When the Atlanta Braves arrive at Champion Stadium in Kissimmee, Fla., they'll become the least hyped 96-win team in recent memory. For this franchise, production, not off-the-field buzz, is what defines success.
After dominating the National League East, posting the second-best run differential (plus-140) in the NL and winning 56 games at home, the Braves bowed out in the NLDS to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Over the last four years, Atlanta has averaged 92.5 wins per season and made the postseason three times. Despite not advancing past the NLDS in any of those years, the Braves have been one of baseball's most consistent regular-season teams.
This winter, the team was curiously quiet. Due to an inordinate amount of arbitration-eligible stars, a lousy television deal and few open positions on the 25-man roster, the front office did little more than tinker with the roster.
If young players graduate from good to great, the Braves could make the postseason for the fourth time in five years.
If more resources were spent on free agents, the excitement around this collection of talent could rival what you'll likely hear out of Los Angeles, Texas and New York.
Without further ado, the Atlanta Braves' 2014 spring training preview.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.
Out with the old, in with the new.
For the Atlanta Braves, this offseason represented a changing of the guard. When Brian McCann and Tim Hudson, respectively, left via free agency, the team lost two long-tenured leaders. Braves fans haven't experienced a season without McCann and Hudson since 2004. For a decade, the battery mates were a fixture—alongside the recently retired Chipper Jones—in Atlanta.
Entering 2014, young, ascending stars like Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel won't just have to produce, they'll be asked to replace the leadership void in the clubhouse.
Along with McCann and Hudson, the Braves allowed outfielder Reed Johnson, starting pitcher Paul Maholm and relievers Eric O'Flaherty, Kameron Loe, Luis Ayala and Scott Downs to depart in free agency.
In their place, Atlanta made additions, but hardly enough to generate front-page headlines. The quartet of catcher/outfielder/first baseman Ryan Doumit, starting pitcher Gavin Floyd, relief pitcher Luis Vasquez and first baseman/third baseman Mat Gamel will provide the franchise with depth across their roster, but don't expect a 2014 NL All-Star to emerge.
Doumit, the versatile slugger, is expected to contribute as an outfielder, catcher, first baseman and pinch hitter off the bench. General manager Frank Wren likened the move to acquiring multiple players, per MLB.com's Mark Bowman.
"He's almost two players in one," Wren said.
Despite losing McCann and Hudson, talent isn't an issue on Atlanta's 40-man roster.
When the team re-signed Jason Heyward to a two-year deal, buying out his remaining arbitration years, a changing of the guard took place. The biggest move of the winter, however, occurred when Atlanta allocated $135 million in a long-term extension for first baseman Freddie Freeman.
Leadership and molding the new wave of franchise players is paramount to turning that talent into 90-plus victories in the 2014 season.
The Braves are poised to prevent runs as well as any team in baseball, but they could be even better if two injured pitchers recover to aid the cause during the 2014 season.
Gavin Floyd and Jonny Venters both underwent Tommy John surgery in May of 2013. If all goes according to plan, they'll be back sometime this coming summer to boost a very good staff.
According to general manager Frank Wren, Floyd could be back in the second half of the season, per Noah Fiet the Aiken Standard.
"I think Gavin Floyd will join our rotation as soon as he gets stretched out for the second half of the season," Wren said.
Last year, Atlanta led all of baseball with a 3.18 ERA, ranked fourth with a 3.44 FIP and allowed a league-low 544 runs. With a staff headlined by young, ascending starters and the best closer in the sport, don't expect a big drop-off in 2014.
Floyd, 31, is one of baseball's most confounding starters, per Jay Clemons of Fox Sports South.
For the Braves, an average Floyd could be excellent insurance for a role as a sixth starter or caddie to hiccups by young members of the staff. If Floyd was expected to be a top-tier starter, the Braves would be in trouble. He wasn't signed for that role.
Venters' return could add an impact arm to Atlanta's bullpen. The lefty could surface in late May or early June, per Cory McCartney of Fox Sports South.
In 2010 and 2011, the first two years of Venters' career, he posted an ERA of 1.89 and owned a K/9 rate of 9.9. During that time, his ERA ranked seventh among all relief pitchers. Craig Kimbrel, the man a healthy Venters will help bridge the gap to in Atlanta's bullpen, is one of the six pitchers ahead of him on that list of relief pitchers.
Success breeds continuity within the Atlanta clubhouse.
Despite bowing out in the NLDS in three of the last four Octobers, the Braves kept manager Fredi Gonzalez in tow.
Considering that he's seamlessly transitioned from the Bobby Cox era, won 96, 94, 89 and 91 games, respectively, during his first four seasons and welcomed in a wave of young, malleable talent, it's the prudent decision.
If Atlanta continues to come up short in October, changes could be explored down the line. For now, Gonzalez is nowhere near the dreaded hot seat in Atlanta.
Surrounding Gonzalez in the dugout is an almost identical coaching staff to the 2013 group. The only exception: Third-base coach Brian Snitker was named the manager of the Gwinnett Braves, Atlanta's Triple-A affiliate, per the team's official website.
Doug Dascenzo, Atlanta's former minor league roving outfielder/baserunning instructor, will replace Snitker as the third-base coach.
The rest of the staff, per the team's official site: bench coach Carlos Tosca, pitching coach Roger McDowell, hitting coach Greg Walker, advance coach/assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher, first-base coach Terry Pendleton and bullpen coach Eddie Perez,
1. Jason Heyward, RF
2. Justin Upton, LF
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
4. Evan Gattis, C
5. Chris Johnson, 3B
6. Andrelton Simmons, SS
7. Dan Uggla, 2B
8. B.J. Upton, CF
Gerald Laird, C
Ryan Doumit, 1B/C/OF
Ramiro Pena, IF
Jose Constanza, OF
Jordan Schafer, OF
In 2013, the Braves scored 688 runs, good for 13th in baseball. Led by a breakout season by first baseman Freddie Freeman (144 OPS+), luck-induced campaign by Chris Johnson (.394 BABIP) and power surge (.237 isolated slugging percentage) from Evan Gattis, the team did enough to support an excellent pitching staff.
In 2014, they'll need to crack the 700-run plateau in order to play meaningful October baseball. While the bench—led by Doumit—is serviceable, Atlanta will need to generate major production from the top three hitters in their lineup to win big.
With Johnson set to regress, Simmons a below-average offensive player (87 OPS+) and Uggla and B.J. Upton regressing in front of Atlanta's eyes, the Braves will go as far as Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman take them.
If healthy, all three have the potential to finish in the top five of NL MVP voting. While some teams would split up their talent throughout a lineup littered with easy outs, stacking them atop the order will generate run production.
Projected starting rotation
1. Mike Minor, LHP
2. Kris Medlen, RHP
3. Julio Teheran, RHP
4. Brandon Beachy, RHP
5. Alex Wood, LHP vs. Freddy Garcia, RHP
Let's be honest: This group would look much, much better with the addition of a free-agent starter like A.J. Burnett or Ubaldo Jimenez to headline the group of 20-something starters.
As we know, the Braves aren't interested in spending $15-17 million in 2014 for a starting pitcher, so the aforementioned group must suffice. Luckily for Braves fans, it's a very capable group of young starters.
Minor and Teheran are two of the most promising young pitchers in baseball. If one or both (more on this later) break out in 2014, few should be surprised.
Alex Wood showed flashes of dominance in 2013 (8.9 K/9) and will have to pitch poorly in Kissimmee in order to lose the job to the ageless Freddy Garcia.
Medlen will likely never replicate his 2012 breakout campaign (10-1, 1.57 ERA), but Fredi Gonzalez and Frank Wren will gladly take a repeat of his 2013 season (3.11 ERA, 197 IP) as he falls in line as the No. 2 or No. 3 starter over the next few years.
The key to this group will be Brandon Beachy's health and performance. In 2011, at the age of 24, Beachy posted a K/9 mark of 10.7 in 141.2 innings. He looked the part of a future ace in Atlanta's young rotation before Tommy John surgery—along with setbacks—held him to 18 total starts over the last two years.
When he's been on the mound, success (2.68 ERA) has ensued, but Atlanta will need 25-plus starts from Beachy in 2014 to reach their full potential.
Heading into spring, Beachy seemed to acknowledge that injuries will always be in the back of his mind, per MLB.com's Mark Bowman:
There's always going to be something there in the way back part of the mind until I go out there in April and get a few starts under my belt. But every day that I come out here to throw and don't feel anything, it just eases that a little bit. Right now, it is progressing exactly how I hoped.
CL: Craig Kimbrel, RHP
SU: David Carpenter, RHP
SU: Luis Avilan, LHP
MID: Jordan Walden, RHP
MID: Anthony Varvaro, RHP
MID: Luis Vasquez, RHP
LR: Cory Gearrin, RHP
Three years ago, Atlanta had three of the best late-inning weapons in the sport.
When Fredi Gonzalez mapped out his strategy, the trio of O'Flaherty-Venters-Kimbrel in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, respectively, was all he needed to finish games.
Entering spring training, that trio is down to just one. O'Flaherty signed with Oakland and Venters is on the mend, leaving the major bullpen responsibility up to Kimbrel.
Luckily for the Braves, the last man standing is the best relief pitcher on planet earth.
Since arriving to the big leagues in 2010, Kimbrel has posted the following statistics: 15.1 SO/9, 139 saves, 1.39 ERA and a 282 ERA+. If the cast of characters ahead of him in the bullpen can simply pitch at an average level, Kimbrel's brilliance will be enough to carry this group.
In 2013, Atlanta's bullpen pitched to a 2.46 ERA across 460.2 innings. David Carpenter, Luis Avilan and Anthony Varvaro won't enter 2014 as household names, but they are capable of setting up Kimbrel for dominance.
Over the last 30 years, the Braves have produced a slew of star-level performers through their minor league system. From Tom Glavine to Chipper Jones to Andruw Jones to recent young stars like Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward, Atlanta's success is built on young talent.
During the next month, expect to hear the following names mentioned as future stars in Atlanta: Christian Bethancourt, J.R Graham, Tommy La Stella and Lucas Sims.
Bethancourt, 22, is a defense-first catcher with an outstanding arm. With Evan Gattis entrenched as the starting catcher and middle-of-the-order bat, Bethancourt's best path to the big leagues will be as a backup catcher and defensive replacement. If he develops a power bat, his timeline could be expedited.
Graham had a big 2012 and appeared on track to see the big leagues in 2013, per MLB.com. However, due to an arm injury, the 24-year-old righty did not advance to Atlanta last summer. If he has a big spring training, don't be surprised to hear his name mentioned by Fredi Gonzalez in March.
Ignore Tommy La Stella's age (25) or limited set of "tools," per MLB.com. Instead, focus on production for this second base prospect. With a career .412 on-base percentage in the minors, it's clear that La Stella has a knack for reaching base. If Dan Uggla's OBP continues to plummet (.323 since 2011), a big spring from La Stella could expedite a midseason call-up.
Sims, the top prospect in Atlanta's system, is likely years away from making a significant impact in the majors. But that won't stop him from turning heads this spring. If Freddie Freeman and Co. have the chance to take live batting practice against Sims, buzz will ensue.
At this moment, it would be hard to portray any of Atlanta's starters as an "ace" or top-10 pitcher in the sport. By the end of 2014, two could qualify for that distinction: Minor Minor and Julio Teheran.
Let's start with Minor.
Since the 2012 All-Star break, few pitchers in the sport have been better. When combining Minor's second-half numbers from 2012 and full-season marks from 2013, a picture of excellence emerges. During that span, Minor has pitched 286 innings, posted a 2.96 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 4.00 SO/BB and 7.8 K/9.
Using last year's leaderboard, Minor's ERA trumped Stephen Strasburg and Felix Hernandez. The WHIP bested Adam Wainwright and Yu Darvish. The strikeout-to-walk ratio was better than what Doug Fister, Homer Bailey or Jose Fernandez produced in 2013. Despite not striking out more than eight batters per nine innings, Minor owned a better K/9 than James Shields, Matt Cain or Hisashi Iwakuma.
If Minor can improve slightly across the board, he'll be one of the best—and most talked about—starting pitchers in the sport.
Amazingly, Julio Teheran has a chance to be even more prolific.
Last year, during his 22-year-old season, Teheran posted a 3.78 SO/BB rate across 30 starts. That feat has been been matched by only five other pitchers in the history of the sport. Their names: Walter Johnson, Bert Blyleven, Mark Prior, Madison Bumgarner and Mat Latos.
It's rare to see 22-year-old starters pitch full seasons in the majors. It's even more rare to see command, control and flashes of dominance. Judging by the list of pitchers to achieve what Teheran did at such a young age, a bright future is ahead of the Braves starter.
In January, Bleacher Report's baseball roster czar, Jason Martinez, talked about two potential spring training battles for Atlanta: No. 5 starter and setup man.
With a hat tip to my fellow Lead Writer, here are how these battles (No. 5 starter: Alex Wood vs. The Field and David Carpenter vs. Jordan Walden and Anthony Varvaro in the bullpen) will play out.
With Freddy Garcia in the mix and Gavin Floyd potentially returning by midseason, Alex Wood won't just have to win the job in spring training, he'll have to pitch well enough in April and May to keep it for the entirety of the season.
In both cases, expect Wood to excel.
Last year, across 77.2 innings, the then 22-year-old lefty showed signs of excellence by posting a 8.9 K/9 rate. If he can limit walks (3.1 BB/9) and refine his command, the Braves will hand their No. 5 starter position to a pitcher with enormous upside.
In the bullpen, David Carpenter will attempt to hold off Jordan Walden and Anthony Varvaro for the role of setup man ahead of closer Craig Kimbrel.
Based on the ability to miss bats, Carpenter (10.1 K/9) and Walden (10.3 K/9) should be much, much higher in the bullpen pecking order than Varvaro (5.3 K/9) entering spring. When the dust settles, Carpenter's stuff and ability to finish games (14 in 2013) should give him the edge over the enigmatic Walden.