February is probably my least favorite month of the year. It's cold and dreary and gray, I'm expected to shell out a bunch of money in the middle of the month to re-prove my love for my wife, and every 4 years, it has a different number of days. Sorry, but consistency is important. I try to look for the bright side when I can, however, and through all my years of searching, I have found two positive things about this wretched month:
(1) Groundhog Day - Not the holiday, which is dumb. I'm referring to the transcendent Bill Murray film that uses the holiday's inherent stupidity as a backdrop for a beautiful story of redemption (and yes, stealing a famous groundhog to go on a joyride).
(2) Pitchers and catchers report. It won't be long before the crack of the bat, the pop of the glove, and the smell of fresh cut grass are pushed to the forefront of our minds. To quote the Oscar-nominated Moneyball movie: "How can you not be romantic about baseball?"
My romantic idea was to sit down and watch all 2,430 games this season, but failing that, I'll settle for spending a day with each major league team as we head toward Opening Day. I'll look at 9 different fantasy angles for each franchise while also paying homage to the things we watch for as real life fans. I hope that through this exercise we might all come to a greater understanding of the various environments that contain the players we spend so much time obsessing over. Fantasy baseball would be a lot easier if these guys played in a vacuum, but since they don't, we'd better learn as much as we can about the circumstances that affect their play.
Make sure you check out Kenneth Arthur's spotlight on Braves players. Kenneth and I will post our previews on each team every Monday through Thursday until we're done, so make sure you're checking Fake Teams regularly to keep up.
Let's start in the NL East with the Atlanta Braves. Coming up tomorrow: Miami.
2011 in Review & 2012 Outlook
The Braves finished 2011 with an 89-73 record, just one game back of St. Louis for the Wild Card spot. Atlanta was eliminated on the epic last day of the season after going 9-18 in September. Closer Craig Kimbrel earned Rookie of the Year honors, while catcher Brian McCann took home the Silver Slugger.
Atlanta will no doubt be pushing for a playoff spot again in 2012, and they'll be doing so with pretty much the same roster. Run prevention was their game last year, as they gave up the third fewest runs in the league, and that will be the recipe for success again. The Braves will hope that improvements from their young players and a full season with Michael Bourn on board will be enough to push them over the top.
Turner Field is a slight pitchers' park, mostly because of the large foul territory, a byproduct of the stadium's history as a track and field stadium for the 1996 Summer Olympics. The field has always produced numbers that suggest run suppression, but those numbers are also very close to the mean. In truth, The Ted is really quite neutral, and treating it as anything else when evaluating visitor pitchers, for example, is not advised.
Manager & Coaching Staff
This will be Fredi Gonzalez' sophomore season at the helm, and his coaching staff minus hitting coach Larry Parrish will all return as well. Parrish will be replaced by former White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker, a move that garnered, um, mixed reviews from team newspapers and blogs - appropriate since "mixed" is about the best word I can come up with to describe the White Sox lineups under his tutelage. The Georgia native will be Atlanta's third hitting coach in three years, and for now he seems to be saying all the right things about not trying to mold each hitter into his own image.
As for Gonzalez, he's a traditionalist that's not afraid to call for a sacrifice or intentionally walk the #8 hitter to get to the pitcher. We can debate the effectiveness of that strategy until we're blue in the face, but what's worth noting here is that Braves pitchers will occasionally give up a free pass on purpose - something to keep in mind.
Expected Position Battles
Jack Wilson was signed to be the backup to shortstop Tyler Pastornicky, but if the rookie struggles out of the gate, the media and fans unhappy with last season's collapse may clamor for a starting gig for Wilson. Manager Fredi Gonzalez, likely trying to light a fire under his young players, has publicly stated that the corner outfield spots (ostensibly filled by Martin Prado and Jason Heyward) are open for the taking. Truthfully, there are no legitimate contenders that could give this threat any teeth. In the rotation, Mike Minor will attempt to hold off top prospects Julio Teheran & Randall Delgado for the 5th spot.
Projected Lineup & Rotation
Lineup order, while important for trying to project certain fantasy stats, is not the objective here. We're more interested in who is playing what position (and I don't know is on third).
Bourn - CF
Jones - 3B
Uggla - 2B
McCann - C
Freeman - 1B
Heyward - RF
Pastornicky - SS
Fredi Gonzalez utilized 119 different batting orders last year (not counting the pitcher spot), and this is the most common configuration used following the acquisition of Michael Bourn. I flip flopped Jason Heyward's spot with the shortstop, since the rookie Pastornicky is expected to be the starter.
Even less important than lineup order is rotation order. While traditionally a team's best pitcher is named the #1, those arbitrary designations in no way guarantee a certain performance threshold.
Minor, Teheran, and Delgado are expected to compete for a spot, as noted above. You want to watch this development, but don't automatically discount the losers - they'll likely get their chances when the inevitable injuries crop up.
2011 Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel (14.8 K/9) is expected to resume closing duties, and while Gonzalez stuck by him when he struggled (it's a relative term) in September, his job is still less than secure. Jonny Venters (9.8 K/9) is probably the best set-up man in the majors right now and should be coveted by anybody playing in a league that counts holds. Also worth owning is Eric O'Flaherty (0.98 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 32 HLD in 73.2 innings). 21 year-old Arodys Vizcaino and his 96 mph fastball round out one of the best and deepest young bullpens in the bigs as a nice flier (just don't expect any save opportunities).
Potential Fantasy Sleepers
Jason Heyward isn't a post-hype sleeper in the strictest sense of the term, but a sub-par 2011 has depressed his stock. Here are a couple of brief reasons to believe in a resurgence: (1) Heyward was dealing with inflammation in his right shoulder throughout the year, which will presumably not be a problem in 2012. (2) He still draws walks even when he's not hitting (11.2 BB% in 2011), which further convinces me the problem was physical and not mental. (3) He's 22, which is probably still younger than your favorite rookie. Jason has time to turn the ship around.
Any shortstop that has a chance to be halfway decent should be on your radar, and while Tyler Pastornicky is not going to light the world on fire, his minor league numbers suggest he might just be the kind of guy people are lining up to grab off waivers in May (just don't expect power).
Spring Storyline to Watch
I'm watching to see if Chipper Jones still has some fuel in the tank. Of course we're worried about his knees, each of which has required surgery over the last two years, but I'm also watching to see if he's mentally still in the game. When a guy says, "I'd be lying if I said the game wasn't really, really fast for me right now," (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) there's some cause for concern. I'm not watching for his stats (you almost never want to look at performance statistics in spring games), but I do want to see his approach.
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