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2014 Braves Team Preview: Live By The Sword

Clay Link

Clay Link

Hailing from Arcanum, Ohio, Clay is a proud graduate of the University of Wisconsin - Madison. He began writing for RotoWire in the fall of 2011, and now contributes to breaking news and NFL Draft content, in addition to his duties as assistant baseball editor.

2014 Atlanta Braves Team Preview

You could see it coming a mile away. The Braves, after running away with the NL East -- they won the division by 10 games over the preseason favorite Nationals -- won just one postseason game, losing quietly to the Dodgers in the NLDS. As a team, Atlanta struck out a whopping 1,384 times, tops in the National League, but clutch hitting and great pitching overcame a lack of discipline during the regular season. Many saw a team not built for the postseason, however, and sure enough, the free-swinging Braves struck out 42 times in four games against Los Angeles, with Justin Upton whiffing to put a fitting end to their 2013 season. To be fair, Tim Hudson's ankle injury left the rotation without its "ace," and the team really didn't have enough pitching to match the Dodgers anyway, but it was a predictable, live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword situation, offensively.

Five of their regulars (Dan Uggla, Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson) fanned 116-plus times last season, and the team's offensive identity will be largely similar in 2014. They walk a lot (second in the NL last season), and manager Fredi Gonzalez tends to play it safe on the basepaths, instead waiting for the big hit with runners in scoring position. It's not a perfect formula, but that's not to say it won't work again this year. The Braves have a strong top of the rotation, and the back end of the bullpen is outstanding. Freddie Freeman showed improved plate coverage while hitting .319 -- he didn't hit below .291 in any month last season -- and will likely be motivated to justify his eight-year, $135 million extension. Jason Heyward never really got going in 2013, as his season was interrupted several times by injury, and could very well be in for a big run-scoring campaign atop the lineup. Brandon Beachy (elbow) never made it back to full strength, but after a cleanup procedure in September, he's expected to be a full-go come spring training. The talent is there, but there are several challenges waiting for Atlanta.

The biggest of which will be overcoming the loss of its two longest-tenured players, Brian McCann and Tim Hudson, via free agency. Evan Gattis is expected to take the reins as primary catcher, and while he lessened concerns about his defense and game-calling ability last season, it remains to be seen how he'll do in that role. Gerald Laird will likely catch more frequently than most backup catchers, and Ryan Doumit will be in the mix as well despite his concussion issues last season. If Gattis proves to be too much of a liability behind the plate, however, or if there is an injury, Christian Bethancourt could get the call a bit sooner than expected. Bethancourt has a great arm and tremendous athleticism, but his defense would come at the expense of offensive production. With Hudson now in San Francisco, Kris Medlen is the de facto No. 1 guy, though Mike Minor is perhaps the true ace of the staff, and 23-year-old Julio Teheran isn't too far off. There are question marks at the back of the rotation, but GM Frank Wren was confident enough in the organization's starting pitching depth to deal Sean Gilmartin, a first-round pick in 2011, to the Twins for Doumit. Chris Johnson will be under a lot more pressure after finishing second in the NL with a .321 average, and new leaders will need to step up in the clubhouse.

Offseason Moves

Lost Brian McCann (Yankees), Tim Hudson (Giants), Eric O'Flaherty (A's), Scott Downs (White Sox), Paul Maholm (Dodgers), Luis Ayala (Nationals), Elliot Johnson (Indians), Reed Johnson (Marlins), Paul Janish (Rockies) and Cristhian Martinez (unsigned) via free agency.

At this point, the baseball world knows who Brian McCann is; a powerful, pull-hitting, veteran backstop with above-average on-base skills and the Yankees shelled out $85 million to acquire his services in the offseason. It's a perfect fit for both the Yankees, who relied on the likes of Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart last season, and McCann, as the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium should keep the power numbers coming. Tim Hudson, now with San Francisco, figures to see more favorable matchups in 2014 with the subsequent move back in the rotation, assuming his ankle continues to heal as expected. Luis Avilan's emergence made O'Flaherty less of a priority, especially given his asking price and the fact that he's still recovering from Tommy John surgery. Scott Downs was a rental. Elliot Johnson, Paul Janish and Cristhian Martinez were all non-tendered.

Signed Freddie Freeman to an eight-year, $135 million extension.

The Braves are entering uncharted territory with this deal, as it blows the franchise's previous record contract, Chipper Jones' six-year, $90 million pact, out of the water. While Freeman finished second in the National League in RBI last season with 109, and third in the league with a .319 average, he hit .443 with runners in scoring position, and benefited greatly from a .371 BABIP. Moreover, his ISO dropped from .196 to .181, and he notched just 18 extra-base hits on the road, down from 28 in 2012. Now, all that said, Freeman hit lefties with far more consistency, improving his average against southpaws by 50 points (from .237 to .287), and his overall OPS by 101 points. He's hit 21-plus homers, while appearing in 147-plus games, in each of his first three full seasons. Still just 24 years old, Freeman's signing can be easily justified, even if there's not a whole lot of projected growth from here.

Signed free agent Gavin Floyd (White Sox) to a one-year, $4 million deal.

Tommy John surgery cut Floyd's 2013 season short after just five starts and effectively ended his tenure in Chicago. A best-case scenario for Floyd's return to action would be May, and that's believed to be a realistic possibility if he continues to progress without setback, but it's no lock. It didn't deter the Braves from signing Floyd as relatively low-cost, experienced starting pitching depth. He hasn't posted an ERA below 4.06 since 2008, but can at least eat up innings, when healthy.

Traded Sean Gilmartin to the Twins for Ryan Doumit.

Gilmartin struggled mightily at Triple-A Gwinnett to begin 2013 (5.74 ERA, 1.59 WHIP), though his struggles can almost certainly be attributed in part to his elbow tendinitis. He's expected to have no health limitations when spring training opens, and could push for a rotation spot with Minnesota. Doumit gives the Braves a much-need bench bat, who can also help behind the plate and in the outfield. A .268/.329/.438 career hitter, Doumit will likely play a much smaller role with his new club, but should still get some big at-bats.

Re-signed Freddy Garcia to a minor league deal.

While the Braves would like their young arms to keep Garcia in the minors to open the year, he will get to compete for a rotation spot this spring. The Orioles virtually gave Garcia away to the Braves in late August, and the change of scenery did wonders for the 37-year-old right-hander. Garcia posted a 1.65 ERA and a 4.0 K/BB over six regular-season appearances (three starts) with Atlanta, and he even got a postseason start, the 11th of his career, in the NLDS. Prior to the trade, Garcia posted a 5.77 ERA and a 2.17 K/BB in 11 games (10 starts) for Baltimore.

Signed free agent Mat Gamel (Brewers) to a minor league deal.

A non-roster invite to spring training, Gamel will look to improve his stock after missing the last two seasons with ACL injuries. The 28-year-old displayed significant pop while in the Brewers organization, and could end up being a bench option for Atlanta later in the season.

Projected Lineup

1. Jason Heyward, RF
2. Justin Upton, LF
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
4. Evan Gattis, C
5. Chris Johnson, 3B
6. Andrelton Simmons, SS
7. Dan Uggla, 2B
8. B.J. Upton, CF

It may look like a rather top-heavy lineup after last season, but the Atlanta offense should be a force yet again after finishing fourth in the National League with 688 runs. If B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla can improve even marginally, it will make things a lot easier for the heavy lifters. The Braves led the NL in home runs last season with 181, and while they don't run all that much, they do have some speed both in the lineup and on the bench. Jordan Schafer led the team with 22 stolen bases. B.J. Upton was the only other player on the team with double-digit steals.

Projected Rotation

1. Kris Medlen
2. Mike Minor
3. Julio Teheran
4. Alex Wood
5. Brandon Beachy

Just as many expected, 2013 was a breakout campaign for Minor, who led the team in innings pitched (204.2), strikeouts (181) and quality starts (23), while improving his strikeout and walk rates to 8.0 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9, respectively. He trimmed his ERA by more than 90 points, despite a 20-point increase in his opponents' batting average on balls in play. Efficiency is an issue for Teheran -- he made it out of the seventh inning just five times in 30 starts -- but he has great command of his pitches (2.2 BB/9) and will likely only get better as he learns how to further handle major league hitters. Beachy and Wood are the big question marks at the back of the rotation.

Closer: For the third consecutive year, Craig Kimbrel led the National League in saves, becoming the 11th pitcher in major league history to reach the 50-save mark in a single season, while also becoming the first pitcher in the history of the game to record 40-plus saves in each of his first three full seasons. He set a Braves franchise record in 2013 by converting 37 consecutive save chances, and ended the season by converting 40 of his final 41 opportunities. After the calender turned to June, Kimbrel allowed just four earned runs over 46.2 regular-season innings (0.77 ERA), and he held opposing batters to a .161 average for the year. His strikeout rate did, however, drop by more than three per nine innings, to a career-low 13.2 K/9, and his swinging-strike rate was well below where it was in 2012 (13.6% from 19.2%). Lefties hit .211/.265/.309 against him, up from .116/.189/.143, and his walk rate was up slightly as well. All that aside, Kimbrel didn't lose any juice on his fastball, and is unquestionably one of most dominant end-gamers in all of baseball. He's still the easy choice for first reliever off the board in 2014.

Key Bullpen Members: Jordan Walden missed time at various points in 2013 with injury and fell apart at the end of the year, but the hard-throwing right-hander proved to be a valuable addition to the Braves' already strong bullpen. He posted a 2.42 ERA over his first 47 appearances of the year, and while his strikeout rate dipped slightly, he still averaged more than 10.0 K/9 and trimmed his walk rate to a career-best 2.7 BB/9. Walden will continue to bridge the gap to Kimbrel in 2014, setting up along with David Carpenter and Luis Avilan, and given his experience closing, he'd be an obvious candidate to take over ninth-inning duties should anything happen to Kimbrel.

The 24-year-old Avilan held opposing southpaws to a .144/.219/.163 batting line en route to 27 holds last season, third-most in the National League. He made a team-high 75 appearances, and had a stretch from late May until mid-August where he made 35 consecutive appearances without allowing an earned run. His stuff may not be overwhelming by traditional standards (1.73 K/BB, 8.7 percent swinging-strike rate), but Avilan will remain the top lefty option out of Atlanta's bullpen until Jonny Venters (elbow) is healthy, and even when Venters is back, Avilan should continue to rack up a decent number of holds.

Carpenter, a waiver acquisition from the Red Sox in November of 2012, recorded a minuscule 1.78 ERA, with a 10.1 K/9 and a 90.2 percent strand rate in 56 appearances after his late-April callup. He could be in that discussion to close as well, but again, only in the event something happens to Kimbrel. That doesn't mean there won't be plenty of high-leverage outs for him to get.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez said that he expects David Hale to compete for a spot in the major league rotation this spring, and left open the possibility Hale could be a bullpen option if he's unable to secure a starting role. A bullpen role seems more realistic given the team's other options. Ryan Buchter, a 26-year-old lefty, was added to the 40-man roster ahead of the Rule 5 draft after posting a 2.76 ERA and 103 strikeouts over 62 innings with Triple-A Gwinnett last season, and may pitch out of the big league bullpen until Jonny Venters returns. Command is a major issue (8.7 BB/9 at Triple-A), however, and the Braves are still rather short on lefty relievers.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

Can B.J. Upton turn it around?

In Year 1 of a five-year, $75.25 million pact with Atlanta, Upton experienced an unfathomable fall from grace. He got off to a terrible start, posting a .145 average over the first two months of the season, and never rebounded, ultimately losing his everyday job and finishing with a .557 OPS, nearly 200 points below where it was in 2012 (.752). Upton struck out 151 times in 391 at-bats, with 49 of those coming in just 114 second-half trips to the dish. One season removed from hitting 28 homers and swiping 31 bags, Upton was one of the biggest fantasy busts in recent memory, and he will have to fight for playing time this spring, though the Braves surely aren't ready to completely give up on him with four years remaining on his contract.

What's Justin Upton's value?

Upton's first month in a Braves uniform was the stuff of legends, as he clubbed a whopping 12 home runs in April and appeared to be headed for a career year. Over the next three months of the season, Upton managed just four home runs. He got hot again in August, and finished with a team-leading 27 big flies, but it was at times a frustrating season for his fantasy owners. After recording 18-plus steals in each of his previous four seasons, Upton attempted just nine steals in 2013, and his strikeout rate jumped dramatically from 19.3 percent to 25.0 percent. By no means was it a terrible year for Upton, but he didn't live up to his price tag, and his 17.9 percent HR/FB rate is likely unsustainable. Moreover, a rebound in batting average is not necessarily a lock, as his BABIP was still above .320.

What happens to Dan Uggla?

To say that Uggla's 2013 was a disaster would be an understatement, as he struck out 171 times in 448 at-bats and posted just a .671 OPS for the season. His .179 batting average was by far the lowest among qualified hitters, and LASIK surgery in August didn't help as Uggla hit just .133 after his return. Elliot Johnson eventually took his job as the starting second baseman, and Uggla, the team's highest-paid player, was left off the postseason roster. The Braves, unsurprisingly, want to unload Uggla, but the $26 million remaining on his contract will make that hard to do unless they want to eat a significant portion of the money. Regardless of whether or not he's traded, Uggla's days as an everyday player may be over, despite him being just one season removed from an All-Star selection.

What will the rotation look like in July?

This is jumping the gun a bit. First off, what will the rotation actually look like coming out of spring training? Is Brandon Beachy's elbow going to hold up? Alex Wood will presumably be under an innings limit after maxing out at 139.2 last season, and the Braves could always decide they need him in the bullpen to start the year. Is Freddy Garcia still an adequate major league starter, or was his run at the end of last season just a flash in the pan? Will Gavin Floyd be back before June? A lot is up in the air right now, but the Braves do have the likes of J.R. Graham and David Hale to fall back on in the event of multiple injuries over the first few months.

Are the Nationals just too good?

The Washington Nationals, at least on paper, present an incredibly daunting obstacle, but the Braves did have their number last year, with 13 wins against six losses. If even remotely healthy, the Nationals should roll through a lot of teams, and it's a question of whether Braves have enough fire power to keep up. The Mets went out and added some quality pieces in Bartolo Colon and Curtis Granderson this offseason, and figure to be more competitive as well. It's still a two-horse race, but the path to the division crown will be tougher in 2014.

Strengths

The back end of the bullpen is outstanding and the top of the rotation is strong. Offense is productive, if at times inconsistent, with power from top to bottom. Andrelton Simmons is already one of the best defenders in the game, and there's plenty of athleticism in the outfield. A lot of youth is already on the major league roster.

Weaknesses

As discussed earlier, the team strikes out way too much as a whole, and is prone to funks. The back of the rotation is unproven, and there's a lack of left-handers in the bullpen. Second base is a glaring hole, and valuable, veteran leadership was lost in the offseason. Also, there isn't a ton of talent in the upper levels of their farm system.

Rising: Andrelton Simmons - The move down the batting order predictably helped Simmons' power numbers, as he went on to post a .472 slugging percentage after the All-Star break, but he still finished the year with an OBP below .300. Standard rotisserie owners didn't have much of anything to complain about, however, as Simmons smacked 17 homers and scored 76 runs, fourth-most among all shortstops. Looking ahead to 2014, Simmons may see fewer scoring chances while near the bottom of the order, but his .247 BABIP seems likely to rise, and he's already producing top-10 value at the position.

Declining: Chris Johnson - Johnson finished with the second-best batting average in the National League (.321) last season, while smacking 12 home runs and 34 doubles. The numbers were surprising, but even more so when looking at his advanced statistics, as Johnson posted a rather paltry .136 ISO, and his contact rate dipped slightly. His walks were also down, as he drew only 29 in 514 at-bats, and his .394 BABIP jumps out as an anomaly, even though he has always been a high BABIP guy. To his credit, Johnson did hit lefties with great consistency (.383 average), after struggling against southpaws in 2012 (.245 average). A regression at the dish seems inevitable, but the hot corner is his, and he could move up to the five-hole in the batting order to fill the void left by the departure of Brian McCann.

Sleeper: Brandon Beachy - Beachy's recovery from June 2012 Tommy John surgery seemed to be going smoothly right up until his final minor league rehab appearance, when he felt some tenderness in his surgically-repaired elbow during a start with Triple-A Gwinnett. The setback delayed his return by more than a month, and Beachy ended up making just five starts with the big club before being forced out of action due to elbow inflammation. Fortunately, Beachy was cleared of any additional structural damage, but the Braves weren't taking any chances, and instead shut the right-hander down in September. He then had the elbow scoped, but the expectation is that Beachy will be ready for the start of spring training. Of course, the sample size from last season is too small to draw any real conclusions, but Beachy's fastball velocity was near where it used to be, and his walk rate was way down. If healthy, the 27-year-old Beachy is a virtual lock for the rotation out of spring training, and while he may never post numbers like he did in 2012 (2.00 ERA, 0.96 WHIP), Beachy could prove to be a steal at his discounted 2014 price, though there's still plenty of risk involved.

Supersleeper: Tommy La Stella - Tyler Pastornicky is an obvious candidate for playing time at second base if Dan Uggla is dealt or continues to struggle, but La Stella is definitely in the mix as well after raking at Double-A Mississippi (.343/.422/.473) in 2013. He also drew the praise of the team's director of player development, Bruce Manno, with an impressive performance in the Arizona Fall League. The 25-year-old La Stella is very disciplined at the plate, as evidenced by his 35 strikeouts in 303 at-bats last season, and a hot start in the minors could put him in contention for a major league roster spot, regardless of Uggla's status. Further, La Stella offers significantly more upside at the plate than Pastornicky, making him a better speculative target for those in deeper formats.

Top Prospects

Lucas Sims, RHP - Considered the top pitching prospect in the Braves organization, Sims was dominant in his first season at Low-A Rome (2.62 ERA, 10.3 K/9, 3.5 BB/9). When the 2014 season opens, Sims will still be just 19 years old, and while those in dynasty leagues will likely want to pick him up, those in re-draft leagues can leave him be, as it's hard to imagine he'd get a run with the big club in 2014, given the team's pitching depth. It's believed that Sims could be future option in the front of the Atlanta rotation, however, so patience in dynasty formats could pay significant dividends.

J.R. Graham, RHP - Shoulder troubles sent Graham to the shelf in mid-May, and the right-hander didn't even step onto a mound until five months later. The Braves are expecting the rather cautious approach to pay off, and that Graham will be ready for the start of spring training. The 24-year-old, widely considered one of the top pitching prospects in the Braves' organization, succeeds in pounding the strike zone and inducing a high volume of groundballs (2.24 GO/AO in 2012), so even with the pitching depth in Atlanta, Graham could make a push for one of the final rotation spots. His minor league strikeout numbers aren't great (7.1 K/9), but he can consistently hit the mid-90s with his fastball, and can get as high as 97 mph.

Tommy La Stella, 2B - See above.

Christian Bethancourt, C - Heralded for his rocket arm and athleticism behind the plate, Bethancourt took a significant step forward at the dish last season. In 90 games with Double-A Mississippi, he hit .277/.305/.436 with 12 homers and 11 steals, after slashing just .243/.275/.291 at the same level in 2012. Concerns remain, however, about Bethancourt's lack of plate discipline, as he drew just 16 walks in 388 plate appearances in 2013, but he did show some improvement in the second half, with a .329 on-base percentage over his final 39 games. The 22-year-old will likely need to show continued improvement in the minor leagues before being considered for a promotion, but with Brian McCann now out of Atlanta, it's possible he could get the call sooner than expected, if Evan Gattis struggles defensively, or if there is an injury to Gattis, Gerald Laird, or Ryan Doumit. He likely wouldn't see enough time to make a dent in the counting stats, however, so his fantasy upside, especially for 2014, is limited.

Jason Hursh, RHP - Sticking with the team's MO, Atlanta drafted Hursh, a groundball pitcher, with their first-round pick in 2013. He went on to strike out just 15 batters in nine starts with Low-A Rome in his first professional season, but posted a 1.96 GO/AO and held opposing batters to a .206 average. Of course, Hursh still has much to prove in the minors, and may not even sniff the majors in the next two seasons, especially with the supply of viable arms currently ahead of him on the organizational depth chart in the Atlanta system.

Mauricio Cabrera, RHP - Cabrera gave up just three home runs in 131.1 innings with Low-A Rome in 2013, but he walked batters at a 4.9 BB/9 clip and uncorked 16 wild pitches. Just 20 years old, he's a ways away from making an impact in the majors, but the right-hander throws hard and could at least catch the eye of those in dynasty leagues in 2014.