It all ended tragically for the Atlanta Braves in 2012, but they're heading into 2013 knowing that they were right there with the best teams in the National League last season.
They're also heading into 2013 knowing that they're a much-improved team. The Braves aren't just a legit postseason contender. They're a legit World Series contender.
Braves GM Frank Wren made two bold moves this winter. One was signing B.J. Upton to play center field. The other was acquiring Justin Upton from the Arizona Diamondbacks to play left field. With the two Uptons and Jason Heyward lined up, the Braves have an outfield that just about every team in the majors wishes it had.
The Braves are strong elsewhere too. From top to bottom, here's a look at how they're shaping up for the 2013 season.
2012 Record: 94-68
Key Arrivals: C Gerald Laird (FA from Detroit), OF B.J. Upton (FA from Tampa Bay), RHP Jordan Walden (Trade from Los Angeles Angels), 3B Chris Johnson (Trade from Arizona), OF Justin Upton (Trade from Arizona).
Key Departures: OF Michael Bourn (FA to Cleveland), OF Matt Diaz (FA to New York Yankees), RHP Chad Durbin (FA to Philadelphia), OF Eric Hinske (FA to Arizona), C David Ross (FA to Boston), SP Tommy Hanson (Trade to Los Angeles Angels), OF/INF Martin Prado (Trade to Arizona), RHP Randall Delgado (Trade to Arizona).
Projected Starting Rotation (Record, Innings, ERA, WHIP and K/BB from 2012)
1. Kris Medlen, R (10-1, 138, 1.57, 0.91, 5.22)
2. Tim Hudson, R (16-7, 179, 3.62, 1.21, 2.13)
3. Mike Minor, L (11-10, 179.1, 4.12, 1.15, 2.59)
4. Paul Maholm, L (13-11, 189, 3.67, 1.22, 2.64)
5. Julio Teheran, R (7-9, 131, 5.08, 1.44, 2.26 at Triple-A)
Depth: Brandon Beachy, R (5-5, 81, 2.00, 0.96, 2.34)*
*Recovering from June Tommy John surgery.
Projected Starters (AVG/OBP/SLUG)
C: Brian McCann, L (.230/.300/.399 in 121 games)
1B: Freddie Freeman (.259/.340/.456 in 147 games)
2B: Dan Uggla, R (.220/.348/.384 in 154 games)
3B: Chris Johnson, R (.281/.326/.451 in 136 games)*
SS: Andrelton Simmons, R (.289/.335/.416 in 49 games)
LF: Justin Upton, R (.280/.355/.430 in 155 games)
CF: B.J. Upton, R (.246/.298/.454 in 146 games)
RF: Jason Heyward, L (.269/.335/.479 in 158 games)
*Juan Francisco will also see time at third base. He had a .234/.278/.432 slash line in 93 games last season.
In the Bullpen (Appearances, Innings, ERA, WHIP, K/BB)
Closer: Craig Kimbrel, R (63, 62.2, 1.01, 0.65, 8.29)
Eric O'Flaherty, L (64, 57.1, 1.73, 1.15, 2.42)
Jonny Venters, L (66, 58.2, 3.22, 1.52, 2.46)
Jordan Walden, R (45, 39, 3.46, 1.36, 2.67)
Cristhian Martinez, R (54, 73.2, 3.91, 1.34, 3.42)
Luis Avilan, L (31, 36, 2.00, 1.03, 3.30)
Cory Gearrin, R (22, 20, 1.80, 1.10, 4.00)
Analyzing the Starting Pitching
The 2012 season fell in line with Atlanta's track record of pretty much never having poor starting pitching. Braves starters compiled a 3.75 ERA that ranked seventh in MLB.
Atlanta's starting pitching should be just as good in 2013, especially if Kris Medlen picks up right where he left off.
Medlen, as you'll well remember, was unhittable after he was inserted into the Braves' starting rotation in late July. In 12 starts, he compiled a 0.97 ERA and held hitters to a .483 OPS.
It's all about control and changing speeds for Medlen, and he does these things very well. He walked only 1.5 batters per nine innings last year, and his 53.4 ground-ball percentage (see FanGraphs) and .286 opponents' slugging percentage go to show just how soft the contact against him was.
Medlen has his changeup to thank for much of his success. PITCHf/x data shows that he threw it 20 percent of the time in 2012 and that hitters swung and missed at it 26 percent of the time. In all, opposing hitters managed a microscopic .087 batting average against Medlen's changeup.
That's a hard feat to repeat, but it wasn't necessarily a fluke. Medlen had great success with his changeup back when he was healthy in 2010, and he showed promise as a starter that year too. It's not fair to expect him to be as dominant as he was late last season over a full 30-start slate, but he certainly has the potential to be one of the NL's top starters.
Behind Medlen, the Braves will be hoping for more of the same from Tim Hudson. Par for the course for him is a BB/9 in the 2.0-3.0 range and a ground-ball percentage over 50 percent (FanGraphs). He's been doing his thing for so long now that I figure it's pointless discussing what he has to do to achieve an ERA in the 3.00s and 15 or so wins. Hudson can achieve those numbers in his sleep.
The only real concern with Hudson is his health. He's had Tommy John and back surgery since 2009, and he's not getting any younger. This will be his age-37 season, and he has an awful lot of miles on his right arm. He may not make it to 200 innings.
If Hudson does have health issues in 2013, Mike Minor will have a chance to establish himself as Atlanta's second-best pitcher behind Medlen. He may be ready to do that after the way he finished the 2012 season, as he rebounded from a rough first half to post a 2.16 ERA in 14 starts.
The key for Minor in the second half of the season was a huge decrease in walks. He walked 40 in 92 innings in the first half of the season and only 16 in 87.1 innings in the second half. He'll need to find that control again in 2013, as he doesn't want to put too many runners on base via the walk, with his .252 BABIP from 2012 likely to come up a bit (FanGraphs).
Fellow left-hander Paul Maholm proved to be a fine addition to the Braves last season. He came over from the Chicago Cubs and compiled a 3.54 ERA in 11 starts with a 3.11 K/BB. That had much to do with an increase in strikeouts, as his K/9 went from 6.1 with the Cubs to 7.7 with the Braves.
That increase likely isn't sustainable given Maholm's track record. He's more likely to keep his K/9 in the 6.0-7.0 range, meaning he'll need a low BABIP to find success. That's not a fool's hope given that Maholm has had a BABIP under .290 in each of the last two seasons.
Julio Teheran is the wild card in the No. 5 spot of Atlanta's rotation. He's been a highly-regarded prospect for a couple years now, but his forays into the big leagues haven't been impressive. In seven appearances spanning 26 innings, he's given up 15 earned runs.
Still, the book on Teheran is largely positive. Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com has him down as Atlanta's top prospect, praising Teheran for featuring a good fastball/changeup combination. He's still somewhat raw, and he took a step back in 2012, but it bodes well for him that he's in the hands of an organization that has proven it knows what it's doing with pitchers.
If Teheran can't cut it in Atlanta's rotation, then the Braves will just bide their time for Brandon Beachy's return from Tommy John surgery. He was on pace to have a fine season in 2012 before his elbow gave out, posting a 2.00 ERA through 13 starts.
Don't expect similar dominance from Beachy when he returns. He'll have some rust to shake off, and the numbers suggest he was a little too dominant in 2012. He was succeeding with a decreased strikeout rate and an increased walk rate, mostly because his BABIP was an even .200 (FanGraphs). ERA estimators like FIP, xFIP and SIERA say that Beachy's ERA should have been higher.
All the same, Beachy will be a mere back-end starter when he does return, so there won't be too much pressure on him to perform. Atlanta's starting rotation will feature plenty of talent around him, and the rotation as a whole should be a key ingredient to the team's success in 2013.
Analyzing the Bullpen
Relief pitching was a big part of Atlanta's 2012 success, as Braves relievers finished behind only Cincinnati Reds relievers in ERA, and they blew only 13 saves all year.
The good times were mostly Craig Kimbel's doing. He racked up 42 saves, and he did it in dominant fashion.
Kimbrel's 14.8 K/9 in his rookie season was good, but he managed to do even better in 2012. He finished with a 16.7 K/9, which was made all the more impressive by his 2.0 BB/9. He forced hitters to make contact in order to rattle him, and that was no easy task.
At 19.2 percent, Kimbrel had the highest swinging-strike percentage of any reliever in the majors last year (FanGraphs). Such is life when you're going at hitters with a 99 mile per hour fastball and a hard slider that come out of a deceptive arm slot.
There's no reason to expect a regression from Kimbrel. He's been able to maintain his velocity in his first two seasons, and it's not going away anytime soon given the fact that he's only 24 years old. All he has to do is maintain the command he had last year, and he'll be baseball's best closer once again.
The Braves know what they're going to get out of one of the top two lefties they have in their bullpen. Eric O'Flaherty is one of the best lefty specialists in the business, holding lefties to a .512 OPS in 2011 and a .305 OPS in 2012.
Jonny Venters is a different story. He wasn't as dominant in 2012 as he was in 2011, in part because of recurring elbow troubles. These troubles probably had something to do with the drop in his average fastball velocity, as well as the drop in effectiveness of his slider (FanGraphs).
If Venters' elbow stays healthy this year, he should get back to averaging about 95 miles per hour with his fastball and throwing wicked sliders that nobody can hit. If he does, the Braves will celebrate the return of a dominant eighth-inning setup man.
The Braves are also hoping they can cure what ails Jordan Walden. It's no secret that he can throw hard, but his fastball command needs to be greatly improved. If the Braves can get him to throw his fastball at the bottom of the zone consistently, he should be able to get hitters to chase his hard slider more often. That would make him the dominant reliever he should be with his stuff.
The middle relievers the Braves are going to have in 2013 should be able to keep the team out of trouble. Cristhian Martinez, Luis Avilan and Cory Gearrin had BB/9s in the 2.25-2.50 range and HR/FB rates under 10.0 last year (FanGraphs). The Braves will gladly take more of the same this year.
Analyzing the Offense
After scoring only 641 runs in 2011, Atlanta's offense managed 700 runs in 2012. The team's plus-100 run differential was among the best in baseball.
Atlanta's offense should be even better in 2013, but much will depend on the Upton brothers.
Justin Upton is the bigger mystery between the two. The talent is there, but the production has come and gone. It went in 2012, as his OPS fell all the way from .898 in 2011 to .785, and he produced only 17 home runs.
The good news is that Upton's approach at the plate last year wasn't that much different from 2011, as his strikeout rate increased only slightly while his walk rate increased from 8.8 percent to 10.0 percent (FanGraphs). His BABIP increased as well, from .319 to .327.
His problem was a decrease in power, which is reflected in the drop of his ISO (Isolated Power) from .240 to .150. The hope for the Braves is that this was related to an early-season thumb injury that Upton was able to play through but unable to ignore. He should be more like a .200 ISO guy. If he gets back to that level in 2013, the Braves should get between 25 and 30 home runs out of him.
The Braves will be looking for 25-30 home runs from B.J. Upton as well, but they'll also be looking for him to improve his approach at the plate. He's typically been a patient hitter throughout his career, but the 2012 season saw him cut down on his walks because of plate discipline struggles.
Upton chased over 30 percent of the pitches he saw outside of the strike zone and finished with a career-high 14.9 swinging-strike percentage (FanGraphs). His BABIP didn't suffer too much, but his walk rate and OBP did.
Upton's track record over the last four seasons suggests he's not about to be a .300 average/.380 OBP guy like he was earlier in his career, but the Braves will take .240/340. They're only going to get that if Upton gets his plate discipline back on track.
That's an area where Jason Heyward could stand to improve as well. He was more aggressive in 2012 than he had been in 2010 or 2011, swinging at more than 30 percent of the pitches he saw outside the zone and lowering his walk rate to 8.9 percent (FanGraphs). The bright side is that he got his BABIP up over .300 again and his ISO up over .200, allowing him to enjoy a successful season.
Heyward should be a .300 BABIP and .200 ISO guy with his talent, but he'll be a downright lethal hitter if he gets back to taking his walks while also cutting down on his strikeouts. If he gets his walk rate up over 10 percent and his strikeout rate closer to 20 percent while maintaining a .300 BABIP and a .200 ISO, he'll be in line for a very, very special season.
The Braves haven't seen Heyward's best, and they haven't seen Freddie Freeman's best yet either. His production in 2012 was largely similar to his 2011 production, but he did make some encouraging strides at the plate.
Freeman saw more pitches per plate appearance in 2012, and he upped his walk rate from 8.3 percent to 10.3 percent while also cutting down on his strikeouts (FanGraphs). He hit for more power as well, as his ISO shot up from .166 in 2011 to .196 in 2012.
Freeman's batting average dropped from .282 to .259 because of a major BABIP regression from .339 to .295. This happened despite an increased line-drive rate, meaning bad luck was largely to blame for his average regression. The fact that he had vision problems as well obviously didn't help.
If Freeman can maintain the more patient approach he showed off last season while combining better luck with better vision, he'll be in line for a big season.
Dan Uggla only hit 19 home runs in 2012, but the bright side is that he got back to working the count. He went from seeing 3.88 pitches per plate appearance in 2011 to 4.17 pitches per plate appearance in 2012, and his walk rate spiked from 9.2 percent to 14.9 percent (FanGraphs).
Uggla's power outage in 2012 was curious. He didn't stop hitting fly balls at his usual rate, but his HR/FB tumbled from over 18 percent to 11.4 percent. His career norm is in the 15 percent range.
Uggla's not as young as he once was, as he'll be 33 on Opening Day. Age could be starting to take its effect. Or maybe he just had a down year with his power that will prove to be a fluke. As long as he maintains the patience he showed off last year, I like his chances.
There's less certainty about Brian McCann bouncing back in 2013. His approach didn't suffer that badly in 2012, as he maintained a respectable 9.0 walk rate and a 15.6 strikeout rate (FanGraphs), but his shoulder issues did a number on his hitting. His BABIP tumbled down to .234, and his ISO went down to .169.
McCann had surgery to repair his right shoulder early in the offseason, but I hesitate to forecast a return to form in 2013. He should at least be able to give the Braves 20 home runs again, but his body may have too much mileage on it for him to come back all the way.
Just as McCann is a question mark, there's something of a question mark hanging over the left side of Atlanta's infield. What are the Braves going to get out of Andrelton Simmons and their third base platoon?
Simmons' production should be solid. He didn't walk much either in the minors or in his rookie campaign, but he's proven that he has the ability to put the ball in play and to maintain a BABIP over .300 (FanGraphs). He's shown off some decent pop as well, so it's not out of the question that he'll flirt with a .300 average and a .400 slugging percentage in 2013.
There's less certainty with Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco at third base. Both of them have a history of being high-strikeout, low-walk guys, and the Braves won't be doing Johnson that big of a favor by playing him against only left-handed pitchers. He actually hit right-handed pitchers significantly better than he hit southpaws in 2012.
Still, Johnson and Francisco have a fair amount of power between them. Platooning them may result in as many as 25-30 home runs for the Braves, and they'll take those, even if they come with low OBPs.
The Braves are going to have average or above-average producers at every other position on the diamond beyond third base. After managing 700 runs in 2012, they should be able to flirt with 750 or maybe even 800 runs in 2013.
Analyzing the Fielding
The Braves lost one of the game's elite fielders when Michael Bourn left town as a free agent to ultimately sign with the Cleveland Indians, but their defense should still be a primary strength in 2013.
Atlanta's outfield defense, in particular, should be excellent. The Braves have three great athletes in the Upton brothers and Heyward, and all three of them can flash some leather.
Heyward is the best of the bunch. He led all right fielders in UZR last season, and he finished behind only Josh Reddick in Defensive Runs Saved (FanGraphs). He moves well for a guy who goes 6'5" and 240 pounds, and he has a very good arm to boot.
The advanced metrics aren't sold on B.J. Upton as an elite defensive center fielder (FanGraphs), but he has the speed and the long strides to cover a lot of ground in the outfield and an above-average arm that runners have to be cautious of.
Justin Upton rates a little better on defense than his older brother (FanGraphs), and he shouldn't have any trouble making the move from right field to left field. It's the easier of the two fields to play.
Atlanta's infield defense is just OK at first, second and third (FanGraphs). Freeman is about an average defensive first baseman. Uggla is at best an average defensive second baseman. Francisco is an average defender at third, but Johnson rates as a horrible defender (FanGraphs).
But Simmons is different. He hasn't been in the majors that long, but it's already clear that he's one of the game's elite defensive shortstops. He managed a UZR of 10.4 last year, as well as a plus-19 Defensive Runs Saved in only 49 games (FanGraphs). Those are insane numbers for such a small sample size.
If Simmons lives up to the promise he showed in the field last season, if Atlanta's outfield defense is as good as advertised and if McCann is able to hold it together defensively as he usually does, defense shouldn't be an issue for the Braves this season.
Most Important Pitcher
The Braves are charging Kris Medlen with being the ace of their staff in 2013, and deservedly so given the way he finished the 2012 season.
But there's still the element of the unknown where Medlen is concerned. His 2012 performance and his career numbers look great, but there's a limit to how much you can trust a guy with only 30 career starts under his belt.
Medlen only made 14 starts in 2010 before he had to have Tommy John surgery, and he onlymade 12 starts this past season after he was wasted in Atlanta's bullpen for the majority of the year. The 2013 season will be the first season in which the Braves will be expecting 30 starts and 200 innings out of him.
If the workload gets to Medlen, the Braves could suddenly find themselves without an ace for their pitching staff. Medlen's the one guy they're heading into 2013 with who looks like a No. 1-caliber pitcher. Hudson is a solid No. 2 guy, Minor may still be figuring things out and Beachy won't be a factor until midway through the season.
The Braves have enough collective talent to keep on chugging in the event Medlen stumbles. But every team needs a stopper, and the Braves may have trouble conjuring one if Medlen's first full season as a starter goes south.
Most Important Hitter
The Braves' lineup is deep enough where they won't have to rely on one big bopper doing all the heavy lifting. That said, there's no question that the Braves are looking for a return to form from Justin Upton. Given what that entails, they're basically looking for him to be their best hitter.
As I noted above, Upton should be in line for a bounce-back season in 2013 if he can find the power that disappeared last season, and that shouldn't be an issue if his bad thumb was to blame all along.
But if the problem wasn't Upton's thumb, the Braves could find themselves realizing that Upton's power surges in 2009 and 2011 were flukes and that the real Justin Upton is a .150 ISO guy capable of only 20 or so homers per season. That's quality production, but it's not the kind of production they traded away Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and others for.
What's more, the Braves are going to have a dilemma on their hands if Upton's power doesn't come back because he projects as their No. 3 hitter. If he can't produce the power that the No. 3 hole requires, the Braves will have to move him elsewhere and come up with a replacement.
Looking up and down Atlanta's collection of hitters, nobody else really sticks out as a capable No. 3 hitter. It's either Upton or a matchups-based approach, and you just never know with one of those.
The Braves know they have two outstanding lefties they can use in the later innings, but they could use a dominant right-hander for the later innings as well.
That could be Jordan Walden, but only if he makes some changes.
There's nothing wrong with Walden's fastball. PITCHf/x data shows that it averaged 96 miles per hour last year and got as high as 99. He also located it generally well against left-handed batters.
But not so much against right-handed batters, who knocked Walden around to the tune of a .743 OPS last year. If you take a look at his fastball heat maps, you can see that he put way too many fastballs right down the heart of the plate. When you're doing that, you're not going to have much luck getting them to chase sliders in the dirt.
There may be a limit to how much the Braves can finely tune Walden because of how funky his mechanics are. It's got a strange hitch in it, and he pushes himself so hard off the rubber that he actually jumps at the hitter.
If the Braves can calm down Walden's delivery, the result could be a righty reliever with both excellent velocity and good command. The bridge to Craig Kimbrel will be all the more stronger.
Or he could stay the same and be as unpredictable as ever, in which case Fredi Gonzalez will have every reason to be afraid of using him in pressure situations.
Prospect to Watch
Atlanta's farm system has gotten to be a little on the barren side over the last few months, but there's still some quality talent worth monitoring.
The one prospect Braves fans should be monitoring more than the others is 21-year-old catcher prospect Christian Bethancourt, who spent the 2012 season with Double-A Mississippi.
MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo loves Bethancourt's defensive attributes, praising him for having a plus arm and very good agility behind the plate. The numbers back up his arm strength, as he owns a career caught-stealing percentage of 38 percent in the minors.
The catch is that Bethancourt's bat needs some work. He was a .600-.700 OPS guy in A-ball, but he managed just a .566 OPS in Double-A last year. His strikeout totals aren't outrageous, which suggests he's just not very good at squaring up the ball when he makes contact.
Still, he's the best the Braves have for an heir apparent for McCann, and they may need him pretty soon given the fact that McCann will be a free agent after 2013. He could be replaced by Bethancourt if he makes enough progress at the plate this year.
Even if he doesn't, the Braves may give him the job because of his defense alone and then hope that he experiences a Yadier Molina-like rise to stardom.
Best-Case Record: 98-64
The Braves were a 94-win team in 2012, and they look like a better team now after all the moves they've made.
A full season of Medlen's pitching should allow them to maintain their consistency from the second half of last season (.623 winning percentage), and the Hudson-Minor-Maholm trio should produce plenty of six-inning starts.
Six-inning starts are all the Braves are going to need most days. Their bullpen will have tremendous depth if the Braves turn Walden into the weapon he should be, and they're going to have more offensive firepower with which to grab early leads.
Especially if Justin Upton returns to his 2011 form, B.J. Upton fixes his plate discipline issues and Heyward continues to progress as a hitter. All three of them have the potential to be 30-30 guys, which would give the Braves an advantage no other team is going to have.
The Braves are going to face some stiff competition from the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies, but they're better than the Phillies and may be just as good as the Nationals. The Braves are surely head-and-shoulders better than the New York Mets and Miami Marlins, whose sacrifices will help pad Atlanta's record.
If things pan out the way the Braves are hoping, it's going to be a fun year in Atlanta.
Worst-Case Record: 83-79
It's hard to see any scenario in which the Braves suffer through a completely catastrophic season. They're too talented, and they're not in any real danger of being undone by age (a la the New York Yankees).
But a disappointing season is definitely possible. All it will take is for the things that should go well to end up going poorly.
Medlen may have trouble with the increased workload. Hudson's health may betray him. Minor's control problems could return. Neither Teheran nor Beachy could shore up the back end of the rotation.
The Upton brothers may continue their 2012 struggles. Heyward and Freeman could advance no further. McCann's health could be a problem again. Uggla's power may be gone for good.
The Braves will be able to hold their own against most teams even if these things come to pass, but the Nationals and Phillies would both give them trouble. That would be enough to keep the Braves short of 90 wins, not to mention out of the playoffs by the end of the season.
There may be a limit to how bad things are going to get for this team, but don't rule out a disappointing season.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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