Manager Fredi Gonzalez (pictured above) has cultivated a winning culture in Atlanta, and there’s no reason to believe that this won’t continue in 2014. The Braves will be good. However, I think the Nationals, who had some tough luck last year, will be very eager to unseat Atlanta. Can the Braves hold on to their lead atop the division? Let’s take a look!
On and Off Offense
The Braves had a bit of an enigmatic offense last year, in that they have plenty of guys with power, but had two every day players, we’re talking guys who played at least 120 games, hit under .200 for the year. That distinction goes to 2B Dan Uggla (.179, 22 HR) and B.J. Upton (.184, 9 HR, 26 RBI). The worst part about that is that those two guys were, and continue to be, two of their most expensive players. Uggla has never been a guy to hit for average, and famously got off to a horrible start in 2012, but Upton’s fall from grace was a bit more surprising. The Braves signed him to play outfield next to his brother, Left Fielder Justin Upton, for five years and $75.25MM before the 2013 season. He only drove in 26 runs all year long, which is certainly not what they thought they would be paying for. I think there’s hope that Upton will bounce back, but Uggla may be a lost cause at this point. Just hope he hits one out every once in a while.
The Braves have some very big positives on offense. First of all, the aforementioned Justin Upton. The Braves traded for Upton prior to the 2013 season, and he got off to a torrid start, hitting 12 home runs in April. He cooled down considerably after that, but still ended up hitting .263/.354/.464 with 27 homers and 70 RBI. You’d like him to drive in more runs, but that can be blamed on others just as much as it can be blamed on him. Freddie Freeman is the real glue in this offense though. The 24 year old, who just signed a huge extension about a month ago, hit .319/.396/.501 with 23 homers and 109 RBI last year, and he’s only going to get better. Jason Heyward, the Braves other top outfielder, struggled and was injured last year, which was a bit of a disappointment. He has all the talent in the world and is still only 24, so I think he’ll be OK.
The other highlights for the Braves offense are Chris Johnson, who went from being a platoon type player to hitting .321 and almost taking home a batting title in 2013. He’s always seemed on the verge of breaking out, and he finally did it last year. Andrelton Simmons, meanwhile, might be the best all-around shortstop in the league not named Troy Tulowizki. The rookie burst onto the scene last year to hit .248/.296/.396 with 17 homers and 59 RBI. Those are good numbers for a rookie, and he plays elite defense too. The Braves already signed him to an extension, and I think he’ll continue to grow. The guy I’m looking out for most, however is Evan Gattis. Before last year, Gattis was best known for his backstory, but he proved that he can actually hit the ball too. As a part time catcher and outfielder, he hit .243/.291/.480 with 21 homers and 65 RBI in just 105 games. The Braves signed Ryan Doumit to replace the departing Brian McCann at catcher, but Gattis should be starting against lefties if Atlanta is smart. Boy can mash.
From the days of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Greg Smoltz and even guys like Steve Avery and Kevin Millwood, the Braves have always been all about their young pitching. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen the emergence of the new generation. While Tommy Hanson was believed to be the guy that was going to spearhead the new movement, he’s fallen on hard times and is now trying to make the Rangers rotation on a minor league deal. The real guys to look out for in Atlanta are Mike Minor (13-9, 3.21 ERA, 26 years old) and Julio Teheran (14-8, 3.20 ERA, 23 years old). Teheran might be the real jewel here, but the other three guys aren’t half bad, right? I would have included Kris Medlen on the list, but he is headed for a second Tommy John surgery, after straining his forearm earlier this spring. That’s a tough loss for sure, although the braves responded by quickly signing Erving Santana to a one year deal. Meanwhile, Brandon Beachy is now fully recovered from his Tommy John surgery and looking to get back to his dominant 2012 self, although he has been suffering from tightness in his elbow (apparently normal for Tommy John guys). Finally, look out for youngster Alex Wood, a 23 year old lefty that is the favorite to take over the fifth starter role in 2014. Wood (3-3, 3.13 ERA, 23 years old), made 11 starts and 20 relief appearances last year, so he looks ready to step up and replace one of the departing Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm.
The Braves bullpen is among the most disgustingly good in all of baseball. It starts at the top with 50 save man Craig Kimbrel, who actually failed to record 100 Ks for the first time in his career last year (98). The fact that he’s never started a game makes that pretty impressive. He might be the best closer in the NL, and he should help the braves keep most of those late leads. The rest of the guys are all capable of dominating the opposition too. Eric O’Flaherty is gone, but they still have guys like Luis Avilan (1.52 ERA in 2013), David Carpenter (1.78 ERA in 2013), Anthony Varvaro (2.82 ERA in 2013), Jordan Walden (3.45 ERA in 2013) and even a returning Johnny Venters is working his way back from Tommy John surgery, and should contribute at some point this year. He was once Kimbrel’s right hand man, so it will be nice to have him back.
I happen to think the Nationals will be too good for anyone to stop this year, but I think the Braves have the best chance at it. If they can’t, I don’t see why they wouldn’t be able to challenge one of the other NL Central teams for one of the two Wild Card spots. The Braves should be playing baseball come October, there’s no doubt about it, although one never knows what’s going to happen. That’s baseball, Suzyn.
Freeman is on his way to becoming one of the best first baseman in the league, so he’s worth picking up. Simmons is among the most talented players at a premium position, and so he should be on your team too. Ditto Justin Upton, and Heyward shouldn’t be counted out just yet. You could make the argument for Johnson, but he’s only really helping one category, so I’d stay away from him. Say no To B.J. and Uggla. Gattis might not get enough time on the field to justify a pick, but he does have catching eligibility and all the power in the world, so he’s worth a mid-to-late round pick if you haven’t gotten a catcher yet.
You can’t really go wrong with Minor, Medlen and Teheran at this point. Those guys are all going to be very good in 2014. I’d definitely gamble that Beachy will be back to top form, and take a wait and see attitude with Wood. Don’t let him sit on waivers too long if he pitches well though. I don’t take closers early, so I’ll never get Kimbrel, but one of those fools who takes closers in the 9th and 10th rounds should definitely grab him.
Featured image courtesy of: AJC.com
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