Wednesday, February 08, 2012

NL East: A Fascinating Place: Braves

Yesterday began a new series on the National League East, a division that has dramatically evolved during the off season. The series began, of course, with the Phillies. The Phillies are still the top dog until some team rises and knocks them off their perch. Could that team be the Atlanta Braves? Not if it is last year's Braves who never looked as good as the Phillies. And certainly not the September Braves who had as bad a fall as the Red Sox and lost was looked earlier to be an insurmountable wild card lead. As we look at the 2012 Braves, the first question is if this team is better than 89 wins.

Why 89 wins? Because last year, 89 wins wasn't good enough for the playoffs and it won't be enough again this coming season. The Phillies should win 90 at the very least. So the Braves need to be better in 2012 than they were in 2011. Is there any hope that they can be better? Yes and no. Yes because so many of their players had down seasons in 2011 and no because there are a lot of "ifs" on this team. Of the early projections consulted for this piece, 89 wins was this team's projection. Uh oh.

The easiest place to start are with the "Ifs." The biggest "if" of the 2012 season is the health of three-fifths of the Braves' starting rotation. Tim Hudson is coming off back surgery (November) to repair a herniated disc. Tommy Hanson missed most of the second half with persistent pain in his shoulder. A small hole was found but surgery was not deemed necessary. Hanson says he is fine and ready for Spring Training. Lastly, Jair Jurrjens missed much of the second half with knee problems. Jurrjens and Hanson had a big first half of the season in 2011 only to be unavailable much of the rest of the season. IF the best case scenario results and all three can pitch with good health for most of the season, then the Braves will be in good shape depending on some other "ifs." Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor should be solid in the back end of the rotation.

What does Chipper Jones have left? Jones played 126 games last season and managed 512 plate appearances. That was more than expected considering his age and the condition of his knees. The problem is that the Braves are in the National League and Jones has to play the field to play at all. Chipper Jones wasn't a great third baseman in his prime and he certainly is a liability in the field now. Even so, if the Braves can get the same production from this future Hall of Fame player as he was in 2011, the value proposition still works. Martin Prado can come in from left field to replace Jones if Jones' health falters. But the Braves need Chipper to have one more good season.

Can Tyler Pasternicky (proposing "Reverend Nick" for a nickname) make the jump to Major League Baseball? The kid is only 21 but is projected to be the Braves' starting shortstop. The good news is that he can't be much worse than Alex Gonzalez was last year for the Braves. The Braves carried Gonzalez to the tune of a .270 on-base percentage last year and his defense declined. If Pasternicky can come close to a .300 on-base percentage and play solid defense, he will be an improvement. Scouting reports blunt some of the enthusiasm of Pasternicky as a prospect. So we'll have to see how this works out. If Pasternicky can't cut it, the Braves have a backup plan in Jack Wilson. Wilson is still a good shortstop but can't hit much better than Gonzalez.

The last "if" is whether the bullpen can stay fabulous after a year of overuse and IF manager, Fredi Gonzalez, can be compelled to go to that well less often. When your bullpen is that good, it's tough to resist the temptation. A projected bullpen of Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, Kris Medlen, Arodys Viscaino, Anthony Varvaro and Christhian Martinez are a collective weapon in what has to be the best bullpen in baseball.

The good news is that Martin Prado, Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward all had offensive seasons below expectations last year. Uggla has had bad years before and always bounced back with a good one. He seems to be on the "every-other-year" plan of offensive efficiency. This, then, should be the good year. But even his "off" year was good enough for second place on the team in fWAR (among position players). Uggla's defense will always be a liability. It's been said in this space before: Switching Uggla to left and bringing Prado back to the infield is the thing to do. But that will never happen.

Speaking of Martin Prado, he also had an off year offensively. After being a .300+/.350+/.450+ guy for the Braves the previous three seasons, Prado sank to .260/.302/.385 last season. A .266 BABIP certainly didn't help and that gives hope that Prado should bounce back to his career norms. If he can, that would be a two win swing for the Braves.

Jason Heyward is saying all the right things this off season. He is working hard and has a positive outlook. He'll need it. Heyward was so good in 2010 and so bad in 2011 that it is really difficult to know which player will show up in 2012. The kid just seems to have too much ability not to bounce back. But it is a huge concern. Heyward lost his manager's confidence last season and when he did play, was placed at the back end of the batting order. If Heyward is not hitting in the middle of the line up and making things happen, the Braves have less of a chance than otherwise.

Looking around the rest of the team, the Braves are led by Brian McCann, one of the most under-appreciated players of his age. You can count on McCann to have another solid season and he is backed up quite capably behind the plate by David Ross.

Freddie Freeman should be able to build on a great rookie season and if he can improve his defense, will be a fixture at first base for quite some time. Expect even better power numbers this season and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Freeman can slug over .500 this coming season.

Michael Bourn faltered a bit for the Braves down the stretch and for a fast guy, he should be more patient at the plate. But he's the best center fielder the Braves have had in years and the Braves can only benefit by having Bourn the entire season. 

After considering this team the last couple of hours, the conclusion is that if everything goes right, this could be a 95 win team. Good seasons from Uggla, Heyward and Prado could be worth four or five wins. Even if the rotation has some health issues, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran are waiting in the wings for their chance. Pasternicky or Wilson shouldn't hurt them and should provide good defense in what is a sub-par defensive infield. The Braves have a terrific defensive outfield, a strong bullpen and a top five catching core. A lot has to go right for them to win 95 games. But if it does, 2012 will be mighty interesting in Atlanta.


Bill Miller said...

This is a really nice series. Very informative and objective. Great research.
Cheers, Bill Miller

Thomas Slocum said...

(Cut this down but still have to post twice!)
On the plus side, Hudson had a fine, even predictable season in 2011, answering the bell 33 times and totaling 215 innings. On the down side, he’ll be 37 years old around the 2012 All-Star break and back surgery can often be an iffy thing.

Far be it for me to question the Braves’ handling of young pitchers, but Hanson almost looks as if he may have suffered from a delayed Verducci effect. As a 20 year old, he went from 51.2 innings the previous year to 133, treaded water the next year at 138, and then (at age 22) flew up the innings pitched ladder to 194. In 2010, he crept up to 202.2 and was on a similar track (just about 6 innings per start on the average) until he went down in early August, 2011 (in his age 24 season). Perhaps those earlier leaps (81 innings, 157% and 56 innings, 41%, respectively) caught up to him. Or perhaps he weathered those storms and his shoulder problem was just one of those things. Avoiding surgery is great. Or is it?

Jurrjens’ problems are with his pins, but they are approaching a chronic status. After missing 2 months in 2010 with hamstring and knee issues, he missed better than a month in 2011 with more knee problems. Presumably the Braves have some worries here, as signified by the trade rumors swirling around the righthander for much of this off season. Alas, no real takers as most (all?) baseball executives recognize that a pitcher without legs may as well be armless. Jair is probably the most likely of the trio to have trouble regaining and/or maintaining his health – reportedly, he will be wearing a knee brace in 2012. And what might that do to his mechanics?

If all three crash and burn, it’s unlikely that the phenom trio of 21 year olds Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, and Arodys Vizcaino will all succeed immediately enough, and collectively enough, to rescue the Braves. But if one (Jurrjens?) can’t take the mound for any appreciable time, you have to like the Braves’ ability to plug in these types of prospects (or even 26 year old innings eater Todd Redmond).

No question, in the bullpen you’ve got to like, even love, the arms the Braves bring to the end of games.

IF the health issue IFS, all of which may well be only minor considerations, pan out between well and reasonably well, the Braves, top to bottom, very likely have the best pitching staff in the NL East, if not all of baseball.

Thomas Slocum said...

Reverend Nick (I like it but the liberal media would probably term it sacrilegious or maybe even racist, with Tyler’s race beside the point) showed a good contact bat and some patience at AA and AAA last season (.314/.359/.414). Before that he was more of a .260 hitter with a .335 or so OBP and a slugging average in the .350 range. So there’s no incontrovertible evidence that he will actually hit in the majors, though he is expected to be at least a solid defender. But, as you point out, he doesn’t need to do much to be a push for Alex Gonzalez and Jack Wilson is some pretty decent insurance to have. Of course, if the Braves have to carry a glove at shortstop, whether it’s Pastornicky or Wilson, Chipper Jones may need to pick up his offensive contribution over what was a decent 2011 to overcome both his neighbor’s weak bat and his own weak glove.

Yes, it would make all the sense in the world to have Prado and Uggla switch gloves as soon as each reports this month. Granted, Uggla is hardly a speed merchant and the likelihood that a poor fielder in the infield will be anything other than that in the outfield is poor. But if it’s clear that it’s not working out by about the middle of March, what’s been lost? The Braves already know what Prado can do at second base (and that he can do it better than Uggla) so if Uggla can do a reasonable job in left, wouldn’t that improve the team? Of course it would. And if the experiment fails, is it not reasonable to expect that both could get as comfortable as possible at their regular positions with 2 weeks left in Spring Training (if comfortable is even an appropriate word for Uggla)? Of course it is. So why not give it a go? You know Prado would do it in a New York minute and the Braves are hardly known as a stodgy organization resistant to change and new ideas. So that leaves Uggla. Is he the problem?

I read on Wednesday (USA Today Sports Weekly) that Justin Heyward’s shoulder and thumb problems last year caused him to change his swing and, thus, were the root cause of his poor season. In other words, no sophomore jinx there, just a guy avoiding pain by slowing down his bat. If Chipper Jones (the explanation is attributed to him) is right, the Braves have little reason to worry about their rightfielder unless, of course, he crashes into a wall, injures his shoulder, changes his swing, blows up his thumbs, and changes his swing even more. Hmm, maybe there is something to worry about after all.

For some reason, Michael Bourn’s patience at the plate took a bit of a downturn last year when his OBP was some 55 points higher than his batting average (though the spread was down further, to 43 points, during his time with the Braves). In 2009 and 2010, that spread was, respectively, 76 and 69. If he can return to those levels, a .275 to .280 BA (he’s at .283 since 2009 and .278 with the Braves in 2011) would equate to an on base percentage of .347 to .352, more than adequate for a lead-off man with an 80%+ stolen base success rate. However, he’ll need to boost that average to .305 or so if his 53 games with the Braves is an indication of things to come, and that isn’t very likely (though it is possible – he did ring up a .303 average during his 2011 season while still in Houston for 105 games).

There’s a lot to like on this team and the sting of last year’s debacle (nicely under-reported during the off season as the Red Sox insisted on hogging all the ink related to late season collapses) may actually play as a positive. Just about everything would have to go right for the Braves to ring up 95 wins or better in 2012. But they may not need to. It’s likely that the traditional wild card team will reside in the NL East and it now seems a better than even bet that the addition of a second wild card team will become a reality in 2012.