As the Atlanta Braves closed out the 2011 season with one of the worst collapses in baseball history, fans could only pause in utter disbelief. Yet again, the Braves had found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. That didn't just happen...Did it?
Unfortunately, it did. There was no more tomorrow and no more next game, only next year.
The Braves and their fans have had the luxury of being one of the most consistent postseason contenders in all sports from 1991-2005. Now six seasons removed from the "glory" days of the Braves' NL dominance, they have been able to muster only one postseason appearance.
With the Philadelphia Phillies the clear NL favorites, Atlanta had all but guaranteed themselves as the second-best team in the NL coming out of the All-Star break.
How could a team that was all but guaranteed to be the Wild Card representative implode so badly?
I will leave that question to be answered by the throng of pundits who will pour the salt into the fresh wounds of disappointment.
I will tell you how the Braves are better poised now, more than ever, to make a run at league dominance again, and it all starts in 2012.
The mastermind behind the 85 Royals and 95 Braves John Schuerholz
The Atlanta Braves have one of the most respected front offices in the game.
They will continue to be players in the free agency and trade market. They will add depth to one of the most talented bullpens in all of baseball. The money being freed up from some expiring contracts may be used to pay for the increases in salary for arbitration-eligible players.
I cannot think of another President/GM combo that I would rather have than John Schuerholz and Frank Wren—though the Tampa Bay Rays' front office put together a great club with the second lowest payroll.
Atlanta's payroll for the 2011 season was 15th highest in the majors at $87 million. Compare that to the $173 million of the Philadelphia Phillies. Yes, the Braves' collapse is just as bad as that of the Boston Red Sox, but the Red Sox finished the season with just one more win than the Braves and spent $74.4 million more.
I'm pretty sure if Wren and company had an extra $74.4 million to spend, they could put together a team that would not only outperform Boston, but put Philadelphia back where they belong: behind Atlanta.
Since Schuerholz took the reigns of the Braves, they have almost always been buyers, and aggressive buyers at that. While not all the moves were as successful, like the Fred McGriff trade or the Greg Maddux signing, the front office is in the corner of its fans.
Those guys do everything they can to improve their team, and no fan can fault them for trying.
Braves fans, take a second to thank the baseball Gods for blessing you with the likes of John Schuerholz and company. Just like the superstars that grace the playing field, when great GMs lead your team to greener pastures, your team can't fail to be contenders for years.
Possible Caption for Photo: "Maybe next game they'll spot us 5 runs like you do for them each game."
Derek Lowe earned $15 million in 2011 for the Atlanta Braves.
This was one of the big names the organization went after to try and recreate a franchise built on dominant starting pitching and solid defense. The highest paid player on the roster should be able to yield a better return than a 40-39 record and 4.56 ERA Lowe has contributed in Atlanta.
The Braves were rumored to be in trade talks, prior to the trade deadline, to ship Lowe to a couple of teams, mainly the Detroit Tigers.
Some reports, at the time, indicated the Tigers would only pony up $4-6 million for his services for the remainder of the 2011 season and for all of 2012. Atlanta would have had to eat about $15-17 million in salary and get basically nothing in return.
At the time, that seemed like a crazy idea...now, however, that kind of deal looks like it would have been a steal. If the Atlanta Braves could move Lowe for a few bats and a Cosco-sized bag of Big League Chew, it would be a win for the Braves.
The 2012 Braves team has a plethora of MLB ready arms and any one of them can put up the numbers Lowe did this past year. The Braves might as well get some grape-flavored gum out of the deal.
Shipping Lowe to any team is an addition through subtraction. They stand a better chance of winning when Lowe doesn't start.
If, however, the rest of baseball realizes how desperate the Braves are to unload Lowe and offer nothing in return, we can put him in the one place he might actually thrive: the bullpen.
Atlanta would not use him in a set up roll, but long relief. Lowe had success in his past as a rather dominant reliever. As hard as it is to fathom paying your long reliever $15 million to mop up games, it would be better for the team to keep him in the bullpen or have him in another team's uniform.
2011 Stats as an ATL Braves Starting Pitcher: 9-17, 5.05 ERA, 1.51 WHIP
He puts the Pop in Popeye.
Dan Uggla's 30-plus game-hitting streak was as much of a statistical fluke as his inability to get hits during the first half.
The Atlanta Braves pulled off one heck of a trade that landed them a power-hitting beast in the middle of the lineup that has been nonexistent for years.
Abysmal is one way to describe his early performance, but I find that word isn't strong enough. Let me know if you have a more accurate word to describe his slump.
Then the second half of the season started, and he turned into another player. It is as if he was Popeye and he finally found his can of spinach.
The first season with his new lucrative contract is now behind him and his nerves will be settled. He should be on pace for numbers slightly lower than his 2010 numbers as far as average goes.
Remember Braves fans, Uggla almost single-handedly carried the Braves during his hitting streak—games like his pinch-hit game-winning home run against the Cincinnati Reds. He is a legitimate wrecking ball when he can make contact.
Even though he finished the season batting 54 points lower in average than his 2010 numbers, he only struck out nine more times than last year.
From all indications, Uggla is a clubhouse guy that is a positive influence on the younger players and has a gracious attitude towards the fans. There is nothing to indicate that he will repeat 2011's miserable dry spell, nor his miraculous streak. Next year, you will just get Dan Uggla, the real life version of Popeye.
2012 Projected Stats: .268 avg., 34 HR, 109 RBI, 96 Runs—trades in the faux hawk for a true Tennessee Mullet.
The word upgrade doesn't begin to describe Bourne in comparison to McLouth
Answer is more wins.
Imagine starting the 2011 season with Michael Bourne as the starting center fielder, instead of Nate McLouth. How much more improved are the Braves in 2011, if the games split by McLouth and Schafer are instead filled by the lightning fast table-setter Michael Bourne?
The slightly decreased numbers he produced with the Braves are more accurate of his career batting prowess, but if you can carry those numbers forward to next year and have Bourne start the same amount of games, you get:
.278 Avg / 54 RBI / 89 Runs / 3 HR / 65 SB / 187 Hits
For the Braves faithful, if they could finally get those kind of numbers out of the leadoff position, they would take it in a heartbeat. Those 89 runs will increase next year as a return to normalcy for players like Martin Prado, Dan Uggla, Jason Heyward and Brian McCann.
Bourne is still under Atlanta's control and is due a bump in salary in 2012. His current $3 million salary is expected to hike up. The Braves will gladly purchase the $1.125 million buyout on McLouth's contract and send him on his way.
2012 Projected Stats: .283 avg., 51 RBI, 103 Runs, 2 HR, 68 SB, 192 Hits
One of the biggest factors to the success of the Braves - Martin Prado
Martin Prado is only 27 years old. In the previous three seasons, Prado put up averages of .320, .307 and .307. In 2011, he struggled and hit .260, well below his usual.
His struggles after his illness that had him sidelined for weeks, are not consistent with his track as a young hitter who is only improving his game. With a full offseason to recoup and get his swing back, Prado should return to the form that earned him the spot in the lineup in the first place.
Not all players will make it through the 2012 season healthy— like maybe Chipper Jones—but if Prado is able to avoid any further rare infections, not only will he contribute as a starting LF, but he will also fill in anywhere else that's needing the day off to recoup—Chipper Jones .
2012 Projected Stats: .305 avg., 13 HR, 78 RBI, 101 Runs
This is Chipper doubled over laughing when someone asks if he is worth the 15 million owed to him in 2012.
The last remaining member from the good days in recent Atlanta Braves history, Chipper Jones will go down as one of the best third basemen in history and a legend in Braves' lore.
In my opinion, if Jones truly wanted to help the 2012 Atlanta Braves rebound, he should flat out retire.
The $13 million in salary due to him in 2012 will continue to be a burden on the club. Unless he finds the fountain of youth while hunting in Texas, he will not enter 2012 as a more durable and reliable player. The offensive boosts he does add are too few and far between.
He is one of the greatest players in this franchise's history, but there comes a time when your desire to hang with the guys ends up hurting the team and its fans.
With Jones' recent reassurance of his 2012 return, he will not be forgoing his salary to help the team. I do see him restructuring his deal to pay him less money the next two years in return for a prorated annual payoff in the years to come. This will help the Braves clear up some cash now, and it will defer some of the debt of his contract down the road.
This move could help free up $2-5 million in 2012. The team will obviously have to offer up many concessions to ensure the players union doesn't have an aneurysm. Player options instead of team options combined with easily attainable performance bonuses seem a good concession by the team.
2012 Stats: .269 avg., 14 HR, 59 RBI, 48 Runs...and more money in one year than we will ever make.
The 2012 Atlanta Braves will have the best relief crew to close out games in baseball again.
Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel will be returning as the anchors of the bullpen. As reliable and dominant as they were in 2011, look for them to be just as impressive in 2012. They will have a wealth of experience that will be invaluable as they continue to grow.
When a club has a dominant closer, like the Yankees have had in Mariano Rivera, they, in essence, shorten the game to eight innings. If the opposing teams aren't able to grab the lead before Rivera enters the game, it is pretty much a done deal.
The Braves, however, are forcing the opposing teams to play a six-inning game. If the Braves can get to the seventh inning with the lead, they can turn to one of the greatest trio of relievers in the game to shut it down.
The three of them will use the winter to rest up from their heavy load in 2011, but expect nothing different from the young guns in the bullpen.
O'Flaherty is only 26 years old and has turned into an outs machine. He led baseball with a 0.98 ERA. Venters is also 26 and has posted consecutive seasons with an ERA of 1.95 (2010) and 1.84 (2011).
Kimbrel is just 23 years old. He has emerged as one of the games most electrifying closers. He boasted a 14.84 K/9 and an ERA at only 2.10.
In 2011, all three pitchers were exposed to high pressure situations throughout the year. As a result, they will enter 2012 more seasoned and composed due to their 2011 work.
Taxed and tired, the crew labored to keep the Braves' playoff hopes alive. In 2012, they will be better suited for the road to the playoffs.
Eric O'Flaherty's Projected 2012 Stats: 3-1, 1.55 ERA , 1.16 WHIP
Jonny Venters' Projected 2012 Stats: 4-4, 2.05 ERA , 1.18 WHIP
Craig Kimbrel Projected 2012 Stats: 2-4, 1.83 ERA , 1.17 WHIP, 49 Saves
Jason Heyward certainly experienced the dreaded sophomore slump.
The lack of offensive production from the corner outfield positions was a great strain on the team's ability to stay competitive throughout the year. The low-scoring Braves ranked 22nd in runs scored—a whopping 234 runs fewer than the Boston Red Sox.
Atlanta expects Heyward to provide on offense and the ice he skates on is precariously thin.
According to Dan O'Brien, of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Frank Wren has stated that Heyward is not guaranteed a starting spot in RF in 2012. The Braves will either reap the rewards of the player they have thought so highly of, or they will cash in on his reputation and hype in a favorable trade for an established veteran outfielder.
Atlanta has shipped young hometown heroes before (Jeff Francoeur), and has parted ways with other talented young players (Yunel Escobar).
The Braves want nothing more than for Heyward to be as successful as the scouts project him to be, but they have also been burned on some can't miss prospects in the past (Schafer to name one).
Already two years into his career, he has a knack for getting injured. His physical gifts and dedication aren't in question, but the ability to adapt at the highest level might be a concern.
I expect him to bounce back in his junior season as the Braves right fielder, but if he turns out to be more hype than phenom, the Braves stand to gain much more in a trade this year than next.
Let me give you an example of another young stud, drafted with Heyward, that avoided the sophomore slump:
Jason Heyward 2011: .227 avg., 50 Runs, 14 HR, 42 RBI, .708 OPS, 90 Hits, 93 K, 129 games
Mike Stanton 2011: .262 avg., 79 Runs, 34 HR, 87 RBI, .893 OPS, 135 Hits, 166 K in 150 games
"I wonder if I can convince Derek Lowe that he pitched yesterday, so we can skip him today."
Fredi Gonzalez had Bobby Cox as a mentor for four years in Atlanta. He had the luxury of working with and learning from a legend.
Gonzalez had a tough pill to swallow after the last game of the year ended. He knows he is going to be in for a long offseason as every move he made gets broken down and second guessed.
He never shied away from any of the scrutiny, and he has displayed a calm resolve that a fan can appreciate. He has openly questioned some of his own tactics. He has earned the trust and respect of his players as an open communicator.
He stated in an interview that he questions his decisions early in the year to use his bullpen in games that didn't warrant pulling out "The Big Three."
The over use of his bullpen may have been his biggest stumbling point this past year, but it is a mistake he will not make in years to come. Plan for Venters, Kimbrel and O'Flaherty to get a lot more days off as the season kicks off next summer. A move like that can pay huge dividends down the stretch next August and September.
When April 2012 rolls around, the Braves will have the following list of pitchers to choose from to fill out the remaining four spots behind Tim Hudson:
Brandon Beachy (25), Randall Delgado (22), Jair Jurrjens (26), Kris Medlen (26), Mike Minor (24), Julio Teheran (21), Aroyds Vizcaino (21) and some guy named Tommy Hanson (25).
Everyone of the guys listed above are MLB ready. Some are already shining as top end of the rotation like Hanson and Jurrjens, while others will have their opportunity to earn their keep in 2012. The abundance of wealth at the starting pitching position is mind boggling.
Jurrjens and Hanson will return to the Braves healthy in 2012, but I do not expect them to keep Jurrjens through the entire 2012 season. It is even possible that he might get moved this winter.
With the back log of talent, and the fact Jurrjens is entering his last year before he hits the free market (with Scott Boras as his agent), the Braves stand to cash in on Jurrjens if they ship him to an AL contender for some bullpen/offensive help.
This will open the door for another young gun to step in and take his spot.
The 90s version of the Braves revolved around young dominant pitching and good defense. This group of starters has the physical tools to become an elite group of pitchers that can lock the Braves as NL favorites year in and year out.
Medlen is often forgotten in this mix, but in his limited time before his injury, the team was 13-1 in his 14 starts before he blew out his elbow. He posted an ERA of about three and showed great mound presence. I expect him to make the opening day cut as one of the starters.
Minor is the left-handed presence that can invoke images of a young Tom Glavine before he rose to become a future Hall of Famer.
In his second season, Glavine was 7-17 with a 4.56 ERA, 1.35 WHIP and a 3.9 K/9. Minor, in his second season, finished 5-3 with a 4.14 ERA, 1.48 WHIP and 8.4 K/9. There is a reason the Braves highly regard this guy.
Delgado has shown that he has the fundamentals to become a future stud pitcher. A solid three-pitch repertoire and good control bodes well for the young talent. What he lacks is a good strikeout pitch. He struggles to make right-handed hitters whiff. He seems to be reviving the Braves' pitching philosophy of the 90s, as he lives on the outside corner to almost every hitter.
Teheran is widely regarded as one of, if not the absolute best, pitching prospects in baseball. While his reps were limited in 2011, expect him to be the favorite over his young competitors as they enter spring training. This kid is as highly regarded as Tommy Hanson was when entering into his rookie season.
Beachy was the champion of bad breaks in 2011. He couldn't get the runs needed to get the decisions.
He started 25 games in 2011, but ended up with a record of only 7-3. His 10.7 K/9 puts him tops amongst all starters in baseball with at least 100 innings pitched. A strikeout machine that kept his ERA above three in only his second year, Beachy is deserving of a spot in the 2012 rotation.
Vizcaino has a long way to go. He has amazingly talented starters all around him, but he too has electric stuff that can put him in most teams' starting rotations. While he might grade out lower than Teheran, he is still able to evolve into a great middle to front line starter, based on the raw physical talent.
The 2012 spring training pitching competition will be an amazing display of riches. Depending on young pitching seems like a dangerous proposition, but if any team can churn out talented young pitching, it would be the Atlanta Braves.