Re-Grading Every Braves Offseason Acquisition
The Atlanta Braves have used a radically reshaped roster to climb to the top of the National League East standings in 2013.
Just over two months into the season, the Braves hold the biggest lead of any division in all of baseball (7.5 games ahead of the second-place Philadelphia Phillies as of June 5).
This success comes on the heels of a busy winter. The Atlanta lineup was bolstered by new additions, while the bench and bullpen were each strengthened by astute moves from general manager Frank Wren.
There was a little bit of everything in constructing this club. Free agent signings, big trades and waiver wire claims all played a part.
With summer setting in and the weather heating up, the time has come to evaluate the performance of Atlanta's offseason acquisitions. A letter grade has been assigned commensurate with each player's performance through the first week of June.
The Braves knew they were getting a speedy outfielder who could serve as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner, but Schafer has proven more valuable in his second stint with the team.
Rather than risk losing him the same way Houston did, Atlanta opted to give him a well-earned spot on the 25-man roster after a strong showing in spring training.
Schafer, 26, has found his way into 41 games this season and hit .306 in 85 at-bats. He has also displayed the ability to work counts, drawing 16 walks which have led to a .416 OBP.
While the starts have been sporadic of late, Schafer was extremely valuable when right fielder Jason Heyward missed nearly a month after undergoing an emergency appendectomy.
"I think he's comfortable. I think he's more mature, more experienced, and I think he knows his role," said manager Fredi Gonzalez. "He's not going to be the guy that's going to play center field everyday, obviously...He's going to be a guy who fills in, be a fourth and fifth outfielder. I think he's accepted that role and I think he may be better off for it."
His customary role of utility infielder has not changed, but gone are the days of playing behind Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano.
Pena, 27, signed a one-year deal with Atlanta in December. He missed some time in spring training in order to play for his native Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, but Pena has done nothing but hit when called upon by the Braves this year.
Through 43 games, he is batting .321/.378/.506 in 91 plate appearances. Pena has made appearances at second base, shortstop and third base.
His ability to come through in the clutch has also been a pleasant surprise. Pena is batting .526 with eight RBI in 19 at-bats in tie games.
Veteran catcher Gerald Laird signed to a two-year contract with Atlanta in November after spending 2012 with the American League champion Detroit Tigers.
In fact, the 32-year-old reserve has appeared in each of the last two World Series. He was a member of the world champion Cardinals in 2011.
More important than his knack for being on winning clubs is the experience Laird could bring to a team that had to do without All-Star Brian McCann for the season's first month. He knows how to handle a staff and was brought in to fill the void left by David Ross's departure.
Keep in mind, Laird had worked with the likes of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter over the prior two seasons.
Laird's experience factor has come in handy with one young pitcher in particular, right-hander Julio Teheran. The two formed a battery in spring training that has carried over to the regular season, and has seen Teheran become one of the bright young pitchers in the National League.
The emergence of Evan Gattis led to limited playing time, but Laird has embraced his opportunity to work primarily with Teheran. The comfort level between the two has yielded great results.
The rookie starter came within four outs of a no-hitter on June 5 and has turned in a 2.13 ERA in eight starts since April 23, all but two of those starts with Laird behind the plate.
With the bat, Laird has proven to be a serviceable option for Fredi Gonzalez, hitting .277 with a homer and seven RBI in 17 games. That is solid work by a solid signing for Atlanta.
The Braves acquired Reed Johnson in a July trade deadline deal with the Chicago Cubs last season. Bringing him back on a one-year deal gave the team a reserve outfielder who can play all three spots and handle the bat off the bench.
Johnson, 36, batted .290 between the Cubs and Braves in 2012, and has followed that up with a .267/.333/.400 mark in his 67 plate appearances this year.
Starts have been rare, but Johnson has found his way into 36 of the club's first 59 games. After leading the majors with 18 pinch hits last year, he is batting .294 with five pinch-hits in 2013.
Every team is constantly striving to improve its bullpen. To that end, right-hander Jordan Walden was acquired from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Tommy Hanson over the winter.
Walden, 25, had to deal with some shoulder inflammation, which led to a stint on the disable list and cost him a couple of weeks in May. He has been very effective since returning, working four scoreless innings and registering up to 98 mph with his fastball.
On the season, Walden has gone 2-1 with a 3.71 ERA in 18 appearances. He has fanned 20 batters while walking just three in 17 innings.
The need for a strong season from Walden increased when both Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty were lost to Tommy John surgery.
Walden can help lessen that blow because of his success against left-handed hitters. Of his 158 career strikeouts, 104 have come against lefty opponents.
Despite having to endure the dreaded platoon situation, Johnson put together two quality months that even included some time at first base when Freddie Freeman landed on the disabled list.
Johnson, 28, is batting .336/.369/.486 in 155 plate appearances over 43 games. He leads Atlanta in batting average and has also laced a team-best 13 doubles.
Finally earning the majority of the playing time after the trade of Juan Francisco, the Braves will see what Johnson can do as an everyday third baseman. Pena still figures to earn the occasional start and serve as a late-inning defensive replacement, however.
To say the first two months in a Braves uniform for B.J. Upton have been disappointing would be a bit of an understatement.
After signing the biggest free-agent contract in Braves franchise history in November, the elder Upton has struggled to find consistency at the plate.
Upton, 28, agreed to a five-year deal worth $75.25 million over the winter, and he's batting just .153/.246/.278 in 180 plate appearances this season. He has only five home runs, 12 RBI and 14 runs scored in 51 games thus far.
The most alarming statistic for Upton is the rate at which he has racked up strikeouts. He has fanned 68 times in 176 at-bats.
His season has not been without some highlights. Upton belted a game-tying home run in the ninth inning against the Chicago Cubs on April 6, setting the stage for younger brother Justin to win the game two batters later with a solo-shot of his own.
He is showing signs in the month of June that the troubles may be starting to subside. Upton laced a game-winning single in the 10th inning of the June 1 showdown against the Washington Nationals, and connected for a game-tying home run in the sixth inning of a June 4 contest against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The hits, dramatic or otherwise, have certainly been fewer and further between than the Braves are expecting and Upton is accustomed to. However, four months remain for him to right the ship and attempt to salvage the remainder of the season.
The trade for Justin Upton was the impact move of the winter for Atlanta general manager Frank Wren. Early returns made the Braves look like the winners of the big January trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
If this were a report card that covered only the season's first month, then Upton would have aced the final and earned high honors. Unfortunately, he came back down to earth in May.
After turning in a .298/.402/.734 line with 12 home runs in 114 plate appearances during the season's opening month, Upton posted a .211/.327/.326 mark with just two home runs in 113 plate appearances in May.
The early home run pace was no doubt unsustainable, but collecting just six extra-base hits and 10 RBI in the 30 games since his torrid April is reason for concern.
Upton is still on pace for a career-high in home runs, but could also shatter his previous high in strikeouts as well. He has fanned 68 times in 206 at-bats through his first 56 games this season.
Talent is not the question, but consistency from Upton's three-spot in the batting order would go a long way toward stabilizing the lineup.
Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Atlanta Sports Radio 92.9 The Game. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. You can follow Grant on Twitter.