Braves sufficiently loaded to make another run
Pitching depth figures to keep club in race for duration of '12
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The 2012 Atlanta Braves look a great deal like the 2011 Atlanta Braves. If we consider only the first five months of last season, that similarity should be immensely encouraging for the current Braves.
Still, these Braves have valid reasons to believe that 2012 will be better than 2011 for them; this time for all six months of the regular season. This club remains a genuine postseason contender, and that includes factoring in an even tougher level of competition in the National League East.
There is still a wealth of pitching talent here, much of it young. There may be pitching staffs with greater reputations than that of the Braves, but there may not be any with greater collective potential than Atlanta's. With this fundamental strength, the Braves can approach each of the season's 162 games with the belief that, at the very least, they will be in the game.
But, but, but. The Braves were part of an epic finish in the last month of the 2011 season. Unfortunately, they played the role of the fall guy. On Aug. 25, they were 79-53, 10 1/2 games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Wild Card berth.
But from that point on, the Braves went 10-20. The Cardinals, meanwhile, caught fire, going 22-9, catching the Braves at the wire, winning the Wild Card by one game, and eventually emerging as World Series champions. This was a comeback for the ages by the Cards, but it was a serious setback for Atlanta, a deeply disappointing end to a season that, the vast majority of the time, had been successful.
True, the Braves were in second place in the NL East when their 2011 demise began, but at the time they had the league's second-best record. At that point, they looked distinctly like a team that nobody would want to face in the postseason.
The Braves looked that way again on Thursday as March began in the warmth of Florida and they worked out at Champion Stadium.
True, the pitcher at the top of the starting rotation, Tim Hudson, will miss perhaps the first month of the regular season as he recovers from successful surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back. But Atlanta's admirable pitching depth should make his absence bearable.
In the home clubhouse, the Braves were discussing the possibility of a second Wild Card team being added to the postseason in both leagues, with a one-game playoff for the two Wild Card teams. Chipper Jones said that, of course, it would be a plus for the Braves' rotation to be lined up so that Hudson could make that start. But if that were not the case, Jones said, it wouldn't be a problem.
"Any of our five [starters] can beat anybody else," Jones said. "We have confidence in all of our guys."
And why not? The Braves had the fourth best team ERA in the Major Leagues last year. They not only have pitching depth on board, they have additional depth in the high Minors. And the Atlanta bullpen features one power arm after another.
The Braves' primary shortcomings in 2011 came in the other halves of innings. They ranked 22nd in the Majors in runs scored. It is fair to say that they should have improved run production this season.
It would not be unreasonable to expect bounce-back seasons from right fielder Jason Heyward and left fielder Martin Prado. Catcher Brian McCann had a 2011 season at the plate that would have been fine for the vast majority of catchers, but it was not up to his standards. And this year, the Braves will have another plus, with Michael Bourn available to patrol center field and steal bases over an entire season, instead of just 53 games.
These expectations for individual improvement lead naturally to the expectation that the Braves as a team will be better.
"We were a pretty good club, in the middle of August we had the third-best record in baseball," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said Thursday. "And we were doing that with a lack of offense. We could probably improve on that. I think that will come with a healthy Prado, a Jason Heyward who is working with his swing and I think will be better than last year. And we'll be better with Michael Bourn for a full year, 162 games of him leading off."
And, the manager said, second baseman Dan Uggla is not likely to start the season in a prolonged slump as he did last year, so his overall offensive numbers should be better than in 2011. "I think for all those reasons, we're going to be better offensively," the manager said.
The Braves will be new at shortstop with rookie Tyler Pastornicky the leading candidate to take over for Alex Gonzalez, who departed in free agency. Gonzalez has been one of the better defensive shortstops in the game for years, but the Braves will not miss the .270 on-base percentage he recorded last year. Pastornicky's offensive numbers improved as he climbed through the Minors.
Now the Braves get on with the task of being the postseason club they firmly believe they are. That means putting last September permanently behind them, way behind them.
"There's no good to keep going back to it, other than every day I've got to answer it," Gonzalez said with a smile. "I'm like the Godfather: I keep trying to get out, and they keep dragging me back in.
"But we're past that. If we go on and come out of Spring Training healthy and have a good start, it'll be even better for us."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.