After going 163 games in 2010 and suffering a Mets-esque fall in 2011 (although the fact that the Braves weren’t leading the division somehow makes it seem less painful) 2012 is a year full of expectation for Braves fans. However, one thing is for sure: the NL East suddenly has become a lot more competitive with the free-spending Marlins throwing their wallet at every free agent that moves and the Nationals potentially about to move Bryce Harper into their lineup.
Onward with our five questions then.
Will Jason Heyward recover?
Stats never lie, and J-Hey’s 2011 had all the hallmarks of a classic sophomore slump. After a respectable .376 wOBA in 2010, he fell to a mark of .314 in 2011. The issue was both contact and power as he struggled with a dud shoulder for much of the year. As the slump set in, he tried to force contact at the plate and ended up striking out too often. His Achilles’ heel was pitches outside the zone, where he had a 28.3 percent swing rate compared to 23.3 percent in 2010.
Wind the clock back a couple of years and Heyward had superstar potential. In fact, going into 2010 he was Baseball America’s top prospect. That year, he showed enough potential in the bigs to suggest he has what it takes to be a regular All-Star.
The good news is he’s still very young. Heyward turned 22 in August, and that makes him younger that many of the top hitting prospects expected to get playing time this year like Brett Jackson and Devin Mesoraco. The other factor that hurt J-Hey last year was a precipitous drop in BABIP from .335 to .260, and that should rebound somewhat. Factor in an xBABIP of .315, and 2011 suddenly is a .365 wOBA-type season.
As a result, his projections going into 2012 are good. Oliver pegs him at .274/.367/.475 with 20 homers. My view is that line feels a little conservative. Given the Braves’ lack of power in general, Heyward needs to deliver if the Braves are going to play deep into October.
Can the 2012 bullpen replicate the success of last year?
In 2011, the Braves bullpen was lights out—well, at least until the last couple of weeks of the season. Even with that little slip, the Eric O’Flaherty-Jonny Venters-Craig Kimbrel combination was among the best shutdown end-game in the bigs. Can the young trio maintain its form into 2012?
One issue that potentially plagued Kimbrel & Co. was overuse. Kimbrel hurled 77 innings while Venters notched up 88—that’s a lot for two hard-throwing young relievers. The projections for 2012 are strong. Venters is expected to have a FIP in the high twos, while the expectation is that Kimbrel will be substantially better. On paper, that makes for a lights-out bullpen again in 2013.
Perhaps the biggest question is mental. Time and again we’ve seen young relievers have a couple of bad high-leverage outings that then go on to affect the rest of their careers. Joey Devine anyone? Of course, comparing Devine to Kimbrel may be akin to comparing Kraft cheese slices with a fine French Brie.
Kimbrel has a powerful fastball/slider combination and over 97 career innings, he has struck out 167 batters. The biggest change is his command as he has slashed his walks-per-nine innings from 5.7 in Triple-A to 3.7 last year in the majors. The key to a successful 2012 is ensuring his command stays strong.
Can Tommy Hanson remain healthy?
One reason the Braves fell away in 2011 is because Hanson spent quite a bit of time on the DL hampered by a sore shoulder. The reports for 2012 so far are positive, but reality won’t hit until Hanson has thrown in anger, which won’t be before Opening Day. Also, it is one thing to be healthy at the start of the season, but the big question is durability. A baseball season is 162 games, so if the Braves are to contend, Hanson will need to pitch deep into September.
Pitcher health is always difficult to predict, but Hanson has had a history of (minor) ailments. In 2010, he struggled with back pain as a result of a deviated facet joint. The Braves’ belief is that the back injury contributed to the shoulder problem as he adjusted his mechanics slightly. In the offseason, Hanson has worked on a comprehensive strengthening program that he hopes will fix both issues.
However, if history is a guide, the odds are that Hanson won’t be able to stay healthy all 2012. However, despite not adding anyone this offseason, the one advantage the Tomahawks have in 2012 over 2011 is a much deeper pitcher bench as some of the elite pitchers in the minor leagues become big-league ready. Braves uber-prospects like Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and Randall Delgado are all waiting in the wings if any of the starters end up on the DL.
Can Chipper Jones still be productive?
At 39 years old, Chipper is certainly in the twilight of his career. Indeed, this is likely his penultimate season in the majors as his contract is up at the end of 2013. A few days ago, a rather unflattering photo of Chipper doing his best Prince Fielder impression was flying around the Internet, casting doubt on his ability to keep it together. Jones responded that he’s in the better shape than he was this time last year, having dropped 10 pounds—now weighing a svelte 225.
The expectation is that Jones will be fortunate to play in 120 games this year; over the last two seasons, he’s averaged 110 games and about 450 plate appearances. Over the same time period, he has averaged a .350 wOBA, implying there is little doubt he’ll be productive. However, it is worrying that he is one the better hitters in the lineup, since he’s not expected to be there full-time.
Given Chipper’s career history, it is little surprise that the projection systems converge around a consistent forecast, with the expectation is that he’ll continue to deliver a .350 wOBA in 2012 and around 14 home runs. Arguably, the bigger issue is health.
Since 2005, Jones has only really had one injury-free season (in 2009 when he racked up close to 600 plate appearances). In a way, he’s been fortunate that he has only suffered niggles, but those add up and wear down the body. Chipper’s projection doesn’t feel to have much upside, but it could have a lot of downside. Let’s hope the Braves don’t need to rely on his bat too much.
What will be the final pecking order in the NL East?
As mentioned at the top of the article, the NL East will be among the toughest divisions in baseball this year. The Phillies still have a star-studded rotation and will contend, the Marlins have upgraded significantly, and the Nationals have Stephen Strasburg back full time and Bryce Harper potentially about to enter the fray.
A quick look at Vegaswatch gives us some over/unders. Vegas has the Phillies at 96 wins (incidentally, the best in baseball), the Braves at 86, the Marlins at 83, the Nationals on the line at 81 and the Mets at 75. Vegas also predicts the first NL Wild Card winner will log 87 wins, so Atlanta is a genuine contender, especially with a second Wild Card coming to fruition this year.
We need to be careful with win projections, and particularly Vegas lines, which have a tendency to reflect betting patterns. The standard deviation of team wins is around eight, which is large enough to make drawing conclusions a fool’s game. That issue aside, the Braves are a young and improving team, and they should have learned a lot from last year’s meltdown.
Dropping Derek Lowe while moving a few of the young arms into the rotation will improve the pitching, and there is no reason to expect the pen will be anything other than the “blue screen of death” for opponents. The big question is batting and, frankly, I’m not sure it can be much worse than last year. The Phillies likely will remain out of reach, but I’d bet my second house that the Braves make October ball.