Atlanta Braves: Breaking Down the Blueprint for Winning the Division
The Atlanta Braves have high expectations for the 2013 season.
After being on the wrong side of the dreaded one-game Wild Card playoff in 2012, you can bet the Braves will aim for the National League East division title this year.
The Braves saw too well that anything can happen in one game, and that should be used as motivation to avoid that game moving forward.
How can the Braves make that happen?
Here's a breakdown of what needs to happen in 2013 for them to come out on top in the NL East.
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The first thing that needs to happen that is largely out of the Braves' hands is staying healthy.
Even the best teams can only survive so many hits to their starting rotation or lineup.
Obviously, the injury bug will hit the Braves, but avoiding the season-ending injuries will be huge in deciding the division.
The Braves are relatively healthy at this point in spring training.
Catcher Brian McCann should be back mid-April, and Brandon Beachy looks to return around the All-Star break.
Relievers Eric O'Flaherty and Jordan Walden have had some back issues this spring, but both should be ready for Opening Day.
The first key for a team to make a run at the division is keeping its best players healthy.
2. Dominant Bullpen
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A strong bullpen has become more and more important over the years and is especially true in the case of the Braves.
The top three bullpens in the National League in ERA all made the playoffs in 2012 (including the Braves). Managers can shorten games with a strong bullpen.
It all starts with having a strong closer, and the Braves, arguably, had the MLB's best in 2012 in Craig Kimbrel.
He will most likely not be as dominant, statistically, as he was in his historic 2012 season. But he still features the same dominant stuff that made him successful last year.
Having strong setup men in Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters will help to take the pressure off Kimbrel, while Luis Avilan and Cory Gearrin have had nice springs.
The bullpen is the backbone of this Braves team.
I think they have to finish in the top three in the National League to win the division.
3. Getting on Base
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Can the Braves get on base enough with this roster?
That is the biggest question mark surrounding this team, in my mind.
They finished middle of the pack in the National League in 2012 with a .327 on-base percentage. Here's what the Braves lost: Chipper Jones (.377), Martin Prado (.359) and Michael Bourn (.348). Here's what they gained: Justin Upton (.355), B.J. Upton (.298) and Chris Johnson (.326)/Juan Francisco (.278).
On paper, it looks like the Braves will have a drop-off in 2013. There are a lot of factors that will go into the team's OBP, but it's no secret this will be something the Braves will have to battle all season.
In the last 10 years, just one team ranked in the bottom five of OBP and represented the National League in the World Series.
I think the Braves need to avoid the bottom and maintain a ranking in the middle of the National League for a division title.
4. Kris Medlen Leading Staff
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Perhaps the strongest indicator of having a successful season is a team's starting rotation ERA.
The Braves ranked sixth in the National League in 2012 but were last among the National League teams that made the playoffs.
The Braves need Kris Medlen to emerge as the ace of this staff to have one of the best rotations in the National League in 2013.
Medlen provided a much-needed boost to the rotation to end the 2012 season and needs to be the guy in 2013.
I believe Tim Hudson will still be effective, but is starting to show the natural decline as he ages.
Beyond that, there are more questions than answers in the rotation. Can Mike Minor put together a full season? How does Beachy return from injury? Will Julio Teheran live up to the expectations?
Paul Maholm adds a consistent left-handed pitcher but has never proven to be an ace.
Medlen has been compared to legend Greg Maddux. Let's see it for a full season.
5. Andrelton Simmons or Bust
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The Braves enter the 2013 season with very few options at the leadoff spot.
Perhaps B.J. Upton could serve as the leadoff hitter, but the Braves are counting on young shortstop Andrelton Simmons to carry the load—a player with 49 MLB games under his belt.
The 23-year-old possesses the poise and maturity to not be bothered by lofty expectations or outside pressure.
His signature moment in the World Baseball Classic was a game-tying two-run home run in the eighth inning against Cuba in a pressure-packed at-bat. Pressure doesn't seem to bother him.
Overall he played very well in the tournament, hitting .333 with a 1.016 OPS, and Braves fans hope it is an indicator of the type of season Simmons will have in 2013.
Beyond Simmons, the Braves have few options at the leadoff spot.
It's Simmons or bust.