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Braves look to respond in 2012
The Atlanta Braves made no significant changes to their roster during the offseason, and I understand why: They won 89 games. If Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson had pitched in September … if Brian McCann had slugged better than .384 in the second half … if relievers Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters hadn’t used up their best pitches in July … then the Braves, not the Cardinals, would have won the National League wild card. (And we wouldn’t know that much about David Freese.)
Outside of Chipper Jones and Tim Hudson, the Braves’ core consists of players enjoying (or entering) their prime years. The circumstances weren’t right for general manager Frank Wren to overhaul the roster. I get that.
But as I watched the Braves lose to the Tigers Wednesday — their fourth defeat in five spring games — I mulled over an unsettling question for Atlanta fans.
What if last year’s first half was the aberration?
The Braves entered the 2011 break at 54-38, second only to the Phillies in the National League. They went 35-35 thereafter, in a way that revealed them to be “good” and not “elite.”
Atlanta’s starters posted a 3.73 ERA last year — second-best in the division but well behind Philadelphia. It’s hard to argue that the Braves will have a better rotation this year, with the 36-year-old Hudson set to miss the first month of the regular season after back surgery.
So it will be harder to generate offense in divisional games — something the Braves found challenging enough in 2011, when they ranked in the bottom half of the NL in runs scored. The low output contributed to their appearance in a major-league-leading 26 extra-inning games. That, in turn, cranked up pressure on the still-young Kimbrel and Venters.
The rotation was complicit, too. Rather than ease the workload of Kimbrel, Venters and fellow stalwart Eric O’Flaherty by pitching deep into games, the starters logged only 957 1/3 innings — the fewest of any NL team that finished with a winning record.
The Braves would love to reverse that trend in 2012, but I doubt they will succeed. Hudson was their only 200-inning pitcher last year, and his lost April will make it almost impossible to hit the benchmark in 2012. Derek Lowe finished second on the staff in innings pitched, and he was dealt to Cleveland for salary relief.
So, at least until Hudson returns, the younger starters — Jurrjens, 26; Hanson, 25; Brandon Beachy, 25 — must lead the staff. And it’s unclear if they’re ready for that responsibility.
Hanson, who didn’t pitch after Aug. 6 last year because of shoulder woes, has been delayed this spring by a concussion sustained in a car accident but should be ready for the regular season. Jurrjens, 1-3 with a 5.88 ERA after the All-Star break last year, must demonstrate that he’s moved past the right knee trouble that affected him in the second half. Beachy surrendered four runs in two innings Wednesday, largely because he was unable to finish hitters.
Meanwhile, the moment is drawing near for Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran to turn from prospects into trusted contributors.
“It’s time for guys to step up,” catcher Brian McCann said Wednesday. “Guys go down, it’s an opportunity for somebody. What they do with that opportunity is yet to be seen, but we’re all excited about the arms we do have. We’ve got a lot of pitching depth.”
The top of the batting order is intriguing, because the Braves are getting their first opportunity to see Michael Bourn and a completely healthy Martin Prado hit 1-2 on a regular basis. But there aren’t many sure bets in the everyday lineup — even if we can agree Dan Uggla will hit better than .185 in the first half this year.
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McCann acknowledged he “wasn’t very good” in the second half last year and has adjusted his workout routine to better withstand the rigors of catching.
Not-long-ago sensation Jason Heyward, limited by an injured right shoulder last year, must prove himself again. (When asked if the shoulder is healthy, Heyward replied, “I’m not going to be on the field if it’s not.”) Chipper Jones, almost 40, is sore and hasn’t appeared in a game for several days. Infield defense could become a concern, with Uggla at second and rookie Tyler Pastornicky at shortstop.
It may take some time this year to understand the Braves’ performance last year. Perhaps those 89 wins weren’t a choke at all — but rather the best a flawed team could do.