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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.