2012 Season Forecast – Atlanta Braves

2011 Record: 89 – 73
Runs Scored: 641 (10th in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 605 (3rd in the NL)

The Braves actually played better than can be expected based on the ratio of runs to runs scored (estimated 86 wins).

2011 Season Summary:

Never really a threat to win the division (to my dismay as I predicted them to surprise many to win the east), the Braves were never really bad.  They could win in four spots of the rotation, but they couldn’t generate enough offense to make it easy.  Off seasons by Jason Heyward, Chipper Jones, Dan Uggla (he needed a 30-game hitting streak to get to .233 on the season), and anyone who played center field offset a bullpen led by Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters that held every lead…  Well, until the last ten days of the season.  Like their old cousins in Boston, the Braves couldn’t get that one or two wins that would have sealed the deal and wound up being kicked out the playoffs by the Cardinals.

Pitching:

The Braves have ample starting pitching.  Tim Hudson won 16 games and was well above average all year long.  Three others made between 22 and 25 starts – all were successful.  Jair Jurrjens, who is constantly on the trading block, was the best of the lot (13 – 6, 2.96 ERA), but Tommy Hanson and Brandon Beachy were both decent.  Mike Minor took on 15 starts and continues to improve – he’s nearly a league average pitcher now and could be ready for a rotation slot.  Only Derek Lowe struggled – he fell off the map in the second half – and has been dispatched to Cleveland to see if he has anything left.  The Braves even have prospects in Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado if needed.  Looking forward, the rotation could still be solid if not a hair better than last year.  Hudson and Jurrjens might take a slight step backward, but Beachy and Minor could be better and one of the rookies will most certainly be better than Derek Lowe last year.

In the bullpen, three pitchers had absolutely stunning years.  Closer Craig Kimbrel saved 46 games and was 16 runs better than the average pitcher in his 75 innings.  Set up man Jonny Venters was even better – 21.5 runs better than average.  The best of the lot was Eric O’Flaherty, who had a 0.98 ERA in just shy of 74 innings and saved the team nearly 25 full runs.  George Sherrill, Scott Linebrink, and Christian Martinez were also above average pitchers last year.  Looking ahead, it’s hard to see the Braves being BETTER than that – it’s rare to save that many runs over 70+ innings – so I think gravity is going to pull this team back some 25 runs.  O’Flaherty can’t possibly have a sub 1.00 ERA again, for example.  This will still be a good unit, but it can’t be THAT good again.

Catching:

Brian McCann is one of the premier offensive catchers in the game and his defensive skills are pretty good.  His backup Dave Ross remains dependable and adds a little offense.  As a unit, this is one of the three best teams in baseball behind the plate.  At issue is the fact that McCann may be the best offensive player on the team – but his best seasons seem to be two or three years ago.

Infield:

Defensively, an infield of Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla, Alex Gonzalez, and Chipper Jones is, at best, not bad but not too good either.  It’s actually better when Martin Prado plays third.  Offensively, they put up runs – and that’s one reason the Braves win games.

Freddie Freeman is going to be one of the better first basemen in the NL – already a fair fielder and an above average hitter, he will be an all-star for many years to come.  Dan Uggla has been a steady, dependable power source and is good on the double play.  Tyler Pastornicky is going to get every shot to take over at short, now that Alex Gonzalez has been allowed to leave.  Gonzalez gave you flashes of power, but his bat isn’t great anymore and his glove is now just pretty good for an old guy.  Pastornicky will have better range, but might not match the offense.  As for Chipper Jones, he’s nursing sore knees and has already said that 2012 will be his last season.  Defensively, he’s been problematic at third for a while but his bat has been good enough.  Now, that’s not going to be the case.  When Jones is gone, Prado or Eric Hinske will get innings.  It sure would be more beneficial if Prado hit closer to .300 than .260 as he did last year.

I think Freeman and Uggla will be slightly better this year, which should make up for the team losing runs at short and third – call it a wash…

Outfield:

I think that the Cubs have a weak outfield in terms of production.  The Braves aren’t much better.

In left, you had Martin Prado – decent glove, middling power, and slightly worse than league average production.  That’s LEAGUE average, not LEFT FIELD average – where you want someone who hits 20+ homers and might drive in 85 or more runs.  Prado went 13 – 57 – .260 with hardly any other benefits (4/12 SBs, 34 walks in 129 games).  If Jose Constanza can hit the way he did in 109 at bats last year, that wouldn’t hurt.  Unfortunately, he’s not a banger either – he’s a burner and could play center for many teams.

In center, nobody hit.  Michael Bourn will be there all year, but he’s never hit .300 and doesn’t hit for power.  Nate McClouth hit .228 with four homers and Jordan Schafer was less productive (and sent to Houston for Bourn).  A full year of Bourn will be better, though, than what the Braves had last year.

In right, you had sophomore Jason Heyward, who fell off the map after such a promising rookie season.  I don’t see him hitting .227 again.  He still shows some patience at the plate and his power remains.

The problem may be a lack of a plan B.  Eric Hinske remains, as does Constanza, but even a returning Matt Diaz doesn’t look to help much if a hole opens up in the outfield.

Bench:

Prado gives the Braves some versatility, as does Hinske.  Diaz can pinch hit and platoon some.  Josh and Jack Wilson are around, but don’t offer much offense (and Jack is getting up there in years) and both are losing defensive skills, too.  Ross is good behind the plate.  It’s a full bench, but maybe not a great one.

Prospects:

The top prospects in AAA mostly made it for cups of coffee last year, including Constanza, Teheran and Pastornicky.  The one who didn’t was undrafted first baseman Mauro Gomez, who might be able to help out.  I don’t have a read on his glove, but he’s a decent power bat – might hit .250 with 20 homers in the big leagues.  He just doesn’t have a place to play here.  Another guy who wouldn’t kill you might be pitcher Todd Redmond, who had decent numbers at AAA Gwinett, going 10 – 8 with 142 Ks and just 47 walks in 169.2 innings.  The problem is that he’s been at AAA for three years now and he’s probably going to have to get a shot somewhere else as he’s not high on the prospect list.

The best hitter in AA isn’t high on the prospect lists either – that’s 26 year old Ernesto Mejia, who has stats like Mauro Gomez and, thus, has nowhere to play.  Some like infielder Mykal Jones, but he’s not going to replace Pastornicky any time soon.  Pitchers Arodys Vizcaino and Randall Delgado got shots – they have major league stuff and are just kids.  Another good arm might be Brett Oberholtzer, who is close but needs more strikeouts to move up more quickly.  Reliever Billy Bullock has quite the arm, but lacks in control (65Ks, 34BBs in 49.2 innings).

A+ Rome features catcher Joe Terdoslavich, a power hitter who had 52 doubles to go with 20 homers. A one-time former #1 pick, Cory Rasmus has the stuff, but needs to find the strike zone more frequently – and stay healthier.

2012 Forecast:

I think the offense can be 25 runs better than last year – might even be more than that – because Bourn is here all year and Heyward will be better.  On the other hand, I think that the gravitational pull that will be working against the bullpen will equally offset that 25 run gain.  Throw in the fact that two other teams may well be challenging for the top spot in the NL East, the Braves will be lucky to finish with 85 wins, which might be third or fourth in this division.

Holiday Cheer in Hot Stove Deals…

A belated Merry Christmas from Mighty Casey Baseball – Casey himself got a new mitt amongst a number of other Bakugan and football related gifts.  Looking forward to getting Casey outside and fielding grounders and catching flies (we do that before batting practice).

Short on time this week, I’ll just fly through the list of deals that completed or appear to be close to done this past week.  After the new year, the focus will be on assembling the 2009 data and comparing it with the trends of the last five seasons to see if we can make heads or tails out of what is happening, eventually turning our attention to the teams and players we’ll be watching (or selecting in fantasy drafts) in 2010.

And, at some point we’ll mix in a few other more free-formed baseball articles – whether of a historical nature or whatever time will allow.  For those of you who visit, I’d love to know what you WANT to read – that way I know I am providing a service and not just getting typing practice…

The Rich Get Richer…

The Yankees acquire Javier Vasquez from the Braves for Melky Cabrera – and a couple of other prospects swap homes, too.  In reality, the rich spend more.  Vasquez pitched for the Yankees in 2004, he’s durable if nothing else, and will be the best fourth starter on any team since the Braves had Kevin Millwood following the big three of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz.  Cabrera is okay – a league average hitter moving from an okay hitting park to one that doesn’t help anybody much.  Vasquez moves back to a park that isn’t going to help him much – he serves up a lot of fly balls and in NYC, that only works if you pitch for the Mets.

Among the prospects, the Braves get Michael Dunn – a project who seems to be turning the corner despite his wildness.  He strikes out a lot of batters and has been more successful since switching from a starter’s role to the bullpen.  However, Dunn does walk a lot of guys, so he’ll be a long reliever until he figures that out – and he may never do that.  The Braves also got Arodys Vizcaino, an 18 year old who could be a long term prospect having had some success at low A Staten Island last year.  The Braves gave up reliever Boone Logan, a former White Sox arm who is used like a lefty one-out guy but doesn’t get people out.  He’ll learn to love the bus rides in AAA for the Yankees.  [FoxSports]

The Braves are giving Troy Glaus a one-year deal to play first base and spell Chipper Jones at third, I guess.  Glaus missed most of 2009, has been up and down with injuries but was productive with Toronto when healthy – not too bad with the Cards in 2008 either.  Here’s what I can tell you…  We’re not sure what he’ll hit.  If he’s healthy, he might get to .260 with 25 homers and 85 RBI, which wouldn’t be horrible.  As a defender, he’s below average (his last three seasons were -3, -11, and -3 in range, costing his team between 3 and 12 runs per season)  – and he’s moving to a new position where he’ll be out of sorts.  [SI]

And, Nick Johnson returns to the Yankees – one year, $5.5 million with an option – to be the DH and get on base, which is what Johnson does as well as anybody.  Let’s hope for NYC, he stays healthy.  [SI]

The Angels signed reliever Fernando Rodney, formerly of Detroit, to a two year deal worth $11 million, which seems like a lot of money for a setup guy who might get a few saves.  [SI]

Washington Adding Talent…

The Nationals are trying to add some legitimate talent to the roster via free agency.  First, the team signed Jason Marquis to a two-year deal.  Marquis is worth 180 innings, but most of the good innings occur before August 1.  (The Nationals need to win games then, too.)  Marquis will get $15 million. [MLB]

And, Washington added reliever Matt Capps to the back end of the bullpen.  Capps would take over the closer role once held by Mike MacDougal.  [ESPN]

In a lesser reported deal, the Nationals signed Eddie Guardado to a minor league deal, but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t make this roster for 2010.   Guardado will likely pitch in his 950th game this year (18th season if he makes the roster)… [SI]

Seattle Still Dealing…

The Mariners sent Brandon Morrow – a struggling #1 draft pick who has been all over the map in terms of performance – to Toronto for reliever Brandon League.  Morrow will be a starter for Toronto and I’ll be rooting for him – but admittedly nervous.  Morrow tends to walk guys and leaves the ball up – and that’s a problem in Toronto.  League is one of those guys with great numbers – strong strikeout and walk data, a lot of grounders, and will be moving to a team that might be able to help him a bit more.  I’d like it better if Beltre were manning the hot corner, but you never know…  Toronto also gave up minor leaguer Johermyn Chavez, a free swinging outfielder who is just 20 and starting to find himself as a minor league hitter.  [SI]

Other Signings…

Darren Oliver returns to Texas, one year $3.5 million with an option for 2011 – but Oliver, who started as a Ranger a LONG time ago, will likely retire a Ranger at some point…  [SI]

Coco Crisp needed surgery on both shoulders after an injury riddled 2009 in Kansas City, but the A’s signed him anyway – $5.25 million and an option for 2011.  It’s a risky deal – one that really surprised me.  [ESPN]

The Royals, missing outfielders who hit barely .220 with deceptive speed, signed Brian Anderson.  [ESPN]

Oakland is also taking a chance on former closer Justin Duchscherer; one year – guarantees and incentives – pending a physical.  [ESPN]

Veneszuela’s answer to Mike Hamption, Kelvim Escobar, signed a one-year deal with the Mets worth $1.25 million.  He’ll be used as a reliever and has a bonus program tied to his performance there.  [ESPN]

I like this deal, but don’t expect his stats to hold up with the move – Arizona signed reliever Bobby Howry to a one-year deal. [ESPN]