MLB Preseason: Atlanta Braves 2014 Preview

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Evan Gattis

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Braves were one of the two teams in the National League East last year that went into the season as favorites to win the division. The Washington Nationals faltered and the Braves won the division with a 96-66 record, one of only four teams with at least 95 wins in all of baseball.

Barring a miracle season from Philadelphia, it looks like it will be a two team race again this season between Washington and Atlanta. The Braves lost perennial all-star catcher Brian McCann but it was to the American League and the emergence of Evan Gattis last year can soften that blow. Brandon Beachy will be completely healthy for Spring Training, meaning Tim Hudson’s departure for San Francisco shouldn’t matter too much.

Lineup

It’s not very often you can watch a seven-time all-star catcher who is just 30-years-old walk away from your team and not be overly concerned but that’s the situation the Braves find themselves in.

Evan Gattis returned from his life tour to get back into baseball in 2010 and finally made it to the Majors with a thud last year, putting up 21 home runs in 382 plate appearances over 105 games. The power in Gattis is real; from 2011-2013 from A-ball to Triple-A, Gattis had 41 home runs in 153 games. He did strike out a lot last year but he’s had a full season to adjust to Big League pitching. There really shouldn’t be much of a difference in production between Gattis and what McCann has done the last couple of years, though the on-base percentage is one glaring difference.

Much like the rotation, there are a lot of question marks in the lineup.

  • Justin Upton turns 27 in August and that means he should be hitting his stride as a player. He ended up with a good year last year but was wildly inconsistent from month to month.
  • B.J. Upton had a disaster year from start to finish but he’s still on the right side of 30 and has a long track record of success behind him.
  • Chris Johnson led all of baseball in BABIP and is not a .320+ hitter. That average could easily come crashing down to .280.
  • Jason Heyward has long been hailed as an elite prospect and has put together two good years and two average years. If he lives up to his talent, along with the Upton brothers, it could be the best outfield in all of baseball.
  • Freddie Freeman has a brand new contract in the nine figure range but it’ll be interesting to see how he does this year. None of Freeman’s batted-ball rates were much different in 2013 than they were in 2012 yet he had a 60 point difference in batting average. He could hit .300 again but his ceiling going forward probably isn’t much higher than that. It’s more in the .280-.290 range.

There are a lot of guys in this lineup that are prone to striking out and no true “top of the lineup” guy, so if Bossman Junior can’t get on base and steal 30+ and if Jason Heyward doesn’t have one of his good seasons, this will be a team that will feast or famine with the home run like they did last year. They were successful, but it’s a dangerous way to live.

Starting Pitching

Since the days of Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz, this team’s success has come on the backs of their starting pitchers. Though that could be said of any team that rolls out three (future) Hall of Famers every five days.

Kris Medlen proved last year that he really can be a front line starter for this team and he, along with Mike Minor, will anchor this rotation where Medlen is the eldest and he’s just 29-years-old.

Minor’s problem over his four years in the MLB is that he’s been susceptible to elevated fly ball and home run rates and in turn he has seen inflated ERAs. Playing at Turner Field should help Minor if he can keep the ball off the barrel, enabling him to come close to duplicating last year. That would give the Braves a very nice 1-2 combo at the top.

After that the rotation still has question marks.

Julio Teheran was a highly-ranked prospect for years, reaching as high as number 5 on Baseball America’s prospect list in 2011. While Teheran doesn’t have a devastating fastball – he’ll sit at about 91 or 92 MPH – it’s always been his changeup that has been his best pitch. In a very good article from JD Sussman of FanGraphs, the problem of Teheran’s breaking ball is brought up. Last year, Teheran all but abandoned his curveball for a slider. As is visible in the GIF from that article, the slider is more looping than breaking:

http://cdn.fangraphs.com/blogs/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/TeheranCU_take.gif.opt_.gif

It’s a small sample size, but on 510 sliders last year, Teheran only had a .169 batting average against his slider but over a 50-percent fly-ball rate and a .403 slugging against it. When the batters squared up his slider, he had big problems. If he can’t tighten it up a bit, that issue will leak into 2014.

The Braves also signed RHP Gavin Floyd in the offseason but he’s coming off injury and won’t be ready for the first month of the season. If any of the young guys should struggle out of the gate, Floyd should be ready to take their spot in the rotation six weeks or so into the season.

If Beachy can stay healthy, if Teheran develops a consistent third pitch, and if Alex Wood takes another step in his development (hopefully not backwards), this is one of the top rotations in the National League. Those are a lot of ifs, though.

Bullpen

It never hurts to have the best closer in baseball in your bullpen. If the game gets to the ninth inning, Craig Kimbrel is almost automatic and there’s no need to keep going on here.

The Atlanta bullpen had the lowest ERA and OPS against of any bullpen in baseball in 2013. Luis Avilan, David Carpenter, and Jordan Walden should return to the bullpen and the addition of Scott Downs last year should soften the blow until Jonny Venters returns

That last name is a key to this bullpen. Right now, the Braves probably have Walden setting up for Kimbrel but the former has had his own issues in the past. Neither Downs nor Avilan are particularly power pitchers from the left side and that would be an added dimension for the Braves when Venters returns. The expectation is that Venters should be back sometime after the first month of the season from his second Tommy John surgery. If he can return to his 2010-2011 form, this is an elite back end of the bullpen. If not, the Braves will be short their only power lefty out of the ‘pen. Not a huge setback, but not ideal either.

In The Minors

First things first, the hole I see is lefty arms out of the bullpen. One name to keep in mind is Ian Thomas.

Last year, the Braves had Thomas start 13 games in Double-A but most of his minor league time has been spent coming out of the pen. His K/9 is close to 11 for his 150 innings in the minors and he could be ready to be called up sometime through the middle of the season if the Braves feel they need that big lefty arm.

J.R. Graham might be the most MLB-ready pitcher that Atlanta have in the farm system right now. His biggest hurdle right now was that Graham strained his throwing shoulder in May last year and was essentially shut down for the rest of the season. Graham had reportedly been able to hit 100 MPH in the past but works with a heavy sinker so he’s not reliant on the strikeout. If he can come back healthy in Spring Training and any of the guys in the Majors get injured or fall apart, expect Graham to get the call.

This Year

As I said earlier, there’s no reason to think the Braves shouldn’t challenge for the division title this year. The lineup can be as good as any in the National League, the rotation can be a Top 5 rotation in the National League and the bullpen should be solid as always.

That said, there are still those question marks. Guys like the Brothers Upton, Heyward, Teheran, Beachy, Wood, Gattis, and Venters all have something to prove in their own way. If all these guys perform to their abilities, this is a World Series contender. If these things don’t come together, this is a .500 ball club.

Michael Clifford was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada and is a graduate of the Unviersity of New Brunswick. He writes about fantasy hockey and baseball for XNSports and FantasyTrade411.com. He can be reached on Twitter @SlimCliffy for any fantasy hockey questions.
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