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Old 01-10-2012, 07:10 PM
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Shauna Smith Shauna Smith is offline
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Default Braves: Team looks to bounce back

Braves: Team looks to bounce back

Recent history demonstrates the Atlanta Braves have no qualms about promoting inexperienced players to prominent positions when they're ready.

Closer Craig Kimbrel and first baseman Freddie Freeman finished 1-2 in voting for the 2011 National League rookie of the year award for a team that probably would have made the playoffs if not for key injuries down the stretch. The previous season, outfielder Jason Heyward was second in the rookie balloting for a team that reached the playoffs.
The 2012 Braves again will be dependent on contributions from the farm system. At the moment, the shortstop job is rookie Tyler Pastornicky's to lose in spring training, and some combination of Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen and Randall Delgado likely will factor in the rotation.

"We have a lot to look forward to," says general manager Frank Wren, whose organization can't take any joy in looking back to last season.
The Braves, 10 games ahead of the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals for the NL wild-card spot on Aug. 26, shared September's negative spotlight with the Boston Red Sox. They dropped eight of their last 10 games, including the final five, to cough up a postseason berth.
"It's not like we can close our eyes and pretend it didn't happen," manager Fredi Gonzalez said.

The perceived strength of the Braves, their young pitching, was not sufficient to compensate for the losses of starting pitchers Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens to injuries, putting the burden on a bullpen that had carried the team all season.

The task was made more difficult by an offense that went cold, scoring more than five runs in six of the final 43 games and totaling seven runs in those final five.
"Realistically, we were a 95-win team, but the reality is we only won 89," Wren says. "So, we're looking to fine-tune, not blow this thing up."
Barring a deal, the most prominent addition to the lineup will be Pastornicky, 22, who has 27 games of Class AAA experience (and none in the majors). He spent most of last season in Class AA , batting .299 with six homers and 20 steals.
Pastornicky was acquired with last year's shortstop, Alex Gonzalez, from the Toronto Blue Jays in a midseason 2010 deal that sent shortstop Yunel Escobar and pitcher Jo-Jo Reyes to Toronto. If Pastornicky can show the kind of defensive consistency Freeman did as a rookie, he won't have to impact the offense as much as Freeman did when he hit .282 with 21 homers.
"We're not committed (to Pastornicky as the starter). But we're confident he can handle the job," Wren says. "If that's the way we end up going, we're happy with that. (But) we'd like to get a veteran backup shortstop to protect Pastornicky."
Heyward batted .277 with 18 homers as a rookie. Getting him back on track after he plummeted to .227 with 14 homers last season is among the team's priorities.
"He's a big piece for us," says Gonzalez, noting Heyward has dropped about 15 pounds and has been doing remedial work with new hitting coach Greg Walker.

But more than anything, it figures to be young pitching that will carry the Braves in 2012 and beyond. The system is stacked to the point where, according to news media reports, the team has entertained thoughts of trading Jurrjens (13-6, 2.96 ERA last season) for positional help.
Still, the Braves must be judicious. Jurrjens, arbitration-eligible, has had right knee issues. Tim Hudson, 36, was 16-10 with a 3.22 ERA in 2011 but required offseason surgery to repair a herniated disk and could be a slow starter this spring. Hanson was unavailable to pitch after Aug. 6 last season and has been working on strengthening his back and shoulder.

Offensively, Atlanta should have more speed with a full season of Michael Bourn in center field and Jose Constanza as a possible fourth outfielder. The Braves stole 77 bases last season, 14th in the NL.
Beyond health, what the Braves seek is consistency. Dan Uggla rebounded from an ugly start to lead the team with 36 homers in 2011, but catcher Brian McCann, plagued by a stomach muscle injury, could not maintain his All-Star form down the stretch.
Third baseman Chipper Jones, who turns 40 in April, contributes on and off the field. The key is to keep him on it, particularly after right knee surgery last season. The same goes for left fielder Martin Prado, whose 2011 drop-off was in part because of a staph infection in his right calf that cost him 31 games.
With health, consistency and another infusion of young blood, the Braves have a chance to erase those lingering memories of September.
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