Once you get past the fact that the Braves waited until game No. 163 to resemble baseball’s all-thumbs team, and that a major league umpiring crew just made the NFL’s replacement referees look fit to be air traffic controllers, this is what the 2012 season really comes down to: The Braves’ margin for error this season was just too narrow.
They won 94 games. That’s impressive. They went 20-9 down the stretch after it looked again like they were circling the drain. That’s really impressive. But what really pushed this team into the postseason were two unexpected occurrences: 1) A 40-year-old (Chipper Jones) unexpectedly hit .300 for most of this season, had two walk-off homers against Philadelphia (the second when the club looked comatose on Sept. 2), and finished second in game-winning RBIs (12) and third in go-ahead RBIs (18) despite missing 50 games; 2) Kris Medlen went from middle reliever to emergency starter to channeling Cy Young.
Unexpected occurrences can make a good team look like a great team. But it’s not something anybody should count on.
The Braves’ lineup still is a bit heavy on “could be” and “should be.”
Some questioned whether general manager Frank Wren should have brought back predominantly the same roster after the team’s unraveling in 2011. But it was an understandable risk. He could make the case that one horrific finish was an aberration. There is no case now.
The Braves are losing Chipper Jones. There’s a good chance they’re going to lose center fielder and leadoff hitter Michael Bourn to free agency. Catcher Brian McCann just suffered through the most miserable season of his career, and health issues are an increasing concern. If Martin Prado is viewed as a comforting backup plan at third base, that leaves left field open.
That’s four of eight positions.
When the 2011 season ended, the heat was on manager Fredi Gonzalez and his staff (hitting coach Larry Parrish was fired). That’s not the case after Friday’s Wild Card game loss to St. Louis. The onus now is on Wren. He needs to improve a lineup that too often struggled to score runs, even during a hot September.
Wren said Saturday he’s “very optimistic about where we sit as a franchise.” He referenced the team’s young core (Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons), the late-season bounce back of Dan Uggla and pitching. That’s a good start. But these aren’t minor issues that need addressing.
“I think they need some pieces,” the outgoing Jones said. “But Frank will have a good time with all the money he’s going to have this offseason to try to get those pieces.”
There’s potentially $36.345 million coming off the books for just four players: Jones ($14 million), Derek Lowe ($10 million of dead money), Bourn ($6.845 million) and Jair Jurrjens ($5.5 million). The assumption is Wren will exercise club options for both McCann ($12 million) and Tim Hudson ($9 million).
How might payroll flexibility change the dynamic in the Braves’ offseason? Wren, handcuffed by budgetary constraints in the past, joked, “We may shop in a different store.”
So not Wal-mart?
“We may go up the street to Target,” he said.
When told that, Jones — who remembers when payroll size wasn’t an issue like now — cracked, “I guess that’s good to hear. Maybe one day we’ll get back to Macy’s and Dillard’s.”
Wren said it won’t be a great free-agent group (one reason why Bourn is expected to land an astronomical contract). The Braves more likely will need to acquire talent through trades. The other issue will be leadership, particularly with the loss of Jones. Heyward and Freeman will be expected to take on expanded roles. The Braves have gone through several transitions over the past decade, but this one might be the most difficult.
It’s also something nobody in the organization wanted to be focusing on so soon — one game — into the postseason.
“Anytime you get this close, you want to take advantage of it because you don’t know what’s going to happen next year,” Gonzalez said. “Chipper’s not going to be here. We’ve got to sign [Bourn]. You don’t know if you’re going to be healthy next year. We may not have had the sexiest team out there, but we were good.”
Not great, just good.
By Jeff Schultz