As the Atlanta Braves prepare for the 2014 season, their powerful starting lineup will be asked to carry a pitching staff littered with concerns and new faces.
Based on the results of last year, offseason moves and the emergence of a potentially great top-of-the-lineup force, the Braves could feature an offensive unit better than the outfit fans were treated to during the 2013 season at Turner Field.
In 2013, Atlanta ranked between ninth and 13th across Major League Baseball in offensive categories such as wRC+ (101, 9th), runs scored (688, 13th), OPS (.723, 12th) and wOBA (.318, 12th), per ESPN and Fangraphs. Despite striking out more than every team outside of Houston and Minnesota, the Braves were profiled as a good offensive team, per ESPN.
How many runs will the Braves score in 2014?
For long-time Braves fans, a major face will be missing from the everyday lineup in 2014: seven-time NL All-Star Brian McCann. Without McCann's steady left-handed bat and presence in the middle of the order, manager Fredi Gonzalez will look to construct a top-heavy lineup that can mash runs from the early spots in the order.
With McCann now in New York, the success of two players—Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis—will dictate how high Atlanta's offensive attack soars in 2014.
Let's start with Heyward.
The 24-year-old right fielder could still be years from realizing his ultimate potential, but the route to greatness emerged on Gonzalez's lineup card last July.
From July 27-August 17, Heyward became—for the first time in his career—Atlanta's primary leadoff man. During that 20-game stretch, the Braves went 17-3, running away with the NL East race and setting the stage for a postseason berth. Personally, Heyward excelled by posting a .438 on-base percentage during the stretch.
According to Joe Morgan of MLB.com, Gonzalez plans to use Heyward in that spot again this season. He'll be followed by Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman and Gattis. That primary lineup will be deep enough to feature Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton—sluggers with 25-plus home run power—in the seventh and eighth slots.
MLB Depth Charts
If Heyward can stay healthy enough to play in 155-plus games, Atlanta will have a core top-of-the-lineup to use on a daily basis.
Unlike many teams—including the platoon-heavy Oakland Athletics—Atlanta's projected 25-man roster won't allow for much mixing and matching for Gonzalez. If Uggla and B.J Upton struggle, it's possible that days off or trips to the bench will commence. However, with both players slated to make in excess of $13 million this season, the team will be forced to play them often.
For this Braves attack, strategy won't be rooted in lefty-righty splits, but rather how to adjust the lineup when Gattis needs a day off from behind the plate. Last year's rookie sensation has shown the ability to play the outfield (48 games in left field last season), but will now replace Brian McCann as the primary catcher.
Having a catcher as a middle-of-the-order bat is a luxury, but presents challenges during much-needed rest days.
Gonzalez acknowledged the lineup conundrum, per Morgan's MLB.com piece.
When he's your best hitter in the lineup or he's a real good hitter in the lineup, it's hard to give him days off. Then, all of a sudden, you've got to give him a day off, and then you've got a hole in that lineup.
You got to give Gattis a breather every once in a while. Right now, I don't see any other option of who's going to be that guy. He's the perfect guy that fits behind Freeman.
Based on Andrelton Simmons' second-half surge in 2013 (.789 OPS) and the faith the organization placed in its young shortstop this winter, the 24-year-old could reprise a top-of-the-order role when Gattis is out of the lineup. If the No. 2 hole is occupied, Justin Upton could protect Freeman in the order.
MLB Depth Charts
To be fair, Gattis is flawed. Among 237 hitters that garnered at least 350 plate appearances in 2013, the Braves catcher registered the 36th lowest walk rate, per FanGraphs. While his power potential—his 16.9 AB/HR mark ranked 12th in baseball, per ESPN—the Braves will live with a boom-or-bust cleanup hitter for most of the season.
With Heyward healthy and poised to remain in his new role and Gattis' power entrenched in the lineup on most days, the Braves could have a better and more consistent offense than during a 96-win campaign in 2013.
Lineups are fluid and injuries could change Gonzalez's outlook, but Atlanta has the ability to be one of baseball's top-10 lineups this season.
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.