2011 was disappointing to say the least for the Atlanta Braves. They did win 89 games and were poised to be the National League Wild Card team even though they finished 13 games back of the Philadelphia Phillies. Then came September...when they lost 18 of their final 29 games including a 13 inning heart breaker to the Phillies on the final day of the season. I don't think you can finish a season in a much worse fashion. As a fan it was heart wrenching. One win is all it would have taken to reach the playoffs and who knows what can happen at that point. Just ask Cardinal fans. Living near St. Louis I heard it. I still hear it! Ugh.
Still as most fans do I went into the offseason looking forward to seeing what the winter held for this team. I can't say I've done any back flips since October as the only significant changes are a new shortstop in Tyler Pastornicky and the departure of Derek Lowe. Not much to write home about. Still this team won 89 games last year with that horrible September. There is hope.
This is where many fans, including myself, wish we had seen some changes after last season. The Braves' offense ranked 26th in batting average and on base percentage, 21st in slugging, 22nd in runs scored and 8th in homeruns. Dan Uggla can't hit .236 this year. He can hit 36 homers again. He is a real power threat who should anchor the middle of that order. Hitting .236 doesn't scream anchor. To his credit he was below the Mendoza line for much of last year before coming on strong at the end. Likewise Jason Heyward can't hit .227 and must hit more than 14 homeruns. Brian McCann a had another good year and I expect no different this year from the all-star catcher. Michael Bourn is that speedster at the top of the lineup they really haven't had since the Otis Nixon days. He won't lead the league in average or on-base percentage but he is still a respectable hitter who makes the lineup that much more dynamic. In his rookie year Freddie Freeman showed he is a major league hitter. Just need him to avoid that sophomore slump (see Jason Heyward) this year. Chipper Jones is a big unknown. He had surgery last month on his meniscus in his left knee. He returned in 17 days from the same surgery last year but I'd be surprised if he returns before this May. If Chipper hits .270 and gives the Braves 15 homers and 65 runs batted in I think it is a win-win for Atlanta who has no real replacement if he goes down for an extended amount of time. Martin Prado will play left field and is reliable if nothing else. The offense has the players to be not just good but very good. I think if they can get their average up the runs will follow. That will be the key. I do think they will be better and look forward to actually thinking the Braves can outscore their opponent.
Pitching was deflinitely the strenth of this team in 2011. Their 3.48 ERA was good for 4th in the majors and were 3rd in runs allowed. Nice. Hard to argue much with those stats. There were grumblings that the dynamic young duo of Craig Kembrel and Johnny Venters were used too much (77 and 88 innings respectively). They had great years and I hope they can put up numbers close to last years. Ace Tim Hudson is out until May after back surgery. The rest of the rotation is Tommy Hansen, Jair Jurrjens, Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy. One through five this is a good rotation. Randall Delgado will hold down the #5 spot until Hudson returns. Eric O'Flaherty and Kris Medlan are also keys to the bullpen. I'll put this pitching staff against about any other. Philly's is hard to beat but I think this one is in the discussion. Again I'm counting on the sophomore slump not hitting Kembrel and Venters. It is a luxury going to bullpen knowing you have guys you can count on.
While this may not directly impact how the Braves do, Chipper's retirement will be there in the background. Probably more for fans but I know the team and management would love to send him off the right way. I for one love Chipper and will miss him greatly. This team is built to go to the playoffs. They need some things to go right and they'll do just that. Get that average up and hope the pitching staff resembles the 2011 staff. Will it? Only time will tell. I think this team matches the 89 wins of last season. With the perennial favorites Philadelphia and the Miami Marlins who made significant changes this winter in the same division making the playoffs even as a wild card is no easy task. Of course there will be two wild card teams this year so that alone helps the Braves out. I am excited about this year and expect nothing less than a championship! Just kidding...I just want to have an exciting season to send Chipper out on.