JUPITER, FL - Jason Heyward #22 of the Atlanta Braves bats during a game against the Miami Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Sarah Glenn/Getty Images)
The Braves didn't do a thing over the offseason. They didn't even check their e-mail. Can they still contend in an improved NL East?
The Atlanta Braves didn't need your fancy offseason. Their team was perfect last year. It was the world that was wrong. It was the world that was cruel -- unfeeling and unfair, resentful that the Braves had put together such a deep, complete team before the 2011 season.
It was Albert Einstein who said "The definition of insanity is trying to impress everyone with this stupid quote over and over and over again. You know what's insane? Greg Maddux unintentionally walking 17 batters in 245 innings during the 1996 season. That's insane. Expecting different results while trying the same thing? Sort of natural, at least for the first couple of times." And that leads into the Braves' marketing slogan for this season:
Screw you. Our roster was fine.
If you think that's too strong, let's just rank the Braves' offseason acquisitions in order of importance:
1. Livan Hernandez
2. Juan Francisco
3. Chris Jones
4. Buddy Carlyle
4. Chad Durbin (tied)
5. J.C. Boscan
Those last two acquisitions were made last week. Last week was the most active week of the Braves' offseason. And the moves involved Livan Hernandez and Juan Francisco. Chris Jones was just some guy they found on Craigslist. He works in promotions now.
Welcome to the new Braves, same as the old Braves. And that's not a bad thing. A stubborn thing, sure. But it's not a bad thing. The Braves had a fantastic team last year. It's just that baseball -- that nasty curmudgeon -- got in the way. Things that aren't insane for the Braves to expect in the 2012 season:
1. Jason Heyward will improve in his age-22 season.
2. Freddie Freeman will improve in his age-22 season.
3. Michael Bourn will be better than Nate McClouth
4. A combination of young pitchers stapled together will be better than Derek Lowe
5. The pitchers should be healthier.
6. Because they said so.
The only one that I wouldn't put a sawbuck on is #5, if only because pitchers are crinkly, weird things that tend to get hurt. That isn't to say that Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, and Jair Jurrens are injury-prone. It's that pitchers are injury-prone. And in that subset of players, yeah, I guess I'd be a tick more concerned about those three compared to the general population, especially considering that Hudson is already missing the start of the season because of offseason back surgery.
Even without Tim Hudson, though, the Braves have an excellent rotation. How many teams could claim that? Your mileage may vary depending on what you think of the low-strikeout stylings of Jair Jurrens, or the relative inexperience of Mike Minor and Randall Delgado. But it might be the most talented rotation 1-5 in the National League if you hand out demerit points for Joe Blanton. If you go to seven pitchers, only the Rays can compete at all. There aren't a lot of Jeff Karstens, "Well, he can eat innings!", types. It'd be a disappointment if any of the starters gave a quantity-over-quality performance.
Except for Livan Hernandez. Who isn't in the rotation. Who shouldn't be in the rotation. But with Hudson's back and the problems the Braves had with their pitchers last year … it's not that ridiculous of a scenario. But still too far away to contemplate. The rotation should be good.
The biggest problem with the Braves last year was the offense -- the team OBP was .308 and they averaged just under four runs per game. The rotation is good, but it isn't Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz. It's good enough to win 89 games with that kind of offense, but it's not going to pick the pitchers up too often. The switch in the starting lineup from the end of last year -- Tyler Pastornicky in for Alex Gonzalez -- isn't going to help.
But the Braves absolutely should count on improvement from Jason Heyward. They were expecting Mel Ott. They got Nate Schierholtz. Heyward's spring was discouraging, and there's a chance that he'll be more like Ken Griffey, Jr. in his 30s than Ken Griffey, Jr. in his 20s -- always too banged up and broken to shine -- but I'd still err on the side of preternatural, once-or-twice-in-a-generation talent. It says something that we consider a 95 OPS+ from a 21-year-old to be a severe disappointment.
Freddie Freeman should be better, too. A list of 21-year-old first basemen who had a 110 OPS+ over a full season since 1901:
Fine company, and a good sign for the Braves. Brian McCann and Dan Uggla are two of the rare players who can play up the middle and hit in the middle of an order, though Uggla might not be the ideal cleanup hitter. Michael Bourn is an upgrade over the pre-deadline options the Braves had, and Martin Prado is a great bounce-back candidate; he was fantastic for three straight seasons before his dismal 2011, remember.
It all comes down to the pitching staying healthy. It doesn't really matter if it's Randall Delgado or Julio Teheran who breaks out, so long as one of them does okay, and even then it's not a big deal because there's a chance that the rotation won't have room for either when Hudson gets back. It's a lot of pitching depth, and it's a lineup that might be underrated by this point.
The catch: All of these things, more or less, are the same things that had me excited for the Braves last year. Baseball doesn't read my season previews. Baseball is drinking out in front of a supermarket right now, wondering what'd be like to fill a shopping cart full of watermelons and roll it onto a freeway on-ramp. It doesn't care what you or I might expect. The Braves are good. The Braves are also at the mercy of baseball. Baseball's kind of a jerk.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Move they didn't make)
The correct answer for the "move they didn't make" section is "Yes." They didn't make a move. But considering where the Braves are in the success cycle, how many low-cost pitchers they're anticipating to have for the next few years, and the team it would have screwed, a full-court press for Jimmy Rollins would have made more sense for the Braves than it would have for a lot of teams. Unfortunately, paying Rollins a lot of money made sense for the Phillies too, so it's not like you can complain about the Braves not going after him.
How good is Brandon Beachy? I'm thinking really, really good. Really, really, really good. But if he's really, really, really, really good, people will start to notice. He struck out 169 batters in 141 innings last year as a rookie. He was undrafted. And baseball tosses away the empty and cracks another one open.
Prado, Heyward, and Freeman improve. Chipper Jones is pretty bad in 300 at-bats. The bullpen won't be as good -- we probably won't see a bullpen quite like that for another ten years or so -- but it'll still be fantastic. The Braves are either in first or within two games of first when September starts.
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