Breaking Down Atlanta Braves' Key Position Battles
Last October, the Braves were ushered out of the National League Division Series by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Due to the nature of the LDS format, three losses in the postseason overshadowed a 96-win season in Atlanta.
Now, off the heels of a franchise-changing offseason, the Braves head into 2014 with their long-term future secured. Along with a slew of lucrative deals awarded to young, ascending players, Atlanta will begin to look ahead to a new stadium opening in 2017.
For now, the day-to-day news cycle of spring has overtaken the headline-grabbing days of winter.
Unlike many teams scattered throughout Florida and Arizona, the Braves don't sport a roster with many open positions. After committing the time, effort and money in the development of young players like Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel, the fruits of Atlanta's labor have become evident.
Aside from a few positions, fan perception and an important clubhouse role, the Braves are set for 2014 and beyond.
The following is an attempt to answer the few questions still plaguing the 2014 Atlanta Braves.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com 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.
No. 5 Starter: Alex Wood vs. David Hale
Although the Braves may lack a proven No. 1 starter, their rotation is more than capable of shutting down the opposition this summer.
From Kris Medlen to Mike Minor to Julio Teheran to Brandon Beachy, Atlanta sports four starters with top-of-the-rotation stuff. What they lack in star power is made up for with an abundance of top-shelf talent.
Beyond the top four, an opening has emerged. When Tim Hudson took his consistency to San Francisco, the Braves were forced to replace their veteran arm with another experienced starter or hand the job over to another farm hand.
In this case, they did both.
By inking Gavin Floyd, the Braves signed a pitcher coming off of Tommy John surgery. With a track record of decent pitching, Floyd is a legitimate No. 5 starter when healthy.
For now, Alex Wood and David Hale will attempt to compete for the job until Floyd returns. If the winner of this battle pitches well in April, the spot may never open up for the veteran.
Due to inexperience in the big leagues, Hale is a long shot to usurp Wood for this spot.
Last year, across 77.2 innings, Wood 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.
On the other hand, Hale owns only 11 career innings in the big leagues, per Jay Clemons of Fox Sports South.
Prediction: Alex Wood
Right-Handed Setup Man: David Carpenter vs. Jordan Walden vs. Anthony Varvaro
In Atlanta's bullpen, Craig Kimbrel is the constant.
Throughout his four-year run of dominance—earning the 25-year-old a deserving contract—the Braves have surrounded him with various setup men, including both left-handed and right-handed pitchers.
With Eric O'Flaherty now a member of the Oakland Athletics and Jonny Venters on the mend from surgery, Atlanta will reshuffle the deck ahead of Kimbrel in the pen.
In order for baseball's best closer to rack up saves, the Braves need setup men to preserve leads in the late innings.
From the left side, Luis Avilan is back to reprise his role as a breakout star. Last year, across 65 innings, the 25-year-old posted a 1.52 ERA. Along with Kimbrel, manager Fredi Gonzalez has two potential dominant relievers.
If a right-handed arm is needed, expect David Carpenter to emerge as the final piece to Atlanta's three-headed relief monster.
Based on the ability to miss bats, Carpenter (10.1 K/9) and Walden (10.3 K/9) should be higher in the bullpen pecking order than Varvaro (5.3 K/9). When the season begins, Carpenter's stuff and ability to finish games (14 in 2013) should give him the edge over the enigmatic Walden.
Prediction: David Carpenter
Center Field: B.J. Upton vs. Perception
One year ago, the Upton brothers dominated talk in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. After acquiring both B.J. Upton and Justin Upton during the winter, Atlanta was poised to field one of baseball's most powerful and athletic outfield configurations.
Of course, that vision didn't materialize during the 2013 season.
Justin Upton posted a paltry .753 OPS after April, Jason Heyward missed time due to injuries and B.J. Upton was absolutely awful in his first season in Atlanta.
As spring training progresses, there's not a true center field competition in the Braves camp because economics won't allow it for the mid-market Braves. Despite an unsightly 53 OPS+ last season, Atlanta simply can't move on from the expensive 29-year-old center fielder.
With just under $60 million remaining on a five-year contract signed last winter, Upton is on the long-term payroll sheet for this franchise. In order to earn the money, the former Tampa Bay Rays star must return to the form he showed for years before hitting the open market.
From 2007-2012, Upton averaged 19 home runs and 36 stolen bases per season. Along with outstanding range and defense in center field, the older Upton brother was a very valuable commodity. In fact, according to Fangraphs, he was worth over $90 million during that time frame.
After a horrible opening act, Atlanta's center fielder must fight the perception of his contract, decline and sunk cost for this franchise. Regardless of what he does in spring, fans will enter the season assuming that this $75 million outfielder was a waste of money.
Team Leader: Freddie Freeman vs. Craig Kimbrel vs. Jason Heyward
This could profile as the most important spring battle in the Braves camp.
While the No. 5 starter, setup man and psyche of B.J. Upton will all play a major role in the success or failure of the 2014 team, the long-term future could be shaped by the young player that emerges as the next team leader.
From Dale Murphy to the trio of Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz to Chipper Jones to Brian McCann, the Braves have been lucky to have star-caliber leaders policing the clubhouse and setting an example for the entire franchise to follow.
Now, with McCann gone to New York and Jones well into retirement, a leadership void is evident.
Yet, when looking at how the Braves went about their business this winter, it's clear that a handful of players fit into the long-term vision in Atlanta: Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons, Julio Teheran and, to a lesser extent, Jason Heyward.
While Heyward looks and sounds like a natural leader, his two-year deal could lead to an exit after the 2015 season.
Kimbrel, the dominant closer, is a candidate, but the most revered leaders tend to be everyday players.
As the 2014 spring progresses, keep an eye on the progress of Freddie Freeman around his teammates, the media and fans. It's clear that Freeman can hit, play first base and hit in the middle of Atlanta's lineup for years to come.
When asked about the possibility of becoming a leader, Freeman seemed amicable to the role, on the assumption that he could remain himself, per Paul White of USA Today.
"You just want to be yourself," Freeman said. "You've got to have fun in this game. You're with these guys for eight straight months. You're pretty much a family. You have to accept it, go out there and have fun. When I go between the lines, I'll smile a little bit, but it's all seriousness."
Now, comes the next step: Taking on the responsibility of following in the footsteps of past greats and team leaders.
Prediction: Freddie Freeman
Who should win each of the Braves' position battles this spring?