Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 3/1/12

The Atlanta Braves are eager to get the 2012 season started and put the memories of their historic collapse last September behind them for good. The Braves held an 8.5 game lead over St. Louis as late as September 6th, and watched as that lead evaporated over the season’s final few weeks.

Atlanta went 8-18 in the month of September, and lost their final six games of the season which included consecutive sweeps at the hands of Washington and Philadelphia. Despite the collapse, the Braves management decided to pretty much stand pat.

The Braves must bounce back from their historic collapse in 2011.

The only move the Braves really made was trading embattled pitcher Derek Lowe to the Cleveland Indians for minor league pitcher Chris Jones and some salary relief. They also watched as last season’s starting shortstop Alex Gonzalez signed with the Brewers.

[2012 MLB Preview Central]

The Braves decided they were comfortable with the team they had moving forward, and were confident in some guys having bounce back seasons in 2012. The braintrust hopes to see healthy seasons from outfielders Jason Heyward and Martin Prado, who dealt with various injuries throughout 2011.

A full year of Michael Bourn in center field should pay dividends to a Braves team who really struggled on the basepaths before the deadline deal to bring Bourn in from Houston. The Braves also have to hope Dan Uggla plays a full season like he played the second half of 2011. After hitting .185 before the All-Star break, Uggla rebounded to hit .296 after the break.

To go along with what should be an improved lineup this season, the Braves still boast one of the top pitching rotations and bullpens in all of baseball. The Braves were fourth in the league a year ago with a 3.48 team ERA.

Three of the five starting spots in the rotation are nailed down by Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, and Jair Jurrjens. Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor are both likely to start the season in the rotation, but young sensations Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado will be vying for a rotation spot this spring with one of the two starting out the season in the rotation as Tim Hudson recovers from back surgery.

The Braves gambled by keeping the team intact after such a devastating collapse at the end of the season. We’ll see if the move pays off and the Braves are able to get back to the postseason.

3 Up

Best Case Scenario for 2012

With the epic September collapse last season, it is easy to forget that this Braves team won 89 games in 2011. And while they did end the season on a sour note, they still finished just one game behind the Cardinals in the wild card. For most of the season they played great baseball, and it is easy to see this team getting back to the postseason in 2012. Obviously, the Phillies are the team to beat in the NL East, and both the Marlins and Nationals should be improved in 2012, but the best case scenario for the Braves this season would be to seriously push the Phillies to retake the NL East crown. Also, don’t forget major league baseball instituted their two wild card teams per league in 2012, which only gives Atlanta that much better of a chance of making the playoffs. The Braves were close a year ago and there is no reason to think they can’t get into the playoffs this year.

Most Important Braves

Brian McCann has solidified himself as one of the best catchers in all of baseball the last few years, and he has been the cornerstone of the Braves in recent seasons. McCann hit .270 last season to go along with 24 home runs and 71 RBI. He also put up a .351 OBP and an .817 OPS. His numbers were a bit down last season from his career averages, but McCann, like others on the team, had a rough second half of the season. After hitting .310 pre-All Star break, McCann fell into a funk and hit only .203 after. Regardless, McCann has become the face of the Braves since Chipper Jones has gotten older.

Tommy Hanson has shown flashes of becoming the ace of the Braves’ rotation over the last couple of years, but injuries have slowed his progress. Hanson was one of the most effective starters in baseball last season up to the All-Star break. He was tied for third in the league with 10 wins, and held opposing hitters to an NL low .190 batting average. He had a 2.44 ERA at the All-Star break, but made just five starts after and finished the season with an 11-7 record and 3.60 ERA. Injuries to Hanson and others were the main cause for Atlanta’s late-season collapse. A healthy Hanson will be crucial for the Braves in 2012.

Potential Breakout Players

Dan Uggla posted a career-worst .233 batting average for the Braves last season despite his strong second half. His .311 OBP and .764 OPS were also career worsts. Even with those low numbers, Uggla still cranked out a career-high 36 home runs and drove in 82 runners. Uggla is a career .258 hitter and you have to think at the very least he will get his batting average to the .260 or so range in 2012. Big things are expected and needed from the Atlanta 2nd baseman in his second year with the team.

While the Braves rotation may be set for the opening of 2012 with Hanson, Hudson, Jurrjens, Beachy, and Minor, don’t be surprised to see 21-year old Julio Teheran crack the rotation at some point in 2012. Teheran made three starts for the big-league club a year ago, going 1-1 with a 5.03 ERA. Teheran is the top arm in an Atlanta farm system filled with future major league pitchers. If not Teheran, also look out for 22-year-old right hander Randall Delgado. Tim Hudson will not make his first start of the season until May, so either Teheran or Delgado will get the 5th spot in the rotation until Huddy returns.

3 Down

Worst Case Scenario for 2012

The worst case for Atlanta in 2012 would be once again struggling with injuries to their pitching staff. Last year, the Braves had to rely on a lot of young arms that weren’t quite ready for the show. Also, the Braves need to be careful of overworking their talented trio at the back-end of their bullpen in Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters, and Craig Kimbrel. At the dish, if the likes of Jason Heyward, Martin Prado, and Dan Uggla do not bounce back then the Braves could ultimately miss the playoffs for a second straight year.

Heyward is looking to return to his 2010 form.

Biggest Areas of Concern

Undoubtedly the biggest area of concern for the Braves is staying healthy. They need Jason Heyward, Martin Prado, and Chipper Jones to avoid the injury bug in 2012, along with pitchers Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens. Other than that though, the biggest area of concern is at shortstop with rookie Tyler Pastornicky. Pastornicky is the favorite to come out of spring training as the starting shortstop, but some Atlanta fans are worried that the Braves are making a mistake by rushing him to the majors. Brandon Hicks, Andrelton Simmons, and Jack Wilson will push Pastornicky this spring, but the job will likely be his at least to start the season.
Players Who Must Rebound

Jason Heyward lived up to the lofty expectations during his rookie campaign in 2010, but he struggled in his sophomore season in the majors in 2011. After hitting .272 in his rookie season, Heyward regressed to a .227 average last year. Heyward struggled with his swing and a shoulder injury throughout last season and was only able to play in 128 games. The word from Braves camp is that Heyward is healthy and looking like the 2010 version of himself again. Braves hitting coach Greg Walker seems convinced of Heyward’s ability, and Heyward himself has said he has his confidence back heading into 2012. The Braves need Heyward to be the superstar he has the potential to be, and Braves fans should expect a big bounce back year for the J-Hey Kid.

Tommy Hanson needs to be the Tommy Hanson we saw during the first half of 2011 when he was raising Cy-Young discussion at the midpoint of the season. Injuries in the second-half derailed Hanson’s promising season. If Hanson can stay healthy in 2012, he is Atlanta’s ace in the rotation. He finished last season with a 3.60 ERA which is much higher than his 3.28 career ERA. The 25-year-old right-hander is poised for a big year in 2012.

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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