Monday, March 26, 2012

2012 MLB Preview #29: Atlanta Braves

Greetings... this one might be a little longer for obvious reasons...

Lineup (with bench included in italics because, well, it's the Braves)

C - Brian McCann, David Ross
1B - Freddie Freeman
2B - Dan Uggla
SS - Tyler Pastornicky (or Andrelton Simmons, somehow), Jack Wilson
3B - Chipper Jones (injured)
LF - Martin Prado, Eric Hinske, Matt Diaz
CF - Michael Bourn, Jose Constanza (or Jordan Parraz)
RF - Jason Heyward

If I had to pick any catcher in the Major Leagues for 2012, I'd choose Brian McCann. An OPS of .817 with 24 homers in 466 ABs last year and that even includes the dreadful performance post-injury. He's 100% healthy to start the year, and he's been the best catcher in the league consistency-wise since he arrived in 2006. Pencil him in for .280/.360/.490 with solid defense and run with it. If you add in the best back-up catcher in the league (undisputed) in David Ross (over .800 OPS with great defense the last 3 years), the Braves have unquestionably assembled the best combo in the league at that spot. At first, Freddie Freeman looks to duplicate (or increase) his solid production as a rookie. Freeman posted 21 homers and a .795 OPS in his debut campaign, but really came on in the second half, and showed the promise he was billed with. Pundits are widely ranged on his defensive prowess, but he's proven to be excellent in the "scoop" category, and while his range lacks a bit, he's average overall at worst IMO. With his spry legs, I'd expect 150+ starts again this year, and if he goes down, he'll likely be spelled by Eric Hinske for the most part. Dan Uggla had one of the worst half-seasons in baseball last year in the 1st half, but went nuts late. He hit .185 with a .621 OPS in the first half, and .296 with a .948 OPS in the second half, and while neither is his true self (career .258 average, .824 OPS), he's certainly not the player he was in the first half. I think we can reasonably expect 30 homers with an .800+ OPS and while the defense is below-average (at best), it's mitigated by the huge power from that power-starved position. Shortstop is a disaster area. I absolutely loved the Jack Wilson signing for a defensive-minded backup at both 3rd and shortstop, but he's already injured, and the starting spot that we all assumed was being handed to Tyler Pastornicky is in flux. Andrelton Simmons has flashed his plus-glove in the Spring Training and Fredi Gonzalez is reportedly enamored to the point where he's being considered for the opening day starter role there. Keep this in mind, Simmons hit for a .759 OPS in class A last year. Class A! He's never been known for his bat, but could be a disaster area in the pros if played right now, and Pastornicky posted a near-.800 mark in AA and AAA combined last year. While he's not the same glove, I think it's reasonable to assume Pastornicky wouldn't murder the lineup if placed in it every day, and Simmons doesn't bring that expectation. Give me Tyler. At 3rd, we have the legend that is Chipper Jones. As of this writing, he's already torn his meniscus and will be sidelined for a month or so (at least). If he's in the lineup, he still produces (18 homers, .814 OPS in 2011), but he's far below average defensively at this stage, and him being on the field is far from a guarantee. If he's out for long stretches, look for a Prado move to 3B (with some Jack Wilson sprinkled in when healthy) with a Hinske/Diaz platoon in Left Field.

Speaking of the outfield, it's in better shape than this time last year. Martin Prado had a miserable 2011 headlined by a staph infection that seemed to hamper him for months, and a dreadful .687 OPS. I think he's more of the guy who went .307/.350/.459 in 2011 than he was last year, and that should surface. His positional flexibility is huge with the aforementioned Chipper injury issues, but when Chipper plays, Prado is clearly the best left field candidate. A full season of Michael Bourn will be a God-send. His power is non-existent, but he hit .294 with a .349 OBP combined between Houston and Atlanta last year, and with his excellent defense and 50-60 steal potential, he's a real asset, posting 4+ WAR each of the last 2 years. And then there's Jason Heyward. Clearly the X-factor of the entire roster IMO, and after his breakout rookie campaign that saw him go for a .393 OBP with .849 OPS, he regressed to just over .700 OPS and his walk-rate declined. A couple points need be made. He was awful by HIS standards in 2011, but he still took 51 walks in 456 plate appearances, posted an OPS higher than Martin Prado's and played gold-glove level defense in right field while posting a 2.0 WAR which was good for 3rd-best among position players behind McCann and Jones. The guy is a very good player and even if he hits half-way between his 2010 and 2011 numbers, he'll be highly productive. That said, I think he goes for north of 20 homers with an OBP approaching .400 and an OPS over .800. Call me crazy. Backing up the forces in the outfield is the combination of Matt Diaz, Eric Hinske, and either Jose Constanza or Jordan Parraz (undecided at time of posting). Neither Diaz or Hinkse is even average defensively, but both can hit when platooned with Hinske at a .796 OPS career vs. righties and Diaz with an .874 career OPS vs. lefties. Both are uninspiring but if Fredi uses them correctly (big if), both could be useful. The Constanza/Parraz battle hopefully shouldn't matter a ton with Bourn and Heyward being healthy, but it's an interesting one. Constanza took PA's from Heyward inexplicably last year after a hot, unsustainable start, but is a guy who can't hit at all (career .720 OPS in the minors!) and isn't even a good defender despite his high-end speed. Parraz has always hit in the minors, but Fredi is a Constanza guy so I'd be surprised if he went that direction. There you have it.

Starting Rotation

1 - Tim Hudson (injured, to be replaced by Teheran and/or Delgado)
2 - Tommy Hanson
3 - Brandon Beachy
4 - Mike Minor
5 - Jair Jurrjens

Depth is the word. The best pitcher on the staff in 2011 was Tim Hudson, and I'd expect that to continue in 2012 once he is back from his surgery (probably early May). Hudson has exceeded 215 innings with great ERAs (2.83 then 3.22) the past two seasons, has a tremendous resume, and should be penciled into the #1 slot when healthy. After that, there is depth... and question marks. Tommy Hanson has an unbelievable combination of stuff, pedigree, and even major league numbers. He has a career 3.28 ERA in 77 starts (460 innings) with a K-rate of nearly 9 and great peripherals. That said, he's been quite streaky at times, and he's coming off a fairly serious shoulder injury that anyone watching his delivery had always feared. If he's healthy and right, he's an ace, but if not, there could be issues. Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy surfaced last year to different results. Beachy was fantastic in 25 starts after beating Minor out in Spring last year and he put up a 3.68 ERA with a K-rate over 10 (absurd) and a 1.21 WHIP. I think he profiles as a high-end starter and there's no reason to think he'll regress this year with increased role. The only complaint with Beachy was his inability to go deep into games, but that's partially on the manager IMO, and I'd be surprised if it wasn't addressed in year two. Minor struggled a bit at times, finishing with a 4.14 ERA and a putrid 1.49 WHIP. His inability to go deep into games was more a product of bad control (3.3 walks per 9), but he did post a nice K-rate, and his peripheral numbers show some unlucky tendencies to his stats from 2011. Oh, and then there's Jair Jurrjens. In full disclosure, I think I'm the lowest on Jurrjens of any Braves "fans" I know, but I don't trust him. Yes, he was absolutely tremendous in the 1st half last year with a 1.87 ERA, but the peripherals show that was wildly lucky, and his ERA jumped to 5.88 post-break. I don't think either one of those is his profile, but his inability to miss bats (6 strikeouts per 9) contributes to his inconsistency. His FIP (fielding-independent pitching) was almost a full run higher than his ERA last year, and that shows it's likely unsustainable. With all things equal, I'd expect an ERA in the high 3's and that's perfectly fine for a mid-rotation guy. Give me that and I'll run with it. The battle for the 5-spot in Hudson's absence is between Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado and it's a fairly simple one. Teheran is the uber-prospect of the two but has struggled more in spring (including an outing where he surrended 6 homers in one start) and Delgado is likely more "ready" to pitch immediately. I'd like to see Teheran get the nod for the long-term but with no margin for error, I'd be surprised if it wasn't Delgado to be honest.


Craig Kimbrel anchors the back-end of the bullpen coming off one of the most dominant closer seasons in recent memory. His 14.8 strikeouts per 9 is legendary, but he followed it up with a 2.10 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, and a 4-to-1 strikeout to walk rate after failing with his control the prior year. I'd project him as a top-3 closer in baseball if Fredi doesn't throw his arm out by July. Jonny Venters was the best set-up man in baseball last year as well, throwing an absurd 88 innings of 1.84 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 10 strikeouts per nine, and when you add in Eric O'Flaherty's 73 innings of sub-1.00 ERA (sub 1!), it was the best trio in the majors. The workload concerns are real with how often Fredi puts them in low-leverage situations and/or gets them up for additional warm-up sessions, so it's difficult to pencil in similar numbers, especially in the case of O'Flaherty whose peripherals don't show that these levels are sustainable. That being said, this is an elite back-end of the bullpen barring disaster. After that, the set-up crew took a hit with the Tommy John surgery for expected 6th-7th inning guy Arodys Vizcaino, but the Cristhian Martinez/Kris Medlen duo seems ready for action (with Medlen being a lefty "specialist" as a righty due to his change-up). The Braves will also rely on Anthony Varvaro and Cory Gearrin to get outs, but with the disaster that was Proctor (and Linebrink at times) last year, anything will be an upgrade barring a complete blow-up. One of the best units in the major leagues.


90-72, 2nd in NL East, #1 Wild Card Spot

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