If not for the beer-drinking, chicken-eating pitchers’ scandal from the Red Sox clubhouse, the spotlight would have shined brighter on the Braves, who are also left to pick up the pieces from one of the most colossal September meltdowns in history. The Braves led the NL wild card by 8.5 games Sept. 5, only to lose it to the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals on the season’s final day. Unlike the Red Sox, who dumped Terry Francona, the Braves stuck by first-year manager Fredi Gonzalez, though the scrutiny in the post-Bobby Cox era will intensify. General manager Frank Wren didn’t make wholesale changes to the roster, saying that as it was constructed last Aug. 25, the Braves were on pace to win 96 games, with the fourth-best record in baseball. That thinking, and a lack of available funds, kept Wren from overhauling. With the Marlins having spent nearly $200 million on free agents to go along with a new manager and a new stadium, and the Nationals returning Stephen Strasburg and adding Gio Gonzalez to their rotation, the Braves will have company challenging the Phillies, who have won five straight NL East titles.
Not many teams can lose two All-Star-caliber pitchers — Jair Jurrjens (knee) and Tommy Hanson (shoulder) — in the final two months of the season and make a playoff run, but that’s the depth the Braves have in their rotation. They have standout prospects Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran vying for a fifth spot in the rotation and Tim Hudson’s replacement while the ace is recovering from back surgery. They also provide insurance for Jurrjens, who’s faded each of the last two seasons with knee problems; and Hanson, who is hoping offseason rest and rehab gets his shoulder back to 100 percent. Hudson expects to be ready by May 1 despite herniated disc surgery. Not completely satisfied with how the youngsters were progressing in the spring, the Braves signed veteran Livan Hernandez, who had been released by Houston. Derek Lowe went from a workhorse to a burden on the rotation last season — he failed to go six innings in seven of 14 starts in the second half and lost his last five starts — and was traded to the Indians in a salary-dumping move. Had the Braves made the postseason, Brandon Beachy would have been their No. 2 starter. He’ll have to pitch deeper in games to improve on seven wins in 25 starts in 2011.
The Braves return NL Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel and his rookie-record 46 saves to anchor the bullpen. He blew eight saves and enters the season motivated by his last one in the final game against the Phillies. The 23-year-old rejoins left-handed setup men Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty to give the Braves a back end that compares favorably with any in baseball. The key will be whether they are used more effectively after wearing down in 2011. Kris Medlen could help. The versatile righthander showed during the last week of last season that he was healthy after Tommy John surgery. If the Braves don’t need him in the rotation because of injuries or trades, he can help their bullpen depth. Rule 5 selection Robert Fish could be a factor.
Dan Uggla could use some middle ground after a tumultuous 2011. Through his first three-plus months as a Brave, Uggla hit .173 before breaking out with a 33-game hitting streak, tied for the third-longest ever by a second baseman. He managed to maintain his power throughout, finishing with a career-high 36 homers. The Braves are counting on another 30-plus homers, like he’s hit each of the past five years. Uggla will break in a new double-play partner. Looking for an offensive upgrade at shortstop, the Braves parted ways with Alex Gonzalez, who hit .241 with .270 on-base percentage last year, and opened the door to 22-year-old rookie Tyler Pastornicky. Pastornicky is not the leather-flashing Gonzalez, and he’s played only 27 games above Double-A, but he hit .365 with a homer and seven steals in those 27 games for Triple-A Gwinnett. The Braves like his speed and grit and project him as a 20-steal threat.
By now the Braves know what they’re going to get from 39-year-old Chipper Jones, who had ACL surgery on his left knee in 2010 and arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in 2011. They figure on 120 to 130 games, with Martin Prado ready to spell him at third base. If they can get another .275 year with 15-20 homers like they did from Jones in 2011, the Braves will be pleased. At the other corner, first baseman Freddie Freeman hopes to avoid the sophomore slump his close friend Jason Heyward endured. Freeman’s swing isn’t as violent and his approach is more refined, giving the Braves confidence he can repeat his success. At times Freeman was the Braves’ best hitter coming down the stretch. If not for Kimbrel, Freeman would likely have been NL Rookie of the Year.
For the second straight offseason, the Braves sought pop in the outfield. They ranked second to last in the National League last year in home runs (41) and last in slugging percentage (.375), after ranking last among NL outfields in home runs (40) and 15th in slugging percentage (.389) in 2010. The Braves upgraded in center field at the trade deadline last year and have Michael Bourn through the end of the 2012 season. But they need Heyward to be the player he was as a rookie, not the injury-laden easy out he became last season when pitchers jammed him inside. Prado’s left field experiment was largely a flop. Whether he was focusing too much on learning a new position, or the five weeks he missed with a staph infection cost him his rhythm, he was a shadow of his 2010 All-Star self offensively.
Brian McCann’s five Silver Slugger awards and six trips to the All-Star game in his first six full seasons make the Braves the envy of the National League and maybe all of baseball. Even by his own lofty standards, McCann was on pace for a career year last year, but his season stalled after an oblique injury. He came back after only about two weeks and maintained that he was healthy upon his return, but his timing was off. He hit .180 with a .346 slugging percentage and 16 RBIs in 37 games after returning from the disabled list. He still hit .270 with 24 home runs for the season, the most by any catcher in the majors, but he shouldered significant blame for the Braves’ September fall-off. David Ross returns as his backup, giving the Braves a little pop, a great signal-caller and a veteran presence in the clubhouse.
Eric Hinske returns to bolster the bench, which is another area where the Braves saw production drop off a year ago. Hinske hit double-digits in homers for the second straight year but drove in just over half as many runs with 28 RBIs vs. 51 in 2010. Brooks Conrad, who was subsequently non-tendered, didn’t spark the Braves as he had in the past, and without Omar Infante and Prado like the year before, the bench didn’t provide much of an offensive lift. Matt Diaz returned via trade from the Pirates in August and should provide some right-handed power. The Braves added veteran shortstop Jack Wilson for insurance if Pastornicky struggles. But a calf injury has slowed Wilson, who may not be available for the first month.
Gonzalez enters the season determined not to overuse the back of the bullpen as he admittedly did in the first half of 2011. The Braves’ lack of offense and propensity for extra-inning games didn’t make it any easier. The Braves hope new hitting coach Greg Walker will help them get back to good fundamental offensive play, and that they won’t be the pull-happy team they turned into down the stretch.
If the Braves are going bounce back from last season’s epic collapse and make a run in an ever-improving division, they’ll need to see significant improvement from players such as Heyward and Prado. To offset any potential injuries in their rotation, they’ll need some of their good young arms to pitch deeper into games, not just through the fifth inning. The NL East might be the most competitive in baseball, with both the Marlins and Nationals making significant steps forward and the Phillies a continuing threat with that vaunted rotation.
CF Michael Bourn (L)
First true leadoff hitter for Braves since Rafael Furcal in 2005; led majors with 61 stolen bases in 2011.
LF Martin Prado (R)
Followed All-Star season by hitting career-low .260; missed five weeks with staph infection.
3B Chipper Jones (S)
Underwent arthroscopic surgery on right knee last season, but still played 126 games, hit .275 with 18 HRs and 70 RBIs. Had more surgery in the spring and won’t be ready for Opening Day.
C Brian McCann (L)
Provides power in the middle of the lineup, but hit only .180 in final six weeks coming off oblique injury.
2B Dan Uggla (R)
His 33-game hitting streak was longest since Chase Utley’s 35-gamer in 2006.
1B Freddie Freeman (L)
Led the Braves in batting average as a rookie. Runner-up in Rookie of the Year race.
RF Jason Heyward (L)
Followed breakout rookie season with sophomore slump; benched for parts of stretch run.
SS Tyler Pastornicky (R)
Hit .314 in 117 games at Double-A and Triple-A combined last season, with 27 steals.
UT Eric Hinske (L)
Best power threat off bench, hitting double-digit homers each of past two seasons for a total of 21.
OF Matt Diaz (R)
Failed to homer in 116 games last season with Pirates and Braves, but hit .286 in 16 games for Atlanta.
C David Ross (R)
Braves were 28–14 in his starts, and 9–5 when he caught Tim Hudson.
OF Jose Constanza (L)
Speedster was a surprise spark for Braves last year, hitting .372 in first 23 games of call-up.
3B Juan Francisco (L)
Was hitting below .200 for Cincinnati in spring training when Braves acquired him.
RH Tim Hudson
Went at least seven innings in 10 of last 16 starts. Coming off back surgery and will miss at least the first month.
RH Tommy Hanson
10–4, 2.44 ERA in first half, but shoulder injury led to 1–3, 8.10 ERA in five second-half starts. Will be the Opening Day starter.
RH Jair Jurrjens
First-time All-Star after 12–3 first half, but knee problems cost him another September.
RH Brandon Beachy
Started 25 games as a rookie and had 10.7 Ks/nine innings, but had trouble finishing big inning.
LH Mike Minor
Poised to join rotation full-time after Braves won nine of his last 12 starts filling in for injured starters.
RH Randall Delgado
Held opponents to a .220 average over 35 innings in his seven starts last season. Either he or Hernandez will take the fifth spot until Hudson returns.
RH Livan Hernandez
Signed late in spring training as insurance for the youngsters and Jurrjens.
RH Craig Kimbrel (Closer)
Lived up to billing with rookie-record 46 saves but blew three saves in September.
LH Jonny Venters
Established as one of majors’ best relievers; only allowed 53 hits in 88 innings in 2011.
LH Eric O’Flaherty
Proved more than lefty specialist by leading all major league relievers with a 0.98 ERA.
RH Kris Medlen
Missed all but two outings in 2011 following Tommy John surgery.
RH Cristhian Martinez
Valuable long man, as evidenced by six shutout innings in 19-inning marathon vs. Pirates.
LH Yohan Flande
Earned a spot in the bullpen this spring. In eight games he gave up eight hits, struck out eight and walked eight.
RH Anthony Varvaro
Earned Fredi Gonzalez’s trust in call-up, allowing only four runs in 15 innings in September (2.40 ERA). Starts the season on the DL.
RH Julio Teheran
Had a dominant Triple-A season and held his own in three major league starts. Will start 2012 at Triple-A.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals