Braves' days of contending might be over - NBC Sports

Braves' days of contending might be over
Questions marks all over roster mean Atlanta could sink further in NL East
AP
IfÿJason Heyward doesn't rebound from a poor sophomore season, the Braves could beÿin trouble in a tough NL East.
March 20, 2012, 6:03 pm

Baseball Expert Tony DeMarco has been covering the big leagues since 1987, and been casting Hall of Fame ballots for the last 14 years. He answers questions weekly here:

Q: Much has been made of the Red Sox's collapse last season, but not many talked about the Braves. Can Atlanta bounce back from last season's collapse?
- Jason W., Gainesville, Ga.

A: On the contrary, I see enough potential problems in Atlanta to put Fredi Gonzalez on the short list of managers who could be in danger if things don't go well early. That may not be fair to Fredi - who I think is a very solid manager - but that's the way it can be in this business.

First of all, I see the Braves struggling to score runs. They finished 10th in the NL with only 641 runs last season, and may not be able to reach that number this season.

Chipper Jones probably won't stay healthy enough to match his 18 homers and 75 RBI of a year ago, and a drop off also will occur at shortstop, where Alex Gonzalez totaled 15 homers and 56 RBI in 2011.

Jones' questionable health could mean that many of Martin Prado's at-bats come as a third baseman rather than left field, and the fourth-outfielder options aren't impressive. As for projected starting shortstop Tyler Pasternicky, one NL scout said: "he looks scared to death out there.''

It all adds up to the Braves needing Jason Heyward to get past his sophomore-jinxed second season, and fulfill some power potential.

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Image: Spring Training Arizona - Arizona Diamondbacks vs Colorado Rockies

NBCSports.com contributing photographer Dave Cruz takes us on a visual tour of a day at spring training in Arizona.

There are pitching questions, as well. Tim Hudson (offseason back surgery) will start the season on the disabled list, Tommy Hanson (concussion, shoulder concerns) is no certainty to log a 200-inning season, and Jair Jurrjens is coming off knee surgery, and his advanced metrics point to a regression.

While the Braves have so much emerging talent in Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran, it's a bit too much to ask of them to lead the rotation to playoff contention.

Finally, there is at least some level of concern about how bullpen mainstays Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty hold up after heavy use last season.

When you factor in the dramatic improvements made by the Florida Marlins, and expected development of a young-and-upcoming Washington Nationals team, it's not hard to picture the Braves dropping to fourth place in what should be a very tough NL East.

Q: I'm glad the expanded replay is out this year. It slows the game to call time and see umpires disappear into the dugout. Isn't there a faster way, such as an umpire in the press box, viewing the replay on the fly?
- Brian, La Jolla, Calif.

A: That's the obvious answer, Brian, and it's one that has been considered and discussed, but not seriously or urgently enough to have been included in the new Basic Agreement.

Some in the umpires union supporter the concept but the snag seems to be cost-related. I'd even take it a step further by making that fifth umpire/reviewer-in-the-booth serve as the official scorer, since there can be too much variance between scoring decisions from stadium to stadium.

But as for replay in general, there is more than enough sentiment for it to be expanded by 2013, so you're only getting a temporary reprieve, Brian. I'm in favor only to the point of fair-foul calls - where just as in tennis, a determination quickly could be made quickly.

Q: If you were running a team, and were weak at the catcher position, would you take a chance on Ivan Rodriguez?
- Jenny, Dallas

A: Let me first say that I've witnessed Pudge's entire career - dating all the way back to when I was a Texas Rangers beat writer, and he was invited to big-league camp for the first time as an 18-year-old. And even then, he displayed by far the best throwing arm in camp.

Pudge was in the big leagues to stay the following year, and went onto a career that almost certainly will land him in the Hall of Fame: 1 MVP, 14 All-Star Games, 13 Gold Gloves, 7 Silver Slugger awards, 2,844 career hits, .296 career average, and arguably the best throwing arm ever behind the plate.

But he's 40 now, and there isn't much left in the tank. At this point, all you can reasonably expect from Pudge is a once- or twice-a-week backup catcher who hopefully will mentor the regular catcher.

A potential situation arose in Kansas City with Salvador Perez out for up to three months due to knee surgery. The Royals called Rodriguez, but he wasn't interested. That's surprising since it's so close to Opening Day, and he has received no other offers. Maybe he's looking for a catching need to arise on a contender.

But for me, in these situations, I'd rather see the great player just walk away.



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