MLB Preseason Evaluation Series: 2013 Atlanta Braves
This series will evaluate one team per day, starting on January 23, 2013 and ending on February 22, 2013 (the first game of spring training). It is based on last season's performance, offseason changes since and the author's outlook for the team in 2013. Please keep in mind that rosters can, and will, change before Opening Day. We started in the AL East and now go to the NL side, starting in the East and going in alphabetical order. Next up, the Atlanta Braves.
2012 finish: 94-68 (2nd place, NL East—lost in NL play-in game to St. Louis Cardinals)
RHP Jordan Walden, RHP David Carpenter, OF Justin Upton, OF B.J. Upton, 2B Blake DeWitt, 3B Chris Johnson, C Gerald Laird
RHP Tommy Hanson, RHP Ben Sheets, RHP Peter Moylan, RHP Randall Delgado, RHP Jair Jurrjens, OF Michael Bourn, OF Eric Hinske, OF Matt Diaz, OF/2B Martin Prado, SS Nick Ahmed, 3B Chipper Jones, C David Ross
Why they will improve this year
The Braves actually lost a slew of good talent on the pitching staff and in the outfield, and will never replace Chipper Jones at third base. And that's where the bad news ends for Atlanta.
Chris Johnson is a big downgrade at the hot corner from Jones, but so is just about everyone. That being said, Johnson is an underrated player who will provide some pop in the lineup.
And the fact that Johnson will likely hit no higher than seventh is a testament to how ludicrous this team's lineup will be. Replacing Bourn, Prado and Diaz with the Upton brothers is a coup. It cost the Braves some cash and prospects, but it will definitely pay off.
There may be no better outfield in Major League Baseball than the one in Atlanta. All around, the Uptons and Jason Heyward mark an extremely athletic, young, powerful, smart trio. If they stay healthy and agree to stay in Atlanta long-term, this could be a dynasty in the making.
We haven't even talked about Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Dan Uggla or Brian McCann yet. Let alone the pitching staff, which boasts the most dominant pitcher of last year's second half in Kris Medlen, a soon-to-be career 200-game winner in Tim Hudson and enough depth to make the back end of that rotation still formidable.
Nevermind that the Braves also can turn to a bullpen that finished second in the National League in ERA in 2012, first in WHIP and has current best-in-baseball closer Craig Kimbrel at the end. Simply put, the reason the Braves will improve is because they are the complete package.
Why they will regress this year
For every positive, there is a negative. And what the Braves lost in Bourn was a true leadoff hitter with top-notch speed. Simmons should slot in nicely there, but will he be a downgrade as a leadoff guy? Almost certainly.
What they gain in B.J. Upton is a whole lot of potential in every aspect of the game that just still hasn't quite peaked. You can choose to look at that in a positive light—Upton will reach that potential at Turner Field, surrounded by big bats—or you can take the glass-half-empty approach and say that he's just not all he's cracked up to be.
He's definitely not worth $75 million, but nobody is worth what they are paid these days. His brother Justin Upton is the one I'm most curious about. He has the potential to be a five-tool stud, yet we saw a strange dip in production last year on a good team.
Was it really just the atmosphere in Arizona? Or is this a harbinger of more Upton family disappointment? Is the attitude of the two brothers going to present a problem? On that note, is losing fan and clubhouse favorites in Prado and Chipper going to mess with team chemistry?
Then, there's the question of health. Will Hudson stay off the DL? What about Brandon Beachy returning from major surgery last year? Will Mike Minor and Paul Maholm provide enough southpaw punch to keep opponents honest? And will catcher Brian McCann be able to see the ball for a full season?
It would be easy for a team that won 94 games in 2012 to regress, even after making a handful of big offseason moves. And given the uncertainty that both Uptons bring, the question marks in the rotation and ever-present health problems, this is a very real possibility for Atlanta.
The outlook for 2013
I do think the Braves will improve—just barely. The lineup on paper is absolutely terrifying, but I'm not sure the pitching staff will match up with it. I have faith in Medlen (if you've seen him pitch, you should too), and I truly believe Hudson will put up big numbers in 2013. But after those two, I'm not sold.
Minor, Maholm and Beachy have all been fantastic in their own rights at different times. But are one, two or all of them ready to take the next big step and become a solid, consistent starting pitcher? If not, the Braves may be in trouble.
Remember, they are still in a division with the Washington Nationals, who also improved over the winter. The Braves may trump the Nats on offense, but if they can't hit Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, etc., then what is the point of having Upton, Upton and Heyward in the middle of the order?
Don't answer that question. Because it's the opinion of this writer that the Braves will win 95 games and slightly close the gap on the Nationals in 2013. A division title? That's a different story.
It should be one of the most intriguing races to follow this year, but I still think the Nats squeeze it out by a game or two in the NL East. I hate to do this to Braves fans after last year's infield fly debacle, but I think the slight lack of pitching depth in the rotation does them in and relegates them to hosting another Wild Card play-in contest.
Potential changes before Opening Day
As far as I can tell, there are no rumors circling Braves camp. I'm not surprised, given the aggressiveness in which the Braves pursued upgrades in the lineup all winter long. But one thing the Justin Upton trade did give Atlanta was future financial flexibility because he's so young.
If they have the room to spend, I think making a run at Kyle Lohse would be an incredibly valuable addition to this pitching staff. It costs a pretty penny in terms of draft pick compensation, but Lohse's value is down this late in the offseason, and they have to do something to keep pace with the rotation in Washington.
Biggest surprise: Chris Johnson
Biggest disappointment: B.J. Upton
Bold prediction: Tim Hudson goes out with a bang, racks up 20 wins for the second time in his career.
1. Andrelton Simmons, SS
2. Jason Heyward, RF
3. Justin Upton, LF
4. Freddie Freeman, 1B
5. B.J. Upton, CF
6. Brian McCann, C
7. Dan Uggla, 2B
8. Chris Johnson, 3B
1. Kris Medlen, RHP
2. Tim Hudson, RHP
3. Mike Minor, LHP
2013 Braves Season Outlook?
4. Brandon Beachy, RHP
5. Paul Maholm, LHP
Projected finish: 95-67, 2nd place
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You can follow Jeremy on Twitter @Jamblinman.
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