What the Braves need to do to get back to the World Series

I was reading the AJC post from Mark Bradley–the one where he said the Braves will be in the World Series soon–and it got me thinking.

What do the Atlanta Braves need to do to get back to the World Series?

I believe that the most important thing the Braves need to do is get their 22-year old mega-prospect Jason Heyward back on track. His BABIP dropped from .335 to .260 this season, resulting in a dip in his actual average to .227 in 2011. I say this is a result of him not hitting the ball as hard and his swing not being as good mechanically as his rookie year. His line-drive rate of 13.1% supports that (down from 17.8% as a rookie). He struck out almost the exact same amount (20.4% to 20.5%) so the quality of his balls were that they were not as well-struck as when he almost won the NL Rookie of the Year award.

I don’t want this to be a Jason Heyward post alone, but I feel that his talent warrants a significant amount of weight in this scribe. A huge reason that the Braves fell short of expectations is because Heyward wasn’t the middle of the order force that almost everyone in baseball believed he would become in 2011. This is a generational talent that we’re talking about, and a player whom many believe could become the prize gem in all of baseball in a short time. For him to do what he did this year had to be considered a blip on the radar and an anomaly rather than pure actuality.

Heyward started out with a nagging and puzzling shoulder injury that always checked out clean. This lead to a slump after an initial fast start and the slump turned into a season long funk. Anyone that knows baseball could tell at the All-Star break that this player was in serious trouble and that it wasn’t likely to be something he would come out of.

Which leads into my next point: Fredi Gonzalez must prove that he can manage young superstars. To this point, this is my single biggest criticism of the manager that everyone is so high on. This was something that Bobby Cox never had a problem with; and this is something that is quietly becoming an issue for Gonzalez due to what I believe is an inflated ego.

Remember, Gonzalez was out in Florida last year because of his hot and cold relationship with Hanley Ramirez. Clearly, the organization didn’t value the manager over the star. That was a red flag to me when the Braves hired Gonzalez.

As the season wore on, it was puzzling to me that a manager who is known to attend SABR conventions would be so easily swayed by a slump or worrying about Jason Heyward hitting into a double play in regards to where he hit the young prospect in the lineup in 2011.

Heyward spent the majority of the time–especially in the second half of the year–hitting down in the order. Fredi started hitting him 6th, and then it was 7th, and at the end of the year it was 8th. I’ve played baseball and I could relate what this did to the young player’s confidence. Not to mention that for a good six weeks, Gonzalez elected to play a guy who is destined to be a career journeyman Jose Costanza over Heyward.

When the Braves needed one last punch down the stretch from a guy like Heyward–that punch of irony never came and was eliminated by the mismanagement of the situation by the manager.

Everyone will point to injuries to Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson. Those are obvious reasons that this team didn’t make the postseason. But when you factor in that they wasted the best half season in Dan Uggla’s life; and a solid season that they were not probably counting on from Chipper Jones (who played like a man on fire down the stretch), I simply refuse to say that the Braves fell short due to misfortune.

Keep in mind that they got career years from three men in their bullpen. Craig Kimbrel, Johnny Venters, and Eric O’Flaherty were as unhittable as any three bullpen arms in baseball this season.

The Braves won 89 games last season and failed to really hit all year long. If they get some improvement in this area–and positive contributions from Heyward (he should be left in the middle of the lineup to mature in 2012) along with a little bump from the shortstop has us looking at a dangerous and World Series caliber lineup. Everyone forgets how terrific Freddy Freeman was and Michael Bourn, Brian McCann, and Martin Prado are still in their prime years.

If the Braves can upgrade the shortstop position it would be a plus, but it’s not a must the way I see it. Alex Gonzalez hits more than most shortstops and his numbers at the bottom of a lineup provide value. He’s good and sound defensively. I look for them to bring him back and employ more of the same in the form of a lineup. But Gonzalez; not Heyward, should be the name penciled in near the bottom of the lineup card.

They might not have a ton of money to spend, but they are short on holes to fill. At some point, regression will set in with Tim Hudson who will be 36 years old, but it won’t be all at once. That gap should be made up by Jurrjens, Hanson, Beachy and Mike Minor. Any of these four have plus-stuff to become TOR (Top of Rotation) arms while Hudson settles into an informal #3 or #4 role.

It really comes down to Fredi Gonzalez practicing what he preaches and weathering storms that every season brings. This team collapsed because he did not believe strongly enough in the scouts that said Jason Heyward was ready to hit in the middle of the lineup. He thought that he knew better. He was wrong.

While I don’t believe the Braves are a lock to make the World Series next season, I do think that there is something to be said for the example laid by the Cardinals. A little bit of pop in a lineup and timely hitting; one hot ace pitcher and they’re on a roll that cannot be stopped. And Tony LaRussa has made all the right calls this fall, managing like his hair is on fire. The Cardinals are an unstoppable force right now because they’re buying into what LaRussa is doing–every move, and every slumping bat left in the lineup just an extra day. The Braves perhaps collapsed because Fredi did not keep the faith in a young and integral part of the present and future.

If the Braves are going to get back to the series, they’re going to have to let the game come to them instead of trying to re-invent the wheel like Gonzalez did in 2011. Patience at the plate and patience and faith in the guys who are regulars and key parts are going to be the biggest key for this group to take the next step. This is something Bobby Cox had no problem with. If Bobby Cox was managing these Braves, I believe they’re in the NLCS at a minimum and we never end up talking about this run the Cardinals had because they wouldn’t even have been part of this postseason.


Tags: Alex Gonzalez Chipper Jones Craig Kimbrel Dan Uggla Eric O’Flaherty Freddy Freeman Fredi Gonzalez Jason Heyward Johnny Venters SABR Tim Hudson Tony LaRussa World Series

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