Atlanta Braves 2014 Season Preview
The Atlanta Braves have had a rollicking offseason and spring training, setting the stage for a season of unpredictability in 2014 and immense success in the future.
Six weeks ago, the Braves looked like a playoff team. With starting pitching depth, youth, the best closer in baseball and recent memories of a 96-win season, the talk heading into camp was about a bright future in Atlanta.
Make no mistake: The future is still bright for this franchise.
The present, however, has become murky.
Due to an injury-ravaged pitching staff, unanswered questions around highly-paid veterans and the presence of the star-studded Washington Nationals in the NL East, the route back to October won't be easy for a team that challenged the Los Angeles Dodgers in last October's NLDS.
Considering the circumstances in Atlanta, it will take special seasons from star players and a Manager of the Year effort from Fredi Gonzalez to once again surpass the 95-win plateau and cascade into October baseball.
Here's how the 2014 season will play out at Turner Field.
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.
Spring Training Recap
It's hard to remember a franchise that went through a dizzying array of emotions close to what befell the Braves over the last six weeks.
Early in camp, the team was celebrating long-term commitments from first baseman Freddie Freeman, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, starting pitching Julio Teheran and reliever Craig Kimbrel. Not only were the Braves poised to be a contender in 2014, the future—including the move into a new Cobb County, Ga. stadium in 2017—was even brighter.
Then came the injuries and setbacks.
Mike Minor, a spring breakout candidate, came into camp behind schedule due to offseason surgery to repair scarring around his urethra, per Mark Bowman of MLB.com. Even with a top pitcher a month or so behind, the Braves could have survived.
When season-ending and career-altering elbow injuries victimized both Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, 60 percent of the Braves rotation was gone for Opening Day. Due to the recovery time associated with Tommy John surgery, 40 percent—Beachy and Medlen—won't come back before 2015.
In order to save the season, a reinforcement arrived: Free-agent starter Ervin Santana.
Through dumb luck, the Braves were able to find an excellent arm available in March. Due to draft-pick compensation attached to his free-agent plight, no team had yet been willing to commit to Santana despite the 31-year-old coming off an ERA+ of 127 in 2013.
With less than a week before Opening Day, the Braves made two minor—yet potentially important—moves regarding pitching depth: Releasing Freddy Garcia and signing Aaron Harang, per Mark Bowman of MLB.com.
Although the swap of veterans isn't enough to change the trajectory of Atlanta's season, the circumstances were strange due to Garcia's success in Atlanta (1.65 ERA in 27.1 IP) as recently as last season. Meanwhile, Harang was released from Cleveland Indians camp after posting a 2.00 ERA in nine Cactus League innings.
In some spring training cities, the six weeks of exhibition play and workouts are uneventful. This year, that was far from the case in Kissimmee, Fla.
Injury Updates Entering Opening Day
Due to past or recent surgery, Braves fans won't see any of the following four pitchers when the season begins: Beachy, Medlen, Gavin Floyd or Jonny Venters.
Within time, both Floyd and Venters could return to spark the starting rotation and bullpen, respectively.
The biggest name, however, to appear on the Opening Day disabled list will be lefty—and likely No. 1 starter—Mike Minor.
After starting camp and workouts late, Minor suffered a setback and heads into the season on the shelf with shoulder tendinitis. If the Braves have any hope of reprising a role as an October participant, they'll need a good and healthy Minor to get back quickly.
According to the team's Twitter account, Minor will make his spring debut two days before the start of the regular season.
For as injury-ravaged as the pitching staff has been, the entire lineup looks ready and healthy to start the season. With the exception of a sore quad for starting catcher Evan Gattis, the Braves everyday offensive attack is ready to carry a pitching staff that includes new faces and young, unproven arms.
1. Jason Heyward, RF
2. B.J. Upton, CF
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
4. Chris Johnson, 3B
5. Justin Upton, LF
6. Dan Uggla, 2B
7. Evan Gattis, C
8. Andrelton Simmons, SS
Gerald Laird, C
Ryan Doumit, 1B/OF
Ramiro Pena, IF
Tyler Pastornicky, IF/OF
Jordan Schafer, OF
In 2013, the Braves hit 181 home runs. That mark was good for fifth in all of MLB, per ESPN.
During April, however, the Braves led the entire sport by hitting 38 home runs as a team. If Atlanta had kept that pace throughout the season, the lineup would have soared past 200 home runs.
Unsurprisingly, Justin Upton was a major part of that early-season attack. During his first month as a member of the Braves, the former Arizona Diamondbacks star launched 12 homers, matching the entire Miami Marlins lineup.
At the age of 26, it's easy to forget how good Upton has been and how much he can mean to an offensive that will be tasked with carrying a beleaguered pitching staff early in the season.
Through his age-25 season, the seven-year veteran is one of only 14 outfielders in baseball history with at least 339 extra-base hits through that career juncture, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).
Last year, the Braves offense went as Upton went. If he can sustain hot streaks and perform like a rare offensive talent, a 700-plus run season could commence for the 2014 Braves.
Projected starting rotation
1. Julio Teheran, RHP
2. Alex Wood, LHP
3. Aaron Harang, RHP
4. David Hale, RHP
Be worried, Braves fans.
No, not because the Braves will go with a four-man staff to start the season. That's simply protocol for a team with off days during the season's first week. When the Braves need a fifth starter—April 12 against Washington—Ervin Santana should be stretched out and ready to go, per Cliff Corcoran of Sports Illustrated.
When Santana joins the rotation, stability should ensue. Not only is the veteran a good pitcher, he's pitching for another shot at free agency and a life-changing payday.
As Jon Heyman of CBS Sports pointed out when the deal was struck, Santana was one of the American League's top pitchers in 2013. Per Heyman's column:
Of course, there are no guarantees in free agency, as Santana found out this year. Santana had a great year last year with the Royals -- by any standard he was a top-15 pitcher in the American League -- and he couldn't come close to what he sought in free agency since he was saddled with the draft choice compensation issue via the qualifying offer.
If Atlanta's addition can have a repeat performance of 2013 (32 GS, 3.24 ERA), the Braves may have enough starting pitching to stay in the NL postseason hunt.
CL: Craig Kimbrel, RHP
SU: David Carpenter, RHP
SU: Luis Avilan, LHP
MID: Jordan Walden, RHP
MID: Atahualpa Severino, LHP
MID: Anthony Varvaro, RHP
MID: Ian Thomas, LHP
LR: Gus Schlosser, RHP
In this bullpen, success starts at the end of games.
With Craig Kimbrel in tow, the Braves can rest assured that the ninth inning will be locked down throughout the season. Outside of Mariano Rivera, closers are typically volatile and subject to sharp declines in performance or production.
Through the first four years of Kimbrel's remarkable young career, he's been consistent, durable and the best reliever the sport has seen since Rivera emerged in 1996. Until Kimbrel's career ERA rises above 1.50, excellence is to be expected.
Due to uncertainty in the rotation and off days sprinkled throughout the first few weeks of the season, the Braves are likely heading north with an eight-man pen. Despite the numbers, uncertainty will follow this group until one or more arms emerge alongside Kimbrel.
As of now, name recognition isn't part of this group's appeal. By the end of the season—if production commences—that could change. Under Fredi Gonzalez's watching eye, there's a good chance that occurs.
Since Gonzalez became the Braves manager in 2011, his bullpens have ranked first, second and first, respectively, in total bullpen ERA, per ESPN.
Prospects to Watch
When the Atlanta Braves trimmed their spring training roster down by sending five players to minor league camp, general manager Frank Wren was blunt in how the yearly process works, per Mark Bowman of MLB.com.
"The first 10 days [of the exhibition season] is for everybody to have fun," Wren said. "The next 10 days is to get the big boys stretched out, and the last 10 days is for the men."
In the context of becoming a big league catcher, Christian Bethancourt may not be a man quite yet, but his manager thinks that day is coming soon, also per Bowman's reporting.
"He'll let us know when he is ready," Gonzalez said. "There is no timetable for him. He could be here next month or he could be here next week. When he's ready, he'll let us know."
For the 2014 Braves, the 22-year-old catcher is the prospect to watch this season.
If the team needs an extra catcher to complete the depth chart and replace Brian McCann, Bethancourt's strong defense and emerging power—career-high 12 home runs last year in Double-A Mississippi—could be called upon.
Ideally, any player receiving $58 million would be a finished product. For Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons, the pursuit of all-around excellence is on the table for 2014 and beyond.
Despite posting a 6.8 WAR in 2013, Simmons has room to grow and consistency to achieve when it comes to offense. As any sensible baseball fan knows, the 24-year-old Braves shortstop is a defensive wizard at the shortstop position.
Some may consider 2013 Simmons' breakout campaign, but there's still room to improve.
If the right-handed hitter can carry over a second-half OPS of .789, the Braves are going to have one of the best offensive shortstops in baseball. Luckily—for the value of his deal—no one else with that kind of stick can match Simmons' defensive prowess.
Last season, only three everyday shortstops posted OPS marks higher than .789 over the full season: Troy Tulowitzki, Jhonny Peralta and Jed Lowrie.
In 2013, Simmons burst on the national radar as a human highlight reel and game-changing defensive genius. If he can become a 20-plus home run hitter and raise his on-base percentage to the .320 range, MVP consideration will follow.
Top Keys to Success
When the Braves allocated more than $280 million to five players—Freeman, Heyward, Teheran, Kimbrel and Simmons—the future was secured in Atlanta. Outside of Heyward (signed only through 2015), Wren and Atlanta's front office bet big on the trajectories of homegrown stars for 2016 and beyond.
That strategy was wise and will almost certainly pay dividends down the line, but the return on investment will need to come sooner in order for the Braves to achieve major success this summer. To win now, each member of Atlanta's contract-extension bunch must perform an an All-Star level.
For Freeman, the path to justifying $135 million begins with matching last year's 144 OPS+ and ridiculous RISP numbers (1.236 OPS).
Kimbrel must continue to pitch like what he's been from the moment he stepped in the majors: the most dominant bullpen force in the sport.
Simmons, as noted, needs to carry over his offensive ability from last season's second half on the path to becoming an all-around star.
Teheran, Atlanta's Opening Day starter, must pitch beyond his years and experience. If the Braves believe he's a future ace, the future can't wait much longer to arrive.
Finally, there's Heyward.
In reality, the right fielder can give a gift to this franchise by making himself too expensive over the next two seasons. When the athletic left-handed hitter reaches free agency after the 2015 season, two MVP-caliber seasons could lift him to a $150-plus million contract.
On the path to that payday, his value on the field in Atlanta would manifest itself in victories.
Previewing Atlanta's Opening Series
When the Braves and Milwaukee Brewers square off on Opening Day in Milwaukee, a potentially awkward situation could arise.
After all, a brawl nearly broke out last time these teams got together for a series, per Nate Scott of USA Today.
With Milwaukee's star center fielder Carlos Gomez ready to put his personality, stamp and flair for the dramatic on the 2014 season, another uncomfortable trot around the bases could commence.
While television crews could center around past drama, these teams have different faces—and likely different personalities—than last September.
For the Brewers, the opening series will mark the return of Ryan Braun from Biogenesis suspension and into the good graces of the only fans he's ever known. If the former MVP can reclaim his form, adoration will follow.
Beyond Braun's first at-bat back on the baseball scene, this series will be an early litmus test for new leaders and faces in Atlanta's dugout.
For the first time in decades, none of the following players will be in a Braves uniform on Opening Day: John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones or Brian McCann.
In the first series of 2014, the Brewers are reopening a door to their past. Meanwhile, the Braves are slamming the door on their past and paving the way for new leaders to emerge as the faces of the franchise.
2014 Team Outlook
As the long, monotonous days of spring training dragged on, the Braves kept baseball fans on the edge of their respective seats. From severe injuries to lucrative contract extensions to impact free-agent signings, Atlanta had an eventful six weeks.
Unfortunately, eventful doesn't equal winning when the season begins.
Now, to be fair, the Braves aren't headed for an awful year. With the core of a 96-win team intact, Atlanta should be in the NL postseason chase through the last week of the season.
But for the first time since 2011, don't expect to see October baseball at Turner Field.
With the Nationals, Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals head and shoulders above other NL competitors, an exciting race for two NL Wild Card berths will take place this summer.
Due to the uncertainty around starting pitching, the Braves have the look of a team that competes, but ultimately can't muster enough wins to seal the deal. Although April losses are rarely treated as awful, season-changing games, the nature of parity around the sport could cause the Braves to ultimately miss the postseason due to early-season struggles.
Prediction: 86-76, Second in NL East