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