Under no circumstances is this a bad team. The Braves biggest strength is their bullpen led by NL Rookie of the Year RHP Craig Kimbrel (4-3, 2.10, 43 saves in 79 games). Jonny Venters pitched in 85 games, going 6-2, 1.84, 5 saves. Perhaps the most underrated reliever was LHP Eric O'Flaherty, who pitched in 78 games and went 2-4 with a 0.98 ERA. The three were overused towards the end of 2011 and wore down, something that could have been avoided. This year they do not have veterans Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill, so they will rely on former starter Kyle Medlen and Anthony Vavaro to keep Gonzalez from having to go to the other three every day. Peter Moylan, who prior to 2011 had pitched in 80+ games three of the last four years, looks to regain form and contribute this year.
The starting rotation had some tough injuries in September last year. Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens were non factors in September and that led to the strain on the bullpen. They traded Derek Lowe to Cleveland to free up a regular rotation spot for Mike Minor (5-3, 4.13 in 15 starts). Tim Hudson (16-10, 3.22) is their ace, but will miss some time to start the season. Hanson (11-7, 3.60 in 22 starts) had an unfortunate accident and hopes to be ready for opening day. Jurrjens (13-6, 2.96 in 23 starts) got off to an incredible start before injuries and fatigue kept him from second half success. Brandon Beachy (7-3, 3.68 in 25 starts) rounds out the rotation with either 21 year old Randall Delgado or 20 year old Julio Teheran filling Hudson's spot until he returns.
Offensively, the Braves need guys like Chipper Jones and Jason Heyward to have big years to have a chance to get back to the postseason, where they were in 2010. Heyward had a terrible year in 2011 (.227, 14, 42) after nearly winning the ROY in 2010 (.277, 18, 72). Michael Bourn gets to play a full season in Atlanta, his last before he becomes a free agent after this season. Hw hit .294, 2, 50 with a league leading 61 SB. Martin Prado (.260, 13, 57), Jones (.275, 18, 70) and C Brian McCann (.270, 24, 71) will bat 2-4 in the lineup. Dan Uggla, who was a tale of two seasons in 2011, hit .233, 36, 82 after a terrible start. Freddi Freeman (.282, 21, 76) is expected to get even better after nearly taking the ROY away from Kimbrel last year. Tyler Pastornicky will get the chance to replace Alex Gonzalez, who went to Milwaukee. Pastornicky, who is just 22, played 117 games for AA and AAA last year, hitting .314, 7, 45 with 27 SB.
Veteran Jack Wilson is back to help out on the bench. They also have Matt Diaz and Eric Hinske, giving them a deeper bench than some would think. Brooks Conrad and Nate McLouth are gone, which will open up one more bench spot for this season. Jose Constanza and Josh Wilson are favorites to win the final spot on the Braves bench.
There is plenty to root for if you are a Braves fan. A good start would be very beneficial to this team after having 2011 end the way it did. The offense will need Jones, Prado and McCann to stay healthy all season as they did not do last year. Heyward needs to turn things around. The loss of Hudson means Jurrjens and Hanson need to lead this staff to start the season. I see too many questions to have faith in this team winning the division. They do have what it takes, though. Vegas has the Braves O/U at 87, and I see them taking a step back this year, finishing 81-81, third place in the NL East. I worry about how the arms of Kimbrel, Venters and O'Flaherty will rebound after all the work last year. I also do not look at Gonzalez as a top manager, especially after having Bobby Cox for all those years. If the Braves don't get off to a good start, I can see this being a tough season. However, if the offense does what it is capable, this team could make the playoffs.