As we work towards Opening Day, John Pielli will be previewing each team based on past performance, offseason moves, minor league system, and overall outlook for 2015. Today: the Atlanta Braves.
The Atlanta Braves of 2014 needed some shaking up. Injuries to pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy and bad contracts given to Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton were a couple of the things that led to the firing of GM Frank Wren. In comes John Hart, a very intelligent baseball mind, and he is handed the task of getting this organization back on track. Hart has been very busy and it seems his focus is to strengthen the farm system and the major league roster with younger players who will be around for years to come. It seems to come, however, at the expense of this coming season. While many teams have taken steps toward being a postseason contender in 2015, the Braves have taken steps back.
If there is a reason the Braves could surprise in 2015, it will be because of their starting rotation. Shelby Miller (10-9, 3.74, 31 starts in 2014) comes over from St Louis in a deal for OF Jason Heyward. With Heyward being a free agent after this season, it looks as if this will be a very good trade for the Braves going forward. Miller joins RHP Julio Teheran (14-13, 2.89), Mike Minor (6-12, 4.77) and Alex Wood (11-11, 2.78) in what should be a deep rotation. LHP Eric Stults (8-17, 4.30, 32 starts for Padres) is the early favorite for the 5th spot. Wandy Rodriguez is in camp to provide a veteran presence in case of an injury, so his chance of making the rotation is not very good if the other pitchers stay healthy. If anybody takes the number five away from Stults, it will be young newcomers Michael Foltynewicz, Manny Banuelos or Max Fried, all of whom were acquired this off season in trades. All three have very good stuff, with Fried recovering from an arm injury. If Foltynewicz was still in Houston, he would be a lock to be part of the Astros rotation in 2015.
The Braves made trades in which they moved OFs Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis, 2B Tommy La Stella and RHP Drew Carpenter to get Miller, Foltynewicz, Arodys Vizcaino and Banuelos. Losing Heyward, Upton and Gattis means the Braves have to replace 77 2B, 62 HR, 212 RBI and 192 R. The only positive is that the Braves rid themselves of 366 strikeouts from the 2014 season. One of the problems with the Braves lineup has been the amount of Ks which has reduced the amount of runs they could be scoring. That being said, they do need to have players capable of driving them in.
Freddie Freeman is by far their best player and has been over the past couple seasons. He did, however, have a slightly down 2014 (.288, 18, 78, 43 2B, 93 RS, 175 H) while playing all 162 games. He is joined by free agent signing Nick Markakis (.276, 14, 50, 150 games for Baltimore). 3B Chris Johnson (.263, 10, 58) and Andrelton Simmons (.244, 7, 46) are the other key returners to the Braves lineup. Of course, Simmons is by far the best defensive SS in baseball. B.J. Upton (.208, 12, 35, 173 Ks, .652 OPS) is entering the 3rd year of a 5 year, $75 million contract he signed with the Braves after 2012. The Braves would love to move him, but because of the lack of interest the team has to either see what they can get out of him or cut their losses. They cut their losses with Uggla last season after giving him some time to get out of his funk. I think they owe Upton the same, but should have a contingency plan in place if Upton continues to struggle. The Braves signed free agent 2B Alberto Callaspo (.223, 4, 39 with Oakland last year) and OFs Jonny Gomes (.234, 6, 37 with Boston and Oakland) and Eric Young Jr. (.229, 1, 17, 30 SB with Mets) to play 2B and LF. Young also doubles as a solid defensive 2B if the Braves wish to play him there.
Christian Bethancourt (.283, 8, 48 in 91 games in AAA) inherits the full time job behind the plate from Gattis. Veteran A.J. Pierzynski comes in to back him up. The Braves lineup should look something like this: Young/Callaspo LF/2B, Simmons SS, Markakis RF, Freeman 1B, Johnson 3B, Callaspo/Gomes 2B/LF, Bethancourt C, Upton CF. Of course, Upton can lead off or bat in a power spot of the order… if he proves to have anything left. Players to consider for the Braves bench include Joey Terdoslavich, Zoilo Almonte, Kelly Johnson, John Buck and Eury Perez.
The Braves bullpen is led by Craig Kimbrel (0-3, 47 saves, 1.61) and a group of veterans that have proven themselves at many points during their careers. The best of the bunch is Jason Grilli (1-5, 12 saves, 4.00 in 62 games for Pirates and Angels), who signed a two year deal as a free agent. LHPs Luis Avilan (4-1, 4.57, 62 games), James Russell (0-2, 2.97, 66 games for Cubs and Braves), and Vizcaino set the Braves up with 5 givens going into spring training. RHPs Jim Johnson, Jose Veras and Josh Outman can make the bullpen even better if any come back to old form.
The Braves have injected a little bit of youth in a team that showed signs of age, even if the age was not on paper. A Braves fan can hang onto the thought of the young pitching carrying the team, since they are not expected to score a lot of runs. I like the Braves, but more for 2016 than 2015. The unproven young pitchers can make their impact this season and give John Hart the ability to deal from a position of strength to balance the team (i.e. add more offense). Las Vegas feels the same way, putting their over/under at 73 1/2. I see them finishing a little less than that, at 71-91, 4th place in the NL East.