Pressing Questions: The Atlanta Braves

Scott Pianowski
February 7, 2012

We don't have an exact date on the photo above, but we know it wasn't taken in September of last year. The 2011 Braves put together a monumental choke down the stretch, but the story was partially obscured by the rumbling in the AL East (mmm, that's tasty chicken).

Here's the math of it all: Atlanta had an 8.5-game lead in the NL Wild Card standings into the final month, sitting pretty at 80-55. And that's when the wave broke. The Braves sputtered to a 9-18 finish, including five straight losses to end the year. A blown save on the final day of the season enabled the Cardinals to sneak into the playoffs over the Braves, and you probably remember what happened after that.

The Atlanta front office didn't overreact to the team's collapse. Actually, the front office didn't react at all. There haven't been any significant trades here, no notable signings, nothing buzzy to talk about. The Braves are simply hoping that their young players will continue to improve and some of last year's bums will get it together this time around. The payroll is almost identical to 2011's payroll.

Can the Braves stay competitive in a tricky NL East, where the Phillies remain loaded and the Marlins and Nationals have made significant upgrades? At the end of the day, it probably comes down to player health and youngster improvements. The Braves could have a terrific pitching staff if everyone stays hale (and the depth is ridiculous), but there are plenty of questions about the offense.

Jason Heyward was a hero in 2010 and a near-zero in 2011. Now what?

I suspect Heyward has a chance to become such a trendy sleeper that all the value is eventually sucked out, but you should put him on your target list anyway. I don't care about all those numbers heading in the wrong direction last year: walk rate dropped, line drives disappeared, OBP and power cratered, and his surface stats collapsed — we all know that. There's a logical reason why the super sophomore crash-landed.

Heyward had an early shoulder injury that affected him all season; by the middle of the summer, his mechanics were all messed up and he couldn't get out of his own way. And it seems like former batting coach Larry Parrish did more harm than good when it came to working with Heyward. (To borrow from thoroughbred handicapping parlance, this feels like a horse who had a bad trip, a valid excuse for a poor performance. Sometimes you just throw the last race out. Back me up, Andy Beyer.)

Greg Walker is the new batting coach in Atlanta (with Scott Fletcher assisting), and while he's not coming off a happy season himself — he was with the White Sox last year, draw your own conclusions — he does bring a more modern approach to the task at hand. Heyward has also dropped 21 pounds, and while the "best shape of his life" meme gets a lot of laughs on the Internet, it never bothers me to hear that someone's trimmed down.

Here's what Chipper Jones had to say on Heyward 3.0, talking to David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

"To answer your question, weight is not an issue with [Heyward]," Jones said. "The ball is jumping off the bat now close to what it was in spring training 2010. He's got some more in there; he's still making some adjustments and it's a slow process. As Tiger Woods will tell you, you go through a swing change, it takes some time. But he's starting to get it and he's starting to get results."

It's refreshing to see Jones on board, given that he was on Heyward's case at times last year, almost daring the kid to play through the shoulder problems. Unfortunately for us, a lot of experts are jumping on the Heyward train as well. His ADP is 85.6 in early Mock Draft Central industry play (that makes him the No. 24 outfielder), while he's at 107.3 in standard mocks (the No. 31 outfielder). The first price gives me cause for pause, but the second one looks like a bargain.

How soon is now for Julio Teheran? What becomes of the jumbled rotation?

Although Teheran might be the best pitching prospect in the National League and he's coming off a super year at Triple-A (2.55 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 2.54 K/BB, 15-3 record), he just turned 21 last month and the Braves don't have an automatic rotation spot for him. By default, he might have to start the year getting more Triple-A seasoning, work he may or may not need. Even if he does make the Braves to open the year, you have to figure the inning ceiling will be fairly low.

The Braves are looking strong at the top, in theory, with established righties Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson. Brandon Beachy isn't going anywhere after last year's splashy debut. Jair Jurrjens was shopped during the winter but no one was biting; thus, he comes back for another year on Peachtree Street.

Two more kids who got their cleats wet last year (Mike Minor, a 24-year-old lefty, and Randall Delgado, a 21-year old righty) will challenge for rotation spots and could push their way into the mixed-league pickup discussion. Minor struck out 77 in 82.2 Atlanta innings last year and was the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft. I might push an extra buck or two on him in an NL-only pool.

The health status of the veterans might determine who makes the team out of camp and who doesn't. Hanson's dealing with a sore shoulder and has been babied all winter (he recently began throwing again), Hudson has a bad back (there's been talk of him not pitching until May), and Jurrjens is coming off knee problems. Please have your copay ready.

Rookie Tyler Pastornicky takes over at shortstop: any roto juice here?

I wouldn't bother in a mixer; make Pastornicky force his way onto your roster. He's sound enough defensively to hold the job right out of the chute — even with credible veteran Jack Wilson signed as insurance — but Pastornicky's minor-league numbers were pedestrian before last year's growth season, and he'll probably bat eighth to open the year. Beware the potential speedster who's saddled with a bad lineup slot in the National League: teams don't run in front of the pitcher. I'm figuring Pastornicky will tread around .260, hit around five homers, and maybe steal 12-15 bases — and there's very little upside past that.

Chipper Jones didn't retire? Martin Prado didn't get traded?

We told you up front, this was a stand-pat team. Other than a salary dump of Derek Lowe and the dismissal of Alex Gonzalez, there were no major changes.

Prado looked lost in left field last year and the Braves were eager for a swap after the season, but no one whispered the magic words to GM Frank Wren. Alrighty, then. It's a shame Prado no longer carries 2B eligibility and he's a carnival on the bases (13-for-28 for his career), but we're still talking about a career .293 hitter who has 39 homers over three years. There's some bounce-back potential here, sneaky sleeper value in deeper groups. He's currently the No. 191 player off the mock-draft board, and can be used at third and in the outfield.

Jones carries a laundry list of physical problems at this stage of his career — just about every part of his lower body has bothered him at some point over the last 2-3 years — and he hasn't seen 500 at-bats since 2007. If the Braves can get another .275 year out of him with 18 homers over 126 games, they'd probably sign up for it right now. If you wind up rostering Jones, you need your Plan B ahead of time: a DL stint will be coming at some point. It's part of the investment here.

What a gyp — you didn't talk about my favorite player. What gives?

Hey, we're not going to talk about the entire 25-man roster with these things. Some stories have to wait for another day, another blog, another forum. But before we hit the exit, we'll give you a couple of quick hitters. … Freddie Freeman went the other way from Heyward in the offseason: he bulked up, added muscle. At least that's the skinny from Atlanta. Generally I hate going near any sophomore buzz players, but I get the idea Freeman might be unheralded enough to actually be a good buy this year (I like that he improved in the second half of 2011, and wasn't overmatched against lefties). He's trading around Pick 118 right now, in the company of Billy Butler and Mark Reynolds. … Closer Craig Kimbrel and setup ace Jonny Venters collapsed down the stretch, perhaps because of Fredi Gonzalez's heavy workload. Prior to that, they were terrific for our fake-baseball teams. Venters worked 85 games and threw 88 innings, a heavy burden, and it seemed to catch up to him in September (5.11 ERA, 1.86 WHIP, 10 walks). Kimbrel had three blown saves in September and a 4.76 ERA, but he also struck out 20 in 11.1 innings; maybe variance was his undoing, nothing past that. I doubt I'll own either pitcher this year, but it's simply a matter of timing and preference. I don't like to chase setup heroes who are coming off magical years (that's Venters), and I also want to get my saves on the cheap, which probably chases me off Kimbrel. If you want to stump for these guys in the comments, I'm all ears. … Michael Bourn's speed cannot be denied, but I'm not spending an early-round pick on him. He's a sinkhole in the power categories, and once you take a one-trick pony like Bourn, you're locked out of any similar players later in the draft. It's not that hard to assemble a running roster; silly rabbit, high-priced specialists are for kids.