Every day this week, Philthy Stuff will be taking a look at each of the teams in the National League East, as they look to unseat the Philadelphia Phillies. Next up, the Atlanta Braves.
For Atlanta Braves fans, the final week -- heck, the final month -- of the 2011 season was one great big nightmare. Despite starting the month of September with an 8.5-game lead in the wild card, they managed to squander it away, thanks to a 9-18 record in their final 27 games, culminating with a 4-3 loss (to the Phillies) on the final game of the season that started with a blown save by Craig Kimbrel, and ended with the Braves missing the postseason.
It was truly a bitter pill to swallow for the Braves, who, not less than a decade earlier, were as good a bet as any to make the postseason. These days, though, their destiny is a bit more muddled. Despite having a nice enough rotation, a great bullpen, and an offense that can get the job done, it's an uphill battle.
The starting rotation, which seems to always be a strength for the Braves, has some question marks. Staff ace Tim Hudson, who posted a 3.22 ERA in 215 innings in 2011, figures to miss the first month of the season, as he continues to recover from off-season back surgery. Behind him is right-hander Jair Jurrjens, young righty Tommy Hanson, who is tooling with a new delivery after dealing with shoulder soreness last season, righty Brandon Beachy and either left-hander Mike Minor, righty Randall Delgado or righty Julio Teheran for the final spot.
It's not the Braves rotation of old, but it is certainly one of the deepest in the National League, and one that gets even deeper when you consider the Braves' bullpen, which consists of shutdown closer Kimbrel (46 saves in 2011 despite blowing it against the Phils in the finale), a pair of strong lefties Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty, as well as young righties Kris Medlen and Cristhian Martinez.
The 'pen is definitely a strength of the Braves, and it will be telling to see how the guys at the back end -- specifically Kimbrel and Venters -- respond to being used so heavily last season.
On offense, the Braves will be seeing the last of third baseman Chipper Jones in 2012, as the veteran has announced his retirement following the season. While his career has certainly warranted him a spot in the Hall of Fame, his injury history and inability to stay on the field (he will miss Opening Day due to recent arthroscopic knee surgery) could profoundly affect the Braves' offense this year.
Rounding out the infield is (likely) the young, light-hitting Tyler Pastornicky at shortstop, slugger Dan Uggla and second, and 22-year-old Freddie Freeman at first who looks to improve upon his rookie campaign, where he hit 21 homers and hit with a line of .282/.346/.448. Behind the plate is the always reliable Brian McCann, who will continue to be among the best offensive catchers in the game.
In the outfield, the Braves will be led by the dynamic Jason Heyward in right field, who should rebound from a rough 2011, as well as the speedy Michael Bourn in center, and the solid Martin Prado in left.
All in all, it's a solid offense to go along with a good rotation and a great bullpen. They do have injury concerns among their offense and rotation, but that shouldn't make the Braves any less of a contender in 2012.
My Prediction: On paper, the Braves look very, very good. They can pitch, and they can hit well enough, but Jones' durability is a concern, and they need Heyward to bounce back from a brutal 2011 campaign. They should fare well in the now-strong National League East, but expect the Braves to come in second or third place.