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September 29, 2011

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Atlanta Braves

by Ben Lindbergh, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fadewhether in September (or before), the League Division Series, League Championship Series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski and Kevin Goldstein's farm system overview.

Today we look at the Atlanta Braves, a team that managed to miss the playoffs despite holding a 10.5-game wild-card lead in late August.

Projected 2012 Lineup
Atlanta's plethora of young arms is the envy of most of baseball. However, its lineup needs some help, as Chipper Jones is getting old, Martin Prado's bat does not profile in a corner and Jason Heyward took a step back.

Baseball Prospectus' Take

Signs of hope:
Top pitching prospects Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, and Arodys Vizcaino made their first appearances in a rotation that also featured four other successful 25-and-under arms in Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson and Mike Minor, giving Atlanta a surfeit of starters for next season behind Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe, both of whom are signed for 2012. Youth also made an impact in the back of the best bullpen in baseball, where Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty combined for a 1.64 ERA in 236 1/3 innings. In other words, the Braves' pitching staff appears to be in very good shape for years to come.

Signs of disaster: Atlanta's lineup was never a powerhouse, but the Braves completely fell apart at the plate in the midst of losing 20 of their last 30 games, averaging 3.1 runs in support of their arms. Jason Heyward managed only a .253 TAv in what was a disappointing season for the defending rookie of the year runner-up. Given Heyward's prospect pedigree and successful rookie season, his sophomore slump has all the makings of a "sign to ignore," but the outfielder's offensive struggles were accompanied (and perhaps precipitated) by a stint on the disabled list, which is starting to resemble a pattern. Heyward's fragility could keep him from making the most of his physical gifts, which would force the Braves to continue to search for outfield offense that looks even less likely to succeed in light of Martin Prado's metamorphosis from a second baseman who hit like a left fielder to a left fielder who hit like a second baseman.

Signs you can ignore: Not many memorable major leaguers make their debuts at 27 years old, but after getting the call a month before his 28th birthday, Jose Constanza hit .375 AVG/.423 OBP/.500 SLG in his first 20 games with as many homers as he had hit in his four most recent minor league seasons combined (two), prompting Fredi Gonzalez to briefly bench Heyward in Constanza's favor. Over his next 20 games, Constanza went 6-for-36 without a walk or an extra-base hit, which was more the slap-hitting outfielder's speed. Jurrjens became just the 10th pitcher since 1993 to throw at least 150 innings with a sub-3.00 ERA and a strikeout rate below 5.5 per nine innings, which suggests that he'll have trouble repeating the feat. Ben Lindbergh, Baseball Prospectus

Bowden's Bold Move
The Braves head into the offseason with disappointment and optimism at the same time. If Jurrjens and Hanson can get healthy in the offseason, the pitching staff should be in good hands next year with the addition of some of the young arms.

What the Braves need is a jolt on offense, and shortstop is a good place to start. Alex Gonzalez posted a .270 OBP this year, and the Braves need an upgrade. The Braves hold a team option on him that they should decline, then they should make a push to sign either Jose Reyes or Jimmy Rollins. Reyes should obviously be their top target because he would completely change the top of their lineup. With Reyes and Michael Bourn at the top followed by a healthy Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Dan Uggla, Freddie Freeman and Heyward, the Braves could have a devastating run-producing lineup in 2012. However, it's likely Reyes will be out of their price range, so Rollins is probably a more realistic option.

Additionally, manager Fredi Gonzalez will have to let the starters go deeper in 2012 and reduce the appearances of all of his good, young bullpen arms so they don't get hurt. The Braves underachieved in 2012 because of injuries, inexperience and youth, but they'll be a team to be reckoned with next year. An athletic shortstop such as Reyes or Rollins would put them over the top. Jim Bowden

Hopes and Fears
Best-case scenario ZiPS projection: 93-69

The Braves would reach this figure with the same basic method that enabled them to go 89-73 this year: solid pitching rotation with lots of depth and upside and a killer bullpen that sends opposing fans home in the seventh and an ordinary lineup. When everybody's healthy, the Braves' rotation is one of the best in baseball. To compete with the Phillies mano-a-mano, the Braves have to make up the difference on offense, which they can't do without getting anything from short and most of the outfield. The good news on that front is that the smart money is on Heyward, 22, having a healthier and overall better 2012. Getting a real left fielder instead of miscasting Martin Prado as a corner outfield, someone such as Josh Willingham, could also help out.

Worst-case scenario: 78-84
The Braves have a deep pitching staff that can survive a few injuries, but the same can't be said with the offense. The team got a sigh of relief during the season after Jones announced his return, but as solid as he was this year, he turns 40 a couple of weeks into next season, and it's risky for the Braves to rely so much on their future Hall of Famer's twilight years. If the team doesn't get better, more consistent performances next year from Heyward and Uggla, they may have to do the unthinkable and trade some of their pitching surplus to bring in a bat. Otherwise, the Braves risk a repeat performance of September 2011, with the offense scoring two runs or less in 10 games for the month. Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory

Organizational Future
A combination of injuries and desperation caused the Braves to bring up nearly all of their top prospects in 2011. Now the question is which of them will play a role in 2012 with most of this season's team returning. The only glaring hole will be a shortstop, and while he was called up for the final game of the year (not that he'll want to remember), there are questions about Tyler Pastornicky's readiness come Opening Day 2012. Look for the team to sign a placeholder, even maybe Alex Gonzalez again for one year, but Pastornicky is the future as a solid defensive player who makes up for a lack of power with walks and stolen bases. More pressing decisions will need to be made with the pitching staff as the rotation has reached logjam status, with Teheran, Minor and Delgado clearly ready with no clear jobs available. It's a nice problem to have, and this kind of pitching depth could end up being used this offseason to address more pressing needs in the everyday lineup. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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