Ranking the Atlanta Braves' Most Important Players Heading into 2014

Lacey DavisContributor IIIJanuary 15, 2014

Ranking the Atlanta Braves' Most Important Players Heading into 2014

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    The 2013 Atlanta Braves had talent, and when a team keeps the majority of its important players, they grow another year older, another year wiser.

    The Braves weren’t quiet this offseason because they had given up. They simply knew they had constructed a young, efficient team last year that will only get better as the players gain experience.

    Based on their consistency, leadership, stats and experience, Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman have proved that they are key players for the Braves this season.

    Here’s a look at the most important players for Atlanta in 2014.

    All statistics courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

Honorable Mentions

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    These three players had productive seasons in 2013 and will do wonders to the Braves lineup if they can do it again.

    Evan Gattis started off his MLB career with a bang. Literally. He hit a home run his first time at bat and went on to hit 20 more with a .243 average. These aren’t record-breaking numbers, but Gattis managed to get the ball in play when it mattered. He’ll be taking over as the everyday catcher this year. With three of the expected five starting pitchers already having time to adjust to his style last season, this should be a smooth transition.

    Justin Upton held a .263 batting average with 27 homers last year. He produced runs and played tough defense in the outfield. He is certainly an asset that is missed each time he sits a game out, but he doesn’t show the leadership that his fellow outfielder, Jason Heyward, shows on a daily basis.

    Last season, third baseman Chris Johnson batted a .321 average, proving he wasn’t “the other guy” that was acquired with Justin Upton. He’s a reliable player that has had consistent numbers over the years.

5. Mike Minor

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    Mike Minor proved he belonged in the big leagues in 2013. The 2012 days of losing control of a ball game in the blink of an eye appear to be far behind him.

    The starting rotation needs Minor to be at his best this year. Although he doesn’t have the lowest ERA of the starting pitchers projected for the season, he has the most experience starting for the Braves.

    Minor has a 3.21 ERA and has lowered this number each of the past four seasons. His added experience is translating into improved numbers. He had 11 wins in 2012 and 13 wins in 2013.

    He helped himself out a little with one homer run and six RBI last season.

    If the Braves want to go far, the 26 year-old pitcher needs to be a leader. Minor has 85 career starts, the most in the projected starting rotation.

    With the offense that the Braves are capable of having, the pitching doesn’t always need to be perfect. Keeping the Braves in the game is the key; the Atlanta bullpen rarely ruins a game. A team can’t consistently win games without strong pitching.

4. Craig Kimbrel

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    It’s hard to talk about the impressive Atlanta bullpen without mentioning Craig Kimbrel.

    The fans love cheering for “Kimbrel Time” at the start of the ninth inning and it’s not a mystery as to why.

    He held a 1.21 ERA in 2013 and led the MLB with 50 saves. His fifth season with the Braves offers him experience to share with the rest of the bullpen.

    He is consistently an impressive closer, winning awards in 2011 and 2012. Most recently he was picked for the NL All-Star team and won the MLB Delivery Man of the Year award in 2013.

    With the buzz that surrounded Fredi Gonzalez’s controversial decision not to put Kimbrel in the final playoff game sooner, the closer was a class act and respected his manager’s decision.

    He told MLB.com, “He does a great job managing his players, his staff and the bullpen. He’s ready to show up everyday and to manage and that’s all you can really ask for. It’s been a very successful few years.”

    His attitude toward his skipper shows he’s a team player and his consistent numbers shows he’s a leader in the bullpen. If his record is any indication, 2014 is another season that will give comfort to everyone watching him step on the mound at the end of a close game. 

3. Andrelton Simmons

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    Andrelton Simmons is a spectacle to be seen at shortstop. He won the Rawlings Platinum Glove at the close of last season and holds the new major league record with a whopping 41 defensive runs saved.

    Baseball Info Solutions calculated that, on the same set of batted balls, he made 49 more saves on defense than the average shortstop. Simmons makes the near impossible appear mundane.

    After receiving praise over his defense, Simmons said to Terence Moore of MLB.com, “I really don't think I'm doing as well as I can. I always think I can do much better than what I'm doing at the moment.”

    This mentality and humbleness could lead him to breaking many more records. Maybe one day he could break a record held by former Braves pitcher, Greg Maddux, who has 18 Gold Gloves. Simmons is that good. Check out the video.

    It’s not just his jaw-dropping defense that lands him this high on this list. With a .250 batting average in 2013, he proves that he’s a strong player at the plate as well. 

    Simmons is a strong offensive and defensive player and is reliable and dependable to play most games of the season. However, he only has one full year behind him. It will take a few seasons for him to fall into the leadership role on the team. For now, if Simmons keeps this up, he’ll save the Braves many games on defense and continue to be a lead-by-example teammate on both sides of the plate.

2. Jason Heyward

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    Jason Heyward is going into his fifth season in a Braves uniform. On such a young team, this is a veteran who the newer players look to emulate. He has emerged to be a true and consistent leader.

    At the plate in 2013, he held a .254 batting average in the leadoff spot. Manager Fredi Gonzalez was skeptical to put him in at leadoff originally, but the team went on to win 12 straight games with him in the position.

    Some may argue that it was the new Waffle House that gave the Braves their 13-game winning streak last season. However, it was no coincidence that Heyward had just started in his new role. In 30 games at leadoff, Heyward hit .322 with six homers. As the most productive person in that spot last season, he will likely start 2014 the same way.

    J-Hey, as his fans endearingly call him, has been with the Braves for longer than the majority of the current team and therefore holds a veteran’s role and responsibility. He is a clear leader but you won’t likely see him shouting orders from right field or lecturing teammates to step up their game.

    He chooses to lead the team by playing every game he is capable of playing, making long runs in the outfield and leaping to try to catch balls that fly over the fence. His numbers prove that he was an effective leadoff hitter, but his teammates had to follow his lead or the runs wouldn’t have been scored to win the games. It’s hard for teams to flip a switch and become an offensive powerhouse for 12 straight games without a leader.

    If they want to see more October days of baseball, the young team will be relying on Heyward, so long as he performs the way he has the past few years.

1. Freddie Freeman

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    You don’t high-five or fist-bump Freddie Freeman.

    Freeman gives hugs.

    When the voting for the 2013 All-Star team started, players around the clubhouse wore shirts that read, “Hugs for Votes #VoteFreddie.” Craig Kimbrel, being the only Braves player to be originally picked for the NL All-Star team said to Mark Bowman of MLB.com, “I want a teammate that I can give hugs to out there,” referring, of course, to getting Freeman voted onto the roster.

    A healthy Freeman is necessary for the 2014 team. He was benched in 2012 with recurring vision problems and in 2013 with an injured thumb. 

    On defense, Freeman amazes spectators with his splits, managing to snag an off-target throw and get the out at first. He was nominated for a Gold Glove in 2012 and continued to bring his dependable defense in 2013 with a .993 fielding percentage.

    He had a career-high .319 batting average in 2013. Freeman’s offensive improvement reminds us that he is still a young player and can continue getting even better. He tied his career best, 23 home runs, last season.

    There is something to be said for a player who misses his first All-Star game with a minor injury and handles it with grace and composure. Freeman told the Associated Press, “I've got to look out for the best interests of this team, so I've got to be available to play in the second half.”

    That is a leader. 

    It is his strong statistics over multiple seasons and veteran leadership that is clearly exhibited on the field and in the clubhouse that make a healthy Freddie Freeman the most important player for the 2014 Atlanta Braves.