|Chipper Jones still anchors an iffy Braves lineup|
The Atlanta Braves were among baseball's best teams before back-breaking injuries to a top-notch pitching staff. Aces Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens missed the final months of the season and a Braves team with amazing potential endured an epic collapse.
Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Dan Uggla and Michael Bourn anchor a lineup that sputtered in 2011. Pitching once again looks like the Braves strength, but this creates even more off-season needs, as GM Frank Wren decides which arms are expendable.
As a Braves fan, I'll admit that this edition of Major Needs, Minor Seeds holds a special place in my heart. The Braves aren't far from building a serious contender, but the pieces must be adjusted properly.
This much is clear:
1.) Derek Lowe is gone (traded to Cleveland)
2.) Nate McLouth is gone (finally)
3.) Alex Gonzalez is a free agent, so the Braves need a shortstop
Let's get to the nitty gritty.
|Gonzalez disappointed at the plate|
- Replace Alex Gonzalez
This is the only immediate need that the Braves must address. Alex Gonzalez is good for the occasional clutch hit, but his low OBP (.270) and overrated glove leave something to be desired.
The shortstop market isn't as deep as it seems this off-season, especially after Clint Barmes signed with the Pirates. Jose Reyes will cost too much, Jimmy Rollins isn't worth what he's asking for, and everybody else is a big step down.
My hope? Atlanta targets former Brave Rafael Furcal, who offers solid defense and a potentially live bat for a cheap two-year deal.
My best guess? The Braves resign Gonzalez and hope he returns to his Toronto Blue Jays 2010 form.
- Acquire a big bat, by any means necessary
Since spending big on a free agent shortstop is unlikely, the Braves must upgrade through trade. Two names - Jair Jurrjens and Martin Prado - have been "floated" out to potential trade partners, but the Braves are reportedly seeking a major return for either.
|Trade Jurrjens for the right bat|
Jurrjens, who loses some of his trade value after a knee injury shut him down, still has plenty to offer a pitching-starved contender. His sub-2.00 ERA at the All-Star break made him a Cy Young contender, and he's still just 25 years old.
The Braves pitching staff is as deep as any in baseball and trading Jurrjens makes sense. Don't expect to see Atlanta pull the trigger unless they can acquire an impact bat.
- Keep Martin Prado if at all possible
Even if Atlanta swings a deal for help in the outfield, Martin Prado still holds enormous value in Atlanta. Chipper Jones is guaranteed to miss at least 30 games in 2012. Prado's worth as a utility super-sub makes him a critical piece to this equation.
Unless trading Prado is the only way to bring a star bat to Atlanta, I say keep him where he is.
- One solid righty in the pen
The Atlanta bullpen was the best in baseball into September. But slow and steady wins the race, a lesson manager Freddy Gonzalez never learned.
The trifecta punch of O'Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel wore down from an extreme workload in 2011, leaving the Braves just short of the Playoffs on the season's final day. The lesson here is that the Braves need support for these arms, ideally in the form of a talented righty who can handle the late innings.
I vote for David Aardsma, the former Mariners closer who can be signed for cheap but has proven experience with games on the line.
This is where covering the Braves gets fun. One of baseball's best farm systems just keeps churning 'em out. Pitching is the name of the game, but the Braves have plenty of everything when it comes to top-tier prospects. At least two of these names should see playing time in Atlanta this year.
|Julio Teheran could be an MLB ace in a few years|
- Julio Teheran (RHP) – Teheran kicked off 2011 as the top pitching prospect in baseball and lived up to the hype. He went 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA in AAA, but was uninspiring over 19.2 IP in the majors (5.03 ERA). He'll compete with Mike Minor for the fifth starter job and could start the season in the bullpen even if he comes up short.
- Randall Delgado (RHP) – Delgado impressed in seven big league starts (2.83 ERA), a heavier dose of action than most predicted for this exciting talent. Delgado is still considered somewhat raw, but has front-of-the-rotation potential. He has an outside chance of cracking the Braves bullpen to start 2012, but is more likely to anchor the Gwinnett Braves (AAA) rotation.
- Jairo Asencio (RHP) - Asencio has the make-up and talent of a future closer, but he sure didn’t show it in a call-up to the bigs. Asencio was shaky in six MLB relief appearances, but dominated (1.81 ERA) in AAA. He’ll get his chance in 2012 at some point.
- Tyler Pastornicky (SS) – Shame that the Braves need a shortstop this year, because Pastonicky is still a year away. He’s got real-deal potential though, hitting .365 in a brief AAA stint. He’s supposedly the SS of the future, though Curacao native Andrelton Simmons might be the best SS in the system.
- Mauro Gomez & Ernesto Mejia (1B) – We’re grouping these two together because this list could go on for a while. Gomez tore up AAA pitching (.304, 24 HR) while Mejia excelled in AA (.299, 26 HR). Both are blocked by rookie of the year runner-up Freddie Freeman, but make for interesting trade bait.
- Honorable Mentions: Arodys Vizcaino (RHP), Todd Redmond (RHP), Christian Bethancourt (C), J.J. Hoover (RHP)