With Spring Training approaching the Atlanta Braves claim to have put their historic 2011 collapse behind them. Unlike their brethren in collapse — the Boston Red Sox — the Braves made very few changes to the team or baseball organization in the wake of the collapse. Significant off-season transactions were limited to the firing of rookie hitting coach Larry Parrish, trading Derek Lowe to the Indians in a salary dump, and allowing shortstop Alex Gonzalez to leave as a free-agent and replacing him with Jack Wilson (and Tyler Pastornicky, as noted below).
The lack of moves by the Braves stands in contrast to the rest of the N.L. East where all of the other teams made major moves. The Marlins, Phillies, and Nationals all added major pieces through the free-agent market, while the Mets cut payroll and allowed Jose Reyes to move to the Marlins. While claiming to have an open mind about adding players later in the Spring, Braves GM Frank Wren seems to be betting that the Braves will be competitive without a major addition, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Bradley:
If everyone bounces back, then we’ve got a good ballclub that doesn’t have a major need.
In essence, Wren is betting on regression to the mean. Hoping that players who struggled last year will revert to their normal performance level. In 2011 the Braves were generally quite good at preventing run, as there 605 runs allowed was second in the N.L. behind the Phillies. Scoring runs was the problem for the Braves, as they finished 10th in the N.L. with 641 runs scored. At what positions can the Braves expect increased offensive production this year?
As the table below demonstrates, six of the eight players projected to be regulars in 2012 underperformed their career wOBA in 2011. Freddie Freeman was a rookie in 2011 and projected starting shortstop Tyler Pastornicky has never played in MLB. This table suggests there is some reason for optimism about the Braves run production in 2012. Martin Prado was slowed by a staph infection and should be at full strength in 2012. A full season of Michael Bourn will be an improvement over Nate McLouth and Jordan Schafer. If Brian McCann can stay healthy, he should return to form. Dan Uggla’s 2011 was the worst season of his career, so is it not unreasonable to expect him to be better with the bat in 2012 (the glove is a different story). The biggest question mark though is Jason Heyward. If the 2010 version of Heyward shows up the Braves will have a competent if not powerful offense, however, if we see the 2011 Heyward a trip to AAA for Heyward would not be unwarranted and the Braves do not have another outfielder on the roster worthy of starting in an outfield corner.
|Player||Position||2011 wOBA||Career wOBA|
On the flip side, at age 40, Chipper Jones is more likely to decline than to reach anything approaching his career norms. Freddie Freeman’s 2011 was on the high end of what was expected from him offensively, so it would likely be a mistake to count on a major breakout from him in 2012. By signing Jack Wilson to back up rookie Tyler Pastornicky, Wren is essentially punting the shortstop position from an offensive standpoint. Taken as a whole, the Braves offense is likely to improve in 2012, but still has major question marks at shortstop and in the outfield, especially considering that Martin Prado will be expected to play 30 – 40 games at third base in place of Chipper Jones.
Of course, regression to the mean works both ways. Taking a look at how Atlanta’s pitchers performed in 2011 suggests that the Braves may not be as good at run prevention in 2012. As the table below demonstrates, four Braves pitchers, Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Jonny Venters, and Eric O’Flaherty had 2011 ERAs that were considerably lower than xFIP, which suggests that all four may regress this year. To be sure, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, and Tommy Hanson had higher ERAs than xFIP in 2011, but given the poor defensive infield that the Braves will have in 2012, it seems more likely that their pitchers will underperform than overperform their peripherals. In addition, Hudson, Hanson, and Jurrjens are all attempting to come back from moderately severe injuries.
|Name||2011 ERA||2011 xFIP|
As Mark Hulet noted last week, the Braves do have an enviable amount of pitching depth to rely on in case of injury or poor performance by the pitchers projected to be on the roster. In contrast, the Braves have no ready offensive replacements and passed on opportunities to upgrade the offense in the offseason. Perhaps they will be able to trade pitching depth for offense at a later date, but they missed a huge opportunity in not actively pursuing Marco Scutaro when the Red Sox were trying to move him and his $6 million salary to 2012. Scutaro would have provided an instant upgrade over what the Braves got out of Alex Gonzalez in 2011, and is projected to hit much better than the Pastornicky/Jack Wilson combination currently on the roster. The Braves certainly had the minor league pitching depth to match the Rockies offer for Scutaro and the $6 million would not have been a budget buster given the $5 million they saved in the Derek Lowe trade and the $1 million given to Jack Wilson.
Braves players profess to be happy that Wren showed confidence in them by not upgrading the roster. As Chipper Jones noted:
You sit back and you watch some of the other teams in your division make moves, you’re thinking to yourself, ‘They’re getting better by the day.’ But that’s the nature of the beast. It really doesn’t mean anything.
Except it does if those other teams pass the Braves in the standings and the team finds itself at home once again this October.
I am political science professor at the University of North Carolina. I grew up watching the Braves on TBS and acquired Red Sox fandom during the 1986 World Series. My other hobbies include cooking, good red wine, curing meats, and obsessing over Alabama football---Roll Tide! Follow me on Twitter @ProfJRoberts.