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Sunday, March 9, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Atlanta Braves

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Atlanta Braves
By Wild on Sports Analyst Aaron Dorman


2013 Overview:
After ending 2012 by losing to the lesser wild card team (Cardinals), the Braves take no chances and steam-roll over the NL East with 96 wins thanks to strong pitching, some breakouts on offense, and the best bullpen in the league. The arrival of the Upton brothers comes with mixed results, but the Braves may have two new stars in Andrelton Simmons and Freddie Freeman. Meanwhile, the bullpen pitches to a 2.46 ERA in 460 IP, 40 points higher than the next team (Pirates) and the team overall leads the league in total ERA (3.18). Still, they can’t gain any traction in the playoffs. It’s their seventh straight playoff appearance in a row in which they lose in the first round. Ouch.

Winter Grade:
Coming: Gavin Floyd
Going: Brian McCann, Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm
It’s a relatively quiet offseason, but it’s sad to see two longtime Braves leave to find new homes. Both spent the past nine seasons with Atlanta, and their presence will be difficult to replace in the short term. The money saved by their absence goes to Simmons and Freeman, now locked up for almost a decade. The Braves are superficially passive, only signing a recovering Gavin Floyd to take up a rotation spot, but sometimes doing nothing is the best option. Atlanta invested heavily in the Upton brothers last year, and BJ especially stands to recover a significant amount after the pressure and poor performance early on torpedoed his season. Chris Johnson will see fewer hits fall in, but Andrelton Simmons will see more. And anybody replacing Dan Uggla will be an upgrade. Don’t forget nearly everyone from last year’s league-leading pitching corps is back again.

Wild Card(s):
Andrelton Simmons is already a star thanks to elite defense and burgeoning power, but he could be even better. He had a ridiculous low .247 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) last year, which drove his average down. If he picks up even 15 extra hits next year, he’s a .270+ hitter, but his minor league numbers foretell even better contact ability, and also more in game speed. At his peak, Simmons could hit .300 and challenge for a 20/20 season, which would make him a bonifide MVP candidate.

Also worth mentioning is BJ Upton, who wasn’t just hit unlucky, but also whiffed at everything (career high 33.3% K/PA) and the worst Isolated Slugging of his career (.105), a measurement of power output. He’s not yet 30, so a recovery is likely, but don’t forget that he’s never really been a star and Atlanta may have overpaid for the promise of a player who doesn’t exist. They may have to settle for his previous Mike Cameron lite impersonations, which isn’t so bad.

Key Contract Years: 
Everybody important is going to be a Brave for a long time.

Rookies:
Eventually, Brian McCann’s successor will be strong defensive catcher Christian Betancourt, who had a modest offensive breakout, .277/.305/.436 with 12 HR, last year in AA at age 22. It’s still uncertain how much he’ll hit, but his defensive reputation is such that he’ll probably still be valuable even he’s just another Mike Matheny. Elsewhere on the field, second basemen Tommy La Stella is an older prospect (25), but he’s very likely to steal playing time from a badly aging Dan Uggla; La Stella hit a robust .343/.422/.473 in AA last season.

Key Questions: 
Can BJ Upton or Dan Uggla recover to be league average regulars?
Can Chris Johnson and Evan Gattis maintain their relative productivity next year in expanded roles?
Is Julio Teheran an ace in the making?
What is the status of Brandon Beachy, and can he be an important piece of rotation depth?
When do pitchers Gavin Floyd and Johnny Venters make their 2014 debuts?

Farm System Overview: RED (below average) 
Big league graduations and mediocre drafts leave little on the farm; 2012 first-rounder Lucas Sims highlights a spotty pitching crop, although never bet against Atlanta’s ability to develop arms. However, Sims is far away and will start the season in high-A. Right now, their prospect list is dominated by role players, like potential utlityman Joey Terdoslavich (“Joey Terdo”), and a few of their more athletic guys in the lower minors will have to break out for the system to look better next year.

2014 Prognosis: Strong Contenders
Even without Brian McCann, this team has few holes, plenty of upside, and several young stars highlighted by Freeman. That’s more than enough to look strong on paper, and who knows, maybe this is the year Jason Heyward finally blossoms into a superstar. Unless injuries decimate the rotation and BJ Upton really is a .180 hitter, this team is primed for another first place finish. What will take for them to finally make a deep playoff run? Who knows.

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