It has been a long time since a baseball season started and the Atlanta Braves had this many questions.
Usually, whatever questions the Braves have had in spring training through the years were cleared up by the time opening day rolled around. But not this year. Were a day away from the start of the 2012 season, and the Braves have enough questions to make most feel a bit uneasy about the new year.
The Chipper Jones issue will undoubtedly be a story the entire season. Its his final year, so there will be somewhat of a farewell tour for what has been an elite player for a long time. The Braves cannot, however, allow that to interfere with the season.
And just how much Jones will play is the other issue. Its hard to know what kind of year a team might have when people in the clubhouse have a pool going on how many games the No. 3 hitter will start this season.
The Braves helped themselves Sunday with the acquisition of Juan Francisco from Cincinnati. Hes a power-hitter that has never really gotten an extended chance in the majors. Francisco is still just 24, and he could end up being Jones permanent replacement next year.
But Franciscos presence this season could be even more valuable. Hell simply step in when Jones cant play, which will allow Martin Prado to stay in left field full-time where he belongs. Francisco is good, and the Braves might have gotten a steal in the trade.
Shortstop is a huge concern. Tyler Pastornicky won the job, but the consensus around Braves camp was that hes just not ready to make a significant impact in the big leagues. They did the right thing by sending Andrelton Simmons back to the minors, and you have to wonder if theyll wish they did the same with Pastornicky after the first month.
Dont count out veteran Jack Wilson getting some pretty significant playing time if the young shortstops prove they just need more seasoning in the minor leagues.
Jason Heyward is another question that must be answered. Can he bounce back and hit like he did as a rookie in 2010, or will his struggles from 2011 linger into this season? Im just not sure yet. I think has to prove it to me for me to believe he can bounce back.
The lineup will be better. Michael Bourn will be a serious threat at the top of the order, and expect Martin Prado to bounce back and hit near .300 again. If they get on base, Brian McCann, Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman could drive in a lot of runs.
Atlantas pitching should be better, if not for the fact Derek Lowe is now in Cleveland. Tim Hudson will be fine in a few weeks, and hell lead a staff that could be outstanding. But theyve got to have Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens stay healthy. Even with the outstanding depth, last year proved that a team cant lose two top starters and compete.
Im a bit concerned about Brandon Beachy, who still has issues going deep into games. And while I first scoffed at the Braves signing Livan Hernandez, he might be a blessing if he can eat innings that might save a few relievers extra and unnecessary appearances.
Maybe things can come together. Maybe the team stays healthy and players who struggled last year wont this season. But I just dont feel this team can battle Philadelphia for first place.
The Phillies are still the Phillies, and there is no denying Miami and Washington both got better. So where does that leave a team that made little changes to a roster that choked the previous season?
This looks like a third-place team to me. Lets hope Im wrong, or were in for a long summer.
Listen to The Bill Shanks Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com.