Improving The Braves: An Established Power HitterBrandon Contes. 7th January, 2012 - 10:33 pm
On September 5th, it looked as if Fredi Gonzalez would lead the Braves into the playoffs without any serious challenger. A little more than three weeks later and the epic collapse was complete.
The Braves were 89-73, good for second place in the NL East so this isn't a situation where they are lacking a ton of pieces, or need to think about a large shakeup. Looking ahead to the 2012 season, the Braves need to maintain their core, but address the issues that caused them to struggle in September.
As with most good Braves teams that we've seen over the last 20 years, this one was built on great pitching. Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Mike Minor, and Derek Lowe made up for one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. The Braves ranked 4th in ERA, 1st in strikeouts, 6th in WHIP, and their closer Craig Kimbrel was arguably the most dominant reliever in baseball. Unfortunately for Braves fans, they can only remember the blown save in game 162. Nonetheless, it certainly isn't pitching that the Braves need to improve on for next season.
The Braves do need to improve their offense in 2012. Looking at their offensive stats from 2011, the Braves ranked 26th in OBP, 26th in batting average, 23rd in hits, and a more respectable 8th in homeruns. Taking that into account, it would appear that they're okay in the power department, but in desperate need of top of the order talent. I actually think it's the other way around and the Braves should look to add a power bat for a couple of reasons.
The first reason is the addition of Michael Bourn from the Houston Astros just before the trade deadline. Bourn was one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball last year, playing most of the season with a terrible Astro team. Playing a full season with a playoff caliber team like the Braves should help him to improve, but even if he has a drop off you can still pencil him in for at least a .280 batting average, .340 OBP, and 45 stolen bases. Another top of the order hitter, Martin Prado, had the worst season of his career last year. Coming off three consecutive seasons hitting over .300, his batting average and OBP dropped off by nearly 50 points each. At only 28-years-old, there's no reason to believe Prado can't get back to his 2010 All-Star season.
The Braves have a young developing talent in Freddie Freeman and I believe its safe to assume an improved second year for him, however, its always possible to have a sophomore slump like Jason Heyward. Heyward, who had a brutal second year in the majors, needs to have a bounce back year and get back to being the budding all-star we saw his rookie season. Heyward hit .227 with a .319 OBP and had drop-offs in every single major statistical offensive category from his rookie campaign. For a player with his talent he needs to, and will have a drastically improved season or he'll find himself in the minor leagues.
Although the Braves ranked 8th in home runs last season, they had only one legitimate power hitter in Dan Uggla. And although he has been a proven homerun hitter, Uggla is not a good enough all around hitter to rely on in the clean-up spot. Brian McCann may be the most reliable hitter on the team. However, as good of an offensive catcher as he is, he's no Mike Piazza, he can't carry a team. Chipper added 18 homers last year, but at his age who knows what to expect from him. The Braves need an established power hitter. They need a hitter that puts some fear into pitchers, and right now they don't have that.
The one thing the Braves do have is an abundance of pitching. They have it in their rotation, they have it in their bullpen, and they have it in their farm system. Yes, you can never have enough pitching, but they have other needs to fill and pitching is the most valuable asset in baseball. The Braves can afford to part with a pitcher, and they need to look to do that. Jair Jurrjens is the most viable candidate to be traded. He will command a lot of value being that he'll only be 26 at the start of the season, and he's proven to be top of the rotation talent in his young career. The Braves have minor league talent ready to step in the rotation, most notably Julio Teheran. Teheran was dominant in AAA last year, and makes Jurrjens more expendable.
So who could they trade Jurrjens for? One team that looks to be a perfect match for a trade would be the Texas Rangers. The Rangers could have used an additional pitcher last year when they were unable to re-sign Cliff Lee, and now the loss of CJ Wilson makes them even more in need. Their plan is to move closer Neftali Feliz to the rotation, but how did that work out for the Yankees with Joba Chamberlain? The Rangers are a team that could use starting pitching, and have excess hitters. Maybe the Braves ask for Nelson Cruz, a 31-year-old power hitter, who when healthy is very dangerous at the plate. Its much easier to trade pitching for hitting, than it is hitting for pitchers. Its not uncommon to see a team willing to part with a hitter for a pitcher, but its more rare to find a team willing to part with that frontline starter. They have a hole to fill and they can afford to part with a starting pitcher. With excess pitching, the Braves are in the driver's seat and need to take advantage.
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