The Atlanta Braves caught most of Major League Baseball off guard last season, unseating the presumed division champion Washington Nationals by running roughshod through an admittedly weaker NL East, holding the top spot in the division for all but one day en route to their first divisional title since 2005.
Atlanta’s regular season success was attributed in part to the power of new acquisition Justin Upton along with rookie catcher Evan Gattis, a pair that combined for 135 RBIs and was instrumental in a lineup that finished the season 5th in baseball with 181 home runs.
Supported by consistent hitting from third baseman Chris Johnson (.321 batting average – second in the NL to Colorado’s Michael Cuddyer), excellent defensive play by shortstop Andrelton Simmons and first baseman Freddie Freeman, and lights-out performances from a bullpen that started the season with a next-man-up approach and ultimately posted the lowest ERA of any group of relief pitchers in the NL since 1990, Atlanta simply refused to lose for the better part of a season that saw the club post two separate winning streaks of ten games and fourteen games, respectively.
The Braves were among the hottest teams in baseball when the playoffs began in early October, striding into the postseason with a 96-66 record that left the NL East champions just one game away from holding home-field advantage. Despite such great play in the regular season, the Braves ran into a buzz saw when they faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, as the Chop was silenced after four games thanks to great pitching from Clayton Kershaw and unstoppable hitting from L.A.’s dangerous lineup.
Instead of looking outside of the organization for this year’s squad, the team’s front office opted to instead focus on re-signing some of its biggest stars to long-term contracts, which included Freeman (8 years, $135 million), Simmons (7 years, $58 million), starter Julio Teheran (6 years, $32 million), closer Craig Kimbrel (4 years, $42 million), and outfielder Jason Heyward (2 years, $13.3 million).
In the process, the team saw two of its talented veterans sign contracts with other clubs, as starting pitcher Tim Hudson went west to the San Francisco Giants while catcher and hometown talent Brian McCann brought his talents to the Bronx to play for the New York Yankees.
The Braves are hopeful that last season was the beginning of another long run of dominance in the NL East, but with the Nats prepared to make some noise with a roster that now includes Doug Fister, will the team’s strategy to rely on the players already in-house quickly prove to be an utter mistake?
Best Case Scenario
Atlanta makes general manager Frank Wren look like a genius with a hot start, which comes thanks to a resurgence from center fielder B.J. Upton along with great pitching from late addition Ervin Santana along with Julio Teheran. The Braves successfully balance their offense, a stark contrast from last season’s reliance on hitting the long ball for runs, and see Kimbrel continue to cement his name among the best closers to ever grace the mound, setting up for yet another great divisional race.
Most Important Braves
First baseman Freddie Freeman cashed in this offseason, and it’s no mystery why Atlanta was willing to hand its second round pick from the 2007 draft a hefty sum of money. Only twenty-four years old, Freeman has an outstanding ability both at the plate and in the field, which gives the Braves stability at first base for the first time since Mark Teixeira covered the bag for the second half of the 2007 season and the first half of 2008. Although he has yet to develop into one of the top power hitters at his position like Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt or Cincinnati’s Joey Votto, Freeman established or tied career-bests in batting average, hits, home runs, on-base percentage, RBIs, walks, and strikeouts categories last year, leaving most to expect the Fountain Valley, California native to follow his breakout season with one just as equally impressive.
The loss of Tim Hudson to the Giants along with injury problems this spring for Kris Medlen (Tommy John surgery), Mike Minor (urinary tract surgery), Gavin Floyd (recovering from Tommy John) and Brandon Beachy (arm soreness) leaves the Braves desperately hoping that Julio Teheran steps up and performs as a top-of-the-rotation starter that most feel he is capable of being. Teheran pitched very well in his first full Major League season in 2013, posting a 14-8 record with a 3.20 ERA and 170 strikeouts.
Currently twenty-three years old, Teheran showed signs of brilliance on the mound several times last season, which included flirting with a no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Jun. 5. Atlanta needs to stabilize the rotation as soon as they can if they want to compete with the Nationals in 2014, and although it is a lot to ask from a player with just one year under his belt, this may be the very situation that Teheran faces.
Potential Breakout Players
Second base has been a sore subject for Atlanta ever since the team acquired Dan Uggla from the Florida Marlins in the offseason following the 2010 campaign. Instead of providing a reliable bat and a decent glove for the Bravos, Uggla has been a disaster from the start, and with three years now in the books the former Arizona Diamondbacks farmhand has produced what evens out to a .213 batting average with 26 home runs and 165 strikeouts per season in Atlanta. Things got so bad last fall that manager Fredi Gonzalez opted to leave Uggla off the postseason roster altogether, leaving many to point towards Tommy La Stella to be the guy who steps up to steal the spot currently occupied by Uggla.
La Stella had a fine season in stints at Lynchburg (A+ affiliate) and Mississippi (AA affiliate), finishing the 2013 campaign with a .343 batting average, 4 home runs, and 41 RBIs at the AA level. Ranked as the ninth best prospect in the Braves organization by ESPN’s Keith Law, La Stella is noted for having great discipline at the plate and a serviceable glove, a combination that makes him a viable threat to get a considerable amount of playing time this season.
Another young player that may become a solid pinch-hitter and received some starts is left fielder and first baseman Joey Terdoslavich. Terdoslavich played in fifty-five games last year and posted some less-than-stellar statistics (.215 batting average with no home runs), but those in the organization are hopeful that the twenty-four year old’s successful run in the Dominican Winter League this offseason will translate to better play in 2014. With Reed Johnson now a Miami Marlin, expect Terdoslavich to compete with Jordan Schafer for the occasional spot start in the outfield and to serve as the backup to Freeman at first.
The back-end of the Braves’ rotation does not appear to be set in stone as the spring draws near, which means that a darkhorse like David Hale could have a shot to become the team’s fifth starter. The Princeton University graduate looked sharp in two starts and one postseason appearance last year, accumulating a record of 1-0 with an ERA of 0.82 and setting a Braves’ rookie record with nine strikeouts in his debut on September 13th against the San Diego Padres. Blessed with a fastball that tops out at 96 mph and a dangerous slider, Hale may not leave spring training with a guaranteed spot on the major league squad, but don’t rule out his reappearance in the big leagues if one of the starters suffers an injury or struggles to begin the season.
Worst Case Scenario
Atlanta’s decision to not pursue any big-name free agents or trade for an ace like David Price proves to be disastrous in an NL East that houses a Washington Nationals team that some predict will win at least 100 games in 2014. The Braves’ lack of a proven workhorse on the mound results in a woeful opening to the season, and hitting coach Greg Walker’s inability to fix the team’s two biggest offseason projects leaves the team in a considerable hole.
Areas of Concern
The Braves have been famous for having one of the best pitching rotations in baseball since the early 1990’s, and although it looked as if Atlanta would have a competent staff for the upcoming season, the dreaded injury bug has bit the Braves incredibly hard. Needing to make a move quickly, the Braves hit the panic button and signed free agent Ervin Santana, who has plenty of potential in his first stint in the National League. Atlanta should be able to breathe easier once the likes of Minor and Floyd recover to full health, but the first few weeks of the season could prove to be disastrous.
The statement “All the Atlanta Braves do is hit home runs” seems like a perfect problem to have in Major League Baseball, but the fact of the matter is that this very issue is keeping a talented team from reaching an elite status. Atlanta’s struggles with both producing quality hits as well as having men on base when the big bats sent balls out of the ballpark was a constant in 2013, a problem which cannot occur again considering how strong the division looks to be this season. As exciting as it is to watch players like Justin Upton and Dan Uggla send baseballs flying over 400 feet, such actions only producing one run is a sure way to get beat more often than not.
Speed has also been an absence that has hurt Atlanta over the last several years, as the team’s inability to steal bases consistently has forced the team to rely more on batting runners around rather than utilizing a base runner’s stealing skills. The Braves produced twenty steals less than the National League’s average in 2013, a stat which is very peculiar considering how fast players like B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward have proven to be. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has been one to pursue the conservative route in many facets of the game, but the team’s refusal to put men in motion has been very costly.
Who Needs to Bounce Back from a Down 2013
Despite such great success as a whole in 2013, two Atlanta Braves found themselves amongst the worst hitters in baseball. One such player was Dan Uggla, whose inexcusable .179 batting average placed him last alongside all major league hitters with considerable playing time and even left the second baseman behind teammate and pitcher Julio Teheran, who recorded a .224 average in 58 at-bats. This situation was so bad for Uggla last season that Atlanta was unable to unload his ridiculous $12.4 million per year contract during the winter months, leaving the team simply hoping for the best this year.
Uggla was not alone in struggling at the plate last year, as teammate B.J. Upton played just as bad in his first season with the Braves. Although younger brother Justin adjusted well to the friendly confines of Turner Field, B.J. often looked like a player who was simply showing up to take three strikes and cash his check, leaving many to criticize his approach along with his ludicrous contract. Walker has assured the media that B.J. has adjusted his swing accordingly, which included taking out several of the moving parts that made his swing so inefficient before. The Braves do not have to have both Uggla and the elder Upton lead the league in average, but they certainly need the duo to improve and pick up the slack like the rest of the Braves’ batters did one year ago.
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