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Braves Fantasy Baseball Primer: What To Make Of Jason Heyward, Michael Bourn, Jonny Venters And Others

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Fantasy Baseball is fun. Not only does it let you semi-fulfill your fantasies of running a professional baseball team one day, but it also provides you the opportunity to punish the competition with a strong showing at draft day and timely waiver wire additions. With a little bit of research and a little bit of luck, you can win your league this year.

The Braves were a pretty average bunch at the plate last season and injuries to key players down the stretch held them out of the playoffs. Fortunately for manager Fredi Gonzalez, almost everyone is completely healthy after some much needed rest during the offseason and the club is ready to return to postseason baseball. Here is an outlook on what to expect from various hitters and pitchers in the upcoming Fantasy Baseball season.

Best Hitter: Brian McCann, Catcher

A case could be made for Dan Uggla as the best hitter on the Braves, but there are just so few catchers capable of producing the way Brian McCann does. He is in the midst of his prime and will still only be 28-years old come Opening Day. All things considered, Mac has arguably been the best offensive catcher in baseball for the last three years.

McCann was well on his way to a career-year before straining an oblique late in July. At the time of the injury he was batting .306/.375/.514 with 18 home runs and 55 RBI. After returning from a brief stint on the disabled list, McCann was clearly not healthy, although he continued to play through the pain to help the struggling lineup. He batted just .179/.293/.338 the rest of the way with six homers and 16 RBI.

He ended the season tying a career-high with 24 home runs and still managed to drive in 71 runs.

Should McCann have stayed healthy throughout the year -- and he has a pretty solid history of avoiding injuries and staying on the field -- he would have posted one of the better offensive seasons by a catcher in quite some time. He is as consistent as they come at the plate, and if he is sitting there on draft day at a spot you feel comfortable taking him, do not think twice about it. Upwards of 25 HR and 90 RBI is not out of the question at all.

Average Draft Position: 4th-5th Round

Best Pitcher: Craig Kimbrel, Relief

There are quite a few theories and strategies on how to approach a fantasy team when dealing with closers, but make no mistake about this one: whichever team lands Craig Kimbrel is going to have a serious advantage over the competition.

One could make a case for Tommy Hanson or Brandon Beachy as the best pitcher on the roster, but Kimbrel is simply in a league of his own as far as relievers go. He recorded 46 saves last season, featured an incredible K/9 ratio of 14.84 and had a WHIP of just 1.04. His ERA of 2.10 was strong, but a slightly elevated BABIP and FIP of 1.52 suggest Kimbrel was pretty unlucky in 2011. If anything, his numbers may get even better, although it's probably unlikely.

The only concern with Kimbrel would be due to a big workload last year, a season where he worked 77 innings, but the Braves should have a stellar bullpen once again and should be able to rest Kimbrel on most nights whenever a save opportunity does not present itself.

Kimbrel will (or at least he should be) the first relief pitcher taken in drafts this year. If you are looking to take a top-tier closer or two for your team, there are few, if any, better than Kimbrel. Look for yet another season of 40+ saves and monster strikeout numbers.

Average Draft Position: 5th-6th Round

Possible Breakout: Jason Heyward, Outfield

I would like to say Jason Heyward will be a sleeper once draft day arrives, but there seems to be a common theme with the young outfielder among most draft experts this year: he could have a nice rebound season after a disappointing 2011. It's tough to be a sleeper when everyone is writing about you.

Heyward had a remarkable rookie debut, but injuries and an awkward swing really hurt his production. He ended the year with a slash line of .227/.319/.389 along with 14 homers, 42 RBI and nine stolen bases. That isn't necessarily horrible, but it's also not one you would want in your fantasy outfield going forward.

Fortunately, there are plenty of signs pointing to a breakout season in 2012. He posted a BABIP of .260 which should go up at least somewhat and in-turn improve his numbers. Heyward hit an incredibly unusual amount of infield fly balls (21.8%) and continued to hit grounders (nearly 54% after 52% in 2010) at a high rate, but many felt that was due to injuries and a bad approach given to him by the coaching staff.

The Braves have since fired their hitting coach and hired Greg Walker, who received mixed reviews from those in the White Sox organization.

Should Heyward stay healthy in 2012 and regain his swing that propelled him onto the national scene in 2010, he could have a monster year, both on the field and in terms of fantasy production. He comes with a few risks, most notably the injury concerns and bad numbers from a season ago, but the sky is the limit for the right fielder.

Average Draft Position: 10th-11th Round

Who To (Possibly) Avoid: Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Martin Prado

For as awesome as Tim Hudson is, there are some red flags starting to appear. While in great shape, Hudson will turn 37 over the summer. After years of discomfort, he underwent back surgery to repair a herniated disk and it is unclear when exactly he will return to the mound. He will likely throw a bit in Spring Training, but most feel he will miss at least a few starts to begin the year. And for being a ground ball pitcher, he might have the worst defensive infield in baseball backing him up.

Jair Jurrjens got off to an unbelievable start in 2011 and finally regressed after making an appearance in the All-Star game. His knees continued to bother him and caused him to miss time down the stretch. His K/9 was a pretty mediocre (5.33) last season and his FIP of 3.99 was an entire run higher than his ERA. Jurrjens is reportedly healthy and will look to prove his first half of 2011 was no fluke, but I would avoid him on draft day unless he slips a considerable amount.

Martin Prado is a solid baseball player and he seems determined to rebound after a rough 2011 campaign, but the main issue with him is that he does not do anything particularly well. He lacks impact power, does not get on base at a particularly high rate and won't steal more than a handful of bases. His position versatility could be beneficial depending on your league rules, but he's really nothing more than a utility player for your team at this point. Using him as a starter would be a mistake unless there are no better options, and you'll likely have to draft him as a starter if you hope to get him on your team.

Rookie Watch: Julio Teheran, Tyler Pastornicky

Most believed Julio Teheran would begin the year as the No. 5 starter in Atlanta, but it appears he may begin in the bullpen or even Triple-A due to pitching depth. That could change with injuries, though, and will be something to monitor going forward.

Many view Teheran as the top-prospect in the organization and had him as the fourth-best prospect in the game. With the injury concerns to Hudson (back), Hanson (shoulder), Jurrjens (knee), it is safe to say Teheran will likely see plenty of time with the Braves in 2012. Look to snatch him up in the late rounds.

Shortstop Tyler Pastornicky will be thrown into the fire this upcoming season due to financial restrictions from the front office. He batted .314/.359/.414 in 2011 at the two highest levels in the Minor Leagues and stole 27 bases on 38 attempts. Pastornicky will not hit for much power and his on-base skills are not great, but there really isn't anyone in Atlanta that could take the job away from him.

TP will go undrafted in just about every draft this spring unless it's a deep NL-only league, but he is definitely a player to keep an eye on. You can never have enough shortstops and he will be given every chance to succeed.

Other Players I Love:

Michael Bourn - The speedy center fielder will be looking for his first big free agent contract in the offseason. What better to do to increase your value than to steal a base every single chance you get? Upwards of 60 steals with a strong BA/OBP is pretty likely at this point. He will require an early round pick, but Bourn can carry your entire squad with the number of stolen bases he'll rack up on a weekly basis.

Mike Minor - Hanson, Beachy and Hudson may go earlier in the draft, but Mike Minor is the real deal. He has made 23 starts in the last two seasons while filing in for injured players and featured a FIP of 3.51, K/9 of 8.76, BB/9 of 3.27 and is capable of pitching deep into games. He will most likely be the No. 5 starter in Atlanta to begin the season and will be given every chance to be successful.

Be Careful:

Jonny Venters - He's made 164 appearances out of the bullpen in the last two years and his FIP in that time (2.96) is more than an entire run higher than his ERA (1.89). Venters will be the set-up man in Atlanta and is still a very valuable bullpen option, but tread carefully. Only use a late round pick on him.

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