Freddie Freeman and the Braves will try to stay competitive in the NL East following an offseason makeover
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.
The bench will likely include both Young and Gomes, at least when each isn’t starting, as well as whomever loses the battle for the starting job at second. The remaining holdovers have very little experience — Gosselin, who’s had a total of 50 major league games, and the likes of outfielder Todd Cunningham (eight games) and outfielder/first baseman Joey Terdoslavich (64 games). However, Upton’s injury opens the door for one of these to potentially receive more playing time.
The Braves fired general manager Frank Wren and assistant Bruce Manno and restructured their front office with Hart taking over as president of baseball operations and John Coppolella, his heir apparent, getting increased responsibility as an assistant general manager. The subplot, though, is the return to greater influence of John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox, who had eschewed much of the baseball decision-making when Wren was at the helm. The other significant change was at hitting coach, with Seitzer taking over for Greg Walker. Seitzer is charged with getting the Braves’ lineup back to a more fundamentally sound, contact-oriented approach at the plate.
The Braves have won a total of two playoff games in the past nine seasons since their run of 11 straight division titles ended in 2005. Now they’re determined to get back to the formula that generated their run of success, which centers on scouting and developing their own players. That might take a while — the Braves hope no longer than 2017, when they open their new ballpark in the Atlanta suburbs of Cobb County. The success or failures of 2015? It’s going to depend once again on if the Braves can produce much offense to complement a solid young pitching staff.
2015 Prediction: 4th in NL East
LF Eric Young Jr. (S) If he wins a starting job and gets on base, his speed (30 SB in 100 G in 2014) will be an asset atop the lineup.
RF Nick Markakis (L) Career .294 hitter with .353 OBP in leadoff spot, which is where he’ll likely stay until Jose Peraza is ready.
1B Freddie Freeman (L) Second in majors with .443 average with runners in scoring position in 2013; dropped to 64th (.294) in 2014.
3B Chris Johnson (R) Second in the majors with a .395 average against lefties last year but hit only .231 against righties.
C Christian Bethancourt (R) Threw out five of 15 base-stealers but also charged with six passed balls in 31 games.
2B Alberto Callaspo (S) Braves sought this contact hitter, who has one strikeout every 11.16 career plate appearances.
SS Andrelton Simmons (R) Numbers were down a bit in second full season in the bigs, but his real value is with his glove.
CF Melvin Upton Jr. (R) Set Braves’ single-season franchise record for strikeouts with 173 in 2014, likely to miss at least the first month because of injury.
OF Jonny Gomes (R) Could beat out Young for starting job, but more suited for spot and pinch-hitting duty.
INF Phil Gosselin (R) Hit safely in 24 of his 30 starts for the Braves last season, batting .284 (33-for-116) as a starter.
C A.J. Pierzynski (L) Veteran is coming off the worst offensive season of his career, hitting a combined .251 in Boston, St. Louis.
OF Todd Cunningham (S) The Braves need a fill-in center fielder with Upton’s injury, which gives him an edge over Joey Terdoslavich or Jose Constanza.
INF Jace Peterson (L) Hit .113 in first MLB action with Padres last year but is coming off back-to-back .300 seasons in the minors.
RH Julio Teheran Sixth Braves starter since 2000 to make at least 30 starts (33) and post an ERA under 3.00 (2.89).
LH Alex Wood Led Braves with 2.78 ERA in 2014 but went 11–11 thanks to a staff-low 2.75 runs of support.
RH Shelby Miller After striking out 169 in 173.0 IP in breakout 2013 season, he K’d only 127 in 183.0 IP in ’14.
LH Mike Minor Shoulder soreness forced late start and early exit to 2014 season.
LH Eric Stults Veteran went 8-17 with 4.30 ERA in 32 starts for Padres last season.
RH Craig Kimbrel (Closer) Converted 47 of 51 saves and finished second in the majors behind Fernando Rodney (48).
RH Jim Johnson Once-dominant closer saw his ERA balloon to 7.09 last season in stints with the A’s and Tigers.
LH James Russell Veteran lefty was actually better against righties in 2014 (.284 vs. lefties, .165 vs. righties).
LH Luis Avilan Posted a 1.69 ERA in first two seasons, but it jumped to 4.57 in 2014 as he struggled with breaking pitches.
RH Jason Grilli Posted 2.74 ERA over three seasons with Pirates and converted 30 of 31 saves as closer in 2013.
LH Manny Banuelos Former Yankee pitched 76.2 innings in the minors last season in first year back from Tommy John surgery.
RH Mike Foltynewicz Former Astros first-round pick will get a shot to earn a spot in the rotation after working out of the bullpen last year.
Beyond the Box Score
Come together Shortly after signing a four-year, $44 million contract with the Braves, right fielder Nick Markakis underwent spinal fusion surgery for a herniated disc in his neck Dec. 17. His pre-spring routine will be altered, but the Braves are fairly confident Markakis will be able to make up ground during spring training and be a full go by Opening Day.
Roy returns Former Braves scouting director Roy Clark, who spent a handful of seasons helping stock the Nationals’ farm system, returned to the Braves front office, where he spent 22 years making a name for himself signing the likes of Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur, Jason Heyward and Craig Kimbrel, among others. As special assistant to the general manager, Clark aims to build the Braves farm system back to the “Baby Braves” days of 2005, when 18 rookies made the major league roster during the last year of the team’s run of 11 straight division titles.
Masterful advice Shelby Miller honed his sinker during the second half of last season in St. Louis with the help of Justin Masterson, who came to the Cardinals at the trade deadline from Cleveland. Miller used the two-seamer to pitch deeper into games and keep hitters from sitting on his four-seam fastball. He posted a 2.08 ERA over his final seven starts after recording a 4.25 ERA in his first 25 games (24 starts).
Otro outfielder The Braves missed out on Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas, who signed with the Diamondbacks for $68.5 million. But while evaluating Tomas in the Dominican Republic, they also got a good look at a lower-profile Cuban outfielder named Dion Toscano. The Braves signed the left-handed hitter to a four-year, $6 million contract and will send him to the minor leagues to get a better idea of how soon he might be able to help at the big-league level.
Mending fences Former third baseman Chipper Jones didn’t take too kindly when the Braves sent the mascot out to catch his ceremonial first pitch before a 2013 division series playoff game against the Dodgers, a series in which Jones had predicted on a local radio broadcast the Braves would lose in four games. Jones did not return to spring training as a guest instructor last spring like he had the year prior. Jones is expected back in the fold as a regular around the batting cages this year after manager Fredi Gonzalez asked him to serve as an occasional hitting consultant.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Braxton Davidson, OF
The Braves are hoping some of the T.C. Roberson High School magic will rub off with their top pick in June. Davidson, a protÃ©gÃ© and friend of Cameron Maybin from the Asheville, N.C., area, is a left-handed, power-hitting corner outfielder hoping to follow in the footsteps of his mentor. Davidson, who attended Maybin’s draft party 10 years earlier, was taken 32nd overall, in the supplemental round. He was considered the best power hitter in the draft, and the Braves also like Davidson’s feel for the strike zone — though he took his lumps in rookie ball (batted .224 in 50 games with 42 strikeouts in 147 at-bats). He drew comparisons to Freddie Freeman and Brandon Belt as a high school first baseman, though the Braves moved him to the outfield. He had shed 35 pounds during his senior year of high school in anticipation of that move.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Jose Peraza, 2B (20) Triple-A seasoning is all that stands between Peraza and a job as the Braves’ everyday second baseman and leadoff hitter.
2. Mike Foltynewicz, RHP (23) Biggest piece in the Evan Gattis trade with Houston will get shot in spring training to earn spot in starting rotation.
3. Lucas Sims, RHP (20) Jump from Low- to High-A proved to be a big one for Sims — 12–4 with a 2.62 ERA in Rome to 8–11 with a 4.19 ERA in Lynchburg. The Braves still covet his power arm.
4. Christian Bethancourt, C (23) Braves’ Opening Day catcher, barring injury or meltdown in spring training, given Evan Gattis’ move to left field.
5. Jason Hursh, RHP (23) Braves’ 2013 first-round pick from Oklahoma State coming off solid Double-A season (11–7, 3.58 ERA).
6. Rio Ruiz, 3B (20) Acquired in the Gattis deal, likely ticketed for Double-A Mississippi after batting .293-11-77 in High-A last season.
7. Max Fried, LHP (21) The No. 7 overall pick by the Padres in 2012 who arrived in the Justin Upton trade, Fried is coming off Tommy John surgery and likely to miss all of 2015 season.
8. Ozhaino Albies, SS (18) Another talent from Curacao trying to live up to the legacy of Andruw Jones and Andrelton Simmons. He led Appalachian League in hitting (.356) and OBP (.429) as a 17-year-old.
9. Braxton Davidson, RF (18) Braves aren’t sure if 2014 first-rounder has the arm strength to play right field, but he’s slated to continue there as he opens his first full season in High-A Rome.
10. Tyrell Jenkins, RHP (22) Shoulder injuries stalled minor league progression, but fastball back in mid-90s for former Baylor football signee who had standout Arizona Fall League.