The Atlanta Braves had a great season in 2011 end on a sour note when an awful September collapse(led the Wild Card by 8.5 games on September 6th) saw their season come up a win short in the final day of the campaign. The team is set at several spots featuring a good mix of veterans as well young up and comers. A 2nd season with Dan Uggla at 2nd base should help the offense as well as 1b Freddie Freeman’s sophomore campaign. CF Michael Bourn, a midseason trade acquisition, should spark the top of the lineup and healthier seasons from 3B-OF Chipper Jones, C Brian McCann and INF-OF Martin Prado could make this offense scary good. Pitching wise, this an excellent group with depth and options. Lets look at the issues the team faces as the Braves enter spring training.
1- ROTATION- With the offseason trade of veteran Derek Lowe, the team cleared a rotation spot but still has several options to fill slots 4 and 5. Righthanders Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson(Only 22 starts in an injury plagued 2011 campaign) and Jair Jurrjens(23) are set in the first 3 spots but Hanson and Jurrjens both battled arm injuries in the 2nd half of 2011. Lefty Mike Minor(5-3,4.14 ERA in 15 starts in 2011) and RH Brandon Beachy(7-3,3.68, 25 starts) appear to be strong favorites for those slots. Rookie RHs Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado(2 of the top pitching prospects in the game) as well as veteran Kris Medlen(recovered from elbow surgery that cost him most of 2011) are the other candidates to start. Regardless of who wins these spots in camp, due to injuries and/or attrition, depth is never bad. This team should be in good shape rotation wise. Manager Fredi Gonzalez can rest easy when he thinks of his starters.
2- SHORTSTOP- The team let veteran Alex Gonzalez walk in the offseason hoping that promising rookie Tyler Pastornicky could win the job after he tore up Triple A in 2011(.365 in 27 games after hitting .299 in 90 AA contests). The youngster has hit for average and stole bases in the minors but has not appeared in the majors. The Braves signed veteran INF Jack Wilson as both an insurance policy and mentor. INF Brandon Hicks, who played in 17 games with the big club in 2011, is another option.
3- HEALTHY HEYWARD-2010 National League Rookie of the Year Jason Heyward was never right in 2011 due to a shoulder problem. After hitting .277 with 18 homers he fell to .227 with 14 in 2011, a 100% healthy Heyward would great improve the Braves defensively as well as offensively. In a very subtle yet underrated move, the team added former Atlanta Outfielder Matt Diaz(2006-2010) as a back up player. Diaz has hit 41 of his career 43 homers in a Braves uniform and murders left handed pitching(.329 average, .506 slugging percentage). He joins INF-OF Eric Hinske and OF Jose Constanza to give Gonzalez much better bench options in the outfield.
Julio Teheran was picked as the fourth best prospect in baseball by MLB.com. He’s in pretty select company because the only guys ahead of him were Matt Moore, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. Teheran finished 15-3 at Triple-A but one of his problems is, he’s not a big strikeout guy. He had 122 strikeouts in 144 2/3 innings which is good, but not what you’d expect from a dominant major league starter.
Fly balls could be an issue as well although he only gave up five home runs in 144 2/3 innings, he gave up four home runs in 19 2/3 innings last year. At this point, he has nowhere really to go or prove himself other then the big league team so he should be getting a spot on the Braves rotation this year.
I’ve always been a Dale Murphy fan and his time is running short. With him getting less then 20% on the Hall of Fame ballot, it doesn’t look like he’s getting in but let’s look at why Murphy might be considered.
The case for Murphy is that he was one of the best hitters in the 1980s. He won two home run titles, two MVPs and he also had his own little iron man streak with four straight seasons of 162 games. He just missed 400 home runs (he finished with 398) and he has a career OPS of .815.
Of course the counter argument for Murphy is he flamed out fast. From 1998 to the end of his career, he was pretty bad and he never hit about .252. Even his last year with the Braves was a rough one where he finished with just a .667 OPS. So that hurts his case. Still, he has more then 1,200 career RBIs and almost 1,200 career runs and he had the peak HOF votes like to see.
The Braves didn’t offer contracts to Peter Moylan and Brooks Conrad and in effect, turned them into free agents. With Moylan, they would have had to sign him for around $2 million and it looks like they thought they can go lower then that and still compete with any other interested teams. Moylan missed most of 2011 after he had shoulder surgery and it’s expected that he’ll start working out for teams so the Braves will get a chance to see how he’s progressing.
Conrad was used as a pinch hitter most of the time and while he wasn’t great, he had his moments. He’s a switch hitter and he can play everywhere on the infield so he’ll probably get a look. He’s a lot better against left handed pitching though so he’s more of a right handed pinch hitter then anything.
The Braves still have some work to do. Michael Bourn, Martin Prado, Jair Jurrjens and Eric O’Flaherty are all arbitration eligible and we’ll see who gets deals before hand or who goes to the table.
It’s funny how one of the top picks for better teams in the Rule 5 drafts are left handed relief pitchers. That’s what the Braves used for their pick when they scooped up Robert Fish from the Angels. Fish has to play with the team the entire season or they give him back to the Angels but this guy put up some solid numbers in 2010.
With Double-A last year, he struck out 41 in 30 1/2 innings. This is actually Fish’s second go around because the Yankees picked him last year in the Rule 5 draft then he was put on waivers and the Royals picked him up. Because they didn’t put him on the 40 man, he was then shipped back to the Angels.
On the flip side, the Braves didn’t lose anyone in the Rule 5 draft. That’s neither at the MLB or MiLB draft.
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