Heading into 2011, the Atlanta Braves were a championship caliber team and played that way for the first five months of the season.
The Braves were the NL’s version of the Red Sox, arriving in September with an 8.5 game lead for the wild card only to blow it and land in a jam. The Braves had to win the last game left in the regular 2011 season just for a chance to play the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Wild Card but that never happened because the Braves lost again, and their October dreams went down the toilet.
It was ugly and while maybe not as embarrassing as the Red Sox, for any team who won 89 games the implosion surely must have humbled them.
The Braves did next to nothing in the off-season to improve, which means Atlanta is confident they can win with what they have. The question remains is the 2011 team determined enough to prevent another season with no October baseball?
Let’s take look….
The Braves had all-around strong pitching last season finishing with the fourth best ERA (3.48), while pitching the most innings (1479.2) in the NL; and minus Derek Lowe being traded to the Indians the same group returns in tact in 2012. Starting rotation looks to be featuring Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens , Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy. All are but 36-year old Hudson are 26 or younger and the veteran ace will be starting the season on the disabled list as he is coming back from off-season back surgery. They also had a recent blow this spring when top-pitching prospect Arodys Vizcaino had to have Tommy John surgery and will be out till 2013. The Braves were expecting big things from Vizcaino this season, especially with Hudson still recovering. Luckily the Braves have some depth in the minors and 21-year old top prospect Julio Teheran will luckily step in until Jones gets healthy.
The bullpen looks rock solid with Johnny Venters setting up for the 2011 Rookie of the Year recipient closer Craig Kimbrel, who posted a 2.10 ERA, over 77 innings in 2011. He tied for second most saves in baseball with 46 and that was because he struck out 127 batters. Expect big things from this 23-year old in 2012.
The offense fell on its face in 2011, and should shoulder a lot of the blame for the team’s downfall. 2B Dan Uggla had a 33-game hitting streak but posted a .238 batting average on the season. Catcher Brian McCann hit 24 homers last season, but over the last six weeks he posted a .180 batting average when his team needed him the most. The Braves were relying on getting 120+ games out of veteran 3B Chipper Jones, as he hit 18 homers and 70 RBIs last season. Over the last week Jones announced that this would be his last season and within two days needed knee surgery. That puts even more pressure on 22-year old Freddie Freeman, who set the bar high in his rookie campaign with a .282 batting average, with 21 home-runs and 76 RBIs. That is a lot of pressure for Freeman not to have a sophomore slump, like Jason Heyward did last season. Heyward is another question that the Braves are counting to turn it around now, after an All-Star rookie campaign Heyward nose-dived drawing 40 less walks and 30 less RBIs in 2011. Overall the bats ranked tenth in the NL in runs scored (641), and were the fourth worst team in batting average (.243) and slugging percentage (.308). This is the weak link on the Braves because as a collective group they could not get the job done when it counted, and they are banking a lot on what the players are supposed to be doing. Now they have to actually need Heyward get back to rookie form, Uggla to consistently hit, not in streaks and for McCann to get back to being marvelous again.
PLAYER(s)/GAME-CHANGERS TO WATCH:
1) Michael Bourne was acquired for his speed from the Astros mid-2011 as the Braves needed to be faster on the base pads. He came to Atlanta with 39 steals on the season already, but he wound up only stealing 22 more and got caught seven times. A team’s leadoff hitter cannot walk just 15 times while striking out 50, and that is what Bourne did in Atalnta. The two seasons prior, Bourne led the NL in steals with a combined 113, while getting caught 24 times in total. If Bourne can get his OBP back up to the high .300’s that would be huge because he will have to green light to go on his own accord and the guy loves to run. And having a pest like Bourne in the middle of the order is a peak for any pitcher to deal with. The Braves are looking for the 29-year old to have a big season in 2012 because they need him too.
The Braves owned the NL East wild card heading into 2011 until the collapse. But unlike the Phillies, who still remain the division’s owners, the Braves are no longer the only threatening team as the Nationals and Marlins both vastly improving in the off-season.
The Braves have a lot of key players that are coming back from serious injuries, and with 40-year old Jones already requiring his sixth knee surgery this spring you have to wonder if he can stay healthy for even a 100-games this season. Jones hopes to return for the Braves home opener but for now will be placed on the 15-day DL to start the season.
Also, the recent article by FOX SPORTS Ken Rosenthal about the questionable status of Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez can only mean the GM and owner are not liking what is going on so far. Rosenthal reported that Gonzalez is already on probation, and with the regular season still two weeks away this is not the news Braves fans want to hear.
It would seen that the 2012 Braves are still suffering in the 2011 after-math, as the Red Sox epic fall masked them from the press. This might have hurt Atlanta more in the long run because ownership was not thrown against the wall to make changes.
See, the Red Sox were put through the media ringer, to put it lightly, but that forced the ball club to look in the mirror and make significant changes to show the players and fans that collapsing like that again will just not be acceptable.
The Braves did squat and after going 9-18 in September you would think that someone would take the fall. The fact that the Braves left things as is gives off the impression that 2011 was some kind of accident or something.
In my opinion the 2012 Braves might have a shot at the expanded Wild Card spot, but that is a long shot.
I am predicting that Atlanta will finish in fourth place, just a hair shy of the Nationals and Marlins and that they will win somewhere between 82-85 games. And the main reason being that the little cleanup that needed to happen didn’t, and that necessity will carry over into this new season, as it seems to be already affecting the team in Spring Training.