2012 Outlook: Atlanta Braves

My poor Braves forgot how to play baseball in September, going 5-15 the last 20 games, ending up missing the wild card with an 89-73 record.  There is almost zero turnover on the roster, with all but one player on the 40-man roster being in the organization last year.  High-leverage hitting was a major factor in their late demise, hitting nearly 30% below average with runners on third base.  Two top starters also missed September due to injury, which also hurt the club.  2012 will be a challenge with such a deep NL East to compete with.

The biggest disappointment last year was right fielder Jason Heyward, struggling to hit at an average level after producing a 134 wRC+ his 2010 rookie year.  The three main culprits were less line drives, more popups, and swinging more often.  He has played good defense the first two seasons, so if he can get his offense near around a 120 wRC+, he should be a 4 WAR player.  At the other corner, injuries derailed Martin Prado’s first season in left field.  After hovering around the 120 wRC+ mark, he dropped all the way to an 85, also due to a lack of line drives.  He adjusted well defensively, so a rebound to a 110 wRC+ would give him a 3 WAR season.  The good defensive outfield rounds out with a full season of Michael Bourn in center field.  He had his best offensive season, despite struggling some with Atlanta.  His nearly 27% line drive rate is sure to come down, also bringing the .369 BABIP for the ride.  If he remains just above average, he projects as a 4 WAR player.  Eric Hinske and Matt Diaz are around for a lefty-righty pinch hitting combo, while Jose Constanza is the backup in center.

The cornerstone of the franchise, Chipper Jones, may be heading (again) into his last season at third base.  He won’t get much more than 500 PA, but he’s still producing.  The only strange thing was that his walk rate severely dipped with no statistical support.  If those can rise a bit while maintaining some of the power, he should provide 2.5-3 WAR.  Freddie Freeman had a good rookie season, posting a 118 wRC+.  His UZR was bad, but he’s good around the base, probably rating average overall.  Unless he makes a major step forward with his power, he will probably be a 2.5-3 WAR player.  Brian McCann had another 4 WAR season behind the plate, consistently showing good power and plate discipline.  His backup David Ross may lay claim to the Best Backup Catcher award, hitting very well while showing his standard great defense.

Dan Uggla struggled mightily the first three months of the season before recovering enough to raise his wRC+ above average.  He’s not good defensively at second base, but 30-35 home runs and a good walk rate are worth 3-4 WAR.  Tyler Pastornicky will be the fourth rookie in four years to be an everyday starter for the Braves coming into Spring Training.  There are questions about his defense, and his offensive strategy changed greatly last year in AAA.  I think he’ll be a below average hitter and defender, hopefully provided 1 WAR to the team.  Jack Wilson was re-signed to backup/mentor him, possibly taking over if Pastornicky struggles enough.

The starting pitching is the deepest area for the Braves, but also has a lot of question marks.  Tim Hudson was the workhorse last year, but he’s out until May recovering from back surgery.  He’s the only groundball pitcher left, with Derek Lowe gone.  Tommy Hanson is coming off shoulder problems, though the hitch in his delivery is apparently gone.  He should have better health and be quicker to home plate, looking to show the ace form he was progressing towards before last year.  Jair Jurrjens has a long list of injuries, adding knee problems to that list last September.  His peripherals are usually worse than his results, so you never know when that trend will end.  Brandon Beachy was very good last year, despite missing time in the middle of the season with an oblique injury.  His SIERA was 2.94, with his only weakness being a very low GB rate.  Mike Minor should be the #5 guy, able to post numbers similar to Beachy if he can limit the line drives allowed.  Julio Teheran will likely fill in for Hudson during April.  The 21-year-old has been a top pitching prospect, posting great numbers in AAA last year, though his walks did jump.  He was not impressive in three MLB starts last year, but he has the stuff to be great.  Randall Delgado is the other kid who could get starts this year.  He’s never shown great peripherals, which makes me leery of his true ability at this point, much like Jurrjens in results and stuff.

The Braves bullpen was lights out last year, though they were showing signs of over-usage in September.  Craig Kimbrel saved 46 games, striking out an astonishing 41.5% of all batters with his 96 MPH fastball and 87 MPH curveball (yes curveball).  Jonny Venters struck out his fair share of guys, but his main strength was his 72.5% groundball rate.  Eric O’Flaherty rounds out the triumvirate, posting a ridiculous 0.98 ERA, obviously not sustainable but he was very good.  Kris Medlen and Arodys Vizcaino are a couple of good arms behind those three whose names have also been mentioned in rotation talks.

There are a lot of great arms and a solid, but not spectacular, core of position players.  Injuries look to play a more important role with Atlanta compared to other teams.  If the injuries can be limited to short DL stays, this team has a chance to win 95 games despite the strong competition.

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