An 89-win season in 2011 wasn't good enough for the Braves, as a collapse in September prevented them from making the playoffs. Because the team didn't exactly fail miserably during the season, general manager Frank Wren didn't feel the need to retool the team too much. The only starting position player that departed the team was shortstop Alex Gonzalez, and the only member of the rotation to leave town was Derek Lowe. The Braves are in a prime position to contend for the playoffs again in 2012, and it's looking like 2012 will closely resemble 2011 in the terms of personnel.
Depth Chart (as of 3/12)
C: Brian McCann
1B: Freddie Freeman
2B: Dan Uggla
SS: Tyler Pastornicky
3B: Chipper Jones
LF: Martin Prado
CF: Michael Bourn
RF: Jason Heyward
SP: Tim Hudson
SP: Tommy Hanson
SP: Jair Jurrjens
SP: Brandon Beachy
SP: Mike Minor
CL: Craig Kimbrel
As I said in the intro, this team is really nearly identical to the one that the Braves fielded in 2011. Alex Gonzalez will be replaced at shortstop by rooie Tyler Pastornicky, who has minimal experience above AA, but looks close to major league ready at age 22. He's not really an excellent prospect by any means, but could capably hold down the fort at short. The team will also have Michael Bourn for a full season after acquiring him at the trade deadline last year. Bourn gives the Braves a legitimiate leadoff hitter as well as an excellent center fielder, two things that the team has lacked for awhile. Also, Mike Minor will finally be getting a full-time shot in the rotation after impressing in the second half last season.
Gonzalez was a free agent and the Braves didn't show much of a desire to bring him back, despite his vacuum like glove at short. The very well-paid, but thoroughly non-flashy, Derek Lowe was traded to the Indians as soon as the offseason opened up, and the deal was clearly just a salary dump, given that the Braves got only a very minor prospect in return, and are paying $10 million of Lowe's $15 million salary. A pair of relievers also departed the team as free agents, as lefty specialist George Sherrill signed with the Mariners, and much maligned veteran Scott Linebrink accepted a minor league deal with the Cardinals.
The Braves are a very young team, and there are some rookies in the upper levels of their system that could help the team this year. Pastornicky will be starting at shortstop this year, but he could just be holding the position for Andrelton Simmons, who could be ready in 2013. As for this year, starting pitchers Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado could get some time in the majors in the event of one of the Braves current starting give missing time due to injury, which seems to be a certainty given the issues with health suffered by Jurrjens and Hanson in 2011. There's also top prospect Arodys Vizcaino, who may start the year as a dominant bullpen arm in the majors, or could be a starter in AAA.
Everything really seems set in stone for the Braves right now. The only real competition is in the bullpen, where three slots appear to be locked down with Atlanta's dominant trio of Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters, and Craig Kimbrel. The other four slots will be a competition between guys like Vizcaino, Cristhian Martinez, Anthony Varvaro, Jairo Asencio, Peter Moylan, Robert Fish, Cory Gearrin, and Jason Rice. When the only real competition on your team comes among the extra guys in the bullpen, you've got a pretty solid team.
Jason Heyward had a shoulder problem that bugged him for most of the 2011 season, and as a result, his sophomore season was a huge letdown in comparison to his fantastic 2010. Martin Prado also dealt with some staph in the middle of the season that absolutely destroyed his season over the last three months of the year. Tommy Hanson had a balky shoulder for the final couple of months of 2011, and a change in his delivery along with some rehab should help him out a ton. Jair Jurrjens dealt with a knee issue near the end of 2011, and he should be good to go after offseason surgery. Brian McCann strained an oblique in the summer, and struggled greatly during the team's collapse in September. Currently, Tim Hudson had shoulder surgery in the offseason, and probably won't be ready until May. His slot in the rotation will be filled by either Teheran or Delgado for the season's first month.
Will Jason Heyward be able to reclaim his 2010 form and carry the team to a playoff berth, or were his struggles in 2011 the signs of a bigger problem? Personally, I think he'll be fine in 2012 because of the shoulder that plagued him in 2011, but if he struggles out of the gate, the Braves mob could begin to mobilize around Heyward with torches.
Everyone stays healthy, Dan Uggla doesn't struggle in the first half like he did in 2011, Heyward becomes a superstar like many are believing, Bourn plays like he has the last couple of years in Houston, Prado starts hitting like he did as a second baseman, and three starters throw 200 innings apiece. The Braves can definitely surpass the Phillies if a lot goes right for the team, but a wild card berth may be more probable.
The rookie pitchers struggle, Heyward and Prado hit like they did in 2011, Craig Kimbrel goes from dominant closer to wild mess, and the Braves fall to fourth place in the division behind the Phillies, Marlins, and Nationals.
The NL East is going to be a meat grinder in 2012, and the Braves cannot afford to lose any key player for a long stretch of time. A lot depends on the health of the team. If the key components stay healthy, this team is a contender. A wild card berth seems like a safe bet for the Braves in 2012.
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