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2014 MLB Team Previews

The 2014 MLB season is almost here! Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman brings you an in depth look at each of the 30 teams, prospects and key questions as we head towards opening day.

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Friday, March 14, 2014

NFL Free Angecy: Early Winners and Losers

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NFL Free Agency: Early Winners and Losers
By Wild on Sports Analyst Jason Gillson

With the anticipated early frenzy of moves over the initial 72 hours now in the books, lets take a look at the teams who have really stepped up in the early going to position themselves well for 2014.


Denver Broncos
Key Acquisitions: Aqib Talib, TJ Ward, DaMarcus Ware

For the second straight season the Broncos have stolen a key weapon from their top competition in the AFC - New England.  Last year it was Wes Welker, this year Aqib Talib. While the Welker move last season was more of a luxury, adding to an already potent WR core, this season they were able to address a major need at CB. Talib, when healthy, is one of the best DB's in all of the NFL. Last year he was hobbled late in the year and it killed the Patriots down the stretch. If he is able to stay healthy into the playoff this season, watch out. They didn't stop at Talib, grabbing another DB in TJ Ward to help shore up defensive secondary. Ward was a Pro Bowl caliber safety in Cleveland. It is a little strange that they let him walk without putting up much of a fight. That aside, if he comes in as advertised, the Broncos biggest weakness just got two major shots in the arm. Finally, we come to DeMarcus Ware. The long time Dallas All-Pro fell victim to a numbers game for the cap starved Cowboys. Their loss is Denver's huge gain as the rich keep getting richer. All in all a big first three days of free agency for the Broncos.

Philadelphia Eagles
Key Acquisitions: Darren Sproles, Malcolm Jenkins, Nolan Carroll

Somewhere Chip Kelly is a very happy man. Having a two headed monster at running back featuring possibly the best all around back in LaSean McCoy and now the most elusive back in Darren Sproles will make them a match-up nightmare on offense. They also went out and added two nice pieces to the secondary in Malcolm Jenkins and Nolan Carroll. One of the leagues worst pass defenses just got a lot better. Minor signings of Punter Donnie Jones, Safety Chris Maragos and Linebacker Bryan Braman should also not go unmentioned. There is still some work to be done of defense and you know Kelly would like to add another big receiver -- plenty to be had in the draft -- but this is a very good start.

Miami Dolphins
Key Acquisitions: Brandon Albert, Earl Mitchel

The offensive line was a nightmare all season for the Dolphins. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked for than any other QB in the NFL. Its hard to win football games with your QB spending half the game on his backside. They shipped out the trouble in Jonnathan Martin (to SF) and Richie Incognito (UFA). In comes big tackle Brandon Albert from Kansas City. Albert was a guy they Dolphins had unsuccessfully tried to acquire at this time last season. He will be a big time difference maker on the left side. The signing of nose tackle Earl Mitchel might be one of the more underrated moves of the off-season to date. Mitchel is a big body and very athletic for his size and position. He is widely regarded as one of the better young gap penetraters in the league and should instantly improve the Dolphins descriptiveness on defense.


Dallas Cowboys

Really poor cap management led to the releases of two players the Cowboys very much needed to keep around in DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher. They have been able to restructure a couple of contracts to finally get under the cap but have no flexibility to go out and sign free-agents to make the team better. They will have to rely on the draft, which for Jerry Jones has not been a strong suit in recent years. It is time for Jerry to take a step back and bring in an actual GM who knows what he is doing.

Oakland Raiders

The Raiders have more money than any other team this off-season and yet here they sit, unable to bring in a marquee name. Darrell Revis wouldn't even talk to them. The QB's are running in another direction. They thought they had signed Roger Saffold before team doctors failed his physical leading to the player signing back with the Rams. What a mess.

New Orleans Saints

What a mess the Darren Sproles situation had become. First they were releasing him, then trading him. They told the player one thing, but did another. All in all just bad business. They also are walking a fine line with TE Jimmy Graham, probably 1 of the two players (Drew Bress being the other) that you just don't want to alienate.

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Miami Marlins

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Miami Marlins
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview: 
Surprise! When you trade away sixty percent of the rotation and half the lineup the previous winter, you lose a lot of games. Miami scores a putrid 513 runs in their sophomore season in a new ballpark, and the roster is historically bad until some late season call-ups like Christian Yelich and Nate Eovaldi keep things respectable. Still, things are sour on and off the field. Veterans Placido Polanco and Juan Pierre show why they were available to the Marlins in the first place, in what should be their final seasons. Prized outfielder Giancarlo Stanton expressed his displeasure with the team’s direction and then has a poor season hitting .250 with 24 Home Runs. Batting coach Tino Martinez gets outed for abusing his players and then management punishes the PLAYERS, sending down rookies Derek Detriech and Marcell Osuna to AAA. Finally, even the emergence of ace Jose Fernandez comes with the footnote that by letting him pitch five extra innings in April, the Marlins lose a whole year of control of his services.

Winter Grade: D 
Coming: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Rafael Furcal, Garret Jones, Casey McGehee
Going: Logan Morrison, Juan Pierre (retires), Placido Polanco (retires)
Three years after John Buck’s mistaken contract is finally off the books, Miami gives the same contract to virtually the same player in Saltlamacchia, a one-dimensional catcher coming off a career year. Expect things to go similarly when he finds the fly balls don’t go as far in Florida. It’s nice to see Furcal attempt to continue his career, and both Jones and McGehee are mildly interesting pickups for a terrible offense, but the Marlins sell very low on Logan Morrison and without Ricky Nolasco, there are no veterans to help take the pressure off their young starters, or eat innings when they get injured. Peppered among their minor league free agent signings are some names like Carlos Marmol or Ty Wigginton who bring back memories but probably not enough to draw fans to the park this year.

Wild Card(s): 
Nate Eovaldi is far more intriguing than his 9-21 career record would indicate. The 24-year-old had a 3.39 ERA last year for Miami and has the best combination of stuff and peripherals among their young starters not named Jose Fernandez. He is the best bet to become a mid-rotation caliber starter; as of now fellow rotation mates Jacob Turner (mediocre fastball) and Henderson Alvarez (poor strikeout rate) lack that favorable prognosis.
Among hitters, Dietrich and Osuna could be big league regulars, although it remains to be seen how long ownership will hold a grudge against them. Outfielder Christian Yelich has a chance to be even better than Stanton, adding speed and strong batting ability along with well above-average power.

Key Contract Years:
Nobody unless some of their minor league free agents pan out. But it doesn’t matter, as Miami often trades players well before they reach free agency (arbitration eligible players are ‘expensive’) and sometimes trade them even after signing them to long term deals (Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson).

Most interesting players close to the majors saw enough time last year in Miami to lose their rookie status. One guy who didn’t was center fielder Jake Marisnick, who came over in the mega-deal with Toronto. Marisnick is very athletic but he’s been rushed and could use some time in AAA to improve his pitch recognition and become a better hitting threat. His speed and defense will allow him to be useful but there is some five-tool potential in him as well.
Lefty Andrew Heaney had a 1.60 ERA in 19 starts last year between High-A and AA, and we know Miami isn’t afraid to push their top pitching prospects…but he only threw 95 innings and just six starts above A-ball, so he’s probably not ready.

Key Questions: 
Who gets the bulk of the playing time, the rookies or the scrubs?
When will Miami pull the trigger on a Stanton trade?
Will they also move closer Steve Cishek?
Will the ballpark be filled to above halfway capacity in any game this year?

Farm System Overview: YELLOW (mediocre) 
Overall the Marlins have a lot of young talent but many of their best prospects lost rookie status by the end of last year (Yelich, Jordan Turner, etc). What’s left is a top-heavy collection of Heaney, 2013 first-rounder Colin Moran (3b), and mostly a bunch of back-end starter types. The two main pitching prospects returned in the Toronto megadeal, Justin Nicolino and Anthony DeSclafani, had solid seasons in high-A, but neither throws hard enough to project as a star right now.

2014 Prognosis: Rebuilding
It smells like rotting fish in Marlins Ballpark. What else is there to say? Ownership keeps them irrelevant because they refuse to spend more than the bare minimum or exercise enough patience to wait for a winning core to come together. Their scouting and development people are pretty good, and the Marlins have been above .500 four times over the last decade despite the payroll constraints. Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Fernandez and Christian Yelich must have other GMs salivating.

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Philadelphia Phillies
By Wild on Sports Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview: 
Roy Halladay goes down and so the Phillies and their mini-dynasty; the fearsome pitching trio of Halladay, Lee, and Hamels lasts barely three years. Everyone is old and/or injured, and Ryan Howard’s contract which pays him at least another $85 million may be the worst of all time. Newcomers Michael Young and Ben Revere do little to help the Phillies compete. Overall it’s their first losing season since the year 2002.

Winter Grade: C+
Coming: AJ Burnett, Marlon Byrd, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Roberto Hernandez
Going: Roy Halladay
An old team gets even older, but what choice did they really have? None of the old guard-Rollins, Howard, Utley, et al-have much trade value so the Phillies take aim at one more year of respectability. The late signing of AJ Burnett looks very smart, especially with Cole Hamels missing April, but the other signings are head scratchers. Marlon Byrd had a sub-.500 OPS before his magical rebound last year, and to expect him to repeat is an expensive gamble. Cuban import Gonzalez came to spring training throwing below 90 mph and right now the Phillies aren’t sure he’s a major league starting pitcher. For the price the Phillies paid to bring in these guys, as well as retaining catcher Carlos Ruiz, they could have splurged and signed a real impact player like Sin-Soo Choo. Overall the roster makeup doesn’t give them very much flexibility right now.

Wild Card(s): 
Marlon Byrd -  He was one of the best outfielders in the league last year after nearly washing out of baseball, but to say his season was a career outlier is an understatement. At age 35, Byrd hit a career-high in Home Runs (24), and he did it in an unsustainable manner, upping his strikeout rate to career highs (24% or 144 K in 532 AB), and reducing his walk rate to career lows (5.3% or 31 BB). Typically when you miss more pitches like he did, your batting average goes down, but Byrd maintained a high BABIP (Batting average on balls in play) all year. The big season wasn’t all smoke and mirrors; Byrd got into better shape going into last year and the stats point to a new, more aggressive approach which worked for him last year. Considering he is moving to a bandbox in Philadelphia, some or most of the power should remain. The question, however, is whether or not Byrd can keep a respectable batting average, or take more walks, or even stay on the field for 140-plus games. He’s going to turn 37 in August, so nothing should be taken for granted with him.

Key Contract Years:
AJ Burnett may go year-to-year as his career winds down. Kyle Kendrick has been up and down but could get a contract similar to Scott Feldman’s 3-year deal on the open market. Jimmy Rollins has a mutual option at the end of the year.

Although he won’t arrive until midseason, Maikel Franco may force his way into the lineup at third base, or first after the inevitable Ryan Howard DL stint. Franco has big time power, swatting 31 HR between high-A and AA last year. He has an aggressive, contact oriented approach and Philadelphia will find out if that works at the AAA level first, or if he begins to pile up strikeouts. Their best pitching prospect, lefty Jesse Biddle, could also get a call-up around June if he can fix some control issues. Mentioned above, Miguel Gonzalez is a “rookie” but right now the Phillies don’t know if they bought a backend starter or a AAAA washout.

Key Questions: 
Who stays healthy?
And then who replaces the guys who go down?
Do Cody Asche or Darin Ruf have the ability to play full-time?
Speaking of 2013 rookies, is Jon Pettibone a big league starter?
Do either Cole Hamels or Cliff Lee get traded if the Phillies get off to another bad start?
Would AJ Burnett approve of a move to a contender?

Farm System Overview: YELLOW (average) 
Injuries have decimated what looked to be a promising pitching crop, but the top tier of Phillie prospects is still solid. Maikel Franco has as much power potential as any prospect, and last year’s draft pick JP Crawford had a very strong debut (.443 OBP) in the Gulf Coast League. The organization still has a knack for finding toolsy players in the draft and on the international market; speedy shortstop Roman Quinn could be poised to break out next year.

2014 Prognosis: Unlikely Contenders 
An old team, coming off a 74-win season, doesn’t read on paper like a contender. But they’ve still got those two ace lefties and Howard, Utley and Rollins have now played together for a decade. Between them, can they squeeze out enough former glory to make a run at the wild card? It’s a long shot, but no matter what happens, at least Ryan Howard is paid like an MVP.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

NHL Power Rankings - March 12

Wild on Sports
NHL Power Rankings
March 12, 2014

We have a new #1 this week and it is well deserved! It is our first post-trade-deadline edition of NHL Power Rankings and as such, a tip of the cap is in order to those who really made strides to improve their teams. The Blues top that list with the additions of Ryan Miller and Steve Ott. Each bring an edge and winning attitude that playoff teams need and will be big time contributors for the Blues down the stretch if they are going to make a serious Stanley Cup run. 

Jumping up three spots this week are the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks were relatively quiet at the deadline but their big boost down the stretch will be as a result of rest more so than new additions. The Sharks had surprisingly few players named to Olympic squads, a blessing in disguise if you ask just about every GM in the NHL. That should serve them well as they make a run at the Ducks for the Pacific Crown. 

At #3 this week are the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks keep chugging along, positioning themselves well for a chance at a repeat. Ho-hum. 

Things are really starting to get interesting for the Ducks who slip from their top perch down to #4 this week. Are we seeing a repeat of last season's hot start followed by mediocre .500 hockey going into the playoffs? For their sake, I sure hope not. 

Rounding out the top five this week are the Boston Bruins. Andrej Meszaros may have been that under the radar sneaky-good deal that Peter Chiarelli has made a habit of doing over the years (Kelly, Peverley in previous years). The only real potential weakness the Bruins had going into the deadline was a lot of youth and inexperience on the blue line. Meszaros should go a ways towards helping that.

Where does your team rank this week?

Last Week
1 St. Louis Blues 3
2 San Jose Sharks 5
3 Chicago Blackhawks 2
4 Anaheim Ducks. 1
5 Boston Bruins. 7
6 Colorado Avalanche 4
7 LA Kings. 9
8 Pittsburgh Penguins 6
9 New York Rangers 11
10 Minnesota Wild 8
11 Philadelphia  Flyers 12
12 Toronto Maple Leafs 15
13 Dallas Stars 17
14 Montreal Canadiens 10
15 Columbus Blue Jackets. 19
16 Detroit Red Wings. 14
17 Washington Capitals. 18
18 Tampa Bay Lightning. 13
19 Phoenix Coyotes. 20
20 New Jersey Devils. 24
21 Ottawa Senators. 21
22 Vancouver Canucks. 22
23 Winnipeg Jets. 16
24 Nashville Predators. 23
25 Carolina Hurricanes. 25
26 Edmonton Oilers. 28
27 Calgary Flames. 26
28 Florida Panthers. 29
29 Buffalo Sabres. 27
30 New York Islanders 30

MLB 2014 Team Preview: New York Mets

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: New York Mets
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview: 
Incremental improvements don’t amount to much as the Mets wait for money to come off the books and for prospects to debut in Queens, but another consecutive 74-win season doesn’t tell the whole story. Buoyed by ace Matt Harvey and the arrival of Zack Wheeler in the rotation, the Mets go 29-27 in July and August before some injuries hit and Marlon Byrd is traded for prospects. But is it a sign of things to come from a rotation which might be able to break in a new ace for three straight seasons (this year it’s Noah Syndergaard’s turn)?

Winter Grade: B-
Coming: Curtis Granderson, Bartolo Colon, Chris Young
Going: Johan Santana, Jason Bay’s $$$

The disappointing John Santana era is finally over. This winter was supposed to be one in which the Mets were ‘free’ to spend, but they really just replace what is coming off the books, and it’s not enough to go after any of the top tier guys like Sin-Soo Choo or even a new shortstop, to date. How much did Matt Harvey’s tommy john surgery impact GM Sandy Alderson’s ability to spend? We’ll never know. The Mets’ overhaul of the outfield looks reasonable, as Granderson is one year removed from being an above-average regular, and Chris Young is still, well, young. But Bartolo Colon is a gamble for a team that still is a long-shot to contend, and Colon turns 41 in May. Maybe the Mets see him as a good veteran to round out a rotation full of young flamethrowers? Maybe they think they’re closer to contention now?

Whatever the case, Colon’s contract is preferable to some of the nutso money given to mediocrities like Ricky Nolasco or Jason Vargas. The Mets still need a shortstop, and they still need to figure out what do to with Ike Davis. Both of these issues could be resolved later in the spring.

Wild Card(s):
Chris Young was awful last year for Oakland, hitting an even .200, but once upon a time he was a 30/30 threat and his plate discipline is solid enough that if he hits even .230, as he did in 2012, he will provide enough on offense to be an asset. Still, the Mets are probably hoping for something more, and as he’s ‘just’ 30, Young could potentially repeat something along the lines of his 2011 season (.236 with 20 HR, 22 SB and 80 BB), the last one in which he was fully healthy. Complicating matters is the fact that he’s expected to play right field, not center, putting more pressure on his offensive output.

If he’s not traded before April, Ike Davis is also a bounceback candidate; his power potential and disappointing career to date looks superficially like Chris Davis’ of the Orioles. Don’t hold your breath waiting for 50 Home Runs, but somewhere within lies a more reliable version of Adam LaRoche; the question is whether or not it comes in New York. Two years in a row of miserable April-Mays makes one wonder whether Davis lets slumps get to his head…or pitchers know the book on him too well.
Key Contract Years: Chris Young is a free agent no matter what this year. If he’s any good, the Mets might be able to command a draft pick for his departure…or they could trade him if they’re not contending this year.

Noah Syndergaard’s nickname is “Thor” and it’s not just because he drops a hammer curve that complements his tremendous fastball. Syndergaard is a consensus top ten pitching prospect and definitely has the potential to become an ace. He’ll join the Mets in the middle of the year, a la Wheeler and Harvey in years past. Arriving will be Rafael Montero, whose stuff isn’t quite as electric but the righty has tremendous command of his arsenal and will either be a solid rotation arm or an excellent weapon coming out of the bullpen. He’s ready now but the Mets might want to keep him in the minors in April for service time reasons. Finally, catcher Travis D’Arnaud is still a “prospect” even though he spent more time in New York than down on the minors last year. If he can avoid injuries, he should at least be an average everyday catcher, providing some pop and throwing out runners. If he could develop into more than that, the Mets
would be very pleased.

Key Questions: 
Who rounds out the rotation? The Mets have many candidates right now including “Dice-K”, John Lannan and the aforementioned rookies. Will Jon Niese’s shoulder woes make this a moot point? Who plays first, Ike Davis or Lucas Duda? Can Ruben Tejada bounce back from a terrible 2013 and hold down the fort at shortstop? Can Juan Lagares hit enough to play everyday in center? Speaking of which, where is the offense on this team going to come from beyond David Wright and Granderson?

Farm System Overview: GREEN (above average) 
The Mets are deep with right-handed pitching prospects, most of whom could at least be power arms in the bullpen as soon as this year, but have higher ceilings. They have several impact players ready to play in the majors, and tools-heavy drafts have loaded the bottom of the system with athletic breakout candidates, like first-rounders Dominic Smith (1b) and Brandon Nimmo (of). Well-timed trades have given the Mets solid depth as well.

2014 Prognosis: Unlikely Contenders
There is genuine talent on this team, and David Wright may actually be underrated now that he’s played so long for an underperforming franchise. But the gaping holes at shortstop and first base are huge, and overall the Mets have too many question marks and don’t look threatening on offense. However, their pitching surplus means they might finally be able to trade from depth to bolster their roster. A splashy acquisition like Asdrubal Cabrera or even Ryan Braun, if you dare to dream, could go a long way towards convincing fans that ownership finally has financial flexibility.

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Washington Nationals

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Washington Nationals
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview: 
Lots of things go wrong for a team that was supposed to have another easy 95-win season. Dan Haren isn’t the man for that job behind the aces in the rotation. Adam LaRoche regresses and fans miss slugger Michael Morse, traded last winter for prospects. Danny Espinosa implodes after consecutive seasons providing a nice power/speed combo. Bryce Harper misses some time. Their bench mysteriously hits a collective .209. And yet they still manage a late playoff run and 86 wins. This was pretty much their floor. This year, will they hit their ceiling?

Winter Grade:
Coming: Doug Fister, Nate McLouth
Going: Dan Haren, Robbie Ray (minors), Nate Karns (minors)
Last year the Nationals gambled on upside when looking for a fourth starter and got burned by Dan Haren. Now they’re not taking any chances, acquiring dependable control artist Doug Fister in a head-scratching deal with Detroit which costs Washington some extra bench pieces and second tier lefty Robby Ray. They also bolster the bench with Nate McLouth and backup catcher Jose Lobaton, and acquire a dependable lefty reliever from Oakland in Jerry Blevins. Those latter moves are attempts to polish the roster that was poor around the edges last year, a wise move considering the star power they already have on hand.

Wild Card(s):
A trio of pitchers view for the fifth starter role: Tanner Roark (1.51 ERA in 53 IP), Taylor Jordan (3.66 ERA in 51 major league innings, 9-1 with a 1.00 in 90 IP in the minors) and Ross Detwiler (10-8 with a 3.40 ERA in 2012) have all shown flashes now of big league success, but health and durability are concerns for all of them. Can someone step up and anchor the back of the rotation? Meanwhile, Anthony Rendon had a solid debut and offers breakout potential at second base this year. It was only 36 games, but he had a .452 OBP in AA last year.

Key Contract Years:
Adam LaRoche and Denard Span both have options, but neither is a lock to be picked up. They’ll have to improve on lackluster 2013 seasons. LaRoche in particular will need to justify a mutual $15 million option; plenty of guys can hit .237/.332/.403 at first base. Also, Rafael Soriano’s $14 million option will probably be declined, especially if he repeats his troubling 6.8 K/9 rate from last year.

Nobody significant stands to make an impact with the Nats this year. Their closest top prospect to the majors, outfielder Brian Goodwin, is blocked from full playing time until injuries occur, and first baseman Matt Skole could be Adam LaRoche’s replacement, but he missed all of last year so his readiness is up in the air.

Key Questions: 
Can Jayson Werth repeat last season, when he was healthy and productive for the first time since signing with the Nats? Where does Danny Espinosa fit onto this roster, and is he useful trade bait? How much rope does LaRoche have? Does Bryce Harper break out as an MVP candidate this year? Who wins the fifth starter job?

Farm System Overview: YELLOW (average) 
Top prospect Lucas Giolito wowed scouts last year, but he was in the GCL so he’s quite a ways away. Not having a first-rounder last year leaves them light on depth but luckily, snagging back AJ Cole (who they traded a year before) for Mike Morse was a coup, as Cole looks like a potential mid-rotation starter or better down the line. They have interesting prospects sprinkled around the diamond, including some speed demons in the outfield (Michael Taylor, Eudy Pena, among others), but they’re greatest strength may be in future second basemen/utility infielders. The Nationals reshuffled their prospect depth a little bit in a deal with Tampa which included Nate Karns and Jose Lobaton. For now, they’ll have to make due with what’s on the major league roster.

2014 Prognosis: Strong Contenders
Last year was a bump on the road. THIS time the Nationals mean business, and when they make the playoffs, Stephen Strasburg might even be along for the ride! Don’t start printing playoff tickets just yet…wait until May when it’s clear that 2013’s unlucky setbacks were an aberration. It should be fun watching them duke it out with Atlanta atop the NL East this year.

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.

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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