COMMENTARY | Let's face it: The 2012 season did not quite go according to plan for the Atlanta Braves.
Chipper Jones' farewell season was supposed to be given the full fairy-tale treatment, complete with a World Series title and No. 10 getting to ride off into the Atlanta sunset on a white horse galloping straight for Cooperstown.
Instead, the Braves got the consolation prize of becoming the first group of lab rats to take part in the mad science experiment that is MLB's two-team wild-card system -- a story with decidedly fewer animal sidekicks spontaneously breaking into song.
This new variation on the postseason party saw the Braves having to sing for their supper in a one-game play-in situation with the St. Louis Cardinals. Despite the fact that Atlanta boasted the fourth best record in all of baseball (94-68), the Braves fell 6-3 and were left to envision what might have occurred in the previous playoff format.
The Atlanta Braves' roster has seen a lot of turnover heading into the 2013 season, but five very familiar names will need to step up if the Braves hope for a better result than the fate that awaited them in 2012.
Brian McCann, C
With Chipper Jones lasting 20 seasons and playing until the age of 40, it's a little strange to think father time could already be creeping up on the 29-year-old McCann, but, then again, catchers do tend to lose their hair and qualify for the AARP sooner than most players.
Whether it's from constantly having to squat behind the dish, or getting battered and bruised from foul tips and 90-mph gas in the dirt, the career timeline of a catcher is a continually downward-shifting line. McCann batted a career-low .230 for the Braves last season, and his 67 RBIs, 44 runs and 101 hits were his lowest since his rookie season in 2005.
The Braves are hoping McCann's poor season was a direct result of a few lingering injuries, and not due to an oncoming erosion of skills brought on by the inevitable condition I'm going to coin right now as "Grasshopper's Syndrome" (trademark pending).
Dan Uggla, 2B
"His name is [still] Dan Uggla!" Sorry, for some reason I get a kick out of the oddly innocuous home-run call for the Braves' second baseman.
When the Braves acquired Dan Uggla in 2011, the former Florida Marlins' star was coming off a season during which he batted .270, hit 33 home runs and drove in 105 runs. The player the Braves actually received is someone who is averaging .227 and 162 strikeouts over his two seasons with Atlanta.
By now, fans should have no illusions about the type of player Uggla is. The bulging shirt sleeves and tough-as-nails scow he wears to the plate tells everyone he is trying to do one thing and one thing only: hit the ball as far as he can. Yet, after belting 36 round-trippers in 2011, Uggla had something of a power outage in 2012, hitting just 19 gopher balls.
It is unreasonable to expect Uggla to suddenly start leading the Braves in batting average, or even strikeout fewer than 150 times per year, but when his batting average is closer to his playing weight (207) than his career average (.259), something has to give.
Like McCann, Uggla will be penciled in low on manager Fredi Gonzalez's lineup card this season. A reemergence from these two could make the Braves' lineup seem as though it has two separate middle of the orders.
Kris Medlen, SP
After suffering a season-ending elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, Kris Medlen returned to the Braves in 2012 stronger than ever. Medlen tallied a 10-1 record with an impressive 1.57 ERA. He also helped set a big-league record as the Braves won 23 consecutive games in which the pint-sized right-hander started.
Despite all of his regular-season dominance, the Braves could not continue the streak with Medlen on the hill in the postseason. They were bounced by the St. Louis Cardinals before even being able to get their playoff feet wet.
Since Tommy Hanson now tosses the rawhide for the Los Angeles Angels, and Brandon Beachy is on the shelf due to his own Tommy John injury, Medlen is going to be looked to as the ace of this staff. With only 30 career starts under his belt, Medlen must prove his is every bit the pitcher who went 10-1 last season.
Jonny Venters, RP
With the combination of Eric O'Flaherty in the seventh inning, Venters in the eighth, and Craig Kimbrel shutting teams down in the ninth, the Atlanta bullpen allows the Braves to shorten games like few other teams can. That being said, Venters had a somewhat un-Jonny Venters-like season in 2012.
Venters recorded an ERA of 3.22 with 20 holds and 69 strikeouts for Atlanta last summer. While these numbers are surely above average, they are not what the Braves have come to expect from their fire-throwing lefty.
In 2010, Venters posted an ERA of 1.95 while striking out 93 batters. He followed up his tremendous rookie campaign with a 1.84 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 2011. But the really troublesome stat for Venters in 2012 was the fact that opposing batters hit .270 off of the left-hander -- nearly 100 points higher than their .176 average in 2011. There was simply far too much wood making contact with Venters' pitches last season.
Jason Heyward, RF
With the Chipper Jones-era coming to a close, Heyward now steps into the light as the face of the Atlanta Braves franchise. Heyward had a great year for the Braves last season. He hit 27 home runs, stole 21 bases, and knocked in 82 runs.
Unlike many of the other players on this list, Heyward is not trying to bounce back from a sub-par season; he just has to prove he can consistently duplicate his 2012 campaign again and again. In 2011, Heyward was mired in a sophomore slump when he batted just .227. Given his new leadership role, Heyward is simply no longer allowed to have a throwaway season. The "J-Hey-Kid" must prove he can become the man for Atlanta.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter based in "Braves Country." He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
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