John Hart has tried his best to convince Braves fans that the team wasn’t simply rebuilding for the opening of the new stadium in 2017. The newly named president of baseball operations tried to argue that the Braves would be “very competitive” in 2015, but after trading Justin Upton and Evan Gattis in separate deals that netted the team seven prospects, his actions seem to speak otherwise. While adding a much-needed infusion of talent into an otherwise depleted farm system, Hart shipped off a combined 51 home runs and 154 RBIs from an offense that ranked second to last in the National League last season.
The Braves’ rotation figures to be solid again — losing only Ervin Santana and gaining Shelby Miller and several other young arms — but the offense is not exactly on solid ground. Especially not with Upton, Gattis as well as leadoff man Jason Heyward all wearing other uniforms.
The Braves couldn’t hang with the big spenders in the Jon Lester sweepstakes, leaving Miller as the biggest infusion of new blood into their rotation. The status quo centers on Julio Teheran, who is in his third full season and poised to lead a Braves rotation that finished fifth in the majors last year with a 3.42 ERA. Even pitching alongside Santana a year ago, the 23-year-old Teheran proved to be the Braves’ ace in his first All-Star season. He posted a career-best 2.89 ERA while pitching two shutouts and putting up career highs in starts (33) and innings pitched (221). His command of both a slider and curveball with the addition of a two-seam fastball has made him more than the power pitcher that earned him top prospect accolades in the organization for three years running. Teheran and lefthander Alex Wood give the Braves a formidable young righty-lefty combination at the top of their rotation. The Braves tried to limit Wood’s innings by bringing him out of the bullpen for stretches each of the past two seasons, but the team now needs him in the rotation. Miller and Mike Minor round out a rotation that figures to be solid Nos. 1 through 4. Veteran southpaw Eric Stults should get a chance to win the final spot in spring training, but Manny Banuelos and Mike Foltynewicz, a pair of prospects acquired this offseason, are waiting in the wings and could force their way into the discussion.
The Braves reshaped their bullpen around closer Craig Kimbrel after trading away Jordan Walden and David Carpenter and signing a pair of former closers looking to bounce back after subpar seasons. Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli are veteran candidates to serve as setup men for Kimbrel. Shae Simmons would have been included in this group, but he underwent Tommy John surgery in February and will miss the season. The Braves are hoping pitching coach Roger McDowell can work some magic with Johnson and his sinker. The former Orioles closer tanked last season after his trade to Oakland but posted 101 saves the previous two years. Grilli went 1–5 with 12 saves for the Pirates and Angels last year coming off his first All-Star season in 2013. Kimbrel became the first closer in MLB history to open his career with 40 or more saves in each of his first four seasons and only the third to do it in four consecutive seasons over any stretch. James Russell and Luis Avilan give the Braves some depth from the left side with the losers of the rotation competition likely to fill out the remaining spots.
It’s only a matter of time before Jose Peraza is starting at second base and batting leadoff for the Braves. The 20-year-old Venezuelan is the pure leadoff hitter the Braves haven’t had since Rafael Furcal. The trick will be to figure out when Peraza is ready for the call-up from Triple-A to the majors. Meanwhile, Alberto Callaspo and Phil Gosselin, and possibly even Jace Peterson, will battle for the second base job and could wind up in a platoon. Shortstop is in good hands, literally. Andrelton Simmons has won two Gold Gloves and one Platinum in his first two full seasons in the big leagues. He regressed offensively last year from a slash line of .248/.296/.396 to .244/.286/.331 as he got caught up swinging for the fences. He’ll be high on the priority list for new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who made inroads with Alcides Escobar — another young shortstop — during his time as the hitting coach of the Royals.
Even with Upton and Heyward in the lineup, Freddie Freeman was still the Braves’ best hitter. Now even more falls on the shoulders of the 25-year-old two-time All-Star first baseman. When the rest of the lineup was defined by big swings and high-strikeout totals, Freeman was one of the few Braves to use the opposite field with any consistency. His homers (23 to 18) and RBIs (109 to 78) were down last year, but his doubles were up (27 to 43). He’s going to have even less protection in the lineup without Upton behind him, so nothing will come easy this season. Chris Johnson’s name was bandied about in trade scenarios in the offseason. If he opens the season at third base for the Braves, he’s got to prove that his 2013 season, when he made a run at the National League batting title, wasn’t the fluke — that his 2014 season was. His defense at third was much improved, though.
For those puzzled by the four-year, $44 million commitment to former Oriole Nick Markakis during what otherwise appeared to be a rebuilding effort, consider that his approach is more in line with the philosophy the Braves are aiming for offensively. He’s a left-handed contact hitter who handles lefties (career .288). Markakis will take over for Heyward in right field and bat near the top of the lineup. Markakis doesn’t bring the power or speed of a Heyward or Upton, but he should be more consistently productive. The Braves are trying to move past the home run-or-bust mentality, but they still will have the other Upton brother in the lineup. B.J. changed his name to Melvin Upton Jr. during spring training, but he says it wasn’t because of his struggles (.198 with 324 Ks) since signing a five-year, $72.5 million free-agent contract with Atlanta in 2013. Adding to his woes, Upton could miss the first month of the season, if not more, after inflammation of a bone in his left foot was discovered during spring training. His injury opens up competition for the starting center field job, which could go to non-roster invitee Eric Young Jr., a switch-hitting speed threat who also is capable of playing second. Veteran Jonny Gomes was signed to a one-year deal and will try to supply some of the power that was lost in the departures of Justin Upton and Gattis.
Even if Gattis remained with the Braves, he wasn’t going to be able to stay behind the plate. Instead, the team will turn to Christian Bethancourt, an athletic young prospect. Bethancourt is agile and has a dynamic arm, but he’s still refining his pitch-calling and needs to increase his stamina. He wore down in September, and it showed with six passed balls. The Braves signed veteran A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year deal to serve as Bethancourt’s backup.