Rough spring, but Braves still contenders

Dan Uggla and Brian McCann will be counted on to provide pop for the Braves in 2012. Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

With the way 2011 ended for the Atlanta Braves, many hoped a good start in spring training would put any thoughts about last season behind them. At the start of camp, however, Tommy Hanson crashed his car and received a concussion. That was certainly not a good omen, to say the least.

Then Tyler Pastornicky, the expected starting shortstop, started 3-for-33, sparking questions about whether he or last season’s Lynchburg Hillcat (Atlanta's high-A affiliate) shortstop Andrelton Simmons should start at shortstop. A week ago, Chipper Jones stated in jest that he was unsure if he could even finish the season, and then Thursday announced that he'll retire at the end of the season. Additionally, the team is 6-13 in the Grapefruit League, ahead of only the Mets. Spring training records do not mean much, if anything, but the Braves have most certainly not played quality baseball.

On Tuesday, the worst news of the spring hit the Braves as Arodys Vizcaino, the 14th-ranked prospect in baseball according to Keith Law, will miss the entire season with Tommy John surgery. Vizcaino was projected to pitch in the Braves’ bullpen and was expected to help ease the workload of the team’s back-end relievers.

Not much has gone right, but there are still reasons to be optimistic. With Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy ready to break out and Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado not far behind them, the Braves still have a strong core of young starting pitchers who are major league ready. With Tim Hudson already being ruled out until the start of May and Hanson and Jair Jurrjens attempting to rebound from last year’s season-ending injuries, the depth in the rotation is the team’s biggest strength and should come in handy over the course of the season.

Although Vizcaino will miss the year, swingman Kris Medlen should bolster what was already one of the game’s top bullpens. His ability to eat innings, along with fellow bullpen mate Cristhian Martinez, should lessen the workload on Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. The bullpen should again be stellar.

While the pitching should remain sturdy, the big questions in Braves camp revolve around the bats. Jason Heyward and Martin Prado had sub-standard years and will look to rebound, while Brian McCann and Dan Uggla try to stay consistent throughout the season. Heyward has altered both his swing and stance, and he has really started to swing the bat well over the past two weeks. Prado and Uggla have both looked tremendous all spring.

The basic assumption the front office has made, judging by their lack of acquisitions, is that they doubt things go as bad for the offense in 2012 as they did last year. Having Michael Bourn in center field for the entire season should stabilize the top of the lineup and result in improved production compared to what the Braves received from Nate McLouth, Jordan Schafer and Bourn during his few months with the team.

With all that went bad toward the end of last year, this team still won 89 games and would have made the playoffs if this season’s playoff format had been in place. They have a ton of pitching depth and have one of the best bullpens in the league. While they do not have a tremendous offense and will likely struggle with their infield defense, they do have the tools to score runs and prevent runs at a better than average rate. As bad as this spring has been, the Braves are still one of the better teams in the National League and should certainly be in competition for a playoff spot, which is all you can really ask for in a crowded NL East.

Ben Duronio writes regularly about the Braves at Capitol Avenue Club. You can follow him on Twitter @Ben_Duronio.