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.