Are The Atlanta Braves Headed For A Fall?

Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones stretches his glove during a team workout during spring training at Champion Stadium. Credit: Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

The Red Sox weren't the only team that collapsed in September 2011. The Braves did, too. How will that affect Atlanta for the 2012 season?

We all know that spring-training wins and losses don't mean much. Look at last year's, for example: The Twins went 20-12 in the spring, then lost 99 games during the regular season, and the Diamondbacks, who were 12-25, went on to win 94 games and the NL West title.

But the 1-10 mark the Atlanta Braves have posted so far this spring season has to be a cause for some alarm for the team and its fans. Everyone talks about the Red Sox' historic collapse in 2011, but the Braves nearly matched that with a collapse of their own; they had an 8½ game lead in the NL wild card race on Sept. 1, only to lose out, as did Boston, on the season's final day.

And though spring training stats also don't necessarily portend anything, Braves management has to be concerned about Jason Heyward, who is just 4-for-24 with one extra-base hit (a double) and eight strikeouts. Heyward, who is still just 22, was supposed to be The Next Big Thing in the National League, but after a strong rookie season got him a second-place finish in 2010 Rookie of the Year voting, he had an injury-filled and disappointing season in 2011.

And then there's Chipper Jones, who will be 40 next month. Dave O'Brien:

"I’ve said it a million times, it’s hell getting old," said Jones, who’ll be 40 next month and sounds as if he’s leaning increasingly toward retirement after this season.

"The body is starting to tell me every morning when I wake up that it’s getting close," he said. "I’m signed through the end of this year. If I play in a certain amount of games, I got an option for next year. I don’t know what next year entails.

"I don’t know if I can make it through this year."

Despite his age and the fact that, as he told O'Brien, "I’ve got no meniscus in the right knee", Jones had a pretty good year in 2011 at age 39: .275/.344/.470 with 18 HR in 126 games; his 123 OPS+ says he's still a good player, or was a year ago, at least.

Then there are some potential starting pitching issues:

Right-hander Tim Hudson, coming off back surgery, likely is out until at least May 1. Two other righties, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, remain physical questions, and another, Brandon Beachy, has pitched poorly this spring.

And will the huge workloads that Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Eric O`Flaherty put in a year ago -- and their failures in September were a big reason the Braves collapsed -- continue in 2012?

Couple that with the fact that in addition to the always-strong Phillies, the Nationals and Marlins have improved considerably over the winter and are expected to contend for a playoff position, and it's easy to see how the Braves could be set up for a big fall this year.

Or maybe it's just like last year's Diamondbacks, a team that struggled in games that didn't mean anything, and when the April bell rang, they were ready to go.

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