NL East Preview…Atlanta Braves

Last season the Braves returned to playoff form after a disappointing late season collapse in 2011. The 2012 Atlanta Braves went 94-68 finishing second in the division behind the Nationals.  They earned a wild card spot but were beat in a one game playoff by the Cardinals. The Braves are looking to build off last years success and will be one of  three teams in the NL east slugging it out for a playoff spot.

Offseason
Atlanta had one of the most notable offseasons of any team in the league. Chipper Jones decided to hang it up after 19 seasons in the league. And even though I’m sure the Braves will miss the present of the future Hall of Famer the retirement of Chipper marks their transition to a younger talented team. Atlanta made their first big offseason splash via free agency when they signed B.J. Upton to a five year $75 million deal. But one Upton wasn’t enough for the Braves and after hearing the rumblings out of Arizona that Justin Upton was possibly on the block the Atlanta set their sights on B.J.’s brother(the better Upton). The trade was a seven player deal that sent Martin Prado and four minor players to the Diamondbacks and in return the Braves got Justin Upton and Chris Johnson.

Line up                                                       Rotation
1) A.Simmons SS                                     1) T. Hudson
2) J. Heyward RF                                     2)P. Maholm
3)J. Upton LF                                           3)K. Medlen
4)F. Freeman 1B                                       4)M. Minor
5)B. Upton CF                                          5)J. Teheran
6)D. Uggla 2B
7)C. Johnson 3B
8) B. McCann C

Starting Pitching
If there is a question mark on this team it would be the Braves pitching.  But it’s more of a big “if” then a big “question mark”. Tim Hudson has been solid in the last three years even though his ERA last year was a little more inflated then usual at 3.62. Still not bad but the third highest of his career. Brandon Beachy is trying to make a come back from Tommy Johns surgery by mid season. Beachy was the Braves most consistent pitcher last year before getting injured. Paul Maholm will fill the void while Beachy’s rehabbing. The next three pitchers will decide whether this staff is good or dominant. Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran are all young and highly talented. Medlen started the 2012 season in the bullpen in an attempt to limit the amount if innings pitched in his first season back post Tommy Johns surgery. He joined the starting rotation on July 31 and proceeded to go  9–0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts. Mike Minor got off to a tough start last year but pick it up in the second half going 6-4, with a 2.16 ERA in 14 starts. Teheran is a rookie but he is the Braves top prospect, he had a very good spring  and is expected to be in the conversation for rookie of the year. If these young pitchers meet or exceed expectations this rotation will be scary.

Bullpen
The bullpen is one of the best in baseball and is anchored by their closer Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel won rookie of the year in 2011 and finish fifth in Cy Young voting last year after going 3-1 with 42 saves and a sick ERA of 1.01. They also added depth by trading Tommy Hanson to the Angels straight up for Jordan Walden. Eric O’Flaherty followed his breakout season of 2011 with another solid campaign in 2012. Jonny Venters will be shut down for four weeks to receive a platelet-rich plasma injection in his left elbow. Venters struggled last season after a huge 88 inning work load in 2011 and it may be catching up with the 28 year old. Atlanta’s bullpen will be fine until Venters returns.

Lineup
With the addition of the Upton brothers the Braves lineup got younger and better. Justin Upton has five years experience and is only 25 years old. He has had some statistically goods years like in 2011 when he batted .289 with 31 HR’s and 88 RBI’s. But most people feel he hasn’t had his real breakout year yet because  his potential is so high most thinks he just hasn’t met it yet. I’ve never been a big B.J. Upton fan. He shows the tools to do everything well but only put all together one season in 2007.  Since then he has consistently stole bases and scored runs but after 2008 he hasn’t hit above .250. From 2008 his power has fluctuated with HR totals as low as 11 and as high as 28. When you sign a player to a big contract you want consistency but B.J. hasn’t shown that over his career. Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward both have played 3 season already and both are still only 23 years old. Heyward has the potential to have 30 steals and 30 HR’s. He ended his 2012 season with 27 HR’s and 21 steal and a gold glove. Freeman has 30 HR potential and could be poised for a breakout year. Andrelton Simmons isn’t the offensive threat the next four or five guys behind him in lineup are but plays good defense at short. You know what you will get from Dan Uggla, a second baseman with pop but will strike out a ton. Brian McCann had an injury-plagued season which caused him to have a career low in batting average (.230) and he played in 121 games which was his lowest total since 2005. McCann had shoulder surgery and is expected to start a rehab assignment April 16th at the earliest. Gerald Laird and Evan Gattis will man the backstop in his absences.

Overview
Atlanta will be in the playoff mix at the end of the year. They have all the talent they need to go deep into the postseason. What the question seems to be is whether their youth will work to their advantage or detriment. Most of them are on the upward trajectory of their careers and they are expected to the reach that next level of production. If they meet or exceed expectations the Braves will be able to hang with anyone in the league. If not they will be in a battle to make the postseason.

Record
88-74 Third place

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