2012 MLB Predictions: Atlanta Braves Season Preview

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2012 MLB Predictions: Atlanta Braves Season Preview
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In the end, the Atlanta Braves just plain ran out of gas in 2011. Their collapse wasn't quite as bad as that of the Boston Red Sox, but it was just as disappointing.

The Braves didn't use their collapse as an excuse to go out and completely revamp their team over the offseason. On the contrary, they stayed eerily quiet, making very few moves and generating very few headlines. The Braves laid low.

This can be taken as a sign that the Braves were content with the team that fell flat at the end of last season, and that they are prepared to tackle 2012 with roughly the same squad. This year, they'll be hoping for better luck...and a few more base hits.

Here's a look at how the Braves are shaping up heading into the 2012 season.

 

2011 Record: 89-73

Key Arrivals (courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com): SS Josh Wilson (FA), OF Luis Durango (FA), OF Jordan Parraz (FA), 1B Ian Gac (FA), OF Brahiam Maldonado (FA), RHP Adam Russell (FA), 2B Drew Sutton (FA), C J.C. Boscan (FA), LHP Dusty Hughes (FA), RHP Jason Rice (FA), LHP Chris Jones (from Cleveland)

Key Departures: RHP Derek Lowe (to Cleveland), OF Nate McLouth (FA), LHP George Sherrill (FA), SS Alex Gonzalez (FA)

 

Projected Rotation (per official site)

  1. Tim Hudson (16-10, 3.22 ERA, 1.14 WHIP)
  2. Jair Jurrjens (13-6, 2.96, 1.22)
  3. Tommy Hanson (11-7, 3.60, 1.17)
  4. Brandon Beachy (7-3, 3.68, 1.21)
  5. Mike Minor (5-3, 4.14, 1.49)
  6. Randall Delgado (1-1, 2.83, 1.23)
  7. Julio Teheran (1-1, 5.03, 1.47)


Projected Starters

C: Brian McCann (.270/.351/.466)

David Welker/Getty Images
Michael Bourn

1B: Freddie Freeman (.282/.346/.448)

2B: Dan Uggla (.233/.311/.453)

3B: Chipper Jones (.275/.344/.470)

SS: Tyler Pastornicky (.314/.359/.414 in minors)*

LF: Martin Prado (.260/.302/.385)

CF: Michael Bourn (.294/.349/.386)

RF: Jason Heyward (.227/.319/.389)

*Pastornicky hasn't quite locked up the starting shortstop job this spring. He's struggled and has been largely overshadowed by fellow youngster Andrelton Simmons. David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has the details.


Bullpen

Closer: Craig Kimbrel (R) (4-3, 46 SV, 8 BLSV, 2.10 ERA, 1.04 WHIP)

Daniel Shirey/Getty Images
Jonny Venters

Jonny Venters (L) (6-2, 5 SV, 35 HLD, 4 BLSV, 1.84, 1.09)

Eric O'Flaherty (L) (2-4, 32 HLD, 4 BLSV, 0.98, 1.09)

Kris Medlen (R) (0-0, 0.00, 0.43)

Arodys Vizcaino (R) (1-1, 5 HLD, 2 BLSV, 4.67, 1.44)

Anthony Varvaro (R) (02, 1 HLD, 1 BLSV, 2.63, 1.08)

Cristhian Martinez (R) (1-3, 3 HLD, 3.36, 0.97)

Todd Redmond (R) (10-8, 2.92, 1.17 in minors)


Scouting the Starting Pitching

Atlanta's starting pitching was solid in 2011, but it wasn't perfect. Braves starters had a 3.73 ERA, a 1.28 WHIP and a 2.55 K/BB, but they only managed to pitch 957.1 innings with 86 quality starts.

Injuries took their toll on Atlanta's rotation last season. Only Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe stayed healthy enough to make 30 starts, and Lowe wasn't much help in his starts.

Lowe is gone now, but Hudson remains. The question is when he'll be able to return, as he's returning from offseason back surgery that will keep him out of action when the season gets underway. Per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Hudson is targeting May 1st for his return.

Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Tim Hudson

Indications are that the Braves aren't going to rush Hudson, as well they shouldn't. He's getting up there in years, and he has a lot of miles on his arm. 

If all goes well, Hudson will return and get back to doing what he does best: inducing ground balls. Since 2009, Hudson's ground-ball rate is a ridiculous 60.7 percent, the highest among all qualified pitchers. His ground-ball rate actually dipped to a pedestrian 56.7 percent in 2011, but he compensated for it by increasing his strikeouts and reducing his walks. This allowed his WHIP to stay at 1.14 a year after posting a WHIP of 1.15.

Hudson's health has always been a key issue throughout his career, but at this point in his career he's a rare gem. I like to think of him as a master pitcher, not unlike fellow greats Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay. Hudson just plain knows how to pitch.

The Braves will also be hoping that Jair Jurrjens stays healthy, as he's made a habit of ending up on the disabled list in the last two seasons. Ideally, he'll recapture the form he showed in 2009, when he had a 2.60 ERA in 34 starts. 

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Jair Jurrjens

Jurrjens' numbers suggest he shouldn't be so good. He doesn't strike out a ton of hitters, nor does he limit his walks as well as other pitchers. He doesn't rack up ground balls, either, unlike Hudson. Despite all that, he showed in 2009 and 2011 that he's capable of keeping his BABIP well under .300. And last season, he was one of the best in the business in terms of stranding runners.

I wouldn't go so far as to call Jurrjens an ace, as his health and his way of doing things leave him open to major regressions from year to year (i.e., his 2010 season). But if he stays healthy, he'll be productive more often than not, and he'll be great if his luck holds.

Tommy Hanson is yet another guy with past health woes to overcome. The good news is that he's generally been very good when he has been able to stay on the mound, as he has a career ERA of 3.28 and a WHIP of 1.18.

What we saw from Hanson when he was on the mound last season was an improved ability to rack up strikeouts. I didn't have him pegged as an elite strikeout artist before last season, but there's no arguing with a 9.83 K/9. Stranger things happened when hitters made contact, though. He had a low ground-ball rate, yet his BABIP was a mere .268. However, his HR/FB rate was a high 12.5 percent.

Strange. 

Despite that strangeness, Hanson is not unlike Hudson and Jurrjens in that he'll be a reliable starter when he's healthy. Better yet, he's just 25, and he still has potential that he hasn't realized yet. If he stays healthy, he could be the ace of this staff.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Brandon Beachy

That honor could also pass to Brandon Beachy. He proved last year that he can punch people out with the best of them. He had a K/9 of 10.74, which was the highest in baseball among pitchers with at least 140 innings pitched. 

Just like the three guys mentioned above, Beachy will have to stay healthy this season, ideally making 30 starts and logging at least 180 innings. The other issue with him is that he needs to prove that he can last longer than six innings, which was a rarity in 2011. He ran up his pitch counts, which was thanks in part to all his strikeouts and in part to a moderately high walk rate.

The No. 5 spot in this rotation is wide open, but goodness knows the Braves have options. Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran are all good young pitchers that other teams would love to have competing for the No. 5 spot in their rotation. If whoever wins the job bombs out, the Braves can rest easy knowing they can just switch him out for somebody else. 

Obviously, health is going to be a huge key when it comes to Atlanta's rotation. But the Braves will be in good shape no matter what. If everyone stays healthy, this will be one of the best rotations in the National League. If injuries occur, the Braves have the depth to deal with them.


Scouting the Bullpen

The Braves ran out of gas at the end of the 2011 season, and that had a lot to do with the fact that the bullpen ran out of gas. The guys in the 'pen had to put in a lot of work throughout the course of the regular season, and that cost them in September.

But on the whole, Atlanta's bullpen was pretty good last season.

Like, scary good.

All told, Atlanta's bullpen had a major league-low 3.03 ERA, an NL-high 9.24 K/9, an MLB-low BAA of .216 and an NL-low 1.21 WHIP.

Daniel Shirey/Getty Images
Craig Kimbrel

Craig Kimbrel had a lot to do with all those numbers. He had a ridiculous 14.84 K/9, and opponents hit just .178 off him. He helped himself by drastically improving his command, as his BB/9 fell from 6.97 in 2010 all the way to 3.74.

The amount of appearances Kimbrel made in 2011 is a concern, as he just might not be the same pitcher in 2012 as he was in 2011. If he is, though, the Braves will rest easy knowing they have the most dominant closer in baseball.

Jonny Venters is no slouch as a setup man. He walked a few too many guys in 2011, but his K/9 was up around the 10.00 mark, and he held opponents to a .176 batting average. He gave up just two home runs in 88 innings, good for a razor-thin 0.20 HR/9.

Eric O'Flaherty is pretty good, too. He didn't match Kimbrel or Venters in terms of strikeout numbers, but he came in and held opponents to a .221 average, and lefties basically couldn't hit him at all. He surrendered just 17 hits to lefties all season, holding them to a .195 batting average.

The list goes on and on. Fredi Gonzalez is going to have a lot of good arms at his disposal in 2012. And if his starting rotation gives him more innings, he won't be forced to overwork his 'pen like he did last year.

If so, it's going to be very difficult to score runs against the Braves this season.


Scouting the Hitting

The Braves had some issues with their bats in 2011. They finished 10th in the National League with 641 runs scored, 13th in team batting average at .243 and 10th in team slugging percentage at .387.

So how will things be any better in 2012? 

It's simple. Atlanta's hitters will have to hit better.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Dan Uggla

There are a couple key guys who spring to mind, starting with Dan Uggla. His first season with the Braves was a struggle, as he was under the Mendoza line for much of the year and was unable to draw enough walks to keep his OBP at a respectable level. He was simply trying to do too much.

However, Uggla did settle in as the year progressed. After hitting a minuscule .185 before the All-Star break, Uggla rebounded to hit .296 after the break. Nobody could get him out in August, as he hit .340 with 10 home runs, compiling a 1.075 OPS.

On the whole, Uggla's first season in Atlanta could have been a lot worse than it was. If he picks up where he left off, the Braves' offense won't be all that bad.

The Braves will also be looking for better things from Jason Heyward. A year after finishing second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, Heyward plummeted back to earth. Pitchers exploited preexisting holes in his swing, and he never really got on track. He also battled some injuries, which only made matters worse.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Jason Heyward

It's way too soon to assume Heyward is a bust. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in February that Heyward put in a lot of work fixing his swing over the offseason, which is something he absolutely had to do. The swing fixes will hopefully help him cut down on his strikeouts (over a 20 percent K rate in each of first two seasons), not to mention make better contact. Heyward's BABIP dipped from .335 in 2010 to .260 in 2011, a sign of how hard a time he was having making solid contact.

While the Braves will be looking for Heyward to bounce back, they'll be looking for Freddie Freeman to keep progressing. He got off to a slow start last season, but he got rolling in May and was pretty consistent all the way up until September. He was outstanding in July, hitting .362 with six home runs.

Just like Heyward, Freeman will have to be a smarter hitter at the plate in 2012. As good as Freeman was in 2011, he was limited because he didn't take his walks and struck out way too often. His K rate was 22.4 percent, one of the highest marks in the National League.

Elsewhere in this lineup, a lot depends on the health of Brian McCann and Chipper Jones. McCann is one of the top hitting catchers in the game when he's healthy, but he's always coming down with some kind of injury or another. He ended up on the disabled list with an oblique injury in late July, and he just wasn't the same after he came back.

McCann was dynamite in the first half of the season, though, batting .310 with 15 home runs. When he's on, few, if any, catchers are going to be more productive.

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Chipper Jones

As for Chipper Jones, who knows? He'll be 40 in April, and he hasn't had a 500-at-bat season since 2007. He can still hit pretty well, but he's not going to stay healthy all season, and he's certainly not going to contend for the batting title like he used to. At this stage in his career, the Braves will take what they can get from him.

One thing that will help this lineup is having Michael Bourn around for a full season. If he can keep his OBP in the mid-.300s, he's going to get on base often enough to steal upwards of 60 bases, as he did in 2009. Given the relative weakness of the middle of Atlanta's order, Bourn should have the green light every time he gets to first base.

On the whole, this is still not a great lineup. But if everyone stays healthy and the Braves get some good production out of their youngsters, they'll score more than enough runs to support their pitching staff.

Even if things don't go swimmingly, the Braves will still win games. After all, they were awful offensively last season, and they still managed to win 89 games.


Pitching Stud

Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Tim Hudson is the guy with the track record, Jair Jurrjens is a solid pitcher and Tommy Hanson is pretty good, but I'm going to go with the guy I think has the best stuff on this staff.

And that's Brandon Beachy.

Beachy entered the 2011 season well under the radar, but it was evident early on that he can be absolutely filthy when he's on. He's got a ridiculous slider, and his fastball checked in at an average velocity of 92 miles per hour. He can crank it up higher than that if he wants to.

Beachy's biggest problem in 2011 was inefficiency. He averaged 17.1 pitches per inning, which tied him for fourth among pitchers in the National League with at least 140 innings pitched. The strikeouts were great, but the extra pitches piled up and eventually took their toll.

Beachy's efficiency struggles should come as a surprise to precisely nobody. He's a young pitcher, and young pitchers are known to struggle with such things. Thankfully, young pitchers are also known to stop struggling with such things and to get better and better.

So look for Beachy to make strides as a pitcher in 2012. It became clear last year that his upside is through the roof. If he realizes it, the Braves will have themselves a bona fide ace.


Hitting Stud

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

I have to go with the guy who's as steady as they come: Brian McCann.

Despite his various injury issues, McCann has been the best power-hitting catcher in the majors since his breakout season in 2006. In the last six seasons, he's hit 131 home runs, most among catchers in that span. In that same span, McCann also boasts a .491 slugging percentage and an .850 OPS.

All told, McCann has been good for a batting line along the lines of .287/.359/.491 and roughly 22 home runs and 86 RBI per season since his breakout 2006 campaign.

McCann was on track to be even better than that in 2011 before injuries screwed everything up. He had a legit shot at his first 30-homer, 100-RBI season. He has the hitting savvy to achieve a season like that, but he's had a hard time squeezing in at-bats due to injuries, not to mention the fact his games will be limited because he happens to be a catcher.

It's a sure bet that McCann will have to deal with some sort of injury this season, but the Braves can rest comfortably knowing that he's going to swing the bat as well as any catcher in the majors when he's healthy.


X-Factor

Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

Martin Prado doesn't get the credit he deserves. He's one of the more versatile players in Major League Baseball, having logged time at first base, second base, third base, shortstop, left field and right field.

The Braves are going to need Prado to be his versatile self this season. He's penciled in as the team's starter in left field, but they're going to need him to chip in at third if Jones goes down with an injury. They may also call on him to play second base if Uggla struggles, and they may use him at first if Freeman struggles.

Luckily for the Braves, Prado can handle himself at the dish, too. He hit over .300 in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and he had a knack for hitting doubles.

Prado regressed in 2011, hitting .260 with just 26 doubles, but that can be forgiven seeing as how he had to deal with a staff infection in the middle of the season that really threw him off his game.

Prado will be back to normal in 2012, and he'll be ready to play a huge role on this Braves team. On any given day, he could find himself at a different spot on the field and in a different place in the lineup.


Prospects to Watch

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

I would have put Arodys Vizcaino here, but his future is a little cloudy at the moment. Per a report from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Vizcaino is headed to see Dr. James Andrews to get his elbow issues checked out.

Gulp.

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Andrelton Simmons

With Vizcaino's future uncertain, Braves fans should sit back and keep their eyes on two prospects: Tyler Pastornicky and Andrelton Simmons.

I noted above that these two are in a battle for the up-for-grabs starting shortstop gig. Simmons has been the more impressive player in camp so far, but Pastornicky is the guy with little left to prove in the minor leagues. He was promoted to Triple-A last season, and he responded by hitting a whopping .365 in 104 at-bats.

Simmons isn't quite as accomplished as Pastornicky is, as he's only made it as far as Single-A Lynchburg. In the event that he wins the starting shortstop job and struggles, the Braves can easily send him back down and hand the job over to Pastornicky.

If Pastornicky wins the job, the Braves can keep Simmons in the minors and continue his development.

Either way, it's a fun subplot to keep an eye on.


What the Braves Will Do Well

Pitch, pitch and pitch.

The Braves have the pieces in place to have an outstanding rotation, and we know that their bullpen is capable of achieving great things. Overall, few teams have as many quality arms as the Braves do.

Obviously, a lot depends on everyone staying healthy, especially when it comes to the starting rotation. If everyone does stay healthy, this is going to be one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, if not the best.

If injuries occur—and they will—the Braves won't go into a tailspin. They have too much pitching depth.


What the Braves Won’t Do Well

If all goes well, the Braves' bats are going to be way more consistent than they were in 2011.

Even then, the Braves are likely to be a middle-of-the-road offensive club. That's going to put pressure on the starting rotation, and it's likely to create a lot of slim leads for Atlanta's bullpen to hold.

Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine things being as bad as they were last season, when the pressure of having to protect slim leads ultimately became too much to handle. The Braves won't score as many runs as, say, the Red Sox, but more runs are in order.


Final Thoughts

Where will the Braves finish in the NL East in 2012?

Submit Vote vote to see results

Because the Braves didn't really go out and get better this offseason, a lot of people are writing them off as being incapable of competing in the National League East.

I disagree. The Braves didn't enter the offseason with glaring weaknesses that needed to be fixed. They entered the offseason knowing they had a strong roster that was limited by injuries and regressions in 2011. There was no need for them to panic and start making desperation signings and trades left and right.

The NL East is going to be a very tough division to win this season, but anybody who thinks the Braves don't have a shot at it needs to think again. This is a damn good team.

But as you're about to see, I'm picking them to finish third. The Braves are capable of winning the division if everything works out in their favor, but that's not going to happen. They'll be met with plenty of adversity, and that will be a problem given the fact the division features four teams capable of coming out on top.


Projected Record: 88-74, third in NL East

 

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American League Central

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National League West

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American League West

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Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge man-crush on Derek Jeter and would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter:

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