Sunday, January 29, 2012

Hot Stove:  A rundown of each team in the offseason and what they are looking to improve in 2012. 

Atlanta Braves:  Starting with my favorite team because it’s the easiest place to start:

Projected Starting Lineup:

1B:            Freddie Freeman
2B:            Dan Uggla
SS:            Jack Wilson
3B:            Chipper Jones
LF:            Martin Prado
CF:            Michael Bourn
RF:            Jason Heyward
C:            Brian McCann

Projected Starting Rotation:

Tim Hudson
Jair Jurrjens
Tommy Hanson
Brandon Beachy
Mike Minor

Projected Batting Order:

CF            Michael Bourn
LF            Martin Prado
3B            Chipper Jones
C            Brian McCann
2B            Dan Uggla
1B            Freddie Freeman
RF            Jason Heyward
SS            Jack Wilson

Atlanta had a good season last year winning 89 games.  But an epic collapse left them out of the playoffs on the last day of the season. They lost 12 of their final 17 games, which eventually enabled the St. Louis Cardinals to sneak into the playoffs and end up winning it all.  If it weren’t for the Red Sox collapse, the Braves would have been REALLY embarrassed.  The Braves of 2012 look similar to last year’s team with a few noticeable subtractions.  Former number one starter, Derek Lowe, is off to Cleveland, to the relief of many Braves fans.  But Atlanta is still on the hook for a lot of his salary, and was fairly hamstrung by that this offseason.  In addition they lost Alex Gonzalez to the Brewers in free agency.  In fact, they haven’t really added anyone to the roster.  They needed a big bat (which has been the same story in Atlanta for at least the past 5 years), but the free agent market didn’t supply any viable candidates.  The only decent fit would have been former Brave Andruw Jones, but his defense has declined enough that he can only play the corner outfield positions, and they are already well stocked there.  GM Frank Wren has recently gone on record saying a quiet offseason was always the plan for this club.  They like what they have, and they have a strong group.  The Braves had only one player with over 25 HR (Uggla 36), one with over 75 RBI (Uggla 82) and a rookie leading the team in AVG (Freeman 282).  Their offense needs a major shot in the arm.  They hope a full season of Michael Bourn will give them a high AVG player at the top of the lineup that can get into scoring position and score some runs.

Brian McCann continues to be the class of NL catchers and consistently turns in All Star seasons.  While that’s fantastic for the Braves, you don’t want a catcher as your offensive leader as he needs more time off than other players and gets quite beat up throughout a long season.  After losing Alex Gonzalez to free agency, they have a bit of a hole at the position.  They did recently come to terms one a one year $1 million contract with veteran Jack Wilson who came over from Seattle at the trade deadline.  He will take some pressure off rookie Tyler Pastronicky and projects to be the starter.  Dan Uggla’s big bat was a welcome addition, but a horrendous start of the year gave him less of an impact than his 36 HR would suggest.  Freddie Freeman was a pleasant surprise at first, and hopes to keep up his hot start from 2011.  Chipper returns for another season, but nowadays mainly walks and gets the occasional double.  Martin Prado had a down year due to injury, but can hopefully return to his 2010 form hitting over 300 again.  Bourn can get on base a lot and lead the league in steals any time he wants.  But the fate of the Braves will lay with their 3rd year right-fielder, Jason Heyward.  Injuries and a sophomore slump destroyed his second campaign for Atlanta, and they have to have him come back strong to compete this year.  They don’t have the money to sign a big power-hitting free agent (plus there’s no one worth taking for them) and need more power desperately.  Heyward hit 18 HR in his rookie season.  If he can get 20+, then they will have a shot at contending for the East Crown, or at least a wildcard slot.

The Braves pitching continues to be the team’s strength.  Both the bullpen and starters are in good shape.  Tim Hudson had a strong season last year winning 16 games.  He looks to anchor the rotation as the number one starter.  Both Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson had injury issues derail strong seasons.  Both were in the running for the NL All Star team before injury limited them to 13 and 11 Wins respectively.  After the top 3, the Braves are relying on youngsters Brandon Beachy (who led the team in Ks) and Mike Minor (the only starting southpaw) to round out their rotation.  Both had their moments last year, but they are young and are hoping to be a little more consistent.  The bullpen is in good shape with Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel closing things out for Atlanta again this season.  Jonny Venters is as good in his set up role and gives Atlanta one of the best 8th-9th inning punches in the game.  Lefty Eric O’Flaherty is also back after another strong season.  Add to that a wealth of quality young arms and the Braves feel good about their bullpen.  Their only weakness on the mound would be no clear-cut number one starter (Hudson is old, Hanson is young, and Jurrjens can’t seem to stay healthy).  But Atlanta feels good about their pitching in 2012, and they should.

2012 Prediction:  I think the Braves are good enough to finish second again this year and maybe snag a wildcard spot.  Their biggest challenge (besides the Phillies who will probably win the division) will be from the Marlins who have made strides towards improving.  But I think they need more power in their lineup too, and there are still some questions on the staff with Nolasco and new Marlin Carlos Zambrano.  Buehrle is good, but not overpowering.  And their bullpen is weak before the 9th inning.  And I think the Nationals are a few years from contending and the Mets a few decades.  For that reason the Braves are looking at second place again this season, with around 90 wins. 

Up next…Miami Marlins.

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