09/25/12 10:29 PM ET
Ten reasons why Braves are heading to postseason
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
Aided by a few improvements and motivated to make Chipper Jones' final season a memorable one, the Braves have rewarded Wren's patience. One year after enduring a miserable September, they caught fire during the season's final month and have secured -- at the very least -- the National League Wild Card entry that last year's team fumbled away.
The Braves will now wait to see what awaits in the postseason while continuing to nurture the slight hope that they could still win the NL East.
Their journey has been a memorable one, helped by a number of contributors. Here is a look at the top 10 reasons why the Braves are back in the playoffs.
The Braves' most significant offseason move was clearing $5 million off their payroll by moving Derek Lowe. The non-waiver Trade Deadline passed without the acquisition of Zack Greinke. But Wren did make a number of highly rewarding, under-the-radar moves, such as acquiring Juan Francisco from the Reds at the end of Spring Training. He lured Ben Sheets out of retirement with a Minor League contract in early July, then watched the veteran pitcher notch four wins before his shoulder gave out.
The July 30 acquisitions of Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson from the Cubs strengthened both the rotation and bench. Both have made an impact. The only midseason acquisition to make a greater impact might be slick-fielding shortstop Paul Janish, who came over from the Reds after the All-Star break and provided the kind of stellar defense that softened the blow of playing without Andrelton Simmons for two months.
When Spring Training began, manager Fredi Gonzalez made it known that he was not interested in focusing on what went wrong at the end of the 2011 season. He wanted his players to simply look at this season as a new beginning. As the season progressed, he proved he was prepared to learn from the previous year's mistakes. He was more cautious about how much he used his top relievers -- Craig Kimbrel, Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters. At the same time, his decision to bench Dan Uggla for a few days in early September showed that he was not going to be as patient with players if they were struggling down the stretch.
Two years after being motivated to send manager Bobby Cox out with a playoff berth, the Braves watched Jones find the fountain of youth and essentially will them back to the postseason during his final season. He homered in his first game of the season and again in his personal home opener. There were also the two walk-off home runs against the Phillies and the five-hit game against the Cubs. Although his knees might have reminded him that he is 40 years old, he performed much the way he did during the early portion of his Hall of Fame career.
After getting used to some mechanical changes made during the winter, Heyward spent the season's final four months living up to tremendous expectations and stepping up to be the team's MVP. Still just 23, the athletic outfielder became a man this year. With his power and speed, he provided reason to believe that a 30-30 season could soon be in his future. At the same time, he showed much better range while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense in right field.
Had Heyward not proved to be the team's MVP, that distinction would belong to Martin Prado, who bounced back from the worst season of his young career to become a consistent threat at the plate again. In addition, he started games at five defensive positions. There was doubt about his ability to play shortstop until he capably filled the position when the club needed some offense in September. Quite simply, he is a selfless player who loves playing for the Braves and is beloved by all of his teammates.
With all due respect to John Smoltz, Craig Kimbrel had the greatest season a closer has had in Braves history. As a matter of fact, it can be argued that he had one of the greatest seasons any closer has ever had. Armed with better control than he displayed during his record-setting rookie season last year, Kimbrel is positioned to finish the season with four times as many strikeouts as hits allowed. After struggling last September, he has been perfect in save opportunities this month. Entering the season's final homestand, he had limited opponents to a .126 batting average and .187 on-base percentage.
At the beginning of the year, Tommy Hanson was the Opening Day starter, and Jair Jurrjens believed he still had something left to offer. By the end of the year, Hanson was the club's fifth starter, Jurrjens was not even on the big league roster and another hopeful, Brandon Beachy, was recovering from Tommy John surgery. The acquisitions of Sheets and Maholm were beneficial, and Mike Minor produced an incredible second-half turnaround that has some scouts wondering if he could soon be considered one of the game's best left-handers.
Tim Hudson missed the season's first month recovering from back surgery and still notched 16 wins. Then, of course, there was the addition of Kris Medlen, who has spent the past two months taking center stage as the game's hottest pitcher.
Medlen became quite valuable while selflessly serving as a middle reliever during the season's first four months. But once he got his wish to move to the rotation, he showed there was no longer any reason to wonder if he would ever return to a relief role. The high-energy pitcher has been described as a great athlete and fearless. The past two months have demonstrated that he is simply a winner.
Though Michael Bourn struggled down the stretch, he definitely made an impact while providing the Braves their first full season with a legitimate leadoff hitter since Rafael Furcal left after the 2005 season. Bourn entered the All-Star break with a .366 on-base percentage, and the Braves are 56-15 when he scores at least one run.
The Braves took a gamble when they began the year with rookie Tyler Pastornicky as their starting shortstop. But they knew all along that they would promote Simmons as soon as they were sure he was ready. Once Simmons arrived in early June, he provided an immediate spark and quickly became one of the game's top defensive shortstops. When he missed two months with a broken bone in his left hand, Janish stepped in and showed that he, too, is one of the game's most impressive defensive shortstops.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.