2011 was a wild year for the Atlanta Braves. Here are the top-5 stories of the year that kept Braves Country buzzing from the cold days of winter to the dog days of summer to the hectic days of the Winter Meetings.
The club was rumored to be in the market for a slugging corner outfielder for many weeks leading up to the trade deadline, but Frank Wren smartly shifted his focus towards Michael Bourn just a few days before July 31. The Braves had not had a true leadoff man since the days of Rafael Furcal and Bourn was among the best in the business.
Bourn was officially acquired on the morning of the 31st and his impact was immediately felt both in the lineup and on the field. In return for the speedy outfielder, Atlanta sent outfielder Jordan Schafer and pitchers Juan Abreu, Paul Clemens and Brett Oberholtzer to Houston. Schafer struggled in his time with the Astros and was recently charged for possession of marijuana. Abreu and Clemens will likely end up as relievers at the Major League level, while Oberholtzer has a chance to stick in the back of the rotation.
Just about everyone in baseball called the deal a huge victory for Frank Wren and the Braves. It's going to be fun having Bourn in Atlanta for 2012 and possibly beyond.
4. Craig Kimbrel Breaks Rookie Saves Record, Wins Rookie Of The Year
Craig Kimbrel was bred to be a closer since his high school days and it paid dividends greatly in his first full season with Atlanta. The flamethrower broke the all-time baseball record for saves by a rookie and ended his campaign with 46 saves, 127 strikeouts and a remarkable ERA of 2.10. Not only was Kimbrel among the league leaders in saves, but he was the most valuable relief pitcher in baseball, according to WAR.
Kimbrel was rewarded for his efforts with a unanimous National League Rookie Of The Year Award. It did not surprise many to see him win the award, but to win unanimously is a huge honor for the 23-year old. His best days are only ahead of him.
3. Dan Uggla Makes History, Saves Season In Second Half
Dan Uggla was quite the player in 2011. He spent the first three months mired in an awful slump that had some calling the acquisition of the slugging second baseman a disaster, and then, like magic, something turned around and Uggla became an MVP candidate for the second half of the season.
After posting an OPS of .592 through June, Uggla set the world on fire the rest of the way. He batted .293 in the month of July with an OPS of .963 and then outdid himself once again with a .340 average and league-best OPS of 1.076 in August. And with seemingly no one else hitting in the lineup, Uggla managed to club an OPS of .806 in the final month of the season.
Part of his resurgence came with a 33-game hitting streak that would break the all-time Atlanta Braves record. And it could have gone even further if it was not for Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney making the catch of his career on August 14.
Uggla carried the team for most of the second half and showed his fans and teammates just how great of a hitter he truly is when locked in at the plate.
2. From Bobby To Fredi
This was a story that was seemingly analyzed every day from the beginning of Spring Training to the last game of the season. Bobby Cox had been the man running the show since many of us were in diapers and the thought of having someone other than the lovable No. 6 took a long time to get used to.
Comparisons between lineup construction and bullpen management were made most days and many grew frustrated with Fredi Gonzalez's lack of fire in the dugout that Bobby used so well to motivate his players. Fredi's old school tendencies and were unpopular more times than not and it may have cost the team the playoffs.
1. The Braves Collapse In September
Atlanta held a 10.5 game lead with a little less than a month to play and at one time saw their playoff chances published at an incredible 98%. Because of poor bullpen management, untimely hitting, an incredible run by the Cardinals, and some downright horrible luck, the Braves blew their lead in the wild card and fell on the final day of the season.
There was a lot that would have been changed in hindsight, but the players gave it their all and hopefully learned from it. The thought of blowing what seemed like an insurmountable lead in a matter of weeks is one that I am still not over, and it only gets me hungrier for some Braves baseball in 2012.