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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.

Report: The Nationals are still in on Chris Sale and Andrew McCutchen

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 05: Chris Sale #49 of the Chicago White Sox pitches against the Detroit Tigers during the first inning on September 5, 2016 at U. S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
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The Nationals are trying to go big this offseason, and FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal notes that they are still in trade talks for White Sox’ left-hander Chris Sale and Pirates’ center fielder Andrew McCutchen. Both players figure to command a big return, as Sale delivered another Cy Young-worthy performance in 2016 and, despite a downturn in his production rate, McCutchen is still one of the more coveted sluggers in the National League.

In 2016, Sale led the league in complete games, with six, and turned in a 3.34 ERA and 5.2 fWAR in 226 2/3 innings. While teams have been sniffing around the White Sox’ ace since the trade deadline, the club is expected to maintain a high asking price — so high, said FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman, that it may keep the left-hander in Chicago for the foreseeable future.

According to Heyman, four other teams are reportedly in the mix for Sale, including the Red Sox, Astros, Rangers, and Braves, though parts of Rosenthal’s tweet hinted that the Red Sox were maintaining their interest in hopes of striking a more affordable deal. Should the Nationals pursue a deal for Sale, it’s likely that they’d have to move shortstop/center fielder Trea Turner, which they appear reluctant to do.

McCutchen, meanwhile, is also drawing interest around the league after batting .256/.336/.430 with 24 home runs in 675 PA during 2016. He didn’t appear to lose much power in his eighth season with the Pirates, but took considerably fewer walks and struck out at a career-high clip.

The Nationals were said to be in the lead for McCutchen on Thursday, and there was some expectation that the club would wrap up a trade for the center fielder by the non-tender deadline on Friday. FOX Sports’ Jon Morosi pointed out that the Rangers were also talking to the Pirates, however, and no deal has come to fruition as of yet.

Astros sign Carlos Beltran to one-year, $16 million deal

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 9: Carlos Beltran #36 of the Texas Rangers hits an RBI against the Toronto Blue Jays in the first inning during game three of the American League Division Series at Rogers Centre on October 9, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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The Astros have reportedly agreed to terms with free agent DH/outfielder Carlos Beltran for a one-year, $16 million contract, per ESPN’s Buster Olney. The deal includes a complete no-trade clause, according to a report from Bob Nightengale of USA Today.

Beltran elected to return to the Astros after fielding offers from the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Red Sox. He appeared in Houston during the second half of 2004, batting .258/.368/.559 with 23 home runs in 399 PA and making his first postseason run to the tune of a .435 average and eight homers as the Astros battled their way through to a seven-game loss in the Championship Series. Beltran also played with Houston manager A.J. Hinch and bench coach Alex Cora in separate stints with the Royals and Mets, which the Houston Chronicle’s Jake Kaplan cited as possible influences in the Astros’ decision to pursue the free agent.

In 2016, Beltran split the season between the Yankees and Rangers after getting dealt at the deadline for a package of right-handed pitching prospects. He was stationed in right field for the majority of his time in New York, but was almost exclusively utilized as a designated hitter over 52 games in Texas. Between the two clubs, he batted an impressive .295/.337/.513 with 29 homers and earned his ninth career All-Star designation to boot.

The veteran slugger is expected to fill a similar role on the Astros, who need a full-time DH but could use some additional support in the outfield corner. Olney envisions a lineup with Beltran in the five-spot, per an earlier report: