For the Atlanta Braves, the 2011 season crashed to an ugly conclusion. The inability of Jason Heyward, Dan Uggla and Michael Bourn to catalyze the anemic offense made the efforts of their remarkably deep pitching staff futile. Bullpen fatigue and the beginning of the end for Derek Lowe cost the team what was at one time a healthy cushion in the NL Wild Card race, and they missed the playoffs when they lost in microcosmic fashion on the final day of the season.
This year, they have a new hitting coach, a rookie shortstop and some young arms that appear ready to contribute. This team, which won 90 games in 2011, looks like it could be even better in 2012. They should have gotten even better, but were hamstrung by ownership's hard-and-fast budget. Still, they're a serious NL playoff contender. Here's a more in-depth preview of the team, from top to bottom.
This is the second of 30 team previews in 30 days, leading up to the start of the 2012 MLB regular season. Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Matt Trueblood offers insight on all facets of each club, profiles their manager, raise key questions, identifies risers and fallers and lays out run matrices for each team based on his proprietary 2012 projections. Check back daily for the next team in the series, or follow Trueblood on Twitter:
How it Goes
- Michael Bourn, CF
- Jason Heyward, RF
- Chipper Jones, 3B
- Brian McCann, C
- Dan Uggla, 2B
- Freddie Freeman, 1B
- Martin Prado, LF
- Tyler Pastornicky, SS
What it Does
This lineup is actually capable of scoring runs. If they all had something like career years, these eight players could form a very potent lineup.
There's a lot of downside, though. Heyward went backward after a great rookie season. Uggla's numbers were a bit ugly in 2011, and that was despite a tremendous second-half surge. Jones and McCann might play fewer combined games than any other third and fourth hitters in baseball, which is a problem given the team's limited depth.
Then comes Tyler Pastornicky. Atlanta has a two-decade track record of developing one useful position player into a big-league regular each year. Pastornicky is not an elite prospect, but if he provides the sort of steady production the team got from Freddie Freeman in 2011, he will help the team cover a major hole.
Who They Are
- Tommy Hanson
- Brandon Beachy
- Tim Hudson
- Jair Jurrjens
- Mike Minor
How They Stack Up
Hudson had back surgery this offseason and will miss the first month. Hanson is not likely to miss time, but suffered a mild concussion before even reporting to camp. If any team in baseball can sustain and weather injuries to their two top pitchers, it's this one, but the club that can give substantial starts to its seventh-best starter without introducing major risk does not exist.
The race to get the most assignments outside the top four should be interesting, with Minor, Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado in the mix.
Who Comes In
- Craig Kimbrel
- Jonny Venters
- Eric O'Flaherty
- Arodys Vizcaino
- Kris Medlen
- Cristhian Martinez
- Peter Moylan
What Comes of it
Though they wore out from overuse down the stretch in 2011, this group is not yet in serious danger of turning from October-bound carriage to pumpkin. These are genuinely talented hurlers, and happily, they're virtually Fredi Gonzalez-proof. Venter's workload needs to be monitored carefully, though. Medlen, an erstwhile starter, should be an excellent long reliever.
Who They Are
- David Ross: C
- Jose Constanza: OF
- Matt Diaz: OF
- Eric Hinske: 1B/OF
- Jack Wilson: SS
How They Roll
Diaz can hit lefties; Hinske can hit righties. Constanza is an ideal fifth outfielder because he plays good defense at any of the three positions. Ross plays only as a diminished platoon partner with McCann, but makes the most of that role, and Wilson provides the only salient defensive help for the middle infield. These are not overwhelmingly talented players, but they fit the team well.
- Julio Teheran
- Randall Delgado
- Adam Russell
- Josh Wilson
- Brandon Hicks
What They're Waiting For
One of Delgado and Teheran will win the right to pitch in the big-league rotation for the first month or so. Delgado probably has a leg up thanks to age, experience and a better showing in 2011. Russell offers a tantalizing skill set and big potential, so given the Braves' history with the scrap heap, he could break out in their bullpen. WIlson and Hicks will tide the team over while Jack Wilson is out, which (given Wilson's injury history) might be for long stretches.
This is the deepest pitching staff in MLB, but it will not fly on autopilot. Gonzalez needs to manage his bullpen better next year, and his choices about when and for how long to pitch the youngest Braves arms will be fascinating.
He's not renowned for great development or results on the other side of the ledger. He must figure out the right way to fill out a line-up card, and he must figure out what happened to Jason Heyward last season. Learning therefrom, he needs to make both Freddie Freeman and Tyler Pastornicky his priorities.
Who's on the Rise
- Jason Heyward
- Jonny Venters
- Arodys Vizcaino
Atlanta could easily hold Vizcaino back and try to help him develop as a starter. They seem more likely to put him in the bullpen and take off the training wheels, though, and given both his injury history and his current repertoire, that's the right choice. It's a scary proposition for NL hitters.
Venters wreaks even more havoc on hitting coaches' sleep schedules. He's as complete a left-handed set-up man as anyone in baseball, and if his delivery didn't suggest that he'll eventually flame out, he might be the rare reliever without a chink in his armor.
With Heyward, there is no easy answer. He absolutely failed to build on his strong rookie showing, but 2011 is no more indicative of who he is than was 2010. He's likely to hit a few more homers this year, but his real value is an elite on-base skill set. It will show this season.
Who's Going the Wrong Way
- Brandon Beachy
- Chipper Jones
- Jair Jurrjens
Brandon Beachy was primarily a third baseman at a small Indiana college when a Braves scout found him and saw lightning in the arm. It's certainly real, and Beachy had a tremendous 2011 season. Unfortunately, some of those great numbers came from some good luck; not just talent. Beachy doesn't induce enough swinging strikes to keep his strikeout rate as high as it was last year, for example.
Jones is drawing very near the end of the line. He still has some power and knows how to draw a walk, but his ability to hit for average and to field his position adequately are gone. If he can stay on the field for even 100 games, it will be a moral victory.
Not only is Jurrjens overrated in the first place, but he's never proved he can stay healthy and deliver value even by volume. He should have been a good trade chip this winter, but for some reason, Atlanta held fast to him. They should not expect much in 2012.
- Which Dan Uggla will we see? After June 10 of last year, Uggla hit a very Uggla-esque .273/.356/.546 and cranked 29 home runs. He was a star. Prior to that, though, he had been hitting .170/.235/.304 through 63 games. A year older and a year less mobile, Uggla really relies on his bat for stardom. He needs to be his usual self, the second-half masher, or Atlanta's order will have an OBP sinkhole they do not need and a lack of power they cannot afford.
- Are the young arms ready? Mike Minor has gotten some long looks already, but for Teheran, Delgado and Vizcaino, this will be the first time around the circuit. Though the plan is to keep Teheran and Delgado in Triple-A for a while, injuries are going to make that tough to stand by for Frank Wren. The success or failure of the Braves' season, and their next few, rides on management's ability or inability to get the best from those three young hurlers.
- What should we expect from Tyler Pastornicky? Those who follow prospects very closely know Pastornicky is a speedy shortstop with fine defensive chops and some pure hitting skills. He's never been a top-100 kind of prospect, and he doesn't have power, but he could be a solid eighth hitter and steal 25 bases. He will be something close to an average regular.
- Can the bullpen withstand abuse? In 2011 and 2011, the Braves leaned heavily on their bullpen. In 2012, they're going to make that look like nothing. For all Derek Lowe's warts, at least he battled through jams and ate innings. Jurrjens and Beachy will have short starts because they struggle missing bats and with command. The younger men all are on strict limits; we just don't know what they are. Teheran and Delgado will make some three- and four-inning starts. When they do, Gonzalez must manage the bullpen well enough to avoid having a key cog break down midseason.
- Are the purse strings loose at all? Atlanta will compete into the summer, but with little depth and in need of offensive punch, the team will need a fresh face in order to get over the hump near the trade deadline. That's usually not a problem if an executive can convince his owner that his team needs the help and can profit from it.
Not so with the Braves and Liberty Media. The corporation that owns the team considers them a blip on the balance sheet and have not been remotely flexible of late about adding salary.
Runs Above Average
I'm not quite as bullish as my own projection system is on Atlanta, but there's no doubt the talent is there for this team to win the NL East. They need to get something from Jason Heyward and Michael Bourn atop the order, and they need to stay healthy along the top of their rotation, but those are not far-fetched possibilities.