The Atlanta Braves rolled throughout the 2012 season as the NL's top wild card team and a contender for the NL East title with the Nationals. Their division championship dreams fell flat, but the Braves did end up earning that top wild card berth…and their season was ended in the one game playoff by the Cardinals. The problems the Braves faced in the game were a microcosm of their entire season: a lack of hits with runners in scoring position, and defensive miscues by the two members of the team that aren't above average fielders, with a little bit of umpire incompetence mixed in as well.
If you're new here (which about 90% of our reader base is in comparison to last year), here's a brief explanation: after a team is eliminated from the playoffs, we're going to put their season under a microscope and look at just what the hell went wrong, what went right, and so on and so forth. The goal is to post these the day after a team is eliminated.
What Went Right: Jason Heyward rebounded from his sophomore slump in 2011 with an incredible 27 homer, 21 steal season that cemented him as one of the building blocks of the franchise. Martin Prado also rebounded offensively from a staph-plagued second half of 2011 to be a solid #2 hitter for Atlanta. Heyward and Prado, combined with Michael Bourn in center, formed the best defensive outfield in baseball. Speaking of Bourn, his first half was excellent, but he dropped off dramatically in the second half of the season. Chipper Jones' final season was his best since winning a batting title in 2008. Rookie shortstop Andrelton Simmons wowed fans with his glove and could already be the best defensive shortstop in the game, and backup catcher David Ross solidified his stance as the best backup in the league while getting more playing time this year. On the mound, Brandon Beachy was phenomenal before blowing his elbow out, Kris Medlen was amazing, and Craig Kimbrel anchored a solid bullpen with an amazing season that saw him strike out half the batters he faced.
What Went Wrong: Brian McCann was banged up for most of the season and didn't perform well at all. Dan Uggla had another disappointing year in Atlanta, with a career-low 19 homers. Atlanta wasted too many plate appearances on sub-replacement level players like Eric Hinske, Tyler Pastornicky, and Matt Diaz. On the mound, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson had seasons that may be worthy of nontendering, and Livan Hernandez was awful before getting released.
Most Surprising Player: Without a doubt, Kris Medlen. In 12 starts, none of which the Braves lost, Medlen had an 0.97 ERA, an 8.4 strikeout to walk ratio, and a 54.7% groundball rate. And this was his first full season after Tommy John surgery late in 2010 erased nearly all of his 2011 campaign. Medlen performed like the starter he was for half of 2008 for AA Mississippi and in 2009 for AAA Gwinnett (before getting called up to the majors). Considering his history as a starter, maybe we *should* have expected this.
Most Disappointing Player: In my column a couple of days ago about the league's most disappointing players, I named Jurrjens as one of the most diappointing players in the league, and I think that will still stand up. In ten starts and one relief appearance, he threw just 48 1/3 innings, struck out nearly as many batters as he walked, had an ERA near 7.00, and allowed nearly a homer per appearance. That's pretty terrible from a guy who was in contention to start the 2011 All-Star Game, and finished last season with an ERA under 3.00. This marks the third straight year that Jurrjens hasn't started even 25 games, and that encompasses the majority of his career.
Prospects Up: Andrelton Simmons tore up AA for a couple months before earning a promotion to the majors, mainly for his sterling glove and dazzling arm. Sean Gilmartin made it all the way to AAA in his first full pro season, and could actually be major league ready at some point next year…not that the pitching-rich Braves need him. Edward Salcedo's power took a step forward, but his plate discipline still needs a lot of work. Zeke Spruill did what Zeke Spruill does, and he looks like a potential middle of the road starter. JR Graham is looking like he can end up as a great starter or reliever. 2012 first round pick Lucas Sims looked downright horrifying in 34 innings of rookie ball.
Prospects Down: Julio Teheran had a down year repeating AAA, and his ERA nearly doubled from 2011 to 2012 thanks to a huge spike in homer rate. Randall Delgado was mediocre in the majors, and showed that he could still use some time in AAA with his time there. Tyler Pastornicky came into the year as the starting shortstop in the majors, and now looks like a bench player at best. Catcher Christian Bethancourt's bat continued to be absolutely anemic. Brandon Drury's full season debut was an unmitigated disaster. Carlos Perez was awful as a starter in A-ball, but a dominant reliever in rookie ball. The aggressive promotion of Joey Terdoslavich to AAA failed, but a demotion to AA helped his development a lot.
The Future: 2013 will be the beginning of a new era in Atlanta. Chipper Jones is gone, Brian McCann is in the last year of his contract (assuming his option for 2013 is picked up), and Tim Hudson could also be on his way out of town after 2013. This is now Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward's team, and the Braves have a lot of retooling to do with their 2013 team, including filling holes in center, in left (assuming Prado moves to third), on nearly the entire bench, and potentially behind the plate. It's going to be extremely interesting to see the direction Frank Wren goes in, whether he wants to supplement the young Braves with veterans, or just keep plugging along with the youth movement.