Why the stand-pat Braves soon might stand atop the NL East

Brothers in bash: Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman. (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

The new brothers of bash? Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman. (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

The collapse of September? It was, to invoke the word immediately and permanently attached, epic. But here’s the part of the 2011 season that was lost in the rubble: Despite going 8-19 in September, despite not hitting a lick all summer, the Braves still won 89 games.

A new season is at hand, and the Braves haven’t changed much. Some folks can’t understand why the roster wasn’t gutted, but here’s why: The 2011 team had to fall apart as completely as any team had ever fallen apart — 10 minutes later, the Boston Red Sox usurped that throne of shame — not to make the playoffs. As bad as they were in September, the Braves needed only to win two of their final five games to grab the wild card, and the National League wild-card winner wound up taking the World Series.

Is it outrageous to suggest that, with a bit more hitting, the 2012 Braves should win at least 90 games? (The mix-and-match melange of 2010 won 91, so that’s kind of the new baseline. Pardon the pun.) Is it unreasonable to speculate that the Phillies, who will be without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley until who knows when, won’t win 102 this time? Is it a flight of fancy to posit that the Braves are closer now to finishing atop the NL East than at any time since their reign of excellence subsided in 2006?

My answers: No, no and no. My reasons:

Better bats: The National League batting average for 2011 was .253; the Braves hit .243. Good hitters fell into deep slumps that became bad habits, and one-and-done hitting coach Larry Parrish was at a loss to offer assistance. The Braves now have two hitting coaches, each of whom should be better than Parrish. We aren’t apt to see a player of Dan Uggla’s portfolio hitting .185 through the All-Star break ever again, and someday we’ll look back at Jason Heyward’s .227 and ask, “How the heck did that happen?”

This isn’t to say the Braves are going to become the Buckhead Bombers. If you check the composition of the NL East, you’ll note that every team except the Mets, who really don’t count, stood higher in league rankings last season in pitching than in hitting. That doesn’t figure to change. Because these teams pitch so well and play each other so often, nobody figures to hit much. But the Braves have something they’ve lacked for lo these many years, and it’s …

The Bourn benefit: Trading for Michael Bourn was a deadline deal that should have propelled the Braves to the World Series. That it didn’t in 2011 doesn’t mean it can’t in 2012. Bourn is a leadoff hitter with speed, and this team hasn’t had one of those since Rafael Furcal. Does a batting order of Bourn, Martin Prado, Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Uggla, Heyward, Freddie Freeman look lousy on its face? Do you really expect such a lineup to finish 14th among NL entries in on-base percentage a second year running?

And we say again: The Braves don’t have to score in clusters to win. They proved that last season. But let’s say the Braves hit closer to .260 this season than .240: Might they win 95 games? We ask because they do have …

Big-time arms: At the All-Star break, the Braves held the second-lowest ERA in baseball. Injuries to Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson fluffed up that number over the second half, but they still finished fourth overall. Even with its September wobbles, their bullpen wound up being statistically the best in the business.

There’s no guarantee against a sore arm, but plucking Livan Hernandez from the ether offers a bit of insurance. As the Braves learned all too well, Hernandez can throw a big game against anybody anytime. (Usually it has been against the Braves.) Landing Livan is the kind of subtle move that can mean the difference between missing the playoffs by a game and winning the division. Speaking of which …

The NL East is bunching up: The Miami (nee Florida) Marlins and Washington Nationals have upgraded, but there’s no consensus as to which one looks better. Almost everyone is of the opinion that the aging and infirm Phillies will come back to the pack. That doesn’t mean Philly can’t eke out one more division title, but its time as the class of the division is nearing its end.

Chipper Jones says that the East is more balanced than he has ever seen it, and Chipper arrived in the Senior Circuit when the current East was still a sophomore. The Phillies might be too old and the Nationals too young, and the Marlins finished 30 games out of first place (and 17 behind the Braves) last season. In a division in such flux, might the team that chose continuity over change be the one that profits most?

It might. It just might.

By Mark Bradley

132 comments Add your comment

Sonny Clusters

April 4th, 2012
4:57 pm

J.J.M.

April 4th, 2012
4:58 pm

I really love the braves but im just not too excited about them this season

Mark Bradley

April 4th, 2012
4:58 pm

If you’ll note, that word — “clusters” — is included above.

Kudos, for the record.

Sonny Clusters

April 4th, 2012
5:00 pm

“And we say again: The Braves don’t have to score in clusters to win.” – MB

Clusters are going to score if they are in the game. Always have. Always will.

Sonny Clusters

April 4th, 2012
5:04 pm

Yes, we was gratified to see our name in the blog and we won’t soon forget it. When we was little we was written up in The Sporting News for our ability to throw a baseball through the hospital window just after we was born. That was our highlight until today.

We was wondering what you think about Brian Jordan saying that Dan Uggla has “Pop-Pie” arms? We wasn’t sure what to make of that.

wright714

April 4th, 2012
5:04 pm

Hanson and Heyward and the x-factors here. I think so they go…..so go the Braves

matt r

April 4th, 2012
5:07 pm

A tradition unlike any other… the optimism for home teams of Mark Bradley.

Remarkable

April 4th, 2012
5:08 pm

Dan Uggla will be back to his hitting ways, and Jason Heyward is tearing it up. We will have Michael Bourn for the whole season and you can’t tell me that won’t result in a few extra wins. Unlike many, I think that we will miss Chipper in the line up. He is a threat from both sides of the plate and feared by many pitchers for his consistent late inning hitting. I look for a GREAT season and an even better post-season.

richsethhardy

April 4th, 2012
5:09 pm

If you think about it, all the teams in the east have “Ifs” Imo the braves “Ifs” are smallest. I mean the phillies best two players are BIG Ifs. Can the Marlins best pitcher, Josh Johnson, stay healthy? Can Reyes stay healthy? WIll Zambrano, Hanley Ramirez, and Ozzie Guillen all blow up like a nuclear power plant gone wrong? The Nats dont know how to win. The mets suck. All we have to worry about is, will heyward bounce back (almost made playoffs last year with his production non existent) And can hanson and JJ stay healthy. Big concerns, but not compared to what other teams have to worry about

Eisendawg

April 4th, 2012
5:10 pm

Mark, you are the ultimate optimist. Really hope you are right, but it’s a little scary when our team is signing the “Nats” cast-aways.

Hillbilly D

April 4th, 2012
5:11 pm

My 2 ¢

The Phillies won’t be quite as tough, given injuries to Howard and Utley but they should have enough pitching to repeat. The Braves I expect to finish 2nd or 3rd. Washington is gaining ground but they look to still be a year away. Miami may make a run but given some of the personality mix they have, they may just as well implode. The Mets are still the Mets.

So, that’s how it looks now but it remains to be seen how each team will fare against the injury bug. That’s something nobody can predict or control.

RecentWreck

April 4th, 2012
5:12 pm

Good article, Mark, and I for one, appreciate the optimism. I believe it will be Fish, Phils, and Braves between the Division and two WCs, but I’m not sure who falls where. Be interesting to see, and I’m glad we get 162 to sort it out. Go Braves!

Radio GaGa

April 4th, 2012
5:15 pm

I’m with them, but I think there a helluva lot of ifs. The biggest among them are whether Heyward is back and how many games Chipper can play. Prado needs to revert to 2010 form and we can’t afford a sophomore slump from Freeman. And no sore arms among the starters, unless one of them puts Medlin in the rotation where he belongs.

Michael G.

April 4th, 2012
5:22 pm

Loking forward to seeing JJ pitch past August for the 1st time in his career this year.

UGA fans are idiots

April 4th, 2012
5:22 pm

Clusters needs to write for the AJC. MUCH more entertaining.

Robert Barron

April 4th, 2012
5:24 pm

Well reasoned Mark.
2 good hiting coaches to choose from.
Have to like that.

Skeezix

April 4th, 2012
5:25 pm

My confidence has been shattered by last September’s crash. The offense still worries me. Yet, after much thought and to my own surprise, I am predicting the Braves to finish second.

ATLBrave

April 4th, 2012
5:37 pm

Braves will make the playoffs… either division or WC… its how you finish the season…..Cards showed both last year. Braves will not collapse again…. steady wins all season… consistent pitching… with improved bating. which will happen…. takes us to October!!!!!!!!!

blazerdawg

April 4th, 2012
5:37 pm

Love my Bravos, but with a rookie shortstop, I dunno….

KC

April 4th, 2012
5:40 pm

Win it for the Chipper!

extremus

April 4th, 2012
5:51 pm

While I don’t expect the 2012 Braves to be terrible, I just don’t trust what they have on the field enough to expect them to be great, either. Yes, winning the division is possible, and if you get into the playoffs it really is a crapshoot, so your chances are about as good as anybody else’s…but that’s assuming a LOT of things go right AND that you get in.

After last year’s “more heads needed to roll” collapse and with a lot of players already gimpy with injuries this Spring, it’s hard to be overflowing with enthusiasm. I’ll watch them on TV and root for them as always, but I’ll reserve any predictions for after the season, thank you kindly (unlike Mr. Bradley, who may have jinxed the Braves yet again by writing a positively charged column).

ATLBrave

April 4th, 2012
5:52 pm

@blazerdawg

Doesnt matter he is a rookie… maybe Simmons will be playing here after a couple weeks/months if you are worried about defense…..

Offensivly… cant be worse than ole Seabass last year…. hit a lot of rally killing DP balls… w/RISP

Will be fine there… 8 in lineup either way you look at it… will have a solid 1-7..

Sonny Clusters

April 4th, 2012
5:53 pm

Back when we was playing ball we would always pride ourselves in being able to hit behind the runner and we can’t remember ever failing to get a run in from third base if we had a baseball bat in our hands. Seeing all these runners dying out at second and third base makes us sick because those runs could be scoring if the batters would just choke up a little on the bat and put the ball in play instead of raring back on their heels and swinging for the fence. We was thinking the Braves are champions at that and they might want to have some little signs printed up and hung out in the outfield signifying the championship.

John

April 4th, 2012
5:53 pm

Braves will be in the running, but then tale off late due to injuries…. (since they have one of the worst training staffs in baseball) …and burnt out bullpen since starters cannot go more than 5 innings and bullpen gets overworked.

They also play in too many close games due to an inconsistent offense, which also burns out the bullpen.

If you want to see a real championship team, tune in to the Texas Rangers.

Disgusted

April 4th, 2012
5:58 pm

I will believe it when I see it.

Even if they get off to a good satrt (and they should vs the Mets and Astros), that is not going to erase what happened in September.

They will be closer to 4th than first before it is all said and done. This team does not play well in September, remember that they almost choked up in 2010. Had it not been for the maligned Derek Lowe for that one good stretch he had with us, they would have choked that up too.

Bunch of Bums. Born to lose no matter what.

Sonny Clusters

April 4th, 2012
5:59 pm

When we was in school we played on a team with Phlegm Lattimore who was always clearing his throat and making gurgling sounds like he had gerd and that was before they even knew about gerd. Well, the Lattimore’s owned a sign shop in Snellville and they was always making signs and we was thinking they ought to call John Schureholz and see if they can be the Official Sign Maker of the Atlanta Braves because that looks like good money with all the insignificant little signs hanging out in the outfield signifying “Championships” that really aren’t squat. If the Braves do win a pennant we will ask Luscious Lattimore (Phlegm’s sister) if she will donate a sign and let the homeboy see how good it looks and maybe he will change over to Lattimore Signs and Banners and Labels like we did long ago.

bvillebaron

April 4th, 2012
6:08 pm

Excellent article Mark. It never ceases to amaze me how so many people are downgrading the Braves because of their “ifs” and ignore the fact that all of the other competitors in the NL East have as many, if not more, ifs than the Braves.

Moe Leary

April 4th, 2012
6:10 pm

Maybe Livan can tell us how to beat Washington.

ohhhhYEAH

April 4th, 2012
6:12 pm

@ Remarkable

Heyward is anything but “tearing it up.” He hit a few homers this spring, but thats really about it. He didnt get many hits, and didnt walk a whole lot either. Dont exactly call that tearing it up

Bub

April 4th, 2012
6:15 pm

Really? Again with this crap? 2 years ago it was 8 reasons why they won’t squander. Then last year it was they will win the wild card and advance in the playoffs. Now this garbage. 2 teams got better than them. Phillies are slightly weaker. Mets the same and you think this? You’re the biggest homer writing idiot sports writer this paper has ever had.

lanier

April 4th, 2012
6:19 pm

hate to say it but 3rd is the best I can see. hope not but thats it with this team

A Father

April 4th, 2012
6:22 pm

When given the opportunity to bet total strikeouts against the Braves, anything over 8 or 8.5 is a great money maker.

"Chef" Tim Dix

April 4th, 2012
6:22 pm

bvillebaron :

As in Barnesville?

reckingball

April 4th, 2012
6:55 pm

The Braves play to their full potential, they win the 2012 WS.
GO BRAVES!

Larry

April 4th, 2012
7:00 pm

bvillebaron,

One major difference…none of the other teams in our division have such a big “if” at manager.

jfreak13713

April 4th, 2012
7:11 pm

On paper they look good but as we found out last year an injury or two can chage things. What if Heyward doesn’t hit? What if JJ and Hanson continue to have injury issues? What if Freeman has 2nd year slump? What if Prado is just average? Of course what if none of those things happen? Well, the Braves will probably win 95 or more games! Either way I like this team and barring injuries they should be pretty good!

Ten Bears

April 4th, 2012
8:15 pm

Love your stuff MB but gotta disagree with you on this one Pollyana.

27% of the roster tied up in a Cleveland starter and a 40 year old 3rd baseman who had as many knee surgeries as homers this spring.

We have a starter coming off back surgery, another wearing a knee brace and our #1 just changed his delivery.

Had Bourne when it counted last year-got nothing from that

Heyward hasn’t hit since May of 2010 – long slump

The next major league game our shortstop starts will be his first

Sorry, don’t see playoffs stamped on this group

O-my

April 4th, 2012
8:45 pm

Its fun to dream…

Cards have a no-hitter going in 6th against Marlins in their new crib..

joey

April 4th, 2012
8:48 pm

reckingball which mental hospital did you just get out of?

NRBQ

April 4th, 2012
8:55 pm

That we won 89 games last year is sorta miraculous, given that Fredi brought out the hook every game in the fifth inning, and the hitters were sucktastic WRISP.

As Sonny said, nothing will kill you quicker than not hitting with MOB or at least moving the runners over. Except maybe wearing the pen out by August.

Skeezix

April 4th, 2012
8:57 pm

I’ve watched some of the Marlins/Redbirds game. Has anybody seen that thing the Marlins have out in CF? It looks like some kind of big fat totem pole. And what’s with all the lime green paint?
Lohse has a no hitter going through 6.

joey

April 4th, 2012
9:00 pm

no hitter through 7…

Jockich Ahn Smelley, II

April 4th, 2012
9:01 pm

Bradley, you been smoking (and INHALING) the same “stuff” as Bacari and his entourage at UGA?????? The Braves atop the East??? Someone get my crack pipe!!!

Fredi

April 4th, 2012
9:02 pm

I really have no idea what I’m doing.

Skeezix

April 4th, 2012
9:05 pm

They are in the bottom of the seventh now and Lohse just gave up a hit.

joey

April 4th, 2012
9:06 pm

my bad reyes gets 1st hit in 7th.

Mama Clusters

April 4th, 2012
9:21 pm

Sonny! You better getcher beehind of that interwebs and get back ter werkin on them front steps who need fixin. I don’t care what blog you was on.

Rilo

April 4th, 2012
9:25 pm

You’re dreaming. Way too many “if’s” in this lineup. I hope I’m wrong but too many guys will have to play at a much higher level.

jerry

April 4th, 2012
9:31 pm

Don’t forget the ‘80 Dawgs and the ‘95 Braves. You can never tell when the great state of Georgia is going to produce another fluke. But not this year.

STH

April 4th, 2012
10:44 pm

Bradley cmon man. At least schultz bites once in awhile. Did you miss the JS=BS repair the weakness letter? What exactly was repaired? Braves remain in a state of offensive disrepair. Wrens ‘we think as currently constructed’…is tired and empty. There’s 3 guys in the sox or giants fo more qualified to run an mlb team. HOPE is not a strategy. A collapse of that significance requires more. The people that INVEST in the product DESERVE more. And yes FG is clearly overmatched. If you can’t see it, well you’re just to close to the buffett. In case you haven’t surmised, no, I did not renew. Those 110s are available. Enough. Tolerance of mediocrity…

PS Permanently block that idiot rball