Though they didn't get as much attention as the Red Sox, the Braves suffered their own late-season meltdown in 2011, losing the wild card to the eventual World Champion Cardinals on the final day of the season after leading by 8 1/2 games in early September.
Yup, they were that close in a year when just about everything that could go wrong did. New acquisition Dan Uggla was a black hole in the lineup for the first three months. All-Star Martin Prado hit under .300 -- well under .300 -- for the first time in four years. Emerging face of the franchise Jason Heyward wasn't even good enough to keep his starting job. Tommy Hanson hurt his shoulder. Jair Jurrjens hurt his knee. Brian McCann hit only .180 after returning from a strained oblique in mid-August.
Add it all up, and you can understand why the Braves fell apart so quickly. You can also understand why they won't need much to get back over the hump.
Given their quiet offseason, they apparently feel the same way. But before you pencil them in for another second-place finish in an improved NL East, keep in mind that not all that went wrong for them then is suddenly right now.
The pitching staff, which has always been the foundation of the Braves' success, is the biggest concern. Jurrjens should be fine, but Hanson has to prove himself all over again after sitting with a torn rotator cuff. And Tim Hudson might actually be the most likely to begin the year on the DL following offseason back surgery.
Fortunately, the Braves still have an abundance of minor-league pitchers to step in for Hanson, Hudson or anyone else who can't take the hill, led by elite prospects Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado. They also have a shutdown back of the bullpen with young guns Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters.
Between the majors and minors, the pieces are in place for the Braves to return to prominence. All they need is the right mixing and matching and a little better luck.
Bounce-back player ... Jason Heyward, OF
OK, let's all just take a step back here for a minute. Yes, Heyward was hyped as a top-10 Fantasy outfielder last season given the expectation that he'd build off his All-Star rookie season, and clearly, it was an overreaction. But the bigger overreaction would be to assume he's a lost cause after he slumped to a .227 batting average last year. Granted, it was a miserable season -- worse than anyone could have imagined given his elite pedigree and impressive rookie showing -- but it's not without explanation. He developed numbness in his shoulder in spring training and, in an effort to play through the injury, altered his mechanics. His popout rate was through the roof, which is a clear sign his swing wasn't right. With an offseason of rest and the fresh perspective of new hitting coach Greg Walker, Heyward should be in for a bounce-back season. Expecting other-worldly numbers from him would, of course, not be prudent, but even a return to his rookie form would make him a top-25 outfielder.
Breakout ... Brandon Beachy, SP
Beachy went from being a nobody minor-leaguer midway through 2010 to a clear somebody as a rookie last year, leading all full-time starting pitchers with 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings. But his shortcomings ultimately caused him to rank outside the top 60 starting pitchers in Head-to-Head leagues, which is why Fantasy owners still regard him as more of a curiosity than an emerging star. He already has the important stuff down --- the high strikeout rate, the low walk rate and the low hit rate. He already knows how to dominate. The parts of his game that need refinement are the ones that can only come through experience, such as learning how to extend himself both deeper into games and deeper into the season. If he follows the usual progression for young starting pitchers, he'll approach 180 innings this year, which would mean more wins and a significant surge up the rankings. As long as his peripherals don't suffer in the process, Beachy has the makings of a poor man's Zack Greinke.
Sleeper ... Mike Minor, SP
Minor's progression may seem slow to those who have been hearing him hyped in Fantasy for nearly two years now, but keep in mind he's made only 23 starts in the big leagues. He bounced between the majors and minors last year, his full-time arrival delayed by the discovery of Brandon Beachy (hard to argue with that one now, right?), and never got a chance to find his comfort zone. Still, his strikeout and walk rates showed he has the skills to become a top-of-the-rotation-type pitcher, and with Derek Lowe banished to Cleveland, he suddenly has a rotation spot to refine them. The Braves' decision to clear that spot for Minor this offseason should give the 24-year-old a renewed sense of purpose entering spring training. If his performance during his final nine starts last year, when he posted a 3.83 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning, was a sneak peak at what he can do with a defined role, he'll be a late-round find on Draft Day.
|Projected Lineup||Pos.||Projected Rotation|
|1||Michael Bourn||CF||1||Tim Hudson||RH|
|2||Martin Prado||LF||2||Tommy Hanson||RH|
|3||Chipper Jones||3B||3||Jair Jurrjens||RH|
|4||Brian McCann||C||4||Brandon Beachy||RH|
|5||Dan Uggla||2B||5||Mike Minor||LH|
|6||Freddie Freeman||1B||Alt||Randall Delgado||RH|
|7||Jason Heyward||RF|| |
|8||Tyler Pastornicky||SS||CL||Craig Kimbrel||RH|
|Top bench options||SU||Jonny Venters||LH|
|R||Jose Constanza||OF||RP||Eric O'Flaherty||LH|
|R||Eric Hinske||1B/OF||RP||Arodys Vizcaino||RH|
|R||Matt Diaz||OF||RP||Kris Medlen||RH|
|Teheran is the best of the Braves' pitching prospects, drawing comparisons to Pedro Martinez. A year younger than Delgado, he'll probably be second in line for a midseason callup.|
|Delgado's numbers exceeded Teheran's in a late-season trial last year, and the Braves think he's ready for a rotation spot now. If Hudson's back holds him out, it's a possibility.|
|Vizcaino probably has a higher ceiling than Delgado as a starter, but the Braves seem committed to using him in relief right now. He could factor in NL-only leagues.|
|The projected starter will get plenty of attention on Draft Day, but his lack of pop could make him no more than a slightly speedier Ryan Theriot. He's not the best long-term choice.|
|5||Andrelton Simmons||22||SS||Class A||Double-A|
|This would be the Braves' long-term answer at shortstop. Simmons still has a bit of a climb ahead of him and, like Pastornicky, lacks power. But he's a high-upside player.|
|Best of the rest: Sean Gilmartin, SP; Edward Salcedo, 3B; Christian Bethancourt, C; Anthony Varvaro, RP; J.J. Hoover, RP; Ezekiel Spruill, SP; Matthew Lipka, SS; Joseph Terdoslavich, 1B; Brandon Hicks, 3B; Adam Milligan, OF; Todd Cunningham, OF; Jaye Chapman, RP; Erik Cordier, SP; Todd Redmond, SP; Mauro Gomez, 1B; Cory Harrilchak, OF; and Mycal Jones, SS.|
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