Fantasy Baseball Spotlight: Atlanta Braves

We're talkin' baseball, something something Campanella. We're talking baseball, something something something something...

It's time for me to switch my fantasy brain from "FOOTBALL MODE" to "BASEBALL MODE"! As we enter NFL Free Agency and the Draft, I'll have more to talk about in terms of fantasy football, but now that I'm done reviewing my pre-season picks, what's say we talk about baseball?

The best way for me to approach any project is to break it up in manageable parts. I want to start getting my head in the fantasy game (as I've taken over teams in two very in-depth leagues) and that means making myself familiar with the players again. In order to do that in a manageable way (as there are 750 players in the major leagues on 25-man rosters at any given time, not to mention the thousands of minor league players) is to break it up team-by-team.

Now, I'm not going to look at all 40-man rosters and minor leagues. Not even close. No, what Fantasy Baseball Spotlight is, is simply highlighting certain players by category. I won't be talking about every player, but I'll talk about a few based on these categories. I start with the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves faltered terribly down the stretch in 2011 and missed the playoffs. It seems like just yesterday that the Braves were in the playoffs every season (14 straight seasons, not counting 1994) but they've only made it once in the last six seasons. Last year they finished 89-73, with more disappointments than successes on the roster, perhaps.

They did have some surprise performances from players like Brandon Beachy and Freddie Freeman, but former super-prospect Jason Heyward struggled to build off of his rookie season.

The only major coaching change (if any coaching change in baseball can be considered "major") is the firing of hitting coach Larry Parrish and replacing him with former White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker. Will this make any kind of difference? I assume it's greater than zero, but we have no way of knowing.

Gone are Derek Lowe and Nate McClouth. Here are... nobody of note.

The Braves roster rebuild will come from a minor league system that's strong in pitching and has some very interesting players. Here are a few of the players this season to note:

Best Hitter: Brian McCann, C

Something to note, though I wish I didn't have to because of the obviousness of it all, is that this is all for fantasy purposes. I'm identifying these "Best" lists, etc., only by how they rank in terms of Fantasy Baseball. Because this is a fantasy website. Last I checked. I haven't actually checked that fact in awhile, but that would have been a major change I wasn't aware of. What? Brian McCann? Oh yeah...

It's kind of surprising to see that McCann is only turning 28 in February. (Wish him a happy one on the 20th!) His best season at the plate was in 2006, his first full season in the majors, and it will probably never be as good as that again. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just that few catchers ever hit .333/.388/.572. That's pretty amazing.

Last season McCann hit .270/.351/.466, with 24 HR, 71 RBI, and 51 runs scored. You really can't ask for much more than that from a catcher, and I expect that his runs and RBI will go up as long as the lineup matures and gets better around him.

I'd expect something like .280/.360/.480, 20 HR, 90 RBI, 60 R from McCann, which is right in line with his very consistent career averages. Because of the position he plays, that makes him the most valuable Brave.

Best Pitcher: Craig Kimbrel, CL

I'm not going to say this very often, and you'd think it was even less likely for Atlanta, but the Braves best and most valuable pitcher in fantasy is a closer.

Kimbrel led the league in saves last year with 46, but more importantly he dominated in strikeouts with 127 in 77 innings. Those are elite-level numbers that you only see from maybe 1 or 2 guys at a time, if you're lucky.

Few closers are worth taking early, but the reason that Kimbrel is worth it is because he'll strike out more hitters than a lot of starters will, and if you're in a league with K/9, he's even more valuable. He also reduced his walks enough to put up a very nice K/BB of 3.97.

Breakout to Watch: Jason Heyward, OF

Two years ago, I was so confident (and foolish probably) in my keeper league, that I took Heyward first overall. (After six rounds of keepers of course) He'd be the new star and leader of my team for a very long time because he was as good of a prospect as we'd seen in a very long time.

He'd hit for average and power and he was advanced well beyond his years. As a 19-year-old, he hit .352/.446/.611 in double-A, and Baseball America ranked him #1 above Stephen Strasburg. His rookie numbers didn't disappoint me. Afterall, he hit .277/.393/.456 as a 20-year-old with 18 HR. When Ken Griffey, Jr. was 20, he hit .300/.366/.481 with 22 HR. Comparable enough to me to expect good things in the future.

However, a shoulder injury may have been the main culprit in a disappointing 2011 season when Heyward hit .227/.319/.389 with 42 RBI and 50 Runs scored. But those injuries could make him a good sleeper in drafts this year on his way to the breakout season we've been waiting for.

Now 22, Heyward has 1,077 major league plate appearances under his belt and is reporting that he feels good and is ready to get back to prominence in 2012. If he does, I believe that Heyward has the tools to be one of the top 10 outfielders in the majors, if not one of the top 10 overall fantasy players. Thanks to a supporting good support cast around him, I would not be shocked by a .290/.400/.520 season with 25 HR, 110 RBI and 100 R.

His BABIP dropped from .335 in 2010 to .260 last year. Split the difference, add in maturity, health, and wisdom, and I think Heyward is ready to become the player that we all figured he would be by now.

Disappointment: Jair Jurrjens

What is there really to say about Jurrjens? He was never the most exciting pitcher in baseball, but a 13-6 record with a 2.96 ERA last season, and a 14-10 record with a 2.60 ERA in 2009, made him look like a nice dependable back-end starter on a fantasy roster. Even higher if you don't count things like K/9 or don't value Ks that highly.

However, what does he become to any fantasy roster when he doesn't maintain an ERA below 3? Nearly useless and undraftable.

Two years ago, Jurrjens posted a 7-6 record with a 4.64 ERA. What you'll notice throughout his career is the fluctuation in ERA, but almost a complete and steady diet of xFIP, which stands anywhere from 4.23 to 4.29 over the last three years. That makes Jurrjens exactly what he is: a #4 or 5 starter.

I'd just stay away from Jurrjens in nearly any round he fell to.

Rookie Watch: Julio Teheran, SP

Teheran made three starts last year and the 2011 BA #5 overall prospect disappointed some with a 5.03 ERA over 19.2 innings with a 10/8 K/BB ratio. Please. This guy was 20 and it's only 19.2 innings.

As the youngest player in the International League (by 3 years) he went 15-3, 2.55 ERA, 122/48 K/BB in 144.2 innings. He's still one of the top prospects in the game.

Teheran will compete in Spring Training for a rotation job with Randall Delgado and Mike Minor, but even if he doesn't make it, will probably be up for significant time in 2012. There's not much more room for him to grow in AAA. He may not dazzle this season, but he's worth more than a flier in drafts, and he's a top option in dynasty and keeper leagues.

Random-as-hell-guess: 22 starts, 130 innings, 100/50 K/BB ratio with a 3.80 ERA. I don't ask for too much from rookies, especially ones that are barely reaching the drinking age.

Other Players I like: Freeman, Michael Bourn, Beachy, Jonny Venters, Tommy Hanson, Minor, Delgado, Arodys Vizcaino.

Ones I Don't: Dan Uggla, Tim Hudson (age concerns), Chipper Jones

Indifferent: Martin Prado, Eric Hinske

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