Are the do-nothing Braves in dire divisional peril? Probably not

The bat and the gloves are Chipper Jones'. I assume the tattoo is, too. (AP photo)

The bat and the gloves belong to Chipper Jones. I assume the tattoo does, too. (AP photo)

Two reasons the Braves’ subdued offseason has been poorly received by many locals: The 2011 season didn’t end well, and other members of the National League East have made bigger personnel noise. (It would, we can agree, be hard to make less noise than simply paying Derek Lowe to go away.)

Conventional wisdom holds that the Braves have been content to sit idle while the rest of the division moves onward and upward, but conventional wisdom can sometimes be less than wise. As pitchers and catchers set to work at Lake Buena Vista — if you can call what transpires in spring training “work” — let’s eyeball the Eastern bloc:

Philadelphia Phillies  (finished 102-60 last season, 13 games ahead of the Braves): Lost closer Ryan Madson but added closer Jonathan Papelbon; lost left fielder Raul Ibanez and starting pitcher Roy Oswalt; will be without first baseman Ryan Howard, who tore his Achilles tendon on the final play of the Division Series, probably until Memorial Day.

Unless Vance Worley and Joe Blanton fall to pieces, the Phillies shouldn’t miss Oswalt, who was the fourth of the Big Four, and Papelbon figures to be a slight upgrade on Madson. But the everyday eight will struggle without Howard, and even his biggest years seem behind him. At 32, he’s the youngest among starting infielders. (And catcher Carlos Ruiz is 33, and center fielder Shane Victorino is 31.)

Starting pitching and the 2011 deadline addition of Hunter Pence should enable the Phillies to bleed out one more division title — that’ll make six in a row — but Philly’s window is closing. Last season’s Round 1 exit puts even more pressure on this aging team.

Washington Nationals (finished 80-81, 8 1/2 games behind the Braves: Added starting pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson and relievers Brad Lidge and Chad Durbin; lost Livan Hernandez, who made it his lot in life to beat the Braves 10 times a year for the past 50 years. (Slight exaggeration, but you get the idea.)

The Nationals have targeted this as their year of arrival: The famous pitcher Stephen Strasburg should be recovered from his 2010 surgery, and the almost-as-famous hitting prospect Bryce Harper could be in the starting lineup on Opening Day. (And there’s another big hitter — third baseman Anthony Rendon — in the chain.)

The elder Nats, however, are less imposing. Outfielder Jayson Werth hit .232 on the first year of his $126-million contract. Shortstop Ian Desmond has made 77 errors the past two seasons. The first baseman is Adam LaRoche, who’s 32 and is coming off shoulder surgery.

New York Mets (finished 77-85, 12 games behind the Braves): Lost shortstop Jose Reyes and outfielder Angel Pagan; added closer Frank Francisco.

There’s not much to say. Owing to their Bernie-Madoff-incurred financial straits, the Mets have little to spend and are all but bereft of top-shelf talent. They should finish last by some distance.

Miami Marlins (finished 72-90, 17 games behind the Braves): Hired Ozzie Guillen as manager; added shortstop Jose Reyes, closer Heath Bell and starting pitchers Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano; lost starting pitcher Javier Vazquez.

It’s a toss-up as to which NL’Easter is more pumped for 2012 — Washington or the team formerly known as the Florida Marlins. The Fish will move into their new downtown ballpark, which comes equipped with a retractable roof and actual fish tanks behind home plate, and they’ve spent nearly $200 million of fixer-upper money on free agents. Even Phillies manager Charlie Manuel indicated he sees the Marlins as the “biggest threat.”

But are they? The advent of Reyes means incumbent shortstop Hanley Ramirez will move to third base, and Ramirez has already expressed differing emotions about the move. Zambrano’s temperament can render his arm ineffective, and No. 1 starter Josh Johnson missed nearly all of last season with shoulder soreness. On paper, this seems a good team. On the field, it could be rather less.

Projections: The Braves chose to do little over the offseason because they believe enough players who had bad years will remember who they are, or were. That’s a risk, yes, but it’s a considered one. Much went wrong for the 2011 Braves, and still they won 89 games. Before we wring our hands over the possibility of them being passed in the standings, we need ask: Are the young Nationals capable of improving by 10 games? Are the new-look Marlins primed to improve by 18?

Much has changed, but really not much has changed. The Braves figure to be the second-best team in the East and the National League team best equipped to draw the wild card. Given that the wild-card holder wound up winning the 2011 World Series, that’s not such a bad place to be.

By Mark Bradley

217 comments Add your comment

Benjamin

February 20th, 2012
12:11 pm

First.

And we beat the Phillies this year.

J.J.M.

February 20th, 2012
12:13 pm

probably not but just like every other atlanta team that dont sign or trade for a superstar I wont be spening my money on any of the team games this season.

Mark Bradley

February 20th, 2012
12:13 pm

Kudos, Benjamin.

Wrecker

February 20th, 2012
12:18 pm

Mark: As you noted, the Phillies are getting old fast. Ryan Howard is a huge guy and the prevailing wisdom is that huge guys have serious joint and ligament problems as they age.

SeaAtl

February 20th, 2012
12:23 pm

Phillies a lock for the division; Mets a lock to finish last; the Nats and Marlins will battle for 2nd & the WC; that leaves the Brave a virtual lock for 4th place. Hard to argue against that – Braves don’t have a RF, LF, or SS; they have an older 3B that will play great but not likely for more than 120 games; the bullpen will regress from last year’s overuse; and the starting rotation is the walking wounded.

Braves Fan

February 20th, 2012
12:25 pm

I don’t think we needed to make big moves this off season. If we stay healthy and Pastornicky pans out then I think we have just as good a shot as anyone else in our division. We’re just not the go out and buy a team kind of organization and people need to get over that. GO BRAVES!!!!!

@LukeDixonATL

February 20th, 2012
12:27 pm

I don’t blame Wren for not going out to make the big, sexy acquisitions this offseason. Maybe it’s a lack of being able to spend, but a collapse like that won’t happen 2 years in a row, it just won’t. Mark made two great points: The Marlins are improved on paper and the Phillies are older than most realize. I could definitely see both the Braves and Marlins making the playoffs. I won’t predict the order, but it could come down to that last week at the Ted vs. Miami.

BvgNeedsaHaircut

February 20th, 2012
12:27 pm

Because everybody bounces back after bad years…..can it just be acknowledged that our owners care nothing for the team and will never spend another dollar on FA. Only way we sign players is when money comes off the books

GoWest

February 20th, 2012
12:27 pm

Can we get a new owner? Mr. Blank?

Mark Bradley

February 20th, 2012
12:31 pm

You know, there’s something to be said about the Braves’ stated-by-Terry-McGuirk position: The free-agency system is the most inefficient way to build a team. I know it’s exciting when a team spends big on a big name, but more often than not it’s a poor investment.

Marteen is a Ballplayer

February 20th, 2012
12:35 pm

Everyone seems to forget that we did make a big acquisition last year with Dan Uggla…and Michael Bourne is a huge game-changer to have from Game number 1. Granted, Uggla did not pan out last year as we had expected. Staying on Uggla, it is much more likely that he will return to career-averages this year than have a repeat of last season. This is the same reason any Marlin and Nats acquisitions are not “locks”…just see Werth from last season.

Every team has issues. If you have to bring it to three key points for the Braves, they would be:

1. Pastronicky or whomever our shortstop is. Gonzo was not an offensive threat but we are going to miss his glove terrible.
2. Heyward. Will he bounce back from the sophomore slump? This is our biggest key…even bigger than the issue at shortstop.
3, Chipper Jones health, or more importantly, how do we plug left field when Chipper is out of the line-up. I would really have loved to have another outfield bat, but you are essentially platooning any new acquisition with Bourn out there as well as relying on point #2, Heyward being an every day threat.

Loafer

February 20th, 2012
12:36 pm

And a Marlins team that loaded up big time (like they did the year they won the World Series)And a Mgr that totally burned out our pitching staff on the way to second biggest collapse in MLB history?? Just too many things that need a total turnaround and NAtionals team that will beat us head to head and Hudson who won’t even play till till May due to a bad back and 2 rookie pitchers that can’t find the plate when the heat is on. Been a Braves fan for 30 years but we are a 3rd place team at best.

Steve

February 20th, 2012
12:42 pm

SeaAtl, worst predictions I’ve read.

swhite1951

February 20th, 2012
12:45 pm

There’s this thing called “the season.” Take a look at the predictions EPSN made last year about MLB. http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/preview/2011/news/story?page=11expertpicks Of the columnists surveyed, only 6 predicted the Cardinals to win their division, none predicted them to win the wild card. The overwhelming choice to win the World Series – the Boston Red Sox. Need we say more? None of us on this blog have any earthly idea of what’s going to happen. Pastornicky could be a bust or he could be rookie of the year. Hayward could come back or be traded at mid-season. No one knows, and that’s the beauty of baseball.

Marteen is a Ballplayer

February 20th, 2012
12:45 pm

My prediction is with Bradley this time. I predict second place. Everyone can agree that the Mets are out of it and destined for last place. That means the Marlins, Braves, Nats, and Phillies will spend the season beating up on each other. This is also the reason I don’t see the second place team in the East as the favorite for the wild-card.

For all the nay-sayers for the Braves out there, out of the East, whose everyday line-up do you like better than the Braves. When I see Bourn, Prado, Chipper, McCann, Uggla, Freeman, and Heyward as our 1 through 7, I have a hard time wanting to swap places with anyone.

Bill

February 20th, 2012
12:46 pm

When Pigs Fly

February 20th, 2012
12:49 pm

Even if their offense returns to full strength it is still suspect. They really have no excuse for making no move to help the offense. Expect a third or fourth place finish in the division.

Ship

February 20th, 2012
12:54 pm

The point not made is that confidence lost is difficult to regain and, in this winter season, the front office has done nothing to provide renewed confidence. Sadly, a decent season that end in the same way as the last.

mark

February 20th, 2012
12:56 pm

Once again the local media give the Braves a pass and more specifically the manager. Gonzalez is terrible plain and simple. Hudson is already out until May both Hanson and Jurgens are coming off injuries. We have a third baseman that might play 100 games. The new hitting coaches hopefully will make a difference but if we have 5 starters that are only allowed to throw 5 innings a piece then the bullpen will be dead by August. Gonzalez has not shown that he is up to the task of keeping his bullpen fresh and healthy for a whole season. I still think the Marlins have real shot at over taking us in the 3rd spot and we struggle against the Nationals. Bottom line is until we get new ownership that holds management responsible for lack of production than the Braves will continue to back slide. Attendance is the best indicator of where the local Atlanta fan feels about this team.

Ted M

February 20th, 2012
12:58 pm

The Braves are counting on at least 6 different “ifs” working out right for them. Thats a lot…I’m worried.

K.Conway

February 20th, 2012
12:58 pm

Braves will be lucky to finish in 4th place. There will be so many empty seats this year that folks will think it’s the old Braves teams of the past! ” Just sit anywhere you want”

Steve

February 20th, 2012
1:00 pm

Gotta love all of the negative predictions already. If last year, with Uggla having a terrible first half, Freeman struggling at first, the pitching injuries, and having a terrible center fielder for the first half of the season, and Heyward struggling all year, they won 89 games, I don’t see how they will be worse. 92-95 wins and the Wild Card.

Bryan G.

February 20th, 2012
1:00 pm

Oh, I don’t know, maybe they could have gotten a shortstop? I’m worried that Pastornicky is going to be more Scott Thorman and less Jason Heyward

Ted M

February 20th, 2012
1:00 pm

Mark – What did you think of the picture of Chipper Jones w/son at spring training?

Steve

February 20th, 2012
1:02 pm

Mark, the Braves averaged 30,037 per game last year. That’s not bad at all and is right in the middle of the pack.

Ted M

February 20th, 2012
1:03 pm

I thought Chipper looked like a dumpy old man. I can’t ever remember seeing him look like that.

Mark Bradley

February 20th, 2012
1:04 pm

That would not have been my reaction, Ted.

Mark (another one)

February 20th, 2012
1:05 pm

I’m guessing 92 wins and first for the Braves. Heyward, McCann, Freeman and Uggla become power central, while Bourn, Prado and Chipper get on base and score runs.

lanier

February 20th, 2012
1:06 pm

what concerns me is off production out os the SS hole. this guy has never faced big league hitting.

I can envision them having to make do with only 7 bats which will doom them

Wet Willie...keep on smiling

February 20th, 2012
1:06 pm

Atlanta = Weak. Chumper needs to cut back at the Golden Corral! All teams in and around Atlanta have that dreaded disease of choking in playoffs or big games. It’s been around for years with no known resolution.

extremus

February 20th, 2012
1:10 pm

Hmm, I’m not one to be superstitious, but the last time you said the Braves had nothing to worry about, Mr. Bradley, they had a rather well-remembered, historic September collapse. Hopefully you’re right on this one, or folks are going to start equating your praising Atlanta sports teams with sticking pins in a Braves/Falcons doll voodoo curse-style.

Hmm, you don’t by chance have any Braves or Falcons dolls in your office, do you?

Steve

February 20th, 2012
1:15 pm

Lanier, Alex G. at short stop last year did not do much at the plate at all.

extremus

February 20th, 2012
1:17 pm

The thing is, numbers can be deceiving. The Nationals don’t necessarily have to improve record-wise by 10 games or the Marlins by 18 to grab a wild-card or even possibly a divisional title if their improvement brings more overall parity to the NL East. I seriously doubt any team in this division will win 100 or maybe even 95 games in the near future (and if I’m wrong, well, that team DESERVES to win). The Braves could find themselves in a beastly annual pennant race where the toughest division in MLB (that’s the NL East) boasts records like 92-70 or so for the division winner and 81-81 for an honestly good team in third or fourth place. In summary, put-up-or-shut-up time starts Opening Day, not necessarily in the crapshhot that is the playoffs..

BRAVESNATION4EVER

February 20th, 2012
1:17 pm

We just gave the 2011 World Series title to those cardinals last October by us totally collapsing with a 10 and a half game lead last August, not to mention we,ve been totally sharing the wealth of pity and sympathy with the yankees in 1999 and 1996 by giving them both World Series titles and those twins and those jays in 1991 and 1992,so the BRAVES have always been totally beating themselves during their 14 straight NL East titles,but I’m sure the Braves will start winning the big ones in October year after year sometime in the near future, especially after those two sox’s the redsox and the whitesox were losing in October for 80-plus years and yet they have won 3 Fall Classics combined with the nation winning 2 of them and the whitesox winning one of them.The BRAVES are going through the exact October heartbreak now,but they’ll start winning the big ones in October every year soon and it may even be starting in 2012 and beyond.GO BRAVES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

extremus

February 20th, 2012
1:17 pm

crapshoot (I hate typos)

bill mann

February 20th, 2012
1:18 pm

freddi gonzales is an idiot,never gonna win with this fool in charge,should have fired him after last years debacle

Hooters Girl

February 20th, 2012
1:25 pm

Wonder where the Hooters tatt is?

DC

February 20th, 2012
1:25 pm

I compare the Braves to my EPL club Arsenal. They have the money, they have the name (prestige), but they have owners/chairmen who won’t pull the trigger to get some big name signings in the transfer markets…

I will note that my Gunners are in 4th in the EPL…4/5th place sounds about right for the Bravos too!..

BRAVESNATION4EVER

February 20th, 2012
1:26 pm

Charlie Manuel sees the marlins as the biggest threat to unseat the phillies in the NL East instead of the BRAVES yeah okay we Braves fans will see about that ,especially when we win it all in 2012.GO BRAVES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sonny Clusters

February 20th, 2012
1:27 pm

We read that the tattoo looks like that because of an unfortunate mis-spelling incident like sometimes happens on this blog. When Chipper first got that particular tattoo it was spelled “Mothre” and after a few days he uh, realized it should have been “Mother”. That’s when he went back for a warranty adjustment and they told him they could just do a deer head instead. Looking intelligent is important for a ballplayer at the plate and having the right tattoos says a lot about the hitter. Mouth breathing, seed spitting, and tobacco drool along with properly timed scratching and adjusting can repulse the pitcher and take his mind off the next pitch. Those mistakes are what keeps Chipper coming back year after year after year after year after year after year after year after year and so on.

Will

February 20th, 2012
1:30 pm

Why doesn’t this community support this team anymore?

Steve

February 20th, 2012
1:32 pm

They do Will. The negative people on here just have issues or are just “glass half empty” type of people. I am willing to bet they still follow the team very closely.

BRAVESNATION4EVER

February 20th, 2012
1:33 pm

Free-agent signings don’t win Fall Classics all the time DC,especially when you look at the 1997 and the 2003 marlins and the the 2010 giants so the BRAVES are totally capable of winning the World Series in 2012 and it should be zero surprise to anyone,especially BRAVES fans if or when they win it all in 2012 because having zero star power has had and will have will power to win in October,for example the marlins and the giants 1997,2003,and 2010 and it may even be the BRAVES in 2012.GO BRAVES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

George Stein

February 20th, 2012
1:33 pm

This team should compete for a WC again this year because, assuming they’re healthy, no one is catching Philadelphia with their pitching.

The manager continues to be a problem, though.

Marteen is a Ballplayer

February 20th, 2012
1:33 pm

For everyone on here demanding that the Braves should have made a big-offseason move after getting Uggla and Bourne last year, where do you suggest they get it? I am being serious. I will concede that Shortstop is a mighty big gamble, but there are not a whole lot of versatile shortstops out there…and the ones that are/were available would have commanded four or five year deals while the Braves have two up and coming shortstops in the minors that are almost as hyped as Heyward and Freeman were.

A bat for the outfield? Are you going to platoon him? You aren’t supplanting Bourn. So your options are to give up on Heyward or to bench Prado and leave one of our most versatile players riding the bench except when Chipper is out. It is easy when money is not an issue, but outside of five teams in baseball, most clubs must work within the payroll. I am not a big supporter of Liberty Media but they do give us $90M + to work with. So we have Chipper making $13M and Prado making, what, $4M? So to get an outfield bat of any substance, you would have to essentially pay a combined for $17M for a third-baseman/bat-off the bench combo, along with at least $6M to $7M for any left fielder of any substance. It just doesn’t make sense.

Once Chipper retires, Bourn doesn’t re-up, or Heyward flops…whichever of the three happens first, the Braves will invest in a big outfield bat. Until then, it is what it is.

Sonny Clusters

February 20th, 2012
1:37 pm

Having a third baseman that wears grandmother athletic shoes (those little black orthopedic shoes popular amont the grandmother set) is going to be embarrassing this season. We read that Mizuno has made a deal to supply Chipper with some special shoes to help him with his tender feet and toes and heels and ankles and that hammer toes is something that should slow him down a little but not stop him. We was always in favor of getting a younger third baseman ready just in case sometime in May an unfortunate flu-like illness or perhaps a tweak or a twinge or a pull or a tear or a burp or a fart should render Chipper useless for a few days or weeks. Now, people tell us we are too hard on Chipper just like Ward was sometimes too hard on the Beaver, but we have been watching him for a long time and we don’t think he’s going to lead the team to a championship anytime soon.

Marteen is a Ballplayer

February 20th, 2012
1:42 pm

Sonny, Chipper isn’t going to lead us to a Championship with his bat, but he is still one of the most reliable third-baseman in the game when he is healthy and a clubhouse leader outside of that. Whether or not that is worth $13M is a different argument, but to come on here and beat up on Chipper who is going to be a 1st Ballot HOF is embarrassing…especially considering he had every opportunity to play anywhere he wanted for years, but elected to be one of the few players in the modern game to stick with his team, volunteer to play left field, take deferred payments on his contract…all for the good of the team.

But c’mon…it is easier to make fun of him for playing with the pain and injuries, to bring up the Hooters thing a decade after it happened, and more or less blame him for all the ills of the team.

Outside of the Hooters incidient over a decade ago, can anyone name one time Chipper has embarrassed the club with his behavior?

Jake

February 20th, 2012
1:43 pm

Mark “…The new hitting coaches hopefully will make a difference but if we have 5 starters that are only allowed to throw 5 innings a piece then the bullpen will be dead by August.”

I agree with Mark. If the Braves keep utilizing their bullpen without letting the starters stay out there for at least through 6-7 innings, look forward to a repeat of last year when it counts the most in August. It’s time to change your strategy guys.

ChrisN

February 20th, 2012
1:44 pm

I think the Phillies will win the division, and the Braves, Nats, and Fish will fight it out for second. But I don’t believe second in the NL East will win the wild card. The schedule is just too tough. Not only is the unbalanced NL schedule a disadvantage (the teams in the NL East will be beating each other up instead of taking advantage of weaker teams in the Central and West); the interleage rotation pits the NL East against the AL East this year. That means series against Boston, Tampa Bay, and the Yankees (in the Braves’ case, TWICE against the Yanks). That doesn’t set up well for a team from the NL East winning the Wild Card.

DEBravesFan

February 20th, 2012
1:46 pm

You people are hilarious. Heyward had one bad year. ONE! You are now already to cast him off as worthless. He is still a kid. He is actually younger than me(I am 23). Just let the guy play. He was doing fine for a while until injuries crashed into him and slower him down. Same goes for Prado. As far as Pastornicky let the kid play before you judge. Stats do not tell everything. As far as the errors, Minor league fields are not receive the same maintenance that the major league fields do. They are not as bad as Little League but they are not top notch. The scoring is also a little harsher in the minors from my experience. Just let the kids play.