Braves moving forward after collapse
Late-season fade overshadowed by Red Sox's meltdown, but Atlanta hurt by fold
The 2011 Atlanta Braves finished the season with one of the most demoralizing collapses in baseball history, but you have to admire the way they took their lumps and disappeared without subjecting America to too much drama or internal anguish. With the exception of a coaching change here and a few early Hot Stove moves there, the Braves have pressed forward with a minimum of handwringing, vitriol or clubhouse intrigue.
The manager is still gainfully employed, and the general manager is still around calling the shots and trying to make the necessary roster upgrades. There's no trail of breadcrumbs -- or chicken-and-biscuit crumbs -- to serve as a reminder that the whole sordid ordeal ever happened.
Fans in much of the country love to complain about the "East Coast bias'' of ESPN and other media outlets, but there's a corresponding upside for teams outside the New York-Boston-Philadelphia axis: When you lose 18 or your last 26 and blow a 10.5-game wild-card lead in late August, it's not such a bad thing to avoid national scrutiny.
"We all know the Yankees and Red Sox are going to get more attention. That's one of those things,'' Braves GM Frank Wren said. "But this was a struggle for all of us in the organization. The staff. The players. Everyone. We'd just as soon be the forgotten group in this situation.
"It's as tough a time as you're going to have in this game, I think. We went into September with one of the top four teams in baseball and had a big lead, and we could see it slipping away. No matter how hard we tried -- and people tried -- we couldn't stop it.''
Five weeks later, the transition to 2012 is well under way in Atlanta. The Braves have replaced hitting coach Larry Parrish with Greg Walker, formerly of the White Sox. They exercised a $1.5 million club option on veteran utility man Eric Hinske and, as expected, declined a $10.65 million option on outfielder Nate McLouth.
Wren also created a spot in the starting rotation and gave himself some financial wiggle room by trading Derek Lowe to Cleveland. The Braves are paying $10 million of Lowe's 2012 salary while Cleveland assumes $5 million and gets a veteran to eat innings and throw ground balls at the back end of the rotation, so it has the makings of a beneficial arrangement for both sides.
Wren and his staff haven't had to spend much time doing a CSI: Atlanta type of dissection of the collapse, if only because they saw it unfold in real time. In hindsight, the Braves' fade corresponded to some late August weather weirdness: After sitting idle for three days because of Hurricane Irene, they returned to go 10-19. That late meltdown turned a 95-win playoff club into an 89-win spectator.
"When we came back, I really do believe that we lost a competitive edge,'' Wren said. "We were not quite the same. I equate it to a closer coming into a four-run-down game to get work. They don't have the same adrenalin or edge that makes them so good. I think as a team, we were like that a lot in September.''
Braves fans will forever lament rookie closer Craig Kimbrel blowing a ninth-inning lead to kick off a three-game St. Louis sweep of Atlanta in early September, or Chipper Jones losing a ground ball in the lights in a loss to Florida, or the Braves flailing against Michael Schwimer, Justin De Fratus and the 2011 Lehigh Valley IronPigs bullpen in a 13-inning loss to Philadelphia in the season finale.
If one sequence could symbolize an entire season, it came against Washington in game No. 159. Atlanta loaded the bases with nobody out against Nationals starter Ross Detwiler in the third inning. But Michael Bourn fouled out to left, Martin Prado flied out to right and Jones hit into a fielder's choice, and Atlanta went on to lose 3-0.
Even with the loss of starters Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens to injury in the final month, it basically came down to an inept offense. The Braves ranked 22nd in the majors in both runs (641) and OPS (.695), and there were plenty of individual culprits.
Prado missed a month with a staph infection, and hit .244 with a .622 OPS after the All-Star break. Perennial All-Star Brian McCann hit .180 after returning from a strained oblique in mid-August. And Jason Heyward continued to discover that stardom can be fleeting.
Heyward has been injured; altered his approach and hitting mechanics in response to the injuries; been chastised by Jones for an inability to play through the aches and pains; and finished last season with a lower OPS (.708) than Ty Wigginton and Geovany Soto, among others.
Think back to the spring of 2010, when Heyward wowed then-manager Bobby Cox in spring training and got a shaving cream pie in the face after a monster performance on Opening Day, and it was probably a little too much, too soon. If Walker has one mandate above all others, it's to strike up a productive working relationship with Heyward and get him right moving forward.
Some major challenges also await manager Fredi Gonzalez, who has become a lightning rod for fan discontent in Atlanta. The No. 1 accusation against Gonzalez is that he blew out his young bullpen late in the season. Jonny Venters led the majors with 85 appearances, Kimbrel tied for third with 79 and Eric O'Flaherty was right behind with 78, and they didn't have much left in the tank by late September. But there were extenuating circumstances.
Atlanta led the majors with 26 extra-inning games -- the franchise's highest total since the 1943 Boston Braves played 27 -- so Gonzalez had to throw the kids into the fire on days when he would have preferred to let them rest.
Gonzalez also stuck with Lowe rather than give Julio Teheran a start or two down the stretch, and Lowe's 0-5, 8.75 ERA September was the polar opposite of his killer final month in 2010. Finally, Gonzalez incurred some second-guessing by limiting outfielder Jose Costanza's playing time in September. But in fairness, if the Braves were dependent on a 27-year-old rookie sparkplug to lead them to the promised land, they were probably doomed from the start.
Did Gonzalez show signs of tightness in the dugout during Atlanta's late fold? Who wouldn't?
Did he learn from managing in his first pennant race? That's the hope and the expectation.
"You have to look at our record on Aug. 26 (79-53) to know that things were clicking very well,'' Wren said. "Fredi didn't forget how to manage the last month of the season.''
The challenge in reacting to a collapse this dispiriting is making the necessary roster tweaks without overreacting. Sources confirmed an MLB.com report that the Braves are willing to entertain offers for Jurrjens and Prado. Indeed, the Braves are ready to listen on just about anyone except Heyward, first baseman Freddie Freeman and their elite young pitchers.
It's partly a function of economics. Jurrjens is two years away from free agency and is in line to make about $5.5 million next season. Prado is also eligible for free agency after the 2013 season and will probably make about $4.5 million next year.
It's also a product of inventory. Assuming that Hanson is fully recovered from shoulder problems -- never a sure thing -- Atlanta enters spring training with a rotation of Tim Hudson, Jurrjens, Hanson, Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor. Management has no plans to use Teheran, Randall Delgado or Arodys Vizcaino in the bullpen, so they could all be pitching in Triple-A next April unless the team makes a move to create some space.
Prado's best positions are second base and third. Second is filled by Dan Uggla, who recovered from a terrible start to lead the National League with 21 home runs after the All-Star break. And third belongs primarily to Jones, who turns 40 in late April and is in the final year of a three-year, $42 million deal that includes a club option for 2013. Jones' production last season (126 games, .275, 18 homers and 70 RBIs) is probably a best-case scenario at this stage of his career. It's not the optimal arrangement for a No. 3 hitter, but this is how things work when franchise icons enter their twilight years.
An offensive upgrade is at the top of Wren's offseason wish list. The Braves made a run at Hunter Pence in late July and would love to acquire a young, reasonably-priced, right-handed bat this winter.
Lorenzo Cain, a Triple-A outfielder with Kansas City who's on the verge of a big league breakthrough, has been mentioned in speculation. Scan the list of big league outfielders who fit the young-and-affordable description, and it includes names such as Austin Jackson, Chris Heisey, Jerry Sands, Peter Bourjos, Allen Craig, John Mayberry Jr., Desmond Jennings, Nolan Reimold and Casper Wells. Most of those players would be difficult or impossible to obtain (see: Jennings, Desmond) or lack the ability to make a significant difference.
The only sure thing is Wren can't afford to sit still. The Braves have to compete in a division with the powerhouse Phillies, a Marlins franchise that's jazzed by the move to a new ballpark, a Washington team with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in the long-term picture and well the Mets.
In the overall scheme of things, nothing keeps a team from dwelling on failure like the impetus to move forward. For the 2011 Braves, spring training can't arrive soon enough.
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