Count the Braves among those who may not have liked Major League Baseball's decision to add a second Wild Card team to the playoffs. After winning 94 games in 2012 and earning the first Wild Card spot in the National League, the Braves lost the one-game playoff to a Cardinals team that was six games worse than Atlanta in the regular season. The Braves might be looking at a similar situation again as they are once again expected to be one of the top teams in the National League. Following the Braves' acquisitions of the Upton brothers, many expect Atlanta and their division-mates, the Washington Nationals, to be the two best NL teams in 2013. One will have to settle for a Wild Card spot, though, and the risk that a single-game playoff series comes with.
Signed OF B.J. Upton to a five year, $75.25 million contract.
The Braves kicked the offseason off early by signing Upton in late November. With 2012 center fielder Michael Bourn appearing likely to leave in free agency, the Braves turned their attention to the former Rays outfielder. Though Upton's 28 home runs last year were a career high, his on-base percentage dipped below .300 for the first time in his career. The speedy outfielder's contract is the biggest in Braves history.
Acquired RP Jordan Walden from the Angels for SP Tommy Hanson.
The Braves must have been very concerned about Hanson coming off a lower back strain he suffered in 2012. Hanson still has three years of team control remaining and had accrued a 3.28 ERA through his first three seasons before struggling some last year. Still, Hanson was expendable with the Braves having excellent depth in their starting rotation at the time. Walden, meanwhile, had been a great reliever for the Angels, posting a 3.06 ERA in 123 career games over three seasons with almost an 11.0 K/9. Walden saved 34 games for the Angels in 2011, but will certainly not make a return to that role anytime soon with the Braves. Walden will slot in as a top setup man in Atlanta, further strengthening a bullpen that was already one of the best in baseball.
Acquired OF Justin Upton and 3B Chris Johnson from the Diamondbacks for INF/OF Martin Prado, SP Randall Delgado, SS Nick Ahmed, SP Zeke Spruill, and INF Brandon Drury.
The big move of the offseason not just in Atlanta, but likely in all of the MLB. Upton had been rumored to be on the trading block for months, with the Braves being a favorite rumored location after the signing of his brother, B.J. The Diamondbacks and the Mariners had originally agreed to a deal for Upton, but his partial no-trade clause blocked the deal and opened up this new avenue with Atlanta. The Braves had been looking for either a left fielder or third baseman all season as Martin Prado was expected to play the other position. With Prado included in the deal, the Braves also were able to receive Chris Johnson, who posted a .777 OPS last season, to play third base this season. Justin Upton is going into his age-25 season only and has all the makings of being a superstar player if he develops consistency. The Braves did have to pay a heavy price, but they did so from areas of strength. Delgado was expected to compete with Julio Teheran for the fifth starter spot, but the Braves will have other options behind Teheran as well, especially when Brandon Beachy returns mid-season. Ahmed was only drafted two years ago and has been talked about highly as a shortstop prospect, but the Braves have Andrelton Simmons at the position for many years to come.
Exercised team options on Tim Hudson, Brian McCann, and Paul Maholm.
There were no surprises here, especially with the offseason trades of two starting pitchers. Hudson is no spring chicken, but has not had an ERA above 3.62 since 2006 and is assured of a spot in the starting rotation. Maholm has also given consistently good outing the past couple of seasons after a rough start to his career. It also makes sense for the Braves to try to get as much value out of Maholm as possible after trading a big time pitching prospect in Arodys Vizcaino for him at the trade deadline last season. Meanwhile, McCann is a fan favorite in Atlanta at a premium position. The Braves are high on catching prospect Christian Bethancourt, but his bat is not ready to play at the major league level. McCann is coming off injury and will likely miss time at the beginning of the season, but there was no way the Braves would let him go just yet.
Signed C Gerald Laird, SS Ramiro Pena, and 2B Blake DeWitt
David Ross, last year's backup catcher, left in free agency, necessitating the Laird signing. The 33-year-old had one of his better years last season with Detroit with a .710 OPS in 63 games. He signed a two-year deal to give the Braves some stability on their bench. Pena also signed a major league deal, somewhat surprisingly. He has played parts of four seasons but has hit just .233/.266/.288 for his major league career and wasn't all that much better in the minors. Pena still remains a long shot to make the major league squad out of spring training, however. DeWitt signed a minor league deal after an awful 2012 season spent mostly with the Chicago Cubs' Triple-A squad.
1. Andrelton Simmons, SS
2. Jason Heyward, RF
3. Justin Upton, LF
4. Freddie Freeman, 1B
5. B.J. Upton, CF
6. Brian McCann, C
7. Dan Uggla, 2B
8. Chris Johnson, 3B
The Braves' lineup is flush with power and speed. Every player in the lineup outside of Andrelton Simmons is capable of hitting 20-plus home runs and Simmons, Heyward, and both Uptons are always stolen-base threats. It's also a lineup that won't see much changeover throughout the season as every player in the first seven spots have already established themselves in the majors fully. At third base, Johnson figures to begin the season as the starter but if he plays poorly, Juan Francisco may be ready to swoop in. Francisco was fantastic in the Winter Leagues, but has struggled in the major leagues thus far over his career. Despite Johnson being a righty and Francisco being a lefty, a platoon doesn't work as Johnson has actually had much greater success against right-handed pitchers over his career.
1. Kris Medlen
2. Tim Hudson
3. Mike Minor
4. Paul Maholm
5. Julio Teheran
At least, that is what the rotation will almost certainly look like for the first half of the season. When Brandon Beachy comes back around the All-Star break, there's no telling who will be removed from the rotation to make room. Medlen will lead the rotation after a stellar performance when he moved into a starting role last season. Hudson and Minor are both steady hands and Maholm is getting paid to start every fifth day for the Braves.
With Randall Delgado traded away, any competition for the fifth spot is non-existent. Teheran has been one of the top pitching prospects in the MLB for some time now and will finally get a chance to prove that he can make it at the major league level. Until Beachy gets back, however, the Braves will not have much depth here. Trades have gutted the top pitching prospects at higher levels and Atlanta doesn't have anyone currently on the 40-man roster who sticks out as a sixth starter.
Closer: Craig Kimbrel - There isn't much that needs to be said here. Kimbrel is going to be just 25 years old and is already quite possibly the very best reliever in baseball. His numbers in 2012 looked like they came straight out of a video game. He had an already insane 16.7 K/9 and coupled that with just a 2.0 BB/9. Those numbers make him nearly ludicrously unhittable. If you're looking from strikeouts at the closer spot, Kimbrel is the man for you. If you're looking for a low ERA and low WHIP and plenty of saves, Kimbrel is your man. In fantasy drafts, the only way he is not the first reliever off the board is if someone is overthinking. Kimbrel is the best in the game right now and is on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
Key Bullpen Members: Jordan Walden, Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters - Venters and O'Flaherty are the "old hands" so to speak, though neither is very old. Venters, 27, was the victim of a high BABIP that elevated his numbers last year. He has also been heavily used, throwing in 230 games over three years. That kind of continued usage could put him at risk of injury. O'Flaherty is in a similar boat, having pitched 276 games over four years after missing most of the 2008 season. However, O'Flaherty has kept his innings lower by being used as a lefty specialist often. Newcomer Walden, who was acquired via trade with the Angels, will join those two in 2013. Walden will help keep innings lowered by serving as a third elite setup man. The former closer has been excellent over his brief career thus far and will help keep the bullpen as one of the elite units in the MLB.
Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:
1) What is the Braves' long-term plan at third base?
It has been 20 years since the Braves had to think about finding someone new to play the hot corner. Those 20 years were filled by one of the best third basemen of all time, Chipper Jones. After his retirement, the plan was to move Martin Prado to third base and find a new left fielder. As it turned out, the cost to attain that left fielder - Justin Upton - ended up including Prado. The Braves did manage to acquire Chris Johnson in the same trade, but he is a big downgrade. Johnson's 2012 season is probably about as good as his bat will be, but a .334 wOBA isn't great when he is striking out in 25 percent of his at-bats and playing below-average defense. Juan Francisco will fight Johnson for playing time in 2013, but neither player is likely to be a good long-term option. Looking to the next few years, Edward Salcedo is the top third base prospect in the system, but has struggled hitting in the lower minor leagues. If the club thinks highly enough of Evan Gattis, they could attempt to move his big bat to third base, but he would need at least a year or two to get used to a new position. Next year's free-agent class won't offer much in the way of third basemen either, so it may be a strong possibility that the Braves draft a college third baseman next year in the hopes of moving him through the system quickly.
2) What impact will Justin Upton and B.J. Upton have on the lineup?
The Braves have changed up two-thirds of their outfield from 2013 with the additions of the Upton brothers and subtractions of Martin Prado and Michael Bourn. With those moves, the Braves' center fielder and left fielder are going from being their first two hitters, to hitting in the middle of the lineup. Justin is reportedly going to be the Braves' No. 3 hitter while B.J. will likely hit fifth. That creates a big opportunity for Andrelton Simmons, who is expected to move from hitting eighth to being a leadoff hitter. That move will afford him up to 200 more plate appearances over the course of a season, making his bat that much more impactful. Simmons performed well in 49 games last season, but skipped Triple-A. If he slumps at all, his struggles will be amplified by hitting leadoff. The Upton brothers will also help give consistency to where Jason Heyward hits in the lineup. Heyward had significant playing time in each of the three, five, six and seven spots in the order last year. Now he is likely to hit second. Like Simmons, that will also up his plate appearances over the year. Hitting in front of Justin Upton will also afford the Braves' home grown start right fielder more protection than he has had yet in his career. Freddie Freeman, who is projected to hit cleanup will also also enjoy the protection of being surrounded by the Uptons.
3) Can Julio Teheran be an effective starter in the major leagues?
Teheran has been Baseball America's No. 5 prospect for two years running, though that reign is likely to come to an end after he posted a 5.08 ERA at Triple-A in 2012. In addition, Teheran has not been impressive in two very brief major league stints. Teheran, once looked at as a future ace, has had scouts lower expectations of him with these performances, to the point where a few are calling him a bullpen arm. Teheran struggled with his control in 2012, giving up an unordinary amount of hits while seeing his strikeout numbers fall. Still, just one year prior Teheran had dominated Triple-A with a 2.55 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. Teheran also still possesses a great mid-90s fastball and a changeup ranked the best in the system by Baseball America. That alone should allow him to see some success in the majors, though he still needs to work on his third and fourth pitches if he wants to be a frontline start. Teheran also pitched very well in winter ball, earning back some of the accolades he lost during the 2012 season. He's going to have the opportunity to prove he can be a major league starter during 2013. With Randall Delgado gone, the fifth starter role is Teheran's to lose. However, if he fails to pitch effectively he will be in very real danger of losing his spot to Brandon Beachy when he returns around the All-Star break.
The starting lineup, rotation, and bullpen can all be listed among the top in the league. It's phenomenal what the Braves have done with their roster in recent seasons. There are really no real holes in the lineup and the rotation will only get better when Beachy comes back. Third base is the only weak position for Atlanta but any misgivings from that position can be offset elsewhere. If Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco are used in a straight platoon, it's conceivable that they could post around a .790 OPS based on their career splits.
Starting pitching depth and the current farm system are both going to be issues through 2013. The Braves have firsthand experience dealing with needing rotation depth from last season when they needed to trade for Paul Maholm, move Kris Medlen to the rotation, and sign Ben Sheets. All three of those moves ended up working out, but Atlanta can't count on that happening again. Having traded Arodys Vizcaino, Tommy Hanson, and Randall Delgado in the past year, the Braves don't have any clear sixth starters remaining until Brandon Beachy is healthy again. If they need to deal with injuries early in the year, it could be disastrous. Looking at the future, the Braves also have one of the weakest farm systems in baseball now. Part of that is due to trades and part is due to the fact that the Braves have graduated many top prospects like Simmons, Heyward, Freeman and, soon, Teheran. They have some pitching prospects, including J.R. Graham, but none are especially close to the majors. The system also lacks offensive talent. Most of their top position players are just toolsy at this point and have yet to show a real proficiency at the plate. Fortunately, the Braves are young enough that this shouldn't be an issue, but they will have to correct it in future drafts.
Rising: Julio Teheran - The departure of Randall Delgado in the Justin Upton trade all but assured Teheran of being the fifth starter going into Opening Day. The Braves original plans were to have the two compete in spring training for the job, but now Teheran has truly no threat to his spot. Despite being just 22, it's still going to be almost an "It's about time" moment for Teheran, who has lingered in Triple-A the past two seasons and who was Baseball America's number five prospect overall two years running. Teheran has been enigmatic and struggled last season, but has a big time ceiling. It's time for the Braves to find out what they really have in Teheran.
Declining: Jordan Walden - It's not his fault he's on the decline. Walden will likely still put up very good numbers next year, just as he has in his first two-and-a-half seasons. However, his role on the team has taken a hit with the Angels decision to trade him to Atlanta. Originally, he was likely to be given a chance to win the Angels' closer job. However, in the span of three days the Angels instead signed Ryan Madson and traded Walden for Tommy Hanson. Now, Walden is stuck in a fantastic relief corps behind the best closer in baseball. Even if something were to happen to Kimbrel, Walden might lose out to Venters in the race for backup closer duty.
Sleeper: Freddie Freeman - It may seem strange to list someone who had over 20 home runs and over 90 RBI and runs in 2012 as a sleeper. However, when you're a first baseman you have tough competition. Last year, among major league first basemen, Freeman checked in at just 15th in wOBA. However, he is just 23 years old and has a ton of room for improvement. Freeman's numbers, most notably his batting average, took a dip in his sophomore season. That's fairly normal for second-year players. Freeman should be closer to the .282 hitter he was in 2011 and has the potential to be a .300 hitter with 30 home runs along with 100 RBI and 100 runs in the Braves' loaded lineup. The Upton brothers offering protection will aid him in that quest, as well. He won't threaten the elite first basemen, but could be a steal in the early-middle rounds of a draft.
Supersleeper: Evan Gattis - Unfortunately for Gattis, the Justin Upton trade may have kept him from a nice pay raise. Gattis was extremely impressive in the Venezuelan Winter League with a .960 OPS--second in the league--and 16 home runs in 53 games. It had been reported that the Braves were high on Gattis and that he might have a chance to make the big league roster at some point in 2013, maybe even out of spring training. That was before they found a solution to their left field problem, though. Still, Gattis is 26 years old already while going into just his fourth minor league season. The Braves are likely to move him through the minor leagues quickly and the team has very few prospects that project to be impact bats. Gattis has been a .306/.374/.546 hitter in his minor league career with plenty of power, so it's apparent he can hit. Now he just needs a break. If that doesn't come in left field, it could always come at catcher. He has split his time between the two positions, but scouts have long questioned his abilities to stick behind the plate. If he continues to improve defensively, catcher could be his best option to make the majors, however.
J.R. Graham, SP - Graham hasn't been with the Braves long - he was a fourth-round draft pick in 2011, but he has already impressed scouts. Over 39 games (34 starts) over three levels in the minor leagues, Graham has just a 2.49 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. Graham is a polished pitcher and has already advanced to Double-A, with a possible promotion to Triple-A coming in 2013. His peripheral stats won't blow anyone away, but he is a fairly safe bet as far as pitching prospects go.
Julio Teheran, SP - (See Above)
Luke Sims, SP - Sims may have the best curveball in the Braves' system right now and is still just 18 years old. Sims' was the Braves 2012 first-round pick and did well in rookie ball with a 10.3 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 in 11 starts. For a high school draft pick, he is fairly polished, but doesn't have an ace ceiling.
Alex Wood, SP - Like Sims, Wood was also a 2012 draft pick. Chosen in the 2nd round out of the University of Georgia, Wood posted phenomenal numbers in the rookie league. Wood had a 3.71 K/BB with a 2.22 ERA and just over a 1.00 WHIP in 13 starts. Wood has an excellent fastball, especially for a left hander, but has yet to develop his secondary pitches.
Sean Gilmartin, SP - The Braves' 2011 first rounder has moved through the system extremely quickly and already reached Triple-A in 2012. His seven-start stint there didn't go great as he had a 4.78 ERA. Also troubling is the fact that his strikeout numbers were cut in half when he moved to the upper rungs of the minors. He doesn't have incredible stuff, but is a "smart" pitcher in the mold of Mike Fiers and Josh Collmenter.
Christian Bethancourt, C - Bethancourt has outstanding tools, but doesn't appear close to capitalizing on them anytime soon. Over his minor league career thus far the big catcher out of Panama has struggled mightily to get on base at a consistent rate. Despite just a .566 OPS in Double-A in 2012, Bethancourt will very likely receive a chance in Triple-A in 2013. He is a much-heralded defensive backstop but his hitting will need to improve greatly if he wants to make the majors. Despite being just 21 years old, he is already beginning to fall down prospect lists because of his offensive woes.
Tommy La Stella, 2B - The 24-year-old La Stella has been a great natural hitter, but his defense at second base has not been up to par over his first two minor league seasons. La Stella is already getting on base at a high rate and currently holds a career .311/.394/.499 batting line with good gap power. If he works on his defense, he could stick at second. If his bat continues to impress as he advances in the minors he could be the heir apparent to Dan Uggla.
Mauricio Cabrera, SP - Cabrera is a pitcher whom scouts love, though he has started just 12 (albeit impressive) games on a minor league team in America and is still just 19 years old. He might have the highest upside in the Braves' system right now, but with questionable control and secondary offerings, he is a ways from reaching that potential.