Philadelphia, PA – The Atlanta Braves entered last September in prime position to reach the playoffs for a second straight season.
They ended the month, and their season, on a five-game losing streak and one game out of the National League Wild Card position.
That collapse has put a big chip on the shoulder of this year's Atlanta squad, which enters its second season under manager Fredi Gonzalez following Bobby Cox's retirement. The Braves could have used the experience of their former manager down the stretch as they held an 8 1/2-game lead for the league's extra playoff spot with 23 games to play.
However, a three-game sweep in Philadelphia started things on a downward spiral, but Atlanta still led the wild card race by three games with five to play. They lost all five, two in Washington and the final three at home to the Phillies. A victory on the season's final day would have forced a tiebreaker with the eventual World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.
The Braves lost 4-3 in extra innings.
Offense was once again a struggle for the Braves in 2011. Despite better-than- expected seasons out of rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman and switch-hitter Chipper Jones, who will turn 40 on April 24 and announced he will retire at season's end, Atlanta was near the bottom of the league with a .243 average and scored just 641 runs. The Braves were also forced into 55 one-run games, going 29-26.
In his first season with the Braves, second baseman Dan Uggla got off to a terrible start before ending his first campaign with the club very strong, and sophomore outfield Jason Heyward struggled all season long. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez also hit under .250, but the Braves opted to let him walk as a free agent.
In fact, replacing Gonzalez with rookie Tyler Pastornicky marks the only significant change to the Braves. They also cleared some salary by dealing veteran starter Derek Lowe to Cleveland and declining a 2012 option on outfielder Nate McLouth, but the Braves decided against adding any impact players over free agency.
General manager Frank Wren was awarded that luxury thanks to a talented young core that includes Pastornicky, closer Craig Kimbrel and a host of youthful arms to battle for spots in the rotation. Gonzalez will also get to pencil in center fielder Michael Bourn into his leadoff position all season after the Braves got the speedster and upcoming free agent from the Astros last season for prospects.
Gonzalez said he isn't worried about last year's finish having an impact on the 2012 season, but a slow start in April could cause a panic in Atlanta.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Braves, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (89-73) - Second Place (NL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: None
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Derek Lowe (RHP), Alex Gonzalez (SS), Nate McLouth (OF), George Sherrill (LHP), Scott Linebrink (RHP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Michael Bourn (CF), Martin Prado (LF), Chipper Jones (3B), Brian McCann (C), Dan Uggla (2B), Freddie Freeman (1B), Jason Heyward (RF), Tyler Pastornicky (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Jair Jurrjens (RHP), Tommy Hanson (RHP), Tim Hudson (RHP), Brandon Beachy (RHP), Mike Minor (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Craig Kimbrel (RHP)
MANAGER: Fredi Gonzalez
WHAT WILL THE BRAVES GET OUT OF HEYWARD, PRADO AND FREEMAN?
No player has more riding on the 2012 season than Heyward, who the Braves entertained trading this offseason before opting to stick with the 22-year old right fielder. That was a shocking turn for Heyward, who appeared to be the future of the Braves' offense after hitting .277 with 18 homes and 71 runs batted in over 142 games as a rookie in 2010.
Heyward, though, slumped badly as a sophomore, hitting only .227 with 14 homers and 42 RBI in 128 games while striking out 93 times to 51 walks. Heyward never seemed to get on track following an early-season shoulder injury.
Heyward will be working with a new hitting coach in Greg Walker, who replaces the fired Larry Parrish after serving in the same role with the White Sox for the previous 8 1/2 seasons.
Walker will also look to get Martin Prado back on track. Prado made the move to the outfield full time after the Braves acquired Uggla, but hit just .260 in 129 games while missing time with a staph infection. A 2010 All-Star, Prado had hit .307 in each of the previous two seasons.
It wasn't all bad for Atlanta's offense though. Uggla was hitting just .173 on July 4 before putting together an Atlanta-record 33-game hitting streak on the way to hitting a career-high 36 homers. Freeman also put together an excellent rookie campaign, batting .282 with 21 homers in 157 games.
The pressure will be on Freeman again, especially if Heyward continues to struggle. A similar sophomore slump for the first baseman could torpedo Atlanta's offense again this season.
WILL GONZALEZ LIMIT HIS BULLPEN ANCHORS EARLY ON?
Gonzalez did a lot of things right in his first year replacing Cox, but he may have leaned on his outstanding bullpen trio a little too often.
Kimbrel set a major league rookie record with 46 saves and was a 2011 All-Star along with left-hander Jonny Venters, who had an excellent 1.84 earned run average in his second big-league season.
Fellow southpaw Eric O'Flaherty was just as solid with a 0.98 ERA, but all three relievers ranked in the top five in appearances. Venters, in fact, led baseball with 85 appearances, with Kimbrel and O'Flaherty logged 79 and 78 respectively.
It all came to a head on the regular season's final day, with Kimbrel blowing a save to cap his NL Rookie of the Year season in disappointing fashion.
Venters, meanwhile, had a 5.11 ERA in 13 appearances in September.
Those late-season struggles may cause Gonzalez to limit the trio's appearances early. Playing in fewer close games would also help.
HOW MANY STARTS WITH THE BRAVES GET OUT OF THEIR PROJECTED FIVE?
Not only will Gonzalez have to juggle his bullpen better, but he'll need to keep an eye on the health of his starters. The skipper will be tested right off the bat with right-hander Tim Hudson expected to miss the first month of the season recovering from back surgery.
Not only that, but Tommy Hanson was involved in a one-car accident during the spring that resulted in the right-hander suffering a mild concussion. It was the latest setback for one of Atlanta's top pitching prospects, who was limited to 22 starts because of a shoulder issue.
Hanson had a 2.44 ERA in 17 first-half games, but struggled to an 8.10 ERA in five starts following the All-Star break.
Righty Jair Jurrjens, who also saw his name appear in trade rumors this offseason, suffered a similar setback, putting together an excellent 12-3 record and 1.87 ERA in 16 starts prior to the All-Star Game before going 1-3 with a 5.88 ERA in seven second-half starts while battling a right knee issue.
The duo will look to stay healthy in 2012, but the Braves do have plenty of options if needed. Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor should also begin the season in the rotation, while top pitching prospect Julio Teheran and highly-regarded righty Randall Delgado are ready to step in after getting a taste of the majors last year.
Teheran is ranked as the fourth-best prospect in baseball according to MLB.com, while Delgado is 42nd.
X-FACTOR: TYLER PASTORNICKY, SS
With two solid shortstops in their system, the Braves let Gonzalez walk and didn't pursue a big name in free agency like Jimmy Rollins or Jose Reyes. Instead, the Braves will go with 22-year-old Tyler Pastornicky on Opening Day in the hopes he can hold his own at the big league level.
Expected to bat in the eighth spot, Pastornicky hit .365 in 27 games with Triple-A Gwinnett after hitting .299 at the Double-A level. Defense could be some concern as Pastornicky committed 26 errors in 117 games a season ago.
To help with the transition, the Braves re-signed veteran Jack Wilson to help and mentor the young shortstop. Wilson worked with Pastornicky during the offseason and sees a lot of talent in the 2008 draft pick.
The Braves could once again be their own worst enemy in 2012. The club has all the tools to be contenders in the National League, especially with the inclusion of the second wild card, but needs to stay healthy and get bounce- back seasons from some players. With Jones not getting any younger and probably not going to be able to play every day -- in fact he will open the season on the DL due to knee surgery -- it will be up to Uggla, Prado and Heyward to help catcher Brian McCann out with the offense. Atlanta is in a better spot should injuries again hamper the rotation and will be a tough team to beat late if the trio of Kimbrel, Venters and O'Flaherty can come even close to matching last year's production. Fatigue seemed to be Atlanta's biggest obstacle in reaching the playoffs last year and it will be up to Gonzalez to make sure his team has learned the lesson. If the manager can do that, expect the Braves to be in the hunt for a wild card.