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.

Kevin Gausman to start Opening Day for the Orioles

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The Orioles have tabbed Kevin Gausman to start on Opening Day, April 3 against the Blue Jays at Camden Yards, MASN’s Roch Kubatko reports. Chris Tillman started the previous three Opening Days for the O’s. This will be Gausman’s first Opening Day nod.

Gausman, 26, finished the 2016 season with a 3.61 ERA and a 174/47 K/BB ratio in 179 2/3 innings. The Orioles selected him in the first round (fourth overall) of the 2012 draft and moved him through their minor league system quickly. Gausman debuted in the majors in May 2013.

2017 Preview: Detroit Tigers

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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 2017 season. Next up: The Detroit Tigers.

I feel like every year, for the past several years, our Tigers preview has been some variation of “do the Tigers still have a run left in them with the Cabrera-Verlander core?”

If you’re tired of reading that one I have some bad news for you: it’s the same dang story this year as it has been every year. A great pitcher and a great hitter, a very solid supporting cast, a handful of holes that could be critical weaknesses and enough to make them look strong enough to contend but not enough to contend strongly, if that makes any sense.

Let’s start with the pitching. Justin Verlander returned to Cy Young-caliber form in 2016, thanks mostly to health and a big, big leap in his strikeout rate, suggesting that it was health and not an overall decline which harmed him in 2014 and 2015. He’ll lead the way again, followed by Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer, who was a wonderful surprise last season. The back end of the rotation is problematic, however, with Jordan Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez stinking up the joint for most of last year and young Daniel Norris suffering through injuries. For the Tigers to contend, they’ll need at least one of those veterans to return to their old form — or someone like Matt Boyd or Mike Pelfrey to, well, not be Matt Boyd and Mike Pelfrey– and for Norris to be healthy.

Fine, let’s say Verlander and Fulmer repeat their 2016 success and say that Norris is a strong, healthy and effective number three. Who then does Brad Ausmus turn the ball over to in the late innings? If you think the overall take on the Tigers is rehashed from year to year, well, the same goes for the pen. It, as always, is a liability in Detroit. And it’s not going to be terribly different than it was last year. Francisco Rodriguez will close. A couple of Wilsons in Alex and Justin. Shane Greene. Maybe one of the veteran starters who doesn’t make the rotation. The always interesting Bruce Rondon. It’s not terrible but it’s not the strongest bunch in the world and it’s being handled by a guy in Ausmus who has yet to show that he can get the most out of a less-than-steller relief corps. You can Google the phrase “Tigers bullpen woes” and find results from every season for most of the past decade. You’ll probably be able to do it again this year.

The offense, of course, is fantastic, at least at the top end. Miguel Cabrera is still an MVP-caliber player and even when his decline begins he’ll be better than almost any hitter in the game. Ian Kinsler is still low-key excellent. Nick Castellanos took a big leap forward last year. J.D. Martinez is going to miss the first month or so of the season with a sprained ligament in his foot, but he’s in his walk year and will likely be fine once he returns. Justin Upton has always been super uneven and has always failed to meet the insane expectations he set early in his career, but as he showed late last season, he’s capable of carrying a team for a stretch. I’ve been saying it for a pushing a decade, but one of these years he’s going to put it all together.

The big question is going to be the bottom third of the lineup where catcher James McCann, shortstop Jose Iglesias and center fielder Tyler Collins all look to be offensive liabilities at the moment. A bigger than usual year from any of them could help matters greatly.

Of course all of this — the strong lineup with critical holes, the rotation that starts well but has question marks and the spotty bullpen — has been the Tigers story for years. It’s a story that could end happily with 85-90 wins, a playoff spot and a bunch of seasoned veterans getting hot at the right time and riding it to glory. It could just as easily get sprinkled with a slow start or a few injuries and result in a 75-80 win season like they had back in 2015.

In the past, that would lead to yet another “wait until next year.” This year, however, you get the strong sense that there is no next year if this year is disappointing. There was talk that the Tigers could sell off veteran parts this past winter, but they didn’t. Then longtime owner Mike Ilitch, who was seen as a man who pushed to win now despite the costs, passed away in February. It’s not hard to imagine his son giving different instructions to GM Al Avila if the Tigers don’t get off to a fast start this year. It’s not hard to imagine the great unwinding of the core that has kept this Tigers team in contention for so long if 2017 is a disappointment.

I’m still optimistic, though. The Indians are the class of the division but the Royals are likely taking a step back and the Twins and White Sox are not yet a threat. I won’t predict October glory for them, but I think, barring major injuries to key players, the Tigers will be playing meaningful baseball in September.

Prediction: Second place, American League Central