A lot can be said about the Braves’ historic collapse at the end of last year.
The blame could be placed on anyone and everyone, from the team that narrowly snatched the National League Wild Card from them, the St. Louis Cardinals — who eventually went on to win the World Series — to the Braves’ closer, NL Rookie-of-the-Year Craig Kimbrel. No matter what you say or who you choose to blame, one question stands out for Atlanta this season: How do you come back from the largest collapse in the history of baseball?
On August 25 last season, the Braves led the Cardinals by 10 1/2 games in the NL Wild Card Race — although at that point, it was more like a speed walk for Atlanta, who had all but wrapped up a postseason berth. Then, almost as if the entire team forgot to wear their slump-busting undies at the same time, they lost 18 of their 27 games in September and missed the playoffs, with their absolute breakdown culminating in a three-game sweep at the hands of your Philadelphia Phillies that knocked the Braves out of contention on the last day of the season.
Now, the redemption project begins.
This offseason, the Braves didn’t do much to their roster — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Braves were in place to be in the postseason essentially from the beginning of the season until the season’s final game.
What kept the Braves in contention last year? Easy, pitching — after all, “pitching wins championships” — when their pitching faltered in the season’s closing month, so too did the team’s postseason hopes.
Their bullpen shined last year and is poised to top the league again, with young firearms like Kimbrel, Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters, and rookie Arodys Vizcaino. Of the three-headed-monster that is Kimbrel, O’Flahrety and Venters, their average E.R.A. was 1.74. However, the group was also the most oft-used relief corps in baseball and that definitely showed towards the end of the year — Kimbrel blew three saves in September while his E.R.A. rose from 1.62 to his final mark of 2.10. Manager Fredi Gonzalez will be more careful this season when using his young arms and their success should continue.
Atlanta’s starting rotation is one of few things that changed from last season. The team traded veteran Derek Lowe to Cleveland to make the rotation younger. The average age of the starting five is a mere 24.4 years and Jair Jurrjens is the most experienced starter with five years of MLB play under his belt. Young righty Tommy Hanson leads a staff that includes Jurrjens, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, and rookie Randall Delgado. In the past decade or so, the Braves have been known to hold some of baseball’s best pitching prospects and now they are all at the big league level. Young arms are usually risky, but these five players have all proven themselves worthy of a spot given past success, either in the Majors or at the minor league level.
The Braves are returning all eight starting position players from last year, however shortstop Jack Wilson will back up rookie Tyler Pastornicky, a 22-year-old Florida native who impressed at Triple-A Gwinnett last season. Speedster Michael Bourn will spend his first full season with the Braves — he was a trade-deadline acquisition last season and led all of baseball with 61 stolen bases. Brian McCann will again post top-tier offensive numbers for a catcher, nothing new there.
The two young stars on the Braves, first baseman Freddie Freeman and outfielder Jason Heyward, took off in opposite directions last year. Freeman had a stellar rookie year that placed him second in R.O.Y. voting to his teammate Kimbrel. Freeman batted .282 while hitting 21 home runs and knocking in 76 runs. He, like Heyward, will be just 22 years old on opening day, so if Freeman is posting these numbers before his prime, think about what he could do this season and in the near future — scary. It is hard to believe that Heyward will begin his third season this April at just 22 years old, but his youth wasn’t exactly a blessing last year. In his sophomore season, Heyward’s average dropped 50 points from a respectable .277 to a subpar .227. After his very good rookie year, Heyward’s offensive numbers declined in every major category. This year, Heyward must prove that he is a mature player that can handle the pressure of being a team’s superstar or the Braves’ offense will suffer at his expense.
Chipper Jones and Dan Uggla are the lone veterans in the Braves’ lineup — that is, the only two players with more than 5 full seasons of experience — and the two will lead a team that is hungry to avenge last season’s crushing end. Look for Uggla to once again top the 30-homer plateau and as long as Jones can stay healthy, his above average defense and solid offense will make the 39-year-old look like he belongs out on the field with his young teammates.
This team knows what it feels like to see a postseason berth vanish before their eyes — it’s a feeling they won’t soon forget. One thing that can make up for it, though, is a division title: stealing what has been the Phillies’ property just as the Phillies ended the Braves’ hopes last year. Atlanta wants to play in October more than any other team in baseball because they know how close they were last year and that motivation will help them creep up on Philadelphia along with Washington and Miami.
The NL East will without a doubt be one of the most talented divisions in baseball this year. The Phillies have won the division crown each of the past five seasons, but their run hasn’t seen challengers like this, at least not yet. With the Braves, Marlins, and Nationals all ready to make a run for October, don’t take your eyes off of the East this year because you might miss something spectacular.