Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 2/20/13
The 2012 season for the Atlanta Braves was one full of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The team started Opening Day looking to compete with the Philadelphia Phillies, who were looking to win their sixth straight NL East title. However, a familiar rival would emerge to fight the Braves for the rights to sit atop of the division, as the Washington Nationals backed up manager Davey Johnson’s words from the spring and quickly showed the rest of the MLB that they were a legitimate contender. Powered by a great set of pitchers—both starting the games and waiting in the bullpen to get the job done—and a rejuvenated Chipper Jones, who had announced prior to the season that he would retire at its conclusion, the Braves fought the Nats long and hard as the year progressed, each fighting in a division that had quickly witnessed two teams separate themselves from an otherwise weak set of teams. Despite the best efforts from the entire team, the Braves were unable to top the Nationals, falling short of the NL East divisional crown by four games; however, the team did not finish the regular season empty-handed, as their 94-68 record was enough to secure a Wild Card berth, which set the team up with a one-game playoff with the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals at Turner Field. Chalked full emotion and nerves in what could be Larry Wayne Jones, Jr.’s last game as Brave, the team started the game on the right note, jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the second inning thanks to a two-run homerun by backup catcher David Ross. However, this would ultimately be the last lead Atlanta would hold on this day, as the Cardinals made the most out of a throwing error by Chipper and eventually reached a 6-3 lead. The Braves did what they could to make a wild comeback in the 8th inning, but a controversial infield fly rule extinguished any fire that the Braves were attempting to spark. The Braves would lose the game by the final score of 6-3. The offseason has witnessed a slew of changes for the Braves, as they shipped off starting pitcher Tommy Hanson back in November to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The team was also hit with the loss of backup catcher David Ross, who chose to sign with the Boston Red Sox after it seemed that Atlanta was in no rush to re-sign the man that many consider to be the best backup catcher in the majors. Not to be overcome by all the losses, the team has also made several key additions, including the signing of outfielder B.J. Upton to a 5-year, $75 million deal. General manager Frank Wren was not done adding Uptons at that point, as he executed a trade on January 24th that brought in Upton’s younger brother Justin as well as third baseman Chris Johnson for five Braves players, including fan favorite Martin Prado. 3 Up                                                                      Best Case Scenario for 2013 The Upton duo hits Turner Field at full blast and leads the Braves’ hitting to kick off the opening month of the season with a bang. Not to be outdone by his fellow outfielders, Jason Heyward continues progressing into one of the top outfielders in Major League Baseball, and by the time the first month of the season is gone The Jay-Hey Kid sits atop all of baseball in HR’s and RBIs. Things continue to prosper for these three young outfielders, and by the season’s halfway mark all three are selected to the All-Star Game. While the hitting grabs the headlines for Atlanta, the pitching continues to live up to its standard of being among the finest in Major League Baseball. Tim Hudson steps up as the team’s top starter, but does not exactly outplay Kris Medlen, who proves early on that his 2012 season was by no means a fluke. Paul Maholm continues to play the role of a reliable starter for the Braves, along with Mike Minor, who quietly puts away his problems from last season and begins to live up to the hype that a team’s #1 draft pick should hold. Julio Teheran turns heads across the NL East due to his major improvements over the offseason, and by the halfway mark is considered to be the leading candidate for the NL Rookie of the Year Award. The bullpen lives up to the team’s expectations coming into the season, as Eric O’Flaherty performs just as well as he ever as while wearing a Braves uniform. Jonny Venters returns to the form that Tomahawk Nation grew accustomed to seeing during the Vulture’s rookie season, serving as a reliable setup man for Craig Kimbrel, who adds more substance to the argument that he is truly the best closer in all of baseball. With all of the key players clicking on all cylinders, the Braves fight hard in the NL East and win the NL East for the first time since 2005, but there are bigger fish to fry; namely, advancing to and winning the World Series. Most Important Braves Jason Heyward, RF – Heyward has been solid in two of his three seasons with the Braves, but the exit of Chipper Jones and Martin Prado means that all eyes will be on the twenty-three year old. Add in the fact that new acquisitions B.J. and Justin Upton may take some time in order to adjust to the dimensions of a new ballpark, which could leave Heyward in the position to carry the team through start of the season. If Jason Heyward starts the 2013 season the way he ended the 2012 season, expect the Braves to be in good shape in terms of the NL East; if Heyward struggles and is bitten by the injury bug, expect Atlanta to be playing catch-up for a good portion of the season. Craig Kimbrel, CP – Kimbrel is key to Atlanta’s entire bullpen, as his reliability as the closer (42 saves in 45 opportunities in 2012) sures up an already solid bullpen. The exit of Kimbrel would leave the rest of the team’s bullpen in a disarray, as the team would more than likely take a chance on Jonny Venters and move him to fill in at closer. To put it quite simply, Kimbrel is the most reliable pitcher on the entire Braves roster, and the more time Kimbrel spends on the mound for Atlanta means the better chances the team has at reaching the postseason for the second straight season. Potential Breakout Players Andrelton Simmons, SS – Simmons had a great 2012 season for the Braves, hitting .289 with 3 homeruns and 19 RBIs in just 49 games and 182 plate attendances due to a late promotion to the MLB roster and a fracture on his right hand that saw him hit the disabled list in July. The Braves have not had consistent play at shortstop since Rafael Furcal played in between the likes of Chipper and Marcus Giles, and a big year out of Simmons could provide the team with what they could have had if Elvis Adrus had not been dealt in the infamous Mark Teixiera trade. Julio Teheran, SP – Believed to be Atlanta’s best pitching prospect, Teheran’s value to the Braves front office has been apparent as of late, with the team backing down from any offers that include shipping off the twenty-two year old. Teheran has had very limited experience in the majors (just 26 innings pitched between 2011 and 2012), but that should not be the case in 2013 with Teheran projected to be Atlanta’s fifth starter. Scouting experts have raved about Teheran since the Braves signed him as a sixteen year old back in 2007 but have warned that his off-speed pitches are basically a shot in the dark. If Teheran is able to get comfortable pitched in the big leagues (which seemed to be an issue two years ago) and figures out how to perfect his breaking pitches, he could very well be the biggest story of the Braves’ season. Julio Teheran Jordan Walden, RP – Maybe I am misled, but I believe that upon hearing that starting pitcher Tommy Hanson had been traded for the Angels for the twenty-five year old, every Braves’ fan’s response was along the lines of “Who is Jordan Walden?” The Angels’ closer for the 2011 season, Walden has been a solid reliever in his Major League career, sitting on an ERA of 3.06 with an 8-8 record and 138 strikeouts over three seasons. Walden most successful season in 2011—in which he was selected to the All-Star game—was followed by a lackluster 2012, which undoubtedly led to LA dealing him. Walden is projected to be a big part of Atlanta’s bullpen, and a smooth start to the season could see him earn the role of setup man for Craig Kimbrel and even do his best Kimbrel imitation in the ninth every now and then. 3 Down Worst Case Scenario Although Atlanta is full of hope and potential going into this season, that is not to say that a letdown is impossible. The retirement of Chipper Jones may very well leave the team without a true leader in the clubhouse, leaving the role bungled between the likes of Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, and Dan Uggla. As if that was not a big enough headache for the Bravos, both Uptons start the season on less than perfect terms, as Justin’s strikeout issues and B.J.’s tendency to not hustle on playable balls present headaches right off the bat. McCann’s recovery following his offseason knee surgery turns out to be a longer process than expected, which leaves Atlanta juggling the catching duties between newly signed Gerald Laird and minor leaguer Christian Betancourt, leaving what was once one of Atlanta’s most dependable positions with a huge question mark. McCann’s health status will be key for the Braves in 2013 As if the struggles of the offense were not enough, the pitching staff is bitten hard by the injury bug, as thirty-seven year old ace Tim Hudson’s age shows early in the year, leading to a long stint on the DL. Now with the whole rotation out of whack, the team is left to do its best between Medlen, Minor, Teheran, and a minor league starter until Brandon Beachy returns at the All-Star break, but the wait until the summertime is excruciatingly painful. By the time Atlanta is able to regroup itself and try to compete with the Nationals, it is far too late for an division title run or any run, for that matter. Areas of Concern Third Base – How do you go about replacing Chipper Jones, one of the most successful players in Braves’ history? It definitely is not an easy task, and it is not any easier when the strategy in doing so is not exactly clear. The apparent plan of Fredi Gonzalez is to have a platoon at the hot corner between newly acquired Chris Johnson, who hit .281 with 15 HR’s in 2012 with the Astros and the Diamondbacks, and Juan Francisco, who came up big several times for the Braves last year and finished his first season as a Brave with 9 HR’s, 32 RBIs, and a batting average of .234. While the plan may prove to be highly successful, it is far from a sure thing due to the fact that Johnson had a spike in strikeouts last season with 132 (just 5 less than the number of hits he had) and Francisco has yet to play enough at third base with only 49 games in 2012 to prove that he can handle the balancing act of being able to hit and field effectively. Shortstop – Andrelton Simmons played very well for Atlanta in 2012, but his time with the team was just a narrow look (only 49 games) into his potential playing every day in the majors. If the injury bug bites Simmons again or if he struggles to start the year, the team would then turn to Tyler Pastornicky, who had a cup of coffee with the team last season but never could really assert himself as MLB-ready. The last thing Atlanta needs is for both positions on the left side of the infield to be a mix-and-match of sorts, so it will be imperative for Simmons to start the season off right and play up to his capabilities. Back End of Rotation – The departure of Ben Sheets and Tommy Hanson following the season and the team’s lack of response via the free agent market sends one message, loud and clear: they believe that their current stock of pitchers can handle the task of pitching every five days. Although Hudson, Medlen, and Malholm seem to be reliable, the true questions circle the previously mentioned Teheran and Mike Minor. The Braves’ #1 draft pick back in 2009, the former Vanderbilt hurler has yet to live up to the gaudy expectations that surround any first-round draft pick, holding a career record of 19-15 with 265 strikeouts and an ERA of 4.37. Last season was forgettable for Minor, who struggled through the first half of the year before coming around a bit to end his third season in Atlanta with an 11-10 record. This season may very well be make-or-break for Minor, who at twenty-five still has time to grow and improve but must at least begin to show signs that he is doing so. If he starts off 2013 the way he played for a significant portion of 2012, do not be shocked if the Braves decide that enough is enough and look to move Minor. Who Needs to Bounce Back From a Down 2012 Brian McCann – McCann was Mr. Reliable for the Braves in his first seven seasons with the big-league team, but 2012 saw the bottom practically drop out for the Duluth High School graduate, as McCann played just 121 games with career lows in hits, runs, RBIs, and batting average. The scariest part of McCann’s struggles is that the twenty-seven year old has witnessed his numbers decline a bit over the past three seasons, and even though a drop is to be expected for any baseball player, it is never a good sign for one of the team’s best. It is even worse for McCann himself due to the fact that 2013 is a contract year, which could very mean it is his last with his hometown team if he has trouble hitting again and Christian Betancourt shines in the opportunities he is given to play. Dan Uggla – Other than a thirty-three game hitting streak in his second season with the team that in hindsight is harder to believe than the Manti Te’o travesty, Uggla’s tenure with the Braves has been a major bust, as the second-baseman currently sits at 160 homeruns with 160 RBIs, 324 strikeouts, and a .227 batting average in his two years with the team. Uggla’s struggles with the team became such an issue at the end of last season that he saw his playing time decrease mightily as the Braves readied themselves for a playoff run, which left his status for 2013 in question. However, the team made no obvious attempt at trading the thirty-two year old, but it is clear that if things don’t pick up for Uggla he will be wearing a different uniform come 2014.

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

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