2012 Organizational Rankings: #8 Atlanta

Read the methodology behind the ratings here. Remember that the grading scale is 20-80, with 50 representing league average.

2012 Organizational Rankings

#30 – Baltimore
#29 – Houston
#28 – Oakland
#27 – Pittsburgh
#26 – San Diego
#25 – Minnesota
#24 – Chicago AL
#23 – Seattle
#22 – Kansas City
#21 – Cleveland
#20 – New York Mets
#19 – Los Angeles Dodgers
#18 – Colorado
#17 — Miami
#16 — Diamondbacks
#15 — Cincinnati
#14 — Cubs
#13 — Milwaukee
#12 — San Francisco
#11 — Washington

#10 — Tampa Bay
#9 – Toronto

Atlanta’s 2011 Ranking: 5th

2012 Outlook: 57 (tied for 9th)

If I remember correctly (it has been a few months) Atlanta’s 2011 seasons did not end quite the way the wanted it to end. Perhaps the superstitious think that those “bad vibes” are going to hang around and ruin Atlanta’s 2012 as well. There are some other less pressing issues, but the Braves are in a position to make yet another run at the playoffs.

It will not be easy. The Marlins invested in free agency, and exciting young talent like Logan Morrison and especially (and frighteningly) Giancarlo Stanton should continue to improve. The Washington Nationals also seem to be moving out of their wilderness years. Despite injury issues, the Phillies have enough pitching that they should not be dismissed too quickly.

While the East may have more legitimate contenders than it has in years, at the moment the Braves look like the best of the group (if by a smaller margin than the Phillies of recent years). This may be the season that the Phillies’ clock runs out; the injuries are telling in more ways that one. The Marlins and Nationals are close, but are not quite on Atlanta’s level (check in with me again after the season). The Mets are still pulling themselves out of a multifaceted mess.

As for Atlanta, it may be hard to remember, but had a good year overall in 2011 despite the late collapse, and in many ways they should be better in 2012. Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman are still on the upswing, Dan Uggla should be better, and a full year of Michael Bourn should also be an improvement over the Braves pre-Bourn Gong Show in center field. Tim Hudson is going to miss at least a few weeks as he recovers from surgery, but I think I heard somewhere that the Braves have some decent young pitchers.

2013+ Outlook: 57 (T – 3rd)

One could argue that this “future” rating is too optimistic, even if the Phillies are on the downswing and the Mets take years to recover for their current situation. As noted above, the Marlins new free-spending ways, should they continue, could make them a continuing threat for the next few years. The Nationals have money and young talent.

Moreover, the Atlanta’s formerly great farm system is now generally considered by many to be middle of the pack. Their best minor league prospects are pitchers, which is nice, but pitching prospects are much riskier than hitting prospects, and Atlanta is generally acknowledged to have poor positional talent down of the farm.

With those qualifications noted, the Braves still have a very bright future. Their minor league system may not be what it has been in the past, but any system that graduates hitters like Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman is going to be in a downswing. Heyward had a rough 2011, of course, but his past performance in the majors and minors did not simply disappear. Freeman may have had the most underrated rookie performance of 2011: like most people, I would rather have Eric Hosmer, but it is worth noting that Freeman is only a month older than Hosmer and actually had a higher wRC+ in 2011.

Chipper Jones is going to be gone after this season, but while the team will miss the second-greatest switch-hitter in baseball history and his lectures to younger players about playing through injuries while putting in his typical Ripken-esque schedule, the team has been slowly learning to live without him the last few years. Freeman and Heyward may be the only position players with tons of upside currently on the major league team, but given their age, it is impressive upside. Uggla and the weirdly-underrated Brian McCann should both be better in 2012 and should be good for the Braves through at least 2013.

About that minor-league pitching talent: yes, it could all go wrong. Ask former Atlanta farm system guru and current Royals GM Dayton Moore about the volatility of pitching prospects. However, Atlanta’s future pitching is not just to be found in the minors. Do I really need to say it? The Braves have a boatload of young pitching that is already in the majors. Tommy Hanson, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, Craig Kimbrel… both the rotation and the pen are young and loaded. Yes, plenty could go wrong, but the depth in both the majors and minors gives the Braves’ group of hurlers more “padding,” both now and in the future, than just about any team in baseball.

Every team has questions about their future, and Atlanta is no exception. Overall, their young talent is promising.

Financial Resources: 49 (T – 15th)

The Braves are right in the middle of the pack on Forbes latest team valuation rankings, and that is where they rank here, too. The “Turner Days” are long over, and while a payroll between $80 and $90 million is not terrible, it is not all that great, either, especially in the current NL East. Moreover, the Braves’ TV deal is underwhelming and is not up for renegotiation for a long time.

On the other hand, the Braves currently do not have any potential albatross contracts on their hands other than maybe Uggla’s, so even with arbitration raises over the next few years, they should have some payroll flexibility in the future. The reliance on young, cost-controlled talent comes through again keeps the Braves from slipping lower in this category.

Baseball Operations: 49 (T- 11th)

The difficulties in evaluating baseball operations from the outside is rather obvious. We know so little, we probably should not even do it. That is why we do not let people who have never held office vote or even express their opinion about politics, right? Obviously not, but we FanGraphers think the Braves do a pretty good job, anyway.

The Braves have a reputation among fans as a relatively traditional front office, but that may be a bit misleading. Of course, every team in baseball utilizes some degree of “objective analysis,” but that really is not what this category is about, at least not for me. Whatever methods they use, are they doing a good job (again, allowing that we have to infer a good deal about the process from the results)?

On the negative side, one could point to Atlanta’s relative stinginess in the draft the last few years as one problem. More more obvious are the horrible failures in their attempts to upgrade the outfield in trades for Nate McLouth and Melky Cabrera. Thus far, the Yunel Escobar deal looks like a big loss for the Braves, at least from the outside — we do not really have the “inside information” necessary to judge it otherwise.

I cannot discuss every transaction, of course, and there is no doubt those trades did not work out well in terms of the Braves’ return. But while the Yunel deal is a bust for Atlanta given what we know, look at the other two trades — as bad as McLouth and Cabrera were, did the Braves end up giving away anything that turned out to be very valuable? I suppose Charlie Morton might still be a useful starting pitcher, but he is hurt. I did not think Javier Vazquez would collapse like he did after the Braves traded him for Melky, but it happened, and the Braves got exciting (if currently out with Tommy John) pitching prospect Arodys Vizcaino back, as well. The point is that as bad as those trades may look in terms of what the Braves go on the field (so far), that they seem to have a good track record of not giving up much for those guys, either.

Some might see the team’s inaction during this off-season as an organizational failure. I disagree. Even if we put budgetary issues aside, this could be looked at positively — why make a move just to make a move? The team reportedly shopped players like Jair Jurrjens and Martin Prado, and while neither are world-beaters, there is no sense in just giving them away if they are still useful.

Finally, while the low draft spending has probably contributed to the farm’s current dearth of really good position players, it is worth noting again that Freeman and Heyward are relatively recent graduates. Moreover, the Braves’ scouting staff have even shown they can work around that — Brandon Beachy, my pick for 2011 NL Rookie of the Year, was signed as undrafted free agent.

Atlanta’s current front office has made some questionable trades. It will probably never live up to the mythology of the Schuerholtz era. However, once once compares the budgets (relative to the rest of the league) of the 1990s Braves with the current team, and takes a closer look at Frank Wren and company’s trades, the current group starts to look better. Given what little we know, it seems quite fair to put the Braves’ front office in the top half of the league.

Overall: 57 (8th)

If the Phillies survive their injuries, the Marlins have a monster year, and the Nationals young talent plays up to its potential, ranking the Braves this high might seem silly in September. However, for a few years now the Braves have been contending on an increasingly tight budget with a higher proportion of homegrown players. The minors might be thin now, but that is because they have so much good, high-upside talent already in the majors. If the position players hold up their end, there is enough pitching depth that the Braves should be contenders in 2012 and beyond.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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