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Atlanta Braves season preview: So many questions
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Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward will look to bounce back after struggling in his second major league season. - photo by Paul Sancya

With last year’s historic collapse still fresh in the minds of fans, the Braves push forward into a new season marked by uncertainty.

Will the real Jason Heyward please step up?

In 2010, at age 20, Jason Heyward looked every bit the can’t-miss-kid he was trumped to be.

In that, his rookie year, he hit .277 with 18 HRs and an on-base percentage approaching .400.

Last year, hampered by a shoulder injury, those numbers dipped to .227/14/.319, and he was benched in favor of career minor leaguer Jose Constanza late in the season.

His started slow this spring, but has picked it up lately, he’s only 22 years old, far too young to abandon hope that he’ll live up to initial promise.

The question is: How does he handle the mental aspect of a disappointing year?

One more year in the sun?

We already know this will be Chipper Jones’ final season in a Braves uniform. The question is: how much of it will be spent on the field.

The aging icon underwent knee surgery shortly after announcing his retirement and will miss the beginning of the season.

One of the greats in franchise history, Jones is a long way from 2008 when he hit .364 to win the batting title and hit 22 home runs. That was the last time he topped .300 or 20 homers, but he was still producing last season (18 HRs, .275 avg. in 126 gms) when nagging injuries allowed him to play.

The question is: How much can he contribute? And who’s going to replace the offense he was expected to provide?

Healthy and ready?

For years now, proponents of advanced statistics have posited the theory that Jair Jurrjens isn’t that good.

For the first half of last season, he made them look foolish, winning 12 games and posting a 1.87 ERA.

But after the break, those numbers plummeted to one win and a 5.88 ERA in seven starts. Injuries, of course, played a role. Now Jurrjens, the subject of offseason trade rumors, is back on the mound, but has struggled for much of the spring.

He admitted earlier in camp he was still worried about his knee, but said he hasn’t felt any discomfort.

In his last two spring starts, however, Jurrjens appeared to regain his form, yielding three runs in 13 innings.

Whether he’s really as good as he was during the first half of last year isn’t what’s important. The Braves should have a deep enough staff to be successful with Jurrjens as their third starter and performing as such. The question is: Is he healthy?

More unknowns

The Braves have already determined to hand over the shortstop reins to a rookie this year after letting Alex Gonzalez walk away in free agency. Will it be the slick-fielding Andrelton Simmons or the slightly more-experienced Tyler Pastornicky?

Martin Prado will be filling in at third while Jones is out and starting in left field otherwise. After hitting .307 in 2009 and 2010, he dipped to .260 in an injury plagued 2011. Can he bounce back and match his 162-game career averages of .293 and 13 home runs?

The strength of the Braves for 20-plus years has been their starting pitching — when that failed down the stretch last season, the ship sank. Even with Tim Hudson on the DL to open 2012, the Braves still have one of the league’s deepest staffs, buoyed by a wealth of highly touted young talent. But a so-so spring has been a damper on some of the excitement.

Brandon Beachy: Can he match last year’s numbers when he was one of the major’s most dominant strikeout pitchers? He was only 7-3 in 25 starts, but whiffed nearly 11 per nine innings pitched with a 3.68 ERA and advanced stats that say he could’ve been even better if not for some bad luck.

Mike Minor: Is he ready for the big-time? The former first-round draft pick forcefully claimed his spot in the rotation with a strong spring.

Who’s going to grab the fifth spot? Randal Delgado and Julio Teheran are both thought to be future stars, but both have been shelled consistently this spring. Heading into this weekend, it looks like like Delgado may get the nod to take 3-4 starts before Hudson is expected to return in early May.

And what’s the plan for Livan Hernandez?

 


 

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