Springtime Storylines: Will standing pat get the Braves back to the playoffs?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Atlanta Braves.

The Big Question: Will standing pat get the Braves back to the playoffs?

The Braves didn’t get nearly as much attention as the Red Sox in the aftermath of the 2011 season, but their collapse was no less epic. They held a seemingly insurmountable 9 1/2 game lead for the National League Wild Card on August 26th (10 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals, by the way), only to flush it all down the toilet in September.

One would think that such a miserable finish would provide Liberty Media with the impetus to allow GM Frank Wren to improve an offense which was 22nd in the majors last season in runs scored and OPS and 26th in batting average and on-base percentage, but while the Marlins and Nationals made splashy additions over the winter, the Braves did absolutely nothing. Well, except for trading the overpriced and disappointing Derek Lowe to the Indians for a minor league left-hander.

The inactivity looks bad from a symbolic perspective, but the Braves appear to be banking on bounce-back seasons from key players who dealt with injuries and/or ineffectiveness last season, including Jason Heyward, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Martin Prado and Brian McCann. They are also hoping for further progression from some of their young players, especially Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor and Freddie Freeman. Getting a full season out of Michael Bourn will probably help, too.

Remember, the Braves won 89 games last season when a lot of things didn’t go according to plan. Remember Dan Uggla’s nightmare first half? If Heyward and Hanson get back on track, they have a good chance of being back in the thick of things again. And hey, at least there’s a second Wild Card this time around.

What else is going on?

  • Chipper Jones’ farewell tour is already off to a shaky start, as he’s expected to miss at least the first few games of the season following arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. It’s certainly convenient that Martin Prado can just slide over to third base, but this leaves Eric Hinske and Matt Diaz splitting time in left field. In other words, on any given day, one of their best bench bats will be in the starting lineup. Some extra depth would be helpful. We’ve heard rumors that the Braves could be interested in Cubs’ outfielder Marlon Byrd, which would actually be a decent fit on paper. The Braves clearly need a backup plan, because chances are this won’t be Jones’ only DL-stint this season.
  • The Braves attempted to cash in Jair Jurrjens for a bat during the offseason, but a deal failed to materialize, likely due to the high price tag and lingering concerns over his right knee. However, the current depth is a pretty nice luxury to have, especially with Tim Hudson expected to miss the first month of the season following November back surgery. Randall Delgado will likely fill Hudson’s rotation spot for now and it’s possible the Braves could revisit the possibility of moving Jurrjens around the deadline. With any luck, top prospect right-hander Julio Teheran could be ready to make a big impact by then.
  • Can Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty possibly replicate what they did last year? Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez went to his three-headed relief monster early and often, as they combined for an ungodly 238 2/3 innings. Whether the overuse helped contribute to the team’s collapse is up for debate — Kimbrel did fall off a little bit in September — but Kris Medlen could really help lighten the load in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.
  • The Braves let veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez walk over the winter, but the expectation was that they would sign a short-term bridge for prospect Tyler Pastornicky. That didn’t happen. And no, bringing back the injury-prone Jack Wilson doesn’t count. Even worse, Pastornicky isn’t a lock to win the starting shortstop job out of spring training. It’s now possible that the slick-fielding Andrelton Simmons will get the nod, despite never playing above High-A. Either way, the Braves will potentially have one of the weakest hitting regulars in the majors.

How are they gonna do?

The Marlins and Nationals are naturally getting more buzz this spring following their highly-active offseasons, but I still feel like the Braves have more immediate upside than either of them. Of course, my optimism hinges on the starting rotation staying healthy and Heyward returning to form, which is obviously no lock. Fredi Gonzalez’s managerial style doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence, either. I don’t think they are good enough to win the division, but I currently see them finishing second and securing a spot in the new one-game Wild Card playoff.

Why Ryan Zimmerman skipped spring training

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All spring training there was at least some mild confusion about Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. He played in almost no regular big league spring training games, instead, staying on the back fields, playing in simulated and minor league contests. When that usually happens, it’s because a player is rehabbing or even hiding an injury, but the Nats insisted that was not the case with Zimmerman. Not everyone believed it. I, for one, was skeptical.

The skepticism was unwarranted, as Zimmerman answered the bell for Opening Day and has played all season. As Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal writes today, it was all by design. He skipped spring training because he doesn’t like it and because he thinks it’ll help him avoid late-season injuries and slowdowns, the likes of which he has suffered over the years.

It’s hard to really judge this now, of course. On the one hand Zimmerman has started really slow this season. What’s more, he has started to show signs of warming up only in the past week, after getting almost as many big league, full-speed plate appearances under his belt as a normal spring training would’ve given him. On the other hand, April is his worst month across his entire 14-year career, so one slow April doesn’t really prove anything and, again, Zimmerman and the Nats will consider this a success if he’s healthy and productive in August and September.

It is sort of a missed opportunity, though. Players hate spring training. They really do. if Zimmerman had made a big deal out of skipping it and came out raking this month, I bet a lot more teams would be amenable to letting a veteran or three take it much more easy next spring. Good ideas can be good ideas even if they don’t produce immediately obvious results, but baseball tends to encourage a copycat culture only when someone can point to a stat line or to standings as justification.

Way to ruin it for everyone, Ryan. 😉