As we head into spring training, most teams have taken shape for the 2013 season. That statement includes the Atlanta Braves, who aren't likely to make another significant move until closer to the trading deadline after trading for Justin Upton and signing B.J. Upton.
The Braves are looking the best we have seen since 2005, at least on paper. This article takes a look at six reasons why this group of players is going to win another NL East title for the Atlanta Braves in 2013.
The Braves appear to be strong in all areas, but the strongest part of this team may be the bullpen. That is a bullpen which has been among the best in all of baseball in each of the past two years. That's very impressive, but this team that didn't lose any of its best bullpen arms added in flame-throwing youngster Jordan Walden, a 2011 All-Star as the closer for the Angels.
The Braves have arguably the most dominant closer in the game today in Craig Kimbrel, a guy who makes hitters look foolish. Then they add in two of the best setup men in the game in Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty, which doesn't even mention Walden. Each of these guys is capable of being an All-Star this season based on his stuff and past history.
The talent doesn't stop there, however. Luis Avilan, who really impressed as a rookie down the stretch last year, and solid long man Cristhian Martinez are both very strong in their roles.
The Braves also have some interesting options for the final spot in the pen, such as Cory Gearrin.
One thing that doesn't show up on paper as an addition that should help the Braves is the fact that two of their best young players will be a year older.
Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman will both have another year of experience under their belts and an extra year of work that they have put in to improve their games.
Heyward rebounded well from his disappointing 2011 season and appears to have his career back on track. He is a guy capable of really breaking out in a big way. He is the type of talent capable of hitting .300 with 30 homers and 20 steals with a high on-base percentage as soon as this season.
Freeman started out last year very hot, looking like he was about to have a major breakout in terms of power. Then came a series in Colorado where he had dirt scratch his eye, which sent him into a slump that lasted for most of the remainder of the season.
Freeman's eye should be good to go in 2013, and he could potentially become a true middle-of-the-order run producer.
One thing which really hurt the Braves last year was the overall play at shortstop. Tyler Pastornicky began the year at short, and although he was fairly decent with the bat, he was awful in the field. This really hurt the Braves considering they have a bunch of ground-ball pitchers who rely on the defense behind them being solid.
Paul Janish got to play a major role for the Braves later in the year due to injuries, and although he was very strong with the glove, he was awful with the bat. When he was in the lineup, it was almost as if the Braves had two pitchers hitting at the end of the lineup.
There was some good news, as Andrelton Simmons made his debut last year. Simmons only played in 49 games due to starting the year in the minors and suffering a hand injury after he was called up, but he still managed to emerge as a guy that some already consider to be the best defensive shortstop in the game.
As if that isn't enough, Simmons is also an above-average hitter for the position, which gives the Braves a well-rounded, young shortstop.
A full year of Andrelton Simmons means the Braves will no longer need to sacrifice defense or offense. It also means that guys like Tim Hudson and Jonny Venters will have an elite defender behind them to vacuum up grounders hit to the left side of the infield.
The Braves went into the 2012 season with what they believed to be a strong rotation, but the first half of the season was ugly. Jair Jurrjens was awful, Tommy Hanson wasn't the same pitcher, Julio Teheran was disappointing in spring training, Randall Delgado was up and down, Mike Minor was bad in the first half, and Tim Hudson missed the first month of the season.
In fact, only Brandon Beachy was strong throughout the first half, and his season ended early when he was forced to get Tommy John surgery. Things got so bad for the Braves that they signed Ben Sheets, who had been out of the game, traded for Paul Maholm and moved Kris Medlen from the bullpen.
This year the issues shouldn't be as big for the Braves.
Medlen was the best pitcher in the game down the stretch last year, Hudson has continued to defy his age and be among the better pitchers in the game, Minor has figured things out and was dominating at times in the second half, Maholm is an innings-eater who fits in well at the back of the rotation, and Teheran rebounded in winter ball.
That doesn't even include a possible comeback for Beachy in the second half.
The 2012 season wasn't just a career-worst for Brian McCann; it was the first time during his seven full big league seasons when he was not selected to the All-Star team. We found out as the season went on that the cause of this was a shoulder injury which made it hard for McCann to swing the bat, and that helped to make sense of the struggles.
After the season McCann had surgery to fix his shoulder, and although he may not make it back into the lineup for Opening Day, he should be healthy when he comes back. McCann has proven himself to be among the best-hitting catchers in the game, and now that he is healthy, he has a good chance of returning to that form this year.
For all we know now, a healthy McCann could have helped the Braves overtake the Nationals for the 2012 NL East title. We also know a healthy McCann could go a long way to helping the Braves claim the division crown in 2013 in what should be a tight race.
The talk of this winter for the Braves is the fact that the team went out and brought in both Upton brothers. The additions of B.J. and Justin Upton to go with Jason Heyward give the Braves an outfield capable of hitting 100 homers with 300 RBI.
As if that wasn't good enough, the trio is more than capable of stealing 75-80 combined bases, while Justin Upton and Heyward are each Gold Glove candidates in the outfield corners.
Heyward and Justin Upton are each guys with the talent to put up MVP-like numbers, while B.J. Upton is also a big talent. This is the best outfield we have seen in Atlanta since the days Andruw Jones roamed center field, Chipper Jones was in left and Gary Sheffield was in right.