Free agent losses, injuries could prevent Braves from repeating in NL East
The Braves, who reeled off 14 consecutive division titles starting in 1991, captured their first since 2005 by going 96–66 to outlast the favored Nationals. They did it despite awful seasons from B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. Those players can’t be any worse — can they? — so a very young Braves team expects to repeat as division champions, or at least contend with the Nationals, who have bigger-name stars and should get all the hype again. The Braves, who lost their NLDS to the Dodgers, still have not won a playoff series since 2001. And a couple of ill-timed injuries to pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy have tempered hopes somewhat. But the Braves’ talented core group should keep providing postseason chances in the foreseeable future.
The legacy of the 1990s Braves will be celebrated at the Hall of Fame this summer, as a team built on consistently dominant starting pitching begins to take its place in bronze in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. It’s asking a lot for any team to replicate the era of Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz & Co., but the Braves are at least in the ballpark, ranking sixth in the majors last season in starters’ ERA, at 3.51. The Braves were one of only two teams in the majors to have three starters with at least 13 victories and an ERA under 3.30: Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran. But Medlen’s 2014 season is already over, before it began. The talented righthander is having his second Tommy John surgery. The news on Beachy is similarly dismal. After receiving the bad injury news in early March, the Braves jumped quickly to sign free agent Ervin Santana, a victim of the rule regarding draft pick compensation. Santana had gone the entire winter without finding any serious suitors. Due to his abbreviated spring training, Santana, who won nine games each of the last two seasons, will likely not be with the team when it breaks camp. The righthander has averaged 187 innings over his nine-year career — all spent in the American League — and had a career-best 3.24 ERA last season with Kansas City. Veteran Freddy Garcia will take one of the available spots in the rotation. Lefty Alex Wood, who made 11 starts among his 31 appearances last season will join the group as well. Minor’s shoulder was balking a bit in spring training and may cost him a start or two. Youngster David Hale will fill the void until Minor is healthy, which shouldn’t be later than mid-April. Veteran Gavin Floyd, formerly of the White Sox, will return from Tommy John surgery at some point around midseason. Expect the Braves to bring him along slowly.
The Braves had the majors’ second-best bullpen ERA in 2012, and when injuries robbed them of some of their best arms last season, it somehow got even better. Atlanta’s relievers posted a 2.46 ERA, the best mark in the majors last season, led again by the indomitable Craig Kimbrel, who had 50 saves, an 0.881 WHIP and fanned 13.2 batters per nine innings. Two of his better setup men, Anthony Varvaro and David Carpenter, came to the Braves off waivers, and another, Luis Avilan, seamlessly replaced the injured Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters as the resident dominant lefty. Venters, a 2011 All-Star, had Tommy John surgery last May; he could be an option, although the procedure was his second, which is always trickier to return from. Jordan Walden, the former Angels closer, made a nice impression in his first season with the Braves. David Hale is another option out of the pen if his services aren’t needed in the injury-riddled rotation.
How does a player with a .296 on-base percentage rank fourth in the league in overall Wins Above Replacement? He has to play a premium position, shortstop, and field like Andrelton Simmons. His bat had some pop, with 17 homers and 59 runs batted in, but the vast majority of Simmons’ value comes from his glove. Going strictly by fielding performance, Baseball-Reference.com credited Simmons with 5.4 defensive wins above replacement — the highest single-season total in baseball history. Simmons tends to play deep to utilize his outstanding arm and has otherworldly range in all directions. His middle infield partner, Uggla, is a below-average fielder who makes a living with his bat. Uggla led the league in walks in 2012, has made three All-Star teams and has also hit as many as 36 homers in a season. Everything fell apart last year, though, as he batted just .179, with a .122 mark in September that kept him off the playoff roster.
This was a major strength for the Braves last season, with Chris Johnson leading the National League batting race for much of the summer and Freddie Freeman putting it all together with a .319 average, 23 homers and 109 RBIs. Freeman, who turned 24 in September, improves at the plate every season and ranked fourth among NL first basemen in range factor per game, after leading the league in the category in 2012. Johnson hit .321 (second in the NL) with 46 extra-base hits and played well defensively at third. He kept on going in the playoffs, batting .438 (7-for-16) against the Dodgers.
The Upton brothers realized a dream of playing together in the same major-league outfield last season, and while it ended with a playoff appearance — and a joint Sports Illustrated cover with supermodel Kate Upton — neither player had a memorable season. Justin started hot, winning Player of the Month honors in April with a mind-bending .734 slugging percentage. After that, though, he slugged just .409, and wound up with an .818 OPS that was a bit below his career average. B.J., signed to the richest free-agent deal in Braves history (five years, $75.25 million) the winter before, would have gladly taken that season over the one he posted: a .184 average, nine homers, 26 RBIs and 151 strikeouts. Right fielder Jason Heyward endured a beaning against the Mets that cost him a month late in the season. Heyward is only 24 and has power, some speed and a good eye at the plate. He could still develop into a superstar. The Braves seemed to take off last season when manager Fredi Gonzalez inserted Heyward at the top of the batting order.
The Braves lost one of their leaders — and a local favorite — in catcher Brian McCann, who signed with the Yankees without his hometown team putting up much of a fight. His departure clears the way for Evan Gattis, 27, who clubbed 21 homers in 354 at-bats but, like a lot of his teammates, had a meager on-base percentage (.291). Gattis was respectable defensively, but McCann was a master at guiding a staff and framing borderline pitches. The Braves have a top catching prospect in Christian Bethancourt, but he has played only one career game above Class AA and has a career .299 OBP in the minors.
The Braves love the versatility that Ryan Doumit provides as a switch-hitter who can back up at catcher, first base and the corner outfield spots, and he gives them a power threat off the bench. The athletic Jordan Schafer started at all three outfield spots last season and is young enough, at 27, to warrant decent playing time in case of injury or underperformance from a starter. Veteran Gerald Laird, who hit .281 last season, is among the more reliable backup catchers in the game, while Ramiro Pena can play second, short and third. Pena missed more than half the season after surgery to repair a torn labrum, but the Braves liked him enough to quickly re-sign him for another year.
Locked into a bad local cable deal for years, the Braves took a step toward generating greater revenues by securing a deal for a stadium in Cobb County that will open in 2017. For now, general manager Frank Wren has maintained a payroll below $100 million with a young but talented roster that reached the postseason in 2010, ’12 and ’13. That success has been undercut by repeated playoff failures, and manager Gonzalez is unsigned beyond this season. He has provided a smooth transition from his Cooperstown-bound predecessor, Bobby Cox, but sooner or later, the Braves must take the next step.
Pitching carried the Braves’ boom-or-bust offense, which led the NL in both homers and strikeouts (tied). The front office did little to remedy that in the offseason, but the formula did produce 96 wins. However, given the injuries to Medlen and Beachy, it will take significant improvement from a few hitters to keep the Braves in position to win again. Repeated early playoff exits have grown tiresome for all concerned.
RF Jason Heyward (L)
Unconventional leadoff man, but the Braves like giving him extra turns at bat.
3B Chris Johnson (R)
Unlikely to repeat near-batting crown, but a verystrong hitter with pop.
LF Justin Upton (R )
Braves saw his impact early, but need more consistency throughout season.
1B Freddie Freeman (L)
Knocked in a career-high 109 runs; no other Brave topped 70 RBIs.
C Evan Gattis (R)
One of four in this order with OBP below .310; that’s a huge risk for the Braves.
CF B.J. Upton (R)
After signing biggest contract in Braves history, must avoid becoming biggest bust.
2B Dan Uggla (R)
Led team with 77 walks; opposing pitchers’ fear of him was a mystery (.179 average).
SS Andrelton Simmons (R)
Surprising power, disappointing OBP, superlative glove work.
C Gerald Laird (R)
Has been backup for three different playoff teams in three years (’11 Cardinals, ’12 Tigers, ’13 Braves).
OF Jordan Schafer (L)
Led the Braves in stolen bases (22) while playing only 94 games.
INF Ramiro Pena (S)
Earned a return trip to roster as solid utility man despite injury-shortened season.
C/OF Ryan Doumit (S)
Has hit 81 of his 99 career homers as a left-handed hitter, including 12 of 14 last year.
OF Jose Canstanza (L)
Offers both speed and a handy lefty bat off the bench.
LH Mike Minor
Quietly establishing himself as one of the premier starters in the NL. May begin this season on the DL with shoulder issues.
RH Julio Teheran
Would have won Rookie of the Year Award in a runaway if he pitched in AL.
RH Ervin Santana
Royals won two of Santana’s three starts against the Braves’ NL East rivals last season.
LH Alex Wood
Delivery evokes White Sox ace Chris Sale; 3.13 ERA gives Braves hope for future.
RH Freddy Garcia
Yep, he’s still in the league and going strong. In three starts in late September for the Braves last season, he allowed just four runs in 19.2 innings.
RH Craig Kimbrel (Closer)
With Mariano Rivera retired, there’s no doubt: He’s the game’s best closer.
LH Luis Avilan
Flummoxed lefty hitters as he took over for Eric O’Flaherty.
RH David Carpenter
One of three regular Braves relievers to have ERA under 2.00 and WHIP under 1.00.
RH Jordan Walden
Defies all convention while literally jumping, both feet in air, as he delivers a pitch.
RH Anthony Varvaro
Pitches to contact, with good results (2.82 ERA last season).
LH Jonny Venters
Former All-Star eases back in after Tommy John surgery. He should be available by the All-Star break.
RH David Hale
First two starts were good enough to earn a place on playoff roster.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Jason Hursh, RHP
The Braves lost their draft position in the first round last season by signing free-agent outfielder B.J. Upton, but chose Hursh with the 31st overall pick as compensation for the departure of Michael Bourn. They liked Hursh in high school and stayed on him through his tenure at Oklahoma State, where he missed the 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. A strong performance as a redshirt sophomore earned him a $1.7 million bonus from the Braves. With good action on a fastball that has touched 98 mph, Hursh reliably generates ground balls. He posted an 0.67 ERA in nine starts for Low-A Rome, although he was limited to 27 innings. The Braves want to keep Hursh as a starter and are hopeful he can advance quickly if he masters his changeup and slider, but don’t expect to see him in Atlanta this season.
RHP Lucas Sims (19)
The 21st pick in the ’12 draft, Sims went 8–0, 1.59 in his last eight starts, with 57 strikeouts in 45.1 innings for Low-A Rome.
C Christian Bethancourt (22)
Outstanding defensive catcher who could soon challenge Evan Gattis for starting role.
RHP J.R. Graham (24)
Shoulder trouble slowed his path last season, but he has shown promise since converting to pitching in the pros.
2B Tommy La Stella (25)
Dark horse to unseat Dan Uggla at second after .422 OBP at Class AA Mississippi.
RHP Mauricio Cabrera (20)
Fastball touches 100, but had control issues in Low-A (71 walks in 131 innings).
Beyond the Box Score
On the move The Braves, who have played in downtown Atlanta since moving from Milwaukee for the 1966 season, are headed 10 miles northwest of the city, to Cobb County, for the 2017 season. The team announced plans in November for a 42,000-seat stadium that will cost $672 million and replace Turner Field, which was built for the 1996 Olympics and remodeled for baseball in 1997. The Braves cited improved transportation options and the migration of their fans as a reason for the move, and Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed said Turner Field would be razed. Reed said Cobb County was contributing $450 million to the stadium project and that the city would not match.
Uggly Average Dan Uggla came to bat 537 times for the Braves last season and batted .179. Historically, that’s really tough to do. Only one other player in the division-play era (since 1969, that is) has qualified for the batting title with an average that low: Rob Deer of the Detroit Tigers in 1991. Both Deer and Uggla had exactly 80 hits in 448 at-bats and stayed in the lineup for their power; Deer hit 25 homers, Uggla 22. Good news for Uggla: Deer bounced back the next season and hit 32 homers while batting a respectable .247.
Not just a throw-in It was easy to overlook infielder Chris Johnson in last year’s blockbuster deal for Justin Upton, but the Braves knew what they were getting. The Braves and Astros are spring-training neighbors, and they had seen a lot of Johnson when he played for Houst von. Johnson also had a champion in Chipper Jones, whose godfather, Pete Dunn, had coached Johnson at Stetson. Johnson led the NL in hitting for much of the season and finished at .321.
Detour to Atlanta Reliever David Carpenter finished the 2012 season with the Toronto Blue Jays, then migrated to Atlanta with a peculiar stopover in Boston. The Red Sox needed to compensate the Blue Jays for hiring manager John Farrell, so they sent infielder Mike Aviles. But because managers cannot be directly traded for managers, the Blue Jays had to send a player to the Red Sox. That player was Carpenter, who was designated for assignment by Boston, claimed by Atlanta and in the Braves’ bullpen for good by the end of April. He posted a 1.78 ERA in 56 games but took the loss in the playoff finale in Los Angeles.
Feeling the breeze Of the 14 players in the majors last season who fanned at least 150 times, three played for Atlanta: Dan Uggla (171), Justin Upton (161) and B.J. Upton (151). The only others on the list who spent the full season in the NL were Pedro Alvarez of Pittsburgh and Jay Bruce of Cincinnati.
Top Craig Kimbrell photo from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Craig_Kimbrel_2013_Spring_Training.jpg