MLB March Report: Atlanta Braves

The Atlanta Braves’ collapse in September didn’t officially go into the record books as the worst last-month swoon ever. It didn’t result in the departures of the manager and GM. There were no offseason recriminations of players drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse. All of those honors were held for Boston. But the Braves’ collapse was surely no less devastating to its players and hard-core fans, as they let St. Louis nip them at the wire and then watched the Cardinals win the World Series. As second-year manager Fredi Gonzalez tries to bring his team back, TheSportsNotebook takes an up-close look at the Braves, based on their ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Atlanta made a nice move at the trade deadline last year in liberating Michael Bourn from Houston. The centerfielder is good for 50-60 steals a year and on-base percentages in the .340s. A little improvement in the latter area would be idea, but there’ s no question the lynchpin to the Atlanta offense can be The Bourn Conspiracy. The Braves need Martin Prado to bounce back. He’ll be bouncing between third base and left field as Chipper Jones gets himself healthy, and Prado, after being a solid overall hitter for two straight years, had a bad year in 2011. Bourn and Prado are the best hopes to be real table-setters, as shortstop is completely up in the air with two untested rookies, Tyler Pastornicky—the favorite to get the job—and Andrelton Simmons are fighting it out. Whatever damage this Atlanta offense is going to do won’t happen through anything in the 8-spot of the batting order.

POWER: There’s nothing individually that jumps at you here, but collectively this is a lineup that can drive the ball well. Let’s start with Brian McCann, the catcher who’s hit over 20 home runs each of the last four seasons and consistently slugged in the high .400s. Chipper Jones is gearing himself up, in true Frank Skeffington fashion, for a Last Hurrah (I don’t know why I’m on roll with citing movie titles right now). Even in the midst of an awful transitional year as he came over from Florida, Dan Uggla still hit over 30 home runs for the fifth straight season. Fredi Freeman, the rookie first baseman, popped 21 home runs in his first season. It’s worth noting that all of these players, with the exception of Uggla, also have respectable on-base percentages. And in Uggla’s case his OBP’s had always been good in Florida and it was likely just a case of a few bad months in Atlanta. The player everybody’s really watching is rightfielder Jason Heyward. Coming into 2010 he was a heralded prospect and a home run on his first major league at-bat didn’t hurt. Last year his batting average fell fifty points to .227, dragging the OBP and slugging numbers into the sewer. It’s easy to say Heyward will bounce back, but how can we be sure that 2010 was the “real” Heyward and not last year? If it’s possible for a 22-year-old kid to be at a crossroads in his career, Heyward is there coming into this season.

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STARTING PITCHING: It’s an intriguing group to work with, with no clear ace, but no obvious weak point. Tim Hudson is the old man of the staff at 36 and while offseason back surgery means he won’t be ready for opening day, the vet does expect to be back before April is out. Over the last two seasons he’s shown he’s still good for 30 starts, 200 IP and an ERA in the 3s. Just pro-rate those first two numbers out for a five-month run this time. In front of Hudson are the four kids, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor, ages 24 to 26. Jurrjens has had health issues the last two years and been up and down when he’s on the mound. After a 2.96 ERA last season, he needs to stabilize this time around. Hanson’s made 77 starts in his three-year career and has a 3.28 ERA. Beachy took the ball 25 times last year and put up a 3.68 ERA. Minor hasn’t had the same kind of success at the big-league level, but is also the youngest of the group. I like this rotation. They just need a clear #1 to step up and given the youth of the pitchers, there’s every reason to think one of them can be more than “just” pretty good.

RELIEF PITCHING: Atlanta’s 7th-8th-9th inning trio is as stable as anyone in baseball. Start it off with Eric O’Flaherty, whose ERAs have gone from 3.04 to 2.95 to 0.98 in the three seasons that Atlanta’s given him regular work. Jonny Venters comes on for the eighth and has spent two years working over 80 IP per season with an ERA under 2. Then close it out with Craig Kimbrel, the 23-year-old who nailed down 46 of 54 chances last year with a 2.10 ERA. The blown saves are a little high, but there’s no question Kimbrel can pitch. Gonzalez also gave 30-year-old Christhian Martinez his first regular chance in the bigs and was rewarded with a 3.36 ERA. And the most interesting factor on this entire staff is Kris Medlen, the 26-year-old who sat out last year with Tommy John surgery. The previous season he went 107 IP as a swingman and could end up the rotation again this year if Gonzalez has a need.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER: 86.5—I’m jumping on the Over for this spot. I like Atlanta’s young pitching, both in the rotation and the pen, and I like the balance in their offense. I like that they would have beat this number last year with bad seasons from Prado and Heyward and no one an unlikely success that would bring the team back to earth. The only reason Atlanta won’t win in the low 90s is if there’s a hangover after September. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.