The 2011 Atlanta Braves will be remembered for blowing an 8.5 game wild card lead in September in the seasons final moments but this team won 89 games and returns in 2012 with very few holes. The pitching is deep and the lineup has only one open position(Shortstop) heading into the winter. The bullpen, in particular, is outstanding with closer RHP Craig Kimbrel(Rookie record 46 saves)backed by key setup men LHPs Jonny Venters(35 holds) and Eric O’Flaherty(32 holds) coming off dominant seasons. RHs Kris Medlen and Peter Moylan will be 100% healthy entering the new year and will supplant what should be the best bullpen in all of baseball.
One of the major reasons why this team is watching the postseason instead of playing is health. Injuries to key rotation members Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens in the 2nd half forced the team to overuse the relief corps and pitch youngsters in September. 2nd year major leaguers LH Mike Minor(5-3,4.14) and RH Brandon Beachy(7-3,3.68,199 strikeouts) figure to be in the rotation mix in 2012 and veteran Derek Lowe(9-17,5.05) might be on the outs. Rookies Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado are also on the cusp of becoming full time Braves. Tim Hudson(16-10,3.22) is the team’s ace and one of the top starters in all of baseball.
The injury bug also hit the lineup with RF Jason Heyward(.227,14,52) battling a shoulder issue all season. Atlanta GM Frank Wren did not guarantee the 2010 National League rookie of the year a starting position in 2012 after his tough sophomore campaign. LF-INF Martin Prado played in only 129 games after suffering a fluky staph infection after getting cut on a slide. Future Hall of Fame 3B Chipper Jones was banged up most of the year with leg injuries, playing 126 games with Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez giving him regular days off. The 39 year old needs a strong backup with Brooks Conrad and Prado in house options. C Brian McCann also broke down late in the year but has one of the better backups in all of the game in David Ross to spell him.
SS Alex Gonzalez is the one free agent starter from the 2011 team. He is an elite defensive player and made $2.5 million this season, so he is sure to have offers when he hits free agency. While he does not hit for average(.241,15 homers, 56 rbi), the .247 career hitter is a solid pro who deserves to play everyday. You could do worse than him in the 8 hole. The Braves should attempt to bring him back short term with prospect Tyler Pastornicky close to being major league ready. Lowe presents a bigger problem. The 14 year veteran is in the final year of his contract and is owed $15 million in 2012. However, Atlanta has several options in the rotation and the righty had a 8.75 ERA with 5 losses(5 starts) in September. Lowe is a good candidate to be a moved for another bad contract or begin the 2012 campaign as the game’s top spot starter-middle reliever.
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