late-season struggles are primed to be playoff contenders once again.
The Braves won those 89 games almost entirely because of their lights-out pitching staff. Only the ace-laden Phillies and Giants allowed fewer runs in the NL. The Braves benefited from a ton of depth in the rotation as eight different pitchers started games for them and all eight were very good. Of those, only Derek Lowe will not be back for 2012 after he was traded to Cleveland this winter.
Tim Hudson is back and should be the number one pitcher provided he’s ready for Opening Day; he’s been battling a back problem this spring. Hudson has quietly moulded himself into one of the best pitchers of his generation. Since he broke into the league in 1999 with Oakland, only eight pitchers have a higher fWAR, only five have a better ERA, and only three have thrown more innings (min. 1500 IP). He’s shown the ability to consistently outpitch his peripherals due to his great groundball rates and can be counted on for 200 very effective innings.
Tommy Hanson has become one of the better young pitchers in baseball, but could not stay healthy last season. The Braves are hoping that by tweaking his delivery, he can take some pressure off of his shoulder and allow him to pitch for a full season pain free. If both Hudson and Hanson can deliver 200 innings, the Braves will be well on their way to the post season.
Jair Jurrjens was terrific last season before injuries set in, finishing with a 2.96 ERA in 152 innings. Expecting a repeat performance, however, is probably foolish; his low strikeout rates and middling groundball numbers make him a candidate for serious regression going forward. The Braves might have done well to trade him while his value was high.
The final two spots will probably go to Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor barring injury or serious setbacks this spring. The fact that the Braves were able to find Beachy, who was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008 is a testament to their excellent scouting staff. In 25 starts last year, Beachy put up terrific strikeout numbers finishing with a 10.74 K/9 rate and an excellent 3.67 K/BB ratio. Given his lack of pedigree, he might be the most under-the-radar pitcher in the league. Minor, meanwhile, pitched in only 82.2 big-league innings last year spending most of his season in AAA, but was highly effective when he did pitch, posting a 3.62 xFIP.
Minor is the leading candidate for the fifth spot, but if he falters, Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado could easily step in and be effective. Teheran, still just 21, is one of the top righthanded pitching prospects in baseball and has all the tools to be an ace, while Delgado held his own in seven big-league starts last year. Delgado didn’t show much strikeout ability in his 35 innings, but should see his K-numbers jump with more experience. If he doesn’t make the rotation, he could find a spot in the bullpen.
Speaking of the ‘pen, the Braves had by far the best trio of relievers in the game last season. Closer Craig Kimbrel took home Rookie of the Year honours after striking out a surreal 41.5% of the batters he faced. More than 90% either struck out or hit a groundball.
Joining him are lefties Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. If you thought Kimbrel inducing either a strike out or a groundball more than 90% of the time was impressive, you’ll love Venters; he turned the same trick 99.4% of the time. O’Flaherty, meanwhile, led all relievers in baseball with a 0.98 ERA.
The problem with the Braves bullpen in 2011 was just how much they were used. Along with long-man Cristhian Martinez, the Braves had three of the top seven in the NL in reliever innings and three of the top six in games played. If some or all of those pitchers fall back significantly in 2012, pass the blame no further than manager Fredi Gonzalez.
21-year-old Arodys Vizcaino will likely leave camp with a bullpen spot as well. He may end up being a starter down the road, but he has all the tools to be an elite bullpen arm in the meantime. One of the final two spots will go to Kris Medlen who’s elbow problems prevented him from getting any meaningful time last year, but he’s also an above-average pitcher.
Anthony Varvaro, Delgado, Todd Redmond, Jairo Asencio, Jaye Chapman, Cory Gearrin and a few others will battle for the final spot.
The Braves didn’t do much this offseason and that has led many pundits to assume that they’ll continue to be one of the worst hitting teams in the NL. Last year, three of their most important offensive pieces, Prado in leftfield, Heyward in right and Uggla at second, all had terrible seasons. There’s no reason to think that all three couldn’t rebound and transform the Braves into at least an average offensive team, if not slightly better.
Heyward looked bound for stardom in 2010 when he posted a .376 wOBA and excellent defensive numbers, leading to a 5.1 fWAR. The excellent defense continued last season, but a shoulder injury and a whole stadium full of mechanical problems led to a 98 wRC+ in 2011 in just 128 games. Heyward is still just 22-years-old and there’s nary a reason to think that he won’t rebound in 2012 and become the monster he appeared to be in 2010.
Uggla had an up-and-down first year in Georgia. He started the year about as terribly as one can, but managed to go on a 33-game hitting streak which ballooned his overall numbers. Still, although he put up a career-high in home runs with 36, he had a career-low wOBA at just .331. He’s 32, so there’s no guarantee he’ll return to what he was with Florida, but he should walk slightly more and his BABIP was remarkably low; he should see at least a slight rebound.
After three-straight excellent seasons, Prado fell off a cliff in 2011. His walk-rate dropped and so did his batted-ball average, but given his impressive ability to avoid strikeouts, he should rebound in 2012. They may need his defensive versatility at third base if Chipper has trouble staying healthy, which he will. Jones was still a useful hitter last year when he was in the lineup, but his defense stinks and he’s one semi-major knee, back or shoulder problem from extinction.
Outside of those four hitters, the Braves have three others that should have no problem putting up excellent numbers. Catcher Brian McCann, first baseman Freddie Freeman and centerfielder Michael Bourn were all terrific in 2011 and should be again this year. Bourn led the NL in stolen bases with 61 and is far more than just a “speed-first” guy. McCann might be the best offensive catcher in baseball; only Joe Mauer has a higher fWAR since 2006 and McCann doesn’t have the same injury risks. Freeman, meanwhile, had a 118 wRC+ in his rookie year and finished second to his teammate Kimbrel in Rookie of the Year voting. Given that he’s just 22, there’s lots of room for improvement.
The starting shortstop job will probably go to former Blue Jay Tyler Pastornicky, who was acquired in the Yunel Escobar deal. Pastornicky, who’s just 22, is a decent young player who may be an average shortstop if everything works out, but don’t expect much more. He has just 27 games under his belt above AA. Veteran Jack Wilson can step in if he struggles and well-endowed prospect Andrelton Simmons should arrive in the next few years.
Joining Wilson on the bench will be backup catcher David Ross who gets overshadowed by McCann, but he consistently puts up excellent numbers and is widely considered one of the best backups in baseball. He could easily start on several teams. Eric Hinske is back and will provide depth at the corner positions while outfielders Jose Costanza and Matt Diaz are also likely to make the team. Infielders Josh Wilson, Drew Sutton and Brandon Hicks also have a shot.
Just like the Red Sox, people shouldn’t read too much into the Braves late-season collapse. The sheer depth of the pitching staff along with rebound years from some key offensive contributors should see the Braves in the thick of things in the deep NL East. The Phillies appear to have the better team on paper, but they’re also one year older while most of the Braves are young and less injury-prone. Expect big things from Georgia’s team in 2012
2012 Prediction: 95-67, 1st NL East