Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

2013 MLB Team Previews: Atlanta Braves

Atlanta Braves

2013 in Review

2013 had many ups and downs for the Atlanta Braves. Led by Freddie Freeman, the Braves earned a second consecutive postseason berth, their first ensuing trip since  the 1995-2005 epoch. Their third playoff appearance in the last four seasons, Atlanta would succumb to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series 3-1.

On the plus side, their prodigious young core of players proved age isn’t anything but a number. Aside from Brian McCann, the rest of the staples in Atlanta were 25 years old or younger. On the other hand, highly sought after free agent B.J. Upton busted, finishing with nine HR and a .184 AVG in 446 plate appearances.

Last season was also the first year without mainstay third baseman Chipper Jones. The eventual Hall of Famer was superseded by veteran Chris Johnson. Johnson would go on to impress, hitting for an AVG of .321 to go along with 12 HR and 68 RBI in 514 AB. Comparatively speaking, Jones hit .287 with 14 HR and 62 RBI in 2012, his final season. Simply put, Johnson did more than enough to suffice as a replacement for Jones.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the Braves pitching. Closer Craig Kimbrel continued to show why he is the best arm in the ninth inning in Major League Baseball, accumulating 50 saves and a 13.16 K/9. The rotation was just as gaudy. Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran combined for 42 wins. Journeyman Paul Maholm did well, tallying ten wins in 26 starts while boasting a 3.89 xFIP. Tim Hudson would be lost with a season-ending injury but Brandon Beachy would return from Tommy John surgery, enhancing equilibrium in Atlanta.

Quite frankly, Atlanta’s pitching steered while their hitting powered the vessel.

2014 Preview

Key Departures: RHP Tim Hudson, C Brian McCann, LHP Paul Maholm, RHP Luis Ayala

Key Additions: RHP Ervin Santana, RHP Gavin Floyd, C Ryan Doumit

Offense

Justin Upton. Image Credit: David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Swagger is nothing for the Braves offensively. Despite playing 81 games in a pitcher’s paradise, the Braves finished fifth in MLB with 181 total homers a year ago. More of the same should be expected in 2014. Minus Brian McCann, the heart of the lineup returns. Even more importantly, the drop-off from McCann to Evan Gattis will be slight.

Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman are the leading NL MVP candidates on the roster. While both post mammoth numbers from the batter’s box, teammate Jason Heyward is the dark horse to win the award in 2014. An early season appendectomy and a fluke fastball breaking his jaw in August besieged Heyward’s 2013 campaign. By all indications, the 24-year-old is healthy for the upcoming season and based on a return to his 2012 production, should turn out a fine season which puts him near the top in MVP voting by season’s end. A line consisting of 30 HR, 105 RBI, 100 R and 25 SB won’t be difficult for Heyward to attain.

29-year-old Chris Johnson is expected to hit in the clean-up spot. While no one will ever make Braves fans forget about Chipper Jones, Johnson did make the transition more seamless. His 14.5 Offensive Wins Above Replacement (oWAR) was good enough for third best among NL third basemen, right behind David Wright and Ryan Zimmerman.

B.J. Upton should improve on his abysmal numbers from last year. Then again, if his production gets any worse, maybe Ruben Amaro Jr. could trade for him to help improve the Philadelphia Phillies outfield (I kid, I kid). According to Dayn Perry of CBSSports.com, Upton has been working on fixing his swing. There is no guarantee any change in his mechanics will help him improve though. As Perry puts it, the older Upton “lost about 13 feet on the average distance of his fly balls.” This could be attributed to one of two things: Upton “hit his decline phase in a hurry or was grossly out of sorts at the plate” in 2013. Braves fans are hoping it’s the latter.

Defense

The Braves posted a team defensive WAR of 23.8 last season, situating themselves as the tenth best MLB club in fielding. For comparison’s sake, they were only three points short of the defensively renowned Tampa Bay Rays. Defense in Atlanta begins and ends with shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

A smooth glide, incredible range and vacuum-like glove makes Simmons who he is — one of the best fielders in baseball. His aptitude actually inflates how good the Braves are defensively. A year ago, only one fielder finished with a higher dWAR (Manny Machado). According to Fangraphs, Simmons fielded 53.3 percent of plays rated unlikely by Inside Edge scouts. Plays rated unlikely have a ten to 40 percent likelihood of being fielded.

On the flip side, Justin Upton has been awful in the field of play. He is the only one of the outfield trio to post a negative dWAR in 2013. Jason Heyward is the best, posting a near ten dWAR. Like the Brothers Upton though, Dan Uggla, Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson all beset the Braves with negative dWAR ratings.

Brian McCann wasn’t the greatest defensive catcher. He posted respectable numbers in some categories but in other categories, he was downright bad. Much shouldn’t change between him and Evan Gattis. Gattis is a notch below McCann but the difference will be minute.

Rotation and Bullpen

Much can be ballyhooed about the Braves losing Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgeries. Both pitchers will miss all of 2014 but fans can refrain from calling FEMA — it’s not all bad in Atlanta. But how does a team replace two pitchers of the stature of Medlen and Beachy?

Mike Minor. Image Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

For one, the Braves typically get more out of their pitching than other clubs (see Paul Maholm in 2013). A pair of 23-year-old’s, Julio Teheran and Alex Wood, will do more than satisfy what Atlanta needs from their pitching. Wood, a lefty, is slowly growing into a breakout candidate. In 77.2 innings as a rookie last year, he posted a 8.92 K/9 rate to coincide with his 3.13 ERA and 2.65 FIP. He walked just 3.13 batters per nine innings as well.

Ace Mike Minor and recently acquired Ervin Santana will be the keystones at the top of the rotation. With those two plus Teheran and Wood, the Braves have one of the strongest set’s of four starter’s in MLB. The fifth spot is in doubt though.

Early speculation suggests righty David Hale is destined to open the season in the rotation. The 26-year-old has just 11 MLB innings under his belt. Heavily dependent on his fastball (91 mph), Hale relies more on control than velocity. His secondary pitches — slurve and change-up — aren’t too menacing either. Hale’s upside remains as a back-of-the-rotation type arm, similar to Kyle Kendrick in Philly. If anything though, Hale is in the perfect situation for his skills set.

Craig Kimbrel is MLB’s most heralded closer since Mariano Rivera. And that’s putting it lightly. Soon to be 26 years old, Kimbrel has already collected 138 saves in the last three seasons.

The rest of the bullpen should fare well once again. David Carpenter and Luis Avilan will split duties in the eighth inning. Righty Jordan Walden will push Carpenter though. Atahualpa Severino and Ian Thomas provide the stable with dependable left-handed pitching while righty’s Gus Schlosser and Anthony Varvaro will compete for innings too.

Projected Starting Lineup

  1. RF Jason Heyward
  2. CF B.J. Upton
  3. 1B Freddie Freeman
  4. 3B Chris Johnson
  5. LF Justin Upton
  6. 2B Dan Uggla
  7. C Evan Gattis
  8. SS Andrelton Simmons

Projected Starting Rotation

  1. Mike Minor
  2. Ervin Santana
  3. Julio Teheran
  4. Alex Wood
  5. David Hale

*Lingering setback to Minor will push him back a start or two. Santana’s late spring signing will as well. Teheran already named Opening Day starter.

Prospect to Watch

25-year-old Tommy La Stella is a lightly acclaimed prospect worthy of keeping an eye on throughout the early stages of the 2014 season. An infielder by trade, La Stella is going to be putting heat on veteran Dan Uggla should Uggla continue his descent into mediocrity. La Stella has already been reassigned to minor league camp but should be ready for the majors by June or July.

La Stella batted for .343 in Double-A a year ago. He doesn’t boast power like Uggla but unlike the current Braves starting second baseman, La Stella does project to be a bit more better than replacement level. For Uggla, a dismal start to 2014 as an encore to his terrible 2013 would leave the Braves looking for other options. Uggla is still under contract for $13 million per annum through 2015. At that rate, the Braves demand much more. Expect a low tolerance from the front office should Uggla disappoint early on again. La Stella is waiting in the wings.

Best Case Scenario

More likely than not, the Braves will get the most out of their starting pitching. Alex Wood will make the fan base forget all about Beachy while B.J. Upton gets off to a hot start and projects for more than 25 HR. So long as the rotation can navigate itself away from another Medlen-like injury, the Braves will do more than enough to compete with the Washington Nationals.

Worst Case Scenario

Last year I wondered if strikeouts would derail the Braves. The results of my findings on team-wide strikeout rates suggests any “team which strikes out more than one in five at-bat’s will struggle to win. While winning is possible, no team has swung and missed at such a rate and found themselves in the World Series, let alone winning it.” Therefore, the worst case scenario lies in the Braves not improving in their overall strikeout rate.

Of course, should another injury or two fall upon the pitching staff, the slope will get even more slippery.

Prediction

94-68 (Second in NL East)

Tags: Philadelphia Phillies

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