Can manager Fredi Gonzalez bring the Atlanta Braves back to postseason glory?
Last season was a season of hard work and hard luck, a mix of joy and heartache, and a season in which a team was on top of the National League Wild Card standings with just weeks to go and managed to blow it in the last game. So, what do we, as Atlanta Braves fans, have to look forward to this year? Let's take a look.
The 2012 Atlanta Braves roster is almost untouched from last year. Gone are pitchers Derek Lowe, George Sherrill and Scott Linebrink, as well as shortstop Alex Gonzalez, and rounding out our list is Nate McLouth, who failed to regain his All-Star form from 2008. New to the club is lefty pitcher Robert Fish and making a return trip to Atlanta is Matt Diaz, who spent a miserable year in Pittsburgh where he got little to no playing time. Here is how the roster, rotation and position platoons included should break down:
Catcher: Brian McCann returns as does his stalwart backup David Ross. This is easily one of the best catching tandems in all of baseball.
First Base: Freddie Freeman returns for his sophomore season and could eventually platoon with Chipper Jones if manager Freddie Gonzalez deems it necessary for Chipper to move to first base. Freeman looks to increase his power numbers and become a middle of the lineup threat.
Second Base: Dan Uggla is back for the second year of his contract. All signs point to a great year for Uggla, who started off last year in a serious funk before getting hot in mid-May. If he is as hot throughout the year as he was from May through September, he will be a big impact player this year.
Shortstop: Here's a (somewhat) new face for you—Tyler Pastornicky. I have personally followed Tyler throughout his time in the minors and have seen good and bad qualities. For his good attributes, he is solid defensively and has a huge arm. His downside? He is a bit impatient at the plate and lacks power, but can, if he bears down, be a solid seven or eight hitter to get guys on base.
Also, there is another new name/face sneaking up behind Pastornicky, and that is Andrelton Simmons. Simmons is a contact hitter with great speed and excellent glove work. His downside? His baserunning skills are slightly lacking, but expect those to improve with time. Simmons is like a better version of Yunel Escobar.
Third Base: Welcome to the last season in Chipper Jones' career. The Chipper Jones era is coming to a close, so we will see some possibilities arising this year to foreshadow next year. Prado is an easy choice, as that was his natural position. Also, you have the perennial hope Brandon Hicks, who still is not impressing the coaches. Wild card: Joe Terdoslavich, who currently resides across the diamond at first base. He is quickly impressing the coaches with his ability to field and his fair to good power. The Braves have some options available for when Chipper goes to the great pasture known as retirement.
Left Field: Martin Prado is roaming in left field, but there may be instances in which he will need to come to the infield to play third. When he does, Matt Diaz is waiting in the wings to take care of any holes that need to be filled. Also, never, EVER count out Jose Constanza, the fleet-footed Dominican, to come in and work his magic.
Center Field: Michael Bourn is in a contract year, so look for him to grind out some power and stolen bases. Also, as noted before, Jose Constanza, who I see as the center fielder of the future for Atlanta, waits in the wings for some time on the green.
Right Field: This position is Jason Heyward's to keep. Jose Constanza took some of his time due to hitting woes, and Heyward is primed to take that spot back. Look for Heyward to step it up this year.
Utility Players: Eric Hinske is back to lead the utility guys. Joining him is infielder Jack Wilson, who is back after giving the Braves some clutch hits and good fielding in late innings.
Starting Pitching: Gone is Derek Lowe, the dead weight at the top of the rotation. The rotation should look like this: 1. Tommy Hanson, 2. Jair Jurrjens, 3. Tim Hudson, 4. Mike Minor and 5. Brandon Beachy. I like this rotation and look forward to it. Also, Kris Medlen can start if needed as well as Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran.
Relief Pitching: Fireballer Craig Kimbrel returns from his NL Rookie of the Year season to lead the bullpen that should be, again, one of the best in baseball. As the closer, Kimbrel will round up a staff that will include lefties Robert Fish, Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters, as well as righties Cory Gearrin, Cristhian Martinez (long relief) and Anthony Varvaro.
Peter Moylan, who was released by the Braves in February, was signed to a minor league contract and should rehab in the minors before coming back up to the big club. Arodys Vizcaino, a hard-throwing righty, underwent Tommy John surgery and is out for the season. That shouldn't hinder the Braves whatsoever, unless they wish to go after help on the free-agent market. All in all, it certainly is a younger bullpen than in previous years.
Summary: Atlanta has a serious chance at doing well this season. Once the coaching staff pinpoints who is the best at each spot, this team will gel and become a serious contender in the NL East. Look for a late run on the Phillies this year and an interesting August and September.