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Braves take big risk by snoozing through winter

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports
Braves take big risk by snoozing through winter
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After a promising 2010 rookie season, outfielder Jason Heyward hit just .227 in '11

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Atlanta Braves.

2011 record: 89-73
Finish: Second place, NL East
2011 final payroll: $88.1 million
Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $90 million
Yahoo! Sports' offseason rank: 10th
Hashtags: #winterofdiscontent, #helpwanted, #shortstopfail, #wrenandstimpy, #fredi, #PAP, #fourhorsemen, #larrywayne, #badpuns, #juuuuuuulio

Offseason action

No team's offseason transaction list reads with quite the sparseness of the Atlanta Braves'.

Oct. 31: Trade starter Derek Lowe to the Cleveland Indians for a 23-year-old Class-A reliever and $5 million of salary relief.
November: Nothing
Dec. 12: Release reliever Peter Moylan
Jan. 13: Sign shortstop Jack Wilson
Jan. 17: Re-sign reliever Peter Moylan

Sure, there were other tiny moves – minor league free-agent signings, arbitration avoided, an option picked up. But the Braves' offseason was the equivalent to Prince Akeem getting his royal ponytail snipped.

This is the same Braves team whose choke last September ranks among the worst in major league history and continues to draw minimal attention only because the Boston Red Sox retched even worse. While general manager Frank Wren went into the offseason looking to shed salary, he found no market beyond Lowe.

Nothing with Jair Jurrjens, the starter for whom his asking price – multiple high-level prospects – proved unreasonable. Nothing with Martin Prado, the superutilityman whose value plummeted following his worst year since pulling full-time duty. Nothing with Michael Bourn, the center fielder Atlanta thieved from Houston last season and won't pay once he hits free agency next offseason.

[ Related: Big-spending Marlins guaranteed to entertain, could also contend ]

What Wren said with his offseason is evident: We like this team the way it was last year, warts and all, and considering Prado and Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla and Chipper Jones struggled with production, production/health, early season production and production/health, respectively, his hope for a rebound is more well-placed than the Braves' somnambulant offseason may connote.

Reality check

OK, so it's not haiku time yet. Humor me for a moment, would you?

Marlins have Reyes,
Phils Rollins. At shortstop for
Braves? Pastornicky

That would be Tyler Pastornicky, the 22-year-old who has logged 117 plate appearances at Triple-A and is being handed the most important posiiton on the field before spring training begins. Wilson is there as a safety valve, but the Braves' lack of a seasoned-even-a-little shortstop reflects on the extreme faith they have in other parts of their team.

The rotation? Deep. As deep as any team's. Even after trading Lowe, they run out Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy and one of their four young starters, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Arodys Vizcaino and the highest-ceilinged of them all, Julio Teheran, who turned 21 less than two weeks ago.

The bullpen? As long as manager Fredi Gonzalez remembers he has more pitchers at his disposal than Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Eric O'Flaherty – Nos. 4, 7 and 26 in pitches thrown among MLB relievers last season – it should be among baseball's best. Kris Medlen's return from Tommy John surgery should take pressure off them. Same with Vizcaino's possible move to the 'pen and the emergence of Cristhian Martinez and Anthony Varvaro.

The lineup? Well, that's where things get iffy. Bourn is one of the best leadoff men in the game, first baseman Freddie Freeman should grow in his second year and if he can avoid another Uggla start – forgive that one – second base shouldn't be a problem. Among Prado, Jones and Heyward will come what makes the Braves a team elevated with Philadelphia at the top of the NL East standings or one that struggles to stay with vastly improved teams in Miami and Washington.

[ Fantasy: Five Pressing Questions for Atlanta Braves ]

And that is the ultimate test this season for both the Braves and Wren. His inaction is a direct reflection on his litmus test of this team. Wren believes there is enough pop in his lineup to outhit the sort of pitching he and Gonzalez expect – and that is best-in-the-NL level. It's how the Braves are going to stay relevant, how they'll maximize their surplus of talent to continue the record of contention going on two decades now.

Savior

The hype train roared its mighty engine for Jason Heyward, and yours truly can't deny shoveling a lump of coal or two into the fire. He was big, strong, advanced, smart, humble. His teammates spoke about him in lines that sounded like they should be verse. His first manager, Bobby Cox, never one to lavish praise on a rookie, did just that. So his spectacular failure last season – .227/.319/.389 in 396 at-bats over 128 games – sets him up for vengeance this season. Healthy (finally), minus 20 pounds (of muscle, but still), Heyward is again the 6-foot-5, 235-pound leviathan whose debut felt like a new era in baseball. That's not here yet, though we must not forget: Jason Heyward is still just 22. There's plenty of time to dominate. First he needs to get back to zero, and that could take some time.

Braves in Haiku

Wren first GM to
Morph into bear, spend winter
In hibernation

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