NEW YORK – The Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals made bold offseason moves to try to make up ground on five-time NL East champion Philadelphia and runner-up Atlanta. The Braves’ notable moves were subtraction — a salary-dump trade of Derek Lowe and letting shortstop Alex Gonzalez go as a free agent.
So where do the Braves stand on opening day 2012, five months after dropping 20 of their final 30 games to miss a wild-card playoff berth and finish 13 games behind the Phillies? Are they better? Worse? Same? Too early to tell?
Let’s take a quick inventory:
Starting pitching: Braves starters finished fifth in the National League with a 3.73 ERA, and also fifth in strikeouts and wins (63-48). That despite getting almost nothing after the All-Star break from injured Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, their best duo before the break. They’re both healthy now and the Braves need badly for them to remain that way. Lowe was a weight on the rotation by season’s end, but until Tim Hudson returns from back surgery, the Braves don’t have a pitcher who eats innings like Lowe did. Mike Minor seems poised for a strong first full season. Until Hudson replaces fill-in Randall Delgado, Braves starters aren’t as formidable as they were early in ’11.
Relief pitching: Closer Craig Kimbrel and setup man Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty are the NL’s best trio and led the Braves relievers to a majors-best 3.02 ERA. Avoiding overuse and late-season fatigue for them is now an emphasis for the Braves. Helpful in that regard is versatile Kris Medlen, out most of last season, and just-added long reliever/spot starter Livan Hernandez, who’ll free up Cristhian Martinez to throw in a variety of situations. Chad Durbin was signed this week to add a veteran presence to a still-young ‘pen. If the Big Three stay healthy, it’s the NL’s best ‘pen.
Infield: The right side is solid with Dan Uggla, the Braves’ best hitter after July 4, and Freddie Freeman, the NL’s best hitting rookie last season and a machine scooping low throws. Those two could combine for 60-plus homers, and six-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann and the best backup catcher (David Ross) in ‘ball are back. But the left side has question marks with shortstops Tyler Pastornicky (no major league experience) and Jack Wilson (still a strong glove, but little offense); and third basemen Chipper Jones (how many games will his knees allow him to play?) and recently added Juan Francisco, who has big power potential, low OBP, and some whispers about work habits in Cincinnati. Can he prosper in his first season with perhaps 250 or more at-bats? How much does Martin Prado play third base? Jury’s still out on the left side.
Outfield: Atlanta outfielders had the fewest RBIs (162) and second-fewest homers (41) in the NL last season, after producing the fewest homers (40) and third-lowest average (.250) in 2011. This year should be different. They have three-time NL stolen-base champ Michael Bourn in center for the entire season, plus the return of Martin Prado and Jason Heyward to good health, after Prado missed more than month for a staph infection in 2012 and Heyward was plagued by a sore shoulder that got him into some bad habits as he tried to compensate. Prado should be able to focus on left field now with Francisco backing up third. Prediction: Braves’ biggest improvement comes in the outfield.
Bench: Braves pinch-hitters went most potent in the NL in 2010, with 10 homers and 42 RBIs, to arguably league’s worst in ’11 with a .175 average and league-low .239 OBP. Jack Wilson replaces utility man Brooks Conrad, giving the Braves better defense but not as much sock at the plate. Left-handed pinch-hitter Eric Hinske is complemented by Matt Diaz, who re-acquired late last season and still a threat vs. lefty pitchers. With the Braves comfortable having Heyward back up center field in a pinch, they’ll have more flexibility to bring up players from Triple-A when need arises. Bench should be improved.
Manager: Fredi Gonzalez’s first season as Braves manager was sailing along until one of the worst September collapses in baseball history. The scrutiny will be greater from Day 1 this year, especially in how he uses the back of his bullpen given the end-of-season struggles of Venters and Kimbrel after piling up early appearances. Gonzalez has a reputation a good baseball man and players’ manager. But last year’s collapse won’t be quickly forgotten. Fair or not, if things go sideways again this season, plenty of people in Braves Nation will say it wouldn’t have been so under Bobby Cox.