The Braves sit in disbelief after dropping 2011's season finale to Philadelphia
Which Atlanta Braves team will show up in 2012?
The team that started out 80-55, good for the fourth-best record in all of baseball? Or the group that blew an 8.5-game wild-card lead by going 9-18 in September?
Atlanta GM Frank Wren believes it's the former.
Hopefully he's right because the Braves stood pat this offseason. Wren let aging shortstop Alex Gonzalez walk, effectively entrusting the duties there to prospect Tyler Pastornicky.
Pastornicky has done little to instill confidence this spring, while Andrelton Simmons—who, despite being a more highly-touted prospect, has never played above Single-A—has looked every bit the part of an everyday major league shortstop.
The Braves have little room for error this season. Miami added Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell. Washington's pitching staff will be much improved after the additions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. Philadelphia, despite injury troubles, will remain tough.
Travel back in time with me, all the way to those painful middle school years, for just a second.
For years, the Braves and Phillies have been the girl that developed curves before everyone else.
Now everyone else has caught up.
The Marlins, always a thorn in Atlanta's side, are a serious playoff threat with Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell and a reborn Hanley Ramirez in the fold.
Washington, with a healthy Stephen Strasburg, as well as Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and perhaps the division's best third baseman (Ryan Zimmerman), could earn a wild-card berth, as well.
The Braves, meanwhile, will have to count on marked improvement from Jason Heyward and Martin Prado, a more consistent Dan Uggla, and for their brittle pitching staff to remain healthy.
That uncertainty is worrisome.
Fan favorite Matt Diaz is not an everyday outfielder.
Chipper Jones' fragility will force Frank Wren to seriously consider using some of the Braves' prospect depth to acquire a powerful corner outfield bat by the July non-waiver trade deadline, if not sooner.
With Jones already facing a disabled list stint to start the season, the Braves will be forced to use a patchwork of Matt Diaz and Eric Hinske in left field while Martin Prado fills in at third base.
Against left-handed pitchers, Diaz boasts a career slash line of .329/.368/.506 (AVG/OBP/SLG). Of Hinske's 134 career home runs, 111 of them have come against righties. In the short term, the Braves will survive.
But there's a reason both Diaz and Hinske are, by and large, bench players. In 10 seasons, Hinske's career WAR (wins above replacement) sits at 10.3, or one win per season. In nine seasons, Diaz has been worth five total wins, or half a win per season. An average, or replacement-level player, is worth two wins per season.
Neither are strong defensively.
For that reason, Atlanta will add a bat with some pop to play left field.
Just don't ask me who.
Freeman after a home run in St. Louis on September 10.
There's a reason these are called "Bold Predictions."
Freeman finished with 22 home runs last season and an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .795 in his first full season in the majors.
Some might say he will suffer the so-called sophomore slump. I think otherwise.
Freeman hit 32 doubles last season and was known as more of a line-drive hitter while in the Braves' minor league system. However, he showed the ability to hit home runs to all fields (eight to center field, five to right, five to left-center, four to right-center).
Some of those doubles will turn into home runs, and provided Freeman makes more contact, it's not out of the question for him to approach 30 homers.
Jair Jurrjens is a bit of an anomaly.
In 2009, he finished with a 2.60 ERA in 34 starts. In 2011, his ERA finished at 2.96 after 23 starts.
ERA, however, does not tell the full story.
In those two seasons, Jurrjens struck out 242 batters in 367 innings pitched, an indicator that he's not as dominant a pitcher as he would appear.
More advanced numbers support that position as well.
A statistic called Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), which measures hitters' batting average on balls they actually put in play, says Jurrjens has been getting lucky.
For 2009 and 2011, opposing hitters compiled a .274 BABIP against Jurrjens (the league average is .299). In 2010, when he finished with a 4.64 ERA, Jurrjens' BABIP against was .306.
If all those numbers only served to confuse you, how about this: Jair Jurrjens' luck will run out a bit in 2012, and we'll see closer to the real No. 49.
To clarify, set-up men Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters and closer Craig Kimbrel comprise one of baseball's most dominant late-inning combos, thus earning the moniker "O'VentBrel" in 2011.
Braves fans already saw the wear-and-tear placed on these young arms at the end of last season, as Kimbrel—who did not give up an earned run in July or August—blew three saves in September and posted a 4.76 ERA. Venters turned in a 5.11 September ERA.
For all the hand-wringing about manager Fredi Gonzalez over-using his best bullpen arms, his, ahem, hands were tied.
The Braves played more extra-inning games than any other team in baseball, owing in large part to an anemic offense. Atlanta's starting pitchers struggled to go deep into ballgames, and a dearth of talent in middle relief meant Gonzalez had little choice but to use his best pitchers in close games.
I don't see much changing on any of those fronts. The Braves got lucky to escape any significant injury to any of these three. O'Flaherty does extensive daily stretching to calm an achy back, and Venters' and Kimbrel's live arms make for stressful deliveries.
2012 may not be so kind.