March Madness- 30 teams in 30 Days. 2012 MLB Season Preview: Atlanta Braves

Continuing the series with:

Team: Atlanta Braves

Manager: Fredi Gonzalez

2011 Record: 89-73

Playoff Result: No playoffs

Top Player: Brian McCann (4.2 WAR)

What happened last season: Overshadowed by the media hoopla surrounding the collapse of the Boston Red Sox was how the Atlanta Braves fell apart at the end of the 2011 season. The Braves were not as hyped up as much as the Red Sox had been during the year, but they were considered one of the elite teams in the majors.  All season, they were forced to chase the Philadelphia Phillies for the NL East division crown.

The Braves, like the Phillies, boasted one of the best pitching staffs in all of baseball.  The overall staff finished fourth in the National League in ERA, but the true strength lied in the bullpen. Led by NL Rookie of the Year closer Craig Kimbrel (2.10 ERA, 46 saves, 181 ERA+, 14.8 K/9) and assassin lefties Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters, the Braves easily finished with the best reliever ERA in baseball. But more importantly, they established a deadly 1-2-3 punch that on most nights shortened the game to six innings.

The Braves rode the success of these reliever as well as a solid rotation filled with veterans (Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe) and youth (Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson, Mike Minor) and entered the month of September at 80-55 and had an 8.5 game lead in the wild card chase with division title hopes still alive.

What went wrong? The Braves simply stopped hitting. The team had already been victims of inconsistency and health, particularly the important pieces of the lineup, Jason Heyward, Dan Uggla, Chipper Jones, Martin Prado, and Brian McCann. A deadline deal for Astros CF Michael Bourn could not stop the bleeding, as the team would hit a horrid .235/.300/.357/.657 line during a month in which they would go 9-18, including a season ending five game losing streak. The collapse eliminated the Braves and got the eventual World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals into the postseason.

What they did in the offseason: Unlike the previous offseason when second baseman Dan Uggla was acquired from the Marlins and Fredi Gonzalez replaced Bobby Cox as the manager, the Braves were relatively quiet during the winter. They were finally able to unload the contract of Derek Lowe, who struggled during his three years in Atlanta. Another major move made was the return of the cream colored jerseys from their time in Milwaukee and the early days in Atlanta. The team also promoted shortstop Tyler Pastornicky and expect him to be the starter for 2012. He is the latest product of one of the best minor league systems in all of baseball.

Projected starting lineup and rotation:

Catcher: Brian McCann

First Base: Freddie Freeman

Second Base: Dan Uggla

Third Base: Chipper Jones

Shortstop: Tyler Pastornicky

Left Field: Martin Prado

Center Field: Michael Bourn

Right Field: Jason Heyward

Rotation:

RHP Tommy Hanson

RHP Tim Hudson (upon return)

RHP Jair Jurrjens

LHP Brandon Beachy

LHP Mike Minor

Closer: Craig Kimbrel

Outlook for 2012: Despite the disastrous ending to last season, the Atlanta Braves should continue to be one of the elite teams in the National League. They still boast a loaded bullpen. Their rotation should continue to be a strength, although ace Tim Hudson will miss the first month of the season due to rehab following back surgery. The team is mixed with experienced veterans (Hudson, McCann, Jones) as well as a cast of rising stars (Heyward, Freeman, Beachy, Kimbrel) and this balance should lead to success in 2012.

Regular Season Predicition: 95-67, NL Wild Card

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