2012 Atlanta Braves Preview
Atlanta blew a 8.5-game lead in the NL Wild Card last season to lose a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season. Injuries to Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson fueled the decline, but the Braves hit just .235 in September (3.2 runs per game).
Despite the collapse, GM Frank Wren made few moves in the offseason - deciding to keep his surplus of pitching talent rather than making any trades. While the pitching staff has loads of talent and was 4th in the NL in ERA last season, the offense was 11th in runs per game and could use an upgrade.
Luckily, Wren has the assets to deal with a deep farm system of pitching talent that includes three of the top pitching prospects in baseball in Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino. Jair Jurrjens and Martin Prado were rumored to be on the trading block all winter, but Wren never found a deal he liked. Still, if the offense doesn't improve, Wren may finally pull the trigger for an upgrade.
The Braves enter 2012 with a strong rotation, perhaps the deepest bullpen in baseball and a plethora of pitching prospects. They'll need improvement from a core of younger players (Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Tyler Pastornicky) for the offense to improve. They'll also need good health from Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson and Jurrjens in order to keep a surplus of pitching to perhaps finally make a deal.
Derek Lowe was traded to Cleveland for minor league pitcher Chris Jones.
The Braves traded Lowe away in a salary dump and will pay $10 million of the $15 million left on the final year of his contract. Jones is a marginal prospect.
Projected Lineup (vs. both RH/LH)
1. Michael Bourn, CF
2. Martin Prado, LF
3. Chipper Jones, 3B
4. Dan Uggla, 2B
5. Brian McCann, C
6. Freddie Freeman, 1B
7. Jason Heyward, RF
8. Tyler Pastornicky, SS
1. Tim Hudson
2. Tommy Hanson
3. Brandon Beachy
4. Jair Jurrjens
5. Mike Minor / Randall Delgado / Julio Teheran
Closer: Craig Kimbrel
Key Bullpen Members: Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, Kris Medlen
Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:
1. Which Starters Are Healthy On Opening Day
Tim Hudson had surgery in November to fix a herniated disc in his back and won't be ready until at least May 1. As a result, two of Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran will begin the season in the rotation. Minor is likely to win the fifth starter job, so Delgado or Teheran may only make a few April starts before heading back to Triple-A. Hudson isn't the only starter coming back from an injury.
Tommy Hanson is coming back from a small rotator cuff tear that ended his season in August. He didn't have surgery and says he'll be fine for the start of spring training (which was delayed by him suffering a concussion in a car accident). However, the Braves had him change his delivery to correct a pause in his windup, which they think contributed to the injury. It's a little concerning that they would make a significant change to avoid an injury, since it's no guarantee Hanson will be able to stick with the new delivery.
Jurrjens had his season end in August due to a knee injury that didn't require surgery. He did return to pitch in the Fall, so he's healthy at the start of spring training.
Kris Medlen could also be in the mix as a starter if multiple spots open, as manager Fredi Gonzalez says he'll be stretched out as a starter this spring.
2. Can Tyler Pastornicky Handle Everyday Shortstop Duty?
With the Braves failing to acquire a veteran shortstop after letting Alex Gonzalez go in free agency, GM Frank Wren decided to go with an internal option as the starting shortstop. Pastornicky improved in his second season at Double-A by hitting .299/.345/.414 with 20 stolen bases in 90 games. He then was promoted to Triple-A where he hit a scorching .365/.407/.413 in just 27 games. While Pastornicky is seen as a strong defensive player, it's not clear he'll hit enough to be a regular in the majors, his lack of power may limit his upside and the Braves look deep in shortstop prospects with Andrelton Simmons lurking in the low minors.
3. Can Jason Heyward Rebound From Sophomore Slump?
Heyward may have been the most disappointing player in fantasy baseball last seasons as he hit just .227 and was benched most of August in favor of Jose Constanza and later platooned with Matt Diaz against lefties (he struggled with just a .577 OPS against left-handed pitching). There are reasons to think he'll rebound as he's just 22 this season, he was bothered by a shoulder injury much of the season, he still drew walks at a decent rate and had a low .261 BABIP. A series of tests in the offseason also showed no structural damage in his shoulder. He needs to reduce his strikeouts and improve against lefties and last season leaves doubt he'll become an elite player. Still, the price for a young player with his talent and minor league track record may never be lower.
4. Will The Braves Trade Pitching For Hitting
Jurrjens' name was mentioned all winter in trade talk since he was due a raise in arbitration and with several top prospects ready for the majors.
The injury to Hudson likely stopped any trade from happening, but he could be on the move once Hudson returns. The Braves could certainly land an impact bat if they wanted to trade a top pitching prospect, but the team also has strong second-tier starting prospects in Medlen, J.J. Hoover and Todd Redmond. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Braves make a deal once Hudson is back from his injury and Hanson shows he's healthy.
Starting pitching, bullpen, quality and quantity of pitching prospects.
Offense, particularly a lack of power in the outfield.
Rising: Two years ago, Brandon Beachy wasn't on most people's radar in the Braves organization but the undrafted free agent from Indiana Wesleyan had a breakout season in the minors in 2010 and then surprisingly won a spot in the big league bullpen in spring training. Beachy took a hold of the opportunity and didn't look back posting a strong strikeout rate (10.74 K/9IP) with great control (169:46 K:BB ratio). He missed a month after suffering a strained oblique muscle in May, but saw little decline when he returned despite a slight increase in his walk rate. While he doesn't have a long track record of success, his mid-90s velocity and good command of three off-speed pitches make him entrenched as Atlanta's No. 3 starter.
Falling: Martin Prado's move to the outfield was a failure last season as he hit just .260/.302/.385 with 13 home runs. He did miss time in June after surgery for a staph infection in his leg, which could have impacted his performance the rest of the season. However, his move to the outfield was always risky as even at his 2010 production his bat went from being an asset in the infield to average in the outfield. Luckily, he did play 42 games at third base to still qualify at one infield position in most leagues. There are reasons to think he'll improve in 2012 as he had the same walk rate last year as 2010, reduced his strikeouts and had a low BABIP of .267. Prado was mentioned in trade rumors all winter and he could be moved if the Braves want to upgrade in left field. A trade that would move him back to second base would increase his fantasy value, so watch out for that possibility. In the meantime, he'll begin the season as Atlanta's starting left fielder.
Sleeper: Mike Minor entered last spring as the favorite for the fifth starter job given his pedigree (seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft), but lost out to Brandon Beachy and bounced between Triple-A and the Braves the rest of the season. Minor was dominant in Triple-A again with a 3.22 ERA and 99:27 K:BB ratio in 100.2 innings. His results were not as spectacular in the majors, but he still posted a 4.14 ERA and strong 77:30 K:BB ratio in 82.2 innings at age 23. He also had a strong September once he settled into the rotation with several starters out due to injury as he posted a 3.67 ERA with a 25:11 K:BB ratio in 27 innings. He also reduced his home runs allowed, which had been a worry in his brief time in the majors in 2010. He should enter the season as Atlanta's No. 4 or No. 5 starter and may establish himself as a fixture in the rotation for many years.
Super Sleeper: Kris Medlen missed most of the season after recovering from Tommy John surgery, but did return to make two impressive outings with the Braves. Despite pitching in just instructional league games during his recovery, Medlen was activated from the DL and was actually on the mound in the ninth inning in Atlanta's final game with a playoff spot on the line, throwing 1.1 scoreless innings. It bodes well for his 2012 fantasy value that he was impressive in his 2.1 innings of work after his return. The sample size may have been small, but it shows the coaching staff had a lot of faith in his stuff. While he's pitched well out of the bullpen, he looked like a future star once he joined the rotation in 2010 with a 3.86 ERA and 62:16 K:BB ratio in 84 innings over 14 starts. Medlen had strong strikeout rates with good control before his injury and could be an impact fantasy player as a starter next season. However, it's not clear if he'll get the opportunity given Atlanta's deep staff. His most upside may be if he's traded elsewhere. Still, he could put up strong strikeout totals even in a relief role.
1. Julio Teheran - Teheran may the top pitching prospect in baseball after having an outstanding season at Triple-A Gwinnett last year at just 20 years old (15-3 with a 2.55 ERA and 122:48 K:BB ratio in 144.2 innings). He wasn't as impressive in his five appearances in the majors (three starts) and his strikeout rate at Triple-A wasn't elite (7.6 K/9IP), but neither should be a major red flag given his young age and minor league track record. Teheran has a mid-90s fastball and plus changeup, along with a baseball IQ rare for his age. He could win a spot in the Atlanta rotation this spring. Even if he begins the season at Triple-A, it won't be long before he's in the Atlanta rotation for the long term.
2. Randall Delgado - Delgado began last season in Double-A and ended September in Atlanta's rotation. He began the season at Double-A for a second consecutive year and improved with a 3.66 ERA and 8.8 K/9IP, but didn't have great control with 3.5 BB/9IP. He still moved up to Triple-A and made four strong starts with a 10.6 K/9IP. When several injuries hit the Atlanta rotation, he made five starts in September with mixed results. He had a 2.52 ERA in those starts, but just a 12:11 K:BB ratio and didn't last more than five innings in any outing. He also had some worrisome signs at all three levels, as his control wasn't great and he allowed more than a home run per nine innings at both Triple-A and in the majors. Still, all his numbers must be taken in the context that he was just 21 years old last season. He's shown good velocity (92.4 mph average fastball in the majors) and has improved at every level. He'll compete for the fifth starter job this spring. He may begin the season at Triple-A, but should be a permanent fixture in Atlanta's rotation before too long.
3. Arodys Vizcaino - Vizcaino could contend for a job in the major league bullpen or rotation this spring. He began last season at High-A Lynchburg and jumped all the way to the Atlanta bullpen by August. He had a 3.22 ERA and 92:28 K:BB ratio in 90 innings combined between High-A and Double-A. He then was called up to Triple-A Gwinnett but moved to the bullpen to reduce his workload. He then was a surprise addition to the Atlanta bullpen for the final six weeks where he held his own as a 20 year old in the majors with a 4.67 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 17.1 innings. He did walk 4.6 BB/9IP in the majors, but otherwise has had great control in his minor league career. With a 95 mph fastball and a very good curveball, it's just a matter of when he'll be an impact pitcher with the Braves. He'll likely begin the season at Triple-A, but it may only be a few months before he's in the Atlanta rotation to stay.
4. Tyler Pastornicky
5. Andrelton Simmons - Simmons had a breakout season at High-A Lynchburg by hitting .311/.351/.408 with 26 stolen bases and may be Atlanta's shortstop of the future. While he doesn't draw a lot of walks, he makes great contact with few strikeouts (29:43 BB:K ratio in 517 at-bats). His biggest asset is probably his glove, where he's seen as a premium defender. He'll need to hit for more power to be a star at higher levels, and has Tyler Pastornicky perhaps blocking his path to the majors, but he's a rising prospect to watch in 2012.