As the Atlanta Braves set to kick off their 2012 campaign tomorrow afternoon against the New York Mets, BravesFTW has a full preview of what to expect in the 2012 season. In this article, we’ll examine the Braves off-season, changes in the NL East and make our predictions for the division. Here, we take a look at the opening day roster.

Addition by Subtraction – A Slow Offseason

Although the Boston Red Sox had a similar collapse to the one the Braves endured, the two teams had drastically different winters. While the Red Sox were shaking things up, the Braves remained almost the same team.

While Fredi Gonzalez brought in a new hitting coach (Greg Walker) the staff remains almost identical to 2011.

Despite rumors all winter, the Braves came to spring training with almost an identical roster to the one that finished last season. It wasn’t until this past week that the Braves signed a major league free agent that wasn’t on the team during 2011.

Despite their slow offseason, the Braves made an early trade, shipping starting pitcher Derek Lowe to Cleveland to shed some salary.

Lowe was easily among the most disappointing Braves in 2011, losing all of his September starts and greatly contributing to the Braves freefall. After three underwhelming years in Atlanta that featured one memorable September, the Braves cut ties with the veteran hurler.

Other notable losses from the 2011 team were SS Alex Gonzalez and relief pitchers Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill.

While Gonzalez’ defense at shortstop will be missed and Sherrill actually posted solid numbers, the Braves will hope to get better by cutting some of worst players off the 2011 team.

Scott Linebrink was essentially worse than a replacement level player and while Lowe was a 2.5 win pitcher, the Braves feel that they will get more out of Mike Minor for a fraction of the cost.

It wasn’t until the end of March that the Braves added major league help from outside the organization.

The team signed veteran Livan Hernandez to throw 85 mile per hour fastballs as a long reliever and spot starter. For a team with an overworked bullpen, Livan should have some value as he can seemingly stay on the mound forever, no matter how much of a beating the team is taking.

On April first the Braves acquired Juan Francisco from the Reds for minor league pitcher J.J. Hoover. Francisco will start at third base while Chipper is on the disabled list and will give the Braves another option at the hot corner when Chipper retires.

Finally, the Braves added Chad Durbin, a veteran reliever who can eat up some meaningless innings in the bullpen, but shouldn’t be counted on in high leverage situations.

After the Braves September collapse, many expected drastic moves. Martin Prado and Jair Jurrjens were the subject of trade rumors all winter but are still around. In the end, the Braves were one of the best teams in baseball for the majority of the 2011 season, and should be poised to make another run at the playoffs with the same group of guys in 2012.

Chipper’s Swan Song

During spring training, longtime third baseman and future Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones announced that the 2012 season will be his last.

Chipper has dealt with numerous injuries over the past few years (he’s played 140 games just once since 2003) and hasn’t looked like his old self the last few years. That said, in 126 games last year he was still a 2 win player despite his dip in offensive production.

Already scheduled to start the season on the disabled list, Chipper will have one final shot to win his second World Series (the first coming in his rookie season).

Because of his lack of playing time and production in the past, the 2-3 wins Chipper has provided in each of the past three years will be relatively easy to replace. The massive shoes as a clubhouse leader and the face of the franchise, however, won’t be.

Chipper is the last member of the 1995 World Series team still in the majors and has been the face of the franchise over the past 15+ years.

As the year progresses, BravesFTW will take more looks back at Chipper’s magnificent career, and Braves fans should be sure to watch when he’s playing in 2012, as this will be their last chance to see one of the greatest third basemen and switch hitters of all time.

Around the NL East

While the Braves were standing pat, other NL East teams were making some significant splashes.

The defending division champion Philadelphia Phillies added Jonathan Paplebon to the back of their bullpen. The new look Miami Marlins went on a spending spree and added Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle. The Washington Nationals acquired Gio Gonzalez from Oakland and signed Edwin Jackson to complete a revamped rotation.

While the Mets are seemingly already out of the division race and are still recovering from the Wilpon’s involvements with Bernie Madoff, the rest of the division has a chance to make the playoffs, especially now that there will be two Wild Card spots per league.

At the same time, each team (including the Braves) has some burning questions.

Will the Phillies get enough offense with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley struggling to stay healthy? Will Jayson Werth rebound and Mike Morse prove last year wasn’t a fluke? How will Hanley Ramirez react to the move to third base? Will Carlos Zambrano and Ozzie Guillen eventually have one giant meltdown that leads to a brawl in the Marlins dugout?

The National League East is better as a whole in 2012, and should have a ton of storylines to follow as the season progresses.

5 Burning Questions for the Atlanta Braves

  1. Will Jason Heyward and Martin Prado rebound?
  2. Will Dan Uggla avoid another first half slump?
  3. Will the bullpen continue to dominate after a heavy workload in 2011?
  4. How many games will Fredi Gonzalez cost the Braves with poor roster management (see Constanza, Jose on the opening day roster) and his passion for bunting?
  5. Will Tyler Pastornicky hold down the shortstop spot all season?

Division Predictions

  1. Atlanta Braves – Maybe it looks like a homer pick, but there is no reason that the Braves can’t win the division. If Heyward and Prado bounce back and the team has a full year of Bourn, Minor and Hanson, the Braves should improve on their win total from 2011.
  2. Philadelphia Phillies – The injuries will slow this team down but their big 3 will keep it interesting all year. In the end, I see the Phillies losing about 10 wins from last season and settling for the first Wild Card spot.
  3. Miami Marlins – The second Wild Card spot could stay in the NL East, and I believe it will go to the Miami Marlins. This team should be fun to watch and if Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez are healthy and performing all year, the team could easily make a run at the division title.
  4. Washington Nationals – The trendiest team in the division, I think Washington is still a year away from making the playoffs. The biggest question may be whether or not they keep Strasburg on an innings limit if a playoff spot is on the line. It’s easy to say you will, it’s much harder when the postseason is right in front of you.
  5. New York Mets – The Mets will struggle to compete with four potential playoff teams but there is hope for the future. Ike Davis and Johan Santana (gasp) will be back and the Mets could very well decide who makes and misses the playoffs if they can play spoiler at the end of the year.