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.

Not the Start Tampa Bay Imagined

The Tampa Bay Rays opened with a series against the rebuilding Baltimore Orioles and got swept.  Depending on how you see this (are you a Rays fan or an Orioles fan?), it was either great pitching by a young Orioles staff (they have great young arms, for sure), or a lifeless Rays offense (they lost Crawford, Pena, and Bartlett).

Let’s call it a little of both.

But the Rays certainly didn’t need this…  Evan Longoria, among the most productive players in all of baseball, was placed in the 15-day DL was a strained oblique – and while Longoria believes that he’ll be back in a couple of weeks, many times it’s a four to six week problem. [ESPN]

As an insurance policy, the Rays recalled infielder Felipe Lopez from AAA Durham.  Lopez, who turns 31 in May, is a journeyman – and the Rays are the seventh different team he’s played for since 2006.  Heck, in the last five years, he’s been in St. Louis two different times. Lopez is a career .266 hitter with medium range power but has had streaky productive runs, so you never know.  For a month, he isn’t a bad option.

Sean Rodriguez got the start there on Sunday and we’ll see how manager Joe Maddon manages around the injury.  This kind of start and injury, on the heels of losing such major contributors to the Rays playoff runs, is the type of bad karma that might take months to get past – so if Maddon gets them out of April with a record near .500, that will be quite the managerial accomplishment.

But he can take heart in the fact that the other team I picked to win this division, the Boston Red Sox, are also 0 – 3 to start the season.

Other Notable Transactions…

With Jair Jurrjens heading to the disabled list with a strained right oblique, the Braves recalled Mike Minor from AAA Gwinnett.  Minor is a very polished prospect, though he had mixed results in a short stint with the Braves in 2011.  He’ll be a fifth starter for the short term, and I think he can help. [ESPN]

Minor, as my friend Andy Finch will remind you, was an ace of the Vanderbilt University staff, and has moved very quickly through the minors.  He’s fanned 163 batters in 134 innings at three levels, and has great control.  Even with Atlanta, he fanned 43 and walked just 11 in 40 innings – he just got hit around a little.  Minor had a decent enough spring, though, so maybe he can stick this time around.

Grab a Screen Shot, Royals Fans…

As of this morning, your first place Kansas City Royals are 3 – 1, atop the AL Central, and it’s because of three consecutive wins in their final at bat.  Yesterday, backup catcher Matt Treanor hit a game-winning homer in extra innings to beat the Angels.

Happy Birthday…

Mickey Owen (1916) – solid catcher, started up baseball camps, that I believe are still around today…
Gil Hodges (1924) – Dodger favorite, Mets manager, late Hall of Fame addition…
Eddie Watt (1941) – Oriole reliever in the late 1960s and early 1970s…
Jim Fregosi (1942)
Ray Fosse (1947)
Tommy Herr (1956)
Brad Kommisk (1961) – long ago Braves prospect…
Scott Rolen (1975)

I’m ten years older than Scott Rolen, but in my mind, he’s older than I am.  Go figure.

100 Years Ago in The Sporting News

The April 6th, 1911 paper led with an article about Nebraska ruling in favor of Sunday baseball, and covered a number of teams as they were traveling through the south, as teams often did at the end of spring training, barnstorming through various cities to help pay for spring training expenses.

The top right corner of the first page included a small blurb about two young and bony St. Louis lefties – Harry “Slim” Sallee, who was a regular on the Cardinals, and the beanpole Thomas “Lefty” George.  The SABR Biography project has a great article about Sallee, a 6′ 3″, 150 pounder who was an awkward thrower – he would stride at a 45 degree angle between home and first, and then throw across his body back to the plate – that appears to have been written by a couple of his descendants.  Lefty George was a rookie with the Browns, having had a successful season with Indianapolis in the American Association.  Like Sallee, he barely tipped 150 pounds, but was a tad shorter at just 6′ 0″.  Sallee had the longer career, winning more than 170 games and being on the 1919 Reds team that won a fixed World Series.  George didn’t succeed in St. Louis (at that time, few did), wound up in Cleveland a year later, and then bounced around the minors for more than a decade after that – getting two short shots at the big leagues over the course of the next decade.

Youkilis in Left? God, Engineering Saves Friend

With Jason Bay out for most of the weekend and Rocco Baldelli nursing a sore ankle, the Red Sox moved Kevin Youkilis to left field for a game or two.  Youkilis was lifted for a defensive replacement, but managed an assist – throwing out Derek Jeter at second base.  [FoxSports]

Arizona placed outfielder Justin Upton on the DL with an oblique strain suffered, oddly, while running the bases.  (Well, it could have happened earlier, but he noticed it running the bases…)  Taking his roster spot is long time minor leaguer, Trent Oeltjen – an Aussie Olympian – who brings some speed, but not much power to the Snakes.  Hitting .300 in Reno, it translates to about .250 with a few walks, some steals and maybe a triple or two more than most players…  [ESPN]

The Mets have decided that Bobby Parnell will replace the injured Jonathan Niese in the rotation.  Parnell throws HARD – 98 MPH or so – so I might have to actually watch a Mets game (when they aren’t playing the Marlins or Cubs).  [ESPN]

The Yankees acquired Chad Gaudin from the Padres for either cash or a player to be named later…  With San Diego acquiring a number of prospects at the trading deadline, Gaudin became expendable.  He’ll be a long reliever or fifth starter option in the Bronx.   Let me ask you this…  How good is any pitcher with a 5.13 ERA pitching in the run scarce environment in San Diego? [SI]

Two Washington Nationals minor leaguers, both at AA Harrisburg, were suspended 50 games for testing positive for amphetamines.  Ofilio Castro and Edgardo Baez will miss most of the rest of the season.  [FoxSports]

Then, the Nationals set infielder Anderson Hernandez to the Mets for minor leaguer Greg Veloz.  Neither is a prospect, and I’ve watched Hernandez – he’s a glove in search of hitting skills.

Baseball card collectors wanting official MLB stuff will now have fewer options…  MLB signed an exclusive multi-year deal with Topps Trading Cards Co., which (if you didn’t know) is now run by Michael Eisner.  Yeah – that Michael Eisner.  Upper Deck still has a deal with the MLB Players Association, which means that they can make cards, but cannot use team logos and what not.  I’ve collected pretty much only Topps cards for years, but I will admit the last 15 years or so have been crazy with so many possible brands.  Now, it should be easier for kids to figure out what to buy.  [SI]

I mention this because my friend, Andy Finch, is a professor at Vanderbilt…  Mike Minor, Commodore grad and seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft, signed a contract with Atlanta yesterday.  This summer, we saw two other Vandy alums playing in Peoria – so maybe we can find this guy in a minor league game next summer.  [ESPN]

Speaking of friends…  One of the best people I know, Steve Dubin, walked away from a five car accident yesterday morning.  He was on the turnpike heading to the office when he had to stop for cars who had slowed for a flash rain.  He stopped, but the van behind him did not and plowed into him at about 65 MPH.  The impact threw Steve and his car across three lanes of traffic, where he bounced off of three other cars.  God and Hyundai engineering shined down on Steve – he got out of his car and, not knowing what to do, began taking pictures of the mess.  The interior – including two car seats, which thankfully were empty – was intact.  The exterior, however, was crushed like a discarded beer can.

I’ve known Steve for about a decade, our kids will probably date in high school, and his wife is a sweetheart.  But I feel especially lucky to still have the big lug around.  He was hauled to a hospital, checked out okay, and given pain killers to deal with the ache of getting whalloped the way Albert Pujols hits belt-high fastballs.  That seems reason enough to think today will be a good day no matter what else happens.

Welcome Back!  Doug Waechter returns from the DL for the Royals, and they need him…  Royal reliever Juan Cruz was placed on the DL with a strained right shoulder.  The Yankees signeed Russ Ortiz to a minor league contract.  He’s Chad Gaudin, only older and used to be good.

Hurry Back!  Other than Cruz, Rocco Baldelli (mentioned above) is on the DL with his ankle contusion.