Hot Lanta - Braves

Braves and Red Sox fans can commisserate with each other during spring training this year over who had the biggest collapse of the 2011 season.  The Braves have not done much to improve their lineup and appear to be relying on youth to get them back in the playoffs in 2012.  Shortstop and starting pitching should see rookies.  The Braves have already traded Derek Lowe and are now talking about trading Jair Jurrjens or Tommy Hanson, two of their better young pitchers to make room for even younger versions.  That is normally not the talk of a team looking to make the playoffs, but their young pitchers are certainly talented.

General Overview - The veteran starting pitchers are question marks with Tim Hudson’s back, the knees of Jair Jurrjens and the shoulder of Tommy Hanson.  If those pitchers do not bounce back from their injuries then there will be a lot of reliance on young arms to get them through the 2012 season.  They also allowed Alex Gonzalez to leave via free agency and appear willing to turn the shortstop job over to rookie Tyler Pastornicky, who has yet to play a major league game.  That worked for Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman for their rookie seasons, but they had more hope and prospect status than Tyler.

Why They Will Win: Jason Heyward has too much talent not to bounce back from his poor second year performance.  Perhaps the first year came too easy for him and he got complacent for his sophmore season.  They had a hole in centerfield for most of the year last year, but the 2012 season should see Michael Bourne patrol the pasture for the full year in 2012.  He provides stellar defense and a leadoff bat that they missed most of last year.  Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla will launch balls out of the park with great regularity.  Brian McCann is still one of the best catchers in the National League.  They may also gain by subtraction with the departure of Derek Lowe.  It is possible they may have made the playoffs in 2011 if they didn’t rely so much on Lowe to bounce back from his already poor season and instead should have turned the rotation spot over to one of their younger pitchers.  Craig Kimbrel is one of the best closers in baseball.  They also have some dynamite setup men in Johnny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty.  It will be hard for Eric to repeat his 0.98 ERA.

Why They Won’t Win: A combination of youth and injuries will prevent them from reaching their peak.  The young pitching is some of the best prospects in the minor leagues, but as we have seen from the Orioles and other teams, sometimes it takes time for young pitchers to get acclimated to the major leagues.  Chipper Jones is not the third baseman he once was.  The Braves will be fortunate to get 100 starts out of him.  The Braves might be better off platooning Jose Constanza and Matt Diaz out in left field and putting Martin Prado at third.  Prado is not a very good fit in left field.  There is not a lot of talented position depth if injuries should fell a starter for significant time.

Prospects to Make Roster: The Braves picked up Jack Wilson as insurance if Tyler Pastornicky struggles during spring and shows that he needs another year of seasoning before being given a major league rotation spot.  Brandon Hicks was the heir apparent as shortstop for the 2011 season but he hit only .048 in limited major league at bats.  Tyler can only hope to do better than that.  Arodys Vizcaino is one of the pitchers competing for the fifth spot in the rotation.  He should make the team in the bullpen, where he was used the end of last year, so the battle will be between Mike Minor, Randall Delgado or Julio Teheran.

Long Range Prospects: Most of their top prospects are in High A or below.  Other than the pitchers and shortstop, there should not be a lot of youth in the lineup, but those are two of the more critical positions in the lineup.  Christian Bethancourt could see some time if injuries play havoc on the Braves catching corp and he does well in the minor leagues, rising up two levels.

Significant Transactions: They didn’t get a lot when they traded Derek Lowe to the Indians.  They acquired lefthanded pitcher Chris Jones, a fringe minor league prospect.  They also signed shortstop insurance in Jack Wilson if Tyler Pastornicky does not do well.  Otherwise they have been pretty silent in the transcation columns.

Expected Finish:Unless baseball expands the wild card to two spots, the Braves will fall short this year.  They will finish third, just ahead of the Marlins.

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