Understanding and analyzing what the competition is up to is often just as important to knowing what the Nationals are up to. With Opening Day upon us, it’s time we start taking a look at the rosters heading into the season for each of Washington’s division rivals. Once we run through each of the four divisional opponents, we’ll sum everything up and make some predictions.
Our Season Preview series led off with an examination of the New York Mets. We followed with a look at the Miami Marlins’ pitching staff and then Philadelphia’s. Philadelphia’s position players came next and now we’ll move on to Atlanta’s.
Many of the teams in the NL East were highly active this past winter, but the Atlanta Braves elected to remain on the quiet side of things. In fact, the only significant change to the team’s starting lineup appears to be at shortstop, where rookie Tyler Pastornicky is set to take on the starting role after winning a surprisingly heated Spring Training battle.
Pastornicky, 22, spent the better part of the 2011 season with Double-A before finishing the season with 117 plate appearances at Triple-A. Combined he hit .314/.359/.414 with 7 HR and 45 RBI over 512 plate appearances for the year, all while playing strong defense at a vital position. He was challenged for much of the Spring, however, by Andrelton Simmons. Simmons figures into the team’s plans for the position long term, but he’s yet to play above High-A and was never expected to impress as much as he did this Spring. Barring a change in direction with regards to development, the Braves seem set at shortstop for years to come.
Around the position the 2012 Braves look quite similar to the 2011 version. Dan Uggla will once again man second base and the middle of the lineup. Across the diamond Freddie Freemanwill hold down first base, after receiving consideration in last year’s Rookie of the Year voting.
Chipper Jones returns to play third base, for what will be the final season of his career. In a somewhat fitting fashion, however, he’ll start the season on the DL. It’s believed that he won’t be out for long (he could return by mid-April) but hopefully he is able to remain healthy over the course of the season. Jones has had a lengthy and memorable career, which I recall watching since it’s beginning, so perhaps there is some sentimentality present in wanting to see him finish the season on a high note.
The out of options Juan Francisco will fill in while Jones is out. Francisco has some power potential but it’s never translated into success against Major League pitching. Atlanta acquired him earlier this week from Cincinnati.
Veterans Eric Hinske and Jack Wilson will round out the bench and provide depth in the infield. Hinske also has some corner outfield experience. Jose Costanza and Matt Diaz will also be on the roster as extra outfielders and bat options off the bench. Hinske and Diaz expect to get most of the pinch hit opportunities.
Atlanta’s starting outfield is certainly a strength with Martin Prado, Michael Bourn, and Jason Heyward starting from left to right. Prado was shopped for much of the offseason, though there seemed to be minimal interest outside of that from the Colorado Rockies. A deal never seemed close between the two sides, so Prado will return to his role near the top of the order and the Braves will hope he bounces back to his 2010 form. Bourn will be worth watching this season as well, as he’ll be a free agent next winter.
Brian McCann and David Ross both return as what is arguably the best hitting catching tandem in baseball. McCann has expressed some interest in a contract extension in recent months, though there have not yet been serious discussions between his representation and the team. The team holds a $12 Million option on him for next season but an extension seems likely before then.