Power rankings: No. 8 Braves

Despite late-season fade, Braves believe they are on rise

No. 8 Braves: 23rd in a series counting down to spring training. Next: Phillies.

Isn't every action supposed to bring an equal opposite reaction?

Frank Wren must not have gotten the message.

While the Red Sox's 7-20 September led to sweeping changes throughout the organization, the Braves' even worse finish produced almost no change.

Interesting, isn't it?

On Sept. 5, the Red Sox were seven games ahead of the Rays in the American League wild-card race. At that point, the Braves were 81/2 games in front in the National League wild-card race, with the Cardinals and Giants tied for second.

The Red Sox lead was down to three games Sept. 17, with 11 left to play. The Braves were ahead 41/2, with only 10 games remaining. Even the schedule was in their favor.

The Braves had series against the Mets, Marlins and Nationals before ending the season against the Phillies, who could be going through the motions as they prepared for the playoffs. But Fredi Gonzalez's team lost the last game of the Mets' series, dropped two of three in Florida and in Washington, and then the Phillies swept them as Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel failed to hold a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning.

Because the Cardinals won 16 of their last 21 games, the Braves' 7-14 stumble down the stretch proved fatal. But Wren, the fourth-year general manager, a guy who takes his cues from future Hall of Famer John Schuerholz, didn't feel the need for retribution.

He acknowledged there were reasons for the late fade — mainly the loss of Tommy Hanson (shoulder) and Jair Jurrjens (knee), who made only 12 second-half starts between them; and the lack of production from 22-year-old right fielder Jason Heyward, whose second-half OPS dropped from .875 in 2010 to .692. And Wren felt surprisingly confident about the future because of the organization's wealth of young talent, especially pitching.

With Hanson and Jurrjens healthy and Tim Hudson supposedly stronger than in 2011 because of offseason surgery on a herniated disc, the Braves go seven deep with starters that have the potential to work in the front end of a first-division rotation.

They head toward spring training with Hudson, Hanson, Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor projected as the big-league starters and the 22-year-old Randall Delgado and 21-year-old Julio Teheran in the wings. They also are expected to add another power guy, 21-year-old Arodys Vizcaino, to the best-in-baseball bullpen built around Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty (Vizcaino has started in the minors, so you could say the rotation is eight deep in potential front-end starters).

Along with the second-half studliness of Dan Uggla — he hit .185 before the All-Star break but delivered 21 home runs and a .948 OPS afterward — and the return of midseason addition Michael Bourn in the leadoff spot, that pitching depth made Wren's pillow comfortable in November and December after the bad taste of September wore off.

There were few collapse-related headlines. If there were any scapegoats, they were veteran right-hander Derek Lowe, who was gift-wrapped and sent to the Indians to save $5 million in salary, and hitting coach Larry Parrish, who was replaced by a combination of Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher.

While everything will seem different with the Red Sox, the Braves' biggest change is the kind that could have come during the run of 14 consecutive division titles under Bobby Cox. Tyler Pastornicky, a grinder who hit .314 with only 13 more strikeouts than walks between Double-A and Triple-A last season, takes over for departed free agent Alex Gonzalez at shortstop.

Pastornicky will join Rookie of the Year runner-up Freddie Freeman and Heyward to give the Braves three 22-year-old regulars. That's the kind of youth you usually only see on a rebuilding team that has stripped the payroll. But this is expected to be a big season in Atlanta, one as rewarding as last September was disappointing.

And furthermore

Chipper Jones, returning for his 18th season in the lineup, is projected to play 110 games by Bill James. He has played 140-plus only once in the last eight years.

•Gonzalez, who was Cox's hand-picked successor, is a solid, boring manager in the cloth of Bruce Bochy, in his San Diego years.

•Wren was under pressure to use his pitching depth to add a left fielder to his lineup but let it be known he would deal Jurrjens only if he got back someone like Adam Jones. Martin Prado remains in left after a disappointing 2011 (.260/.302/.385) with Eric Hinske, Matt Diaz and Jose Constanza returning as the alternatives.

Brian McCann is a perennial All-Star catcher but only the A's Kurt Suzuki allowed more stolen bases last year. McCann threw out only 17 percent of runners last year. Look for the Marlins, Nationals and Mets to be aggressive on the bases against the Braves.

•Right-hander Jairo Asencio, who closed games for the Dominican Republic's winning team in the Caribbean Series, is ready to join Vizcaino in moving into a bullpen already featuring shutdown relievers in Kimbrel and Venters. The Braves' bullpen is a major strength that could give them an edge over the Phillies and Marlins.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers

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