Condolences are the only proper greeting for a Braves fan today. And anger is an acceptable response to the team’s play in September, as well. But as the emotion subsides, two truths should stick out. The Braves had a good season, and they have a roster that is poised to get better without an overhaul.
89 wins is not an impetus to cry into your coffee. There are reasons for Braves fans to keep their heads held high, too. They played in one of the toughest divisions in baseball — the only one to produce a 100-game winner, for one — and they came up a buck short. No matter how you slice it (FIP, xFIP, SIERA or good old-fashioned ERA), they had a top-three pitching staff in the National League this year. That’s a good foundation for success, and the rest of their problems are fixable.
Those problems come in two flavors: Defense and Offense. The Braves were third-worst in UZR/150 in the NL and 11th in offense (by wRC+). A couple relatively minor tweaks could make real headway in both of these, and when it comes to offense at least, time is on their side.
There are some unfixable problems on defense. Chipper Jones is not getting younger or better with the glove anytime soon. Even if he was only the third-worst regular by UZR, it might make sense to move Martin Prado to third base as often as possible in 2012. Or, as Lance Berkman has said, would the outfield actually be easier on his knees? In terms of defense, Chipper might just be a ‘sunk cost.’
The two worst regular culprits with the glove were Freddie Freeman (-13.3 UZR/150) and Dan Uggla (-11.6 UZR/150). Uggla has been on a free-fall with the glove for some time, as he hasn’t put up a positive number in the category since 2008. Prado wasn’t amazing at the position (career -8.4), but he’s younger and closer to his peak. This tweak seems like it could be an easy one. Hopefully the veteran will be happy to move aside if the team asks it of him.
Freeman? We all know about hardware decided upon by managing staffs (Shmold Shloves, cough cough), but Freeman was voted the best defensive first baseman in the International League by a Baseball America poll given to IL managers. It’s conceivable that another year of major league experience would be all it takes to improve the defense at that position.
Age is mostly on this team’s side when it comes to offense, as well. By average age of the entire lineup (28.9 years old), they don’t show as younger than average (28.8 years for the National League), but that ignores the specific players. Prado, Freeman, Brian McCann and Jason Heyward are all 27 or younger. It’s conceivable that most of them have better years with the bat next year. Well, except for McCann maybe. A 121 wRC+ from your catcher is a pretty good season. Add in a full year of Michael Bourn — even if he didn’t have the greatest September — and this offense isn’t as bad as it’s looked at times and has the chance to get better next year.
All of this is not to say that the Braves cannot make moves to improve the team. With Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran and Arodys Vizcaino all competing for the last spot in the rotation, they actually have a wealth of riches when it comes to pitching. Could they use a pitcher to wrest away a shortstop who can defend and hit a little? That’s the only position where the Braves don’t have a starter locked in next year.
And that’s really the best way of saying it. This pitching-rich team that came up one win short of the playoffs is returning everybody but their mediocre shortstop, whom they can easily sign if only to be a backup. Their two oldest and most expensive players (Jones and Derek Lowe) will be entering the last years of their contracts, too.
Keep your heads up, Braves fans, your team is on the right track. No need for them to change course dramatically. If they work around the edges, they’ll find their way to the postseason soon enough.