Winter report card: Atlanta Braves
With just a few weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.
2012 Results: 94-68, 2nd place in NL East (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: UT Jeff Baker, RHP Miguel Batista, OF Michael Bourn, RHP Randall Delgado, OF Matt Diaz, RHP Chad Durbin, RHP Tommy Hanson, 1B/OF Eric Hinske, 3B Chipper Jones, RHP Jair Jurrjens, RHP Peter Moylan, 1B Lyle Overbay, C David Ross, RHP Ben Sheets
The Braves won more games in 2012 than they had in any season since 2004 and secured a wild-card spot for the second time in three years. It wasn't enough, as they lost the one-game playoff to the Cardinals, so they've loaded for bigger game via a couple of the winter's most high-profile moves. In late November, they signed B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million contract, and last week they traded for his brother Justin as part of a seven-player deal with the Diamondbacks.
The balance of their winter moves isn't as impressive, but still — two Uptons! Both brothers have occasionally proven frustrating to their teams and their fans over the years, and they're coming off subpar seasons by their own standards. Even so, time is still on their side, and the hope is that their individual changes of scenery and their pairing in the same lineup will help them unlock the vast potential that led the Devil Rays to select the former (now 28) with the second pick of the 2002 draft and the Diamondbacks to tab the latter (now 25) with the first pick of the 2005 draft.
B.J. set a career high with 28 homers in 2012, adding 31 steals as well, but he hit just .246/.298/.454, with a plunging walk rate leading to an OBP 44 points below his previous career standard. Though it's fair to surmise that leaving pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field should help his offense, his career home/road splits are virtually identical (.252/.336/.422 at the Trop, .258/.335/.422 elsewhere). He'll have his hands full replacing the departed Bourn, who hit .274/.348/.391 with 42 steals for the Braves last year, adding outstanding defense as well, but it's worth noting that Baseball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player values both players at an identical 8.8 wins over the past three seasons. Upton is nearly two years younger than Bourn and was thought to be the less expensive of the two going into the offseason; Bourn was believed to be seeking as much as $100 million, though he remains unsigned at this writing.
Justin battled an early season thumb sprain and public criticism from Diamondbacks managing partner Ken Kendrick and wound up hitting .280/.355/.430 with 17 homers and 18 stolen bases, well off his .289/.369/.529 performance with 31 homers and 21 steals in 2011. While there are concerns about his significant home/road splits (.307/.389/.548 at Chase Field for his career, .250/.325/.406 elsewhere), he's young and relatively inexpensive -- he's owed $38 million over the next three seasons -- given his ceiling. He has been worth 9.0 WARP over his past three years, so even if he maintains that average, he'll be a decent deal for Atlanta. With Jason Heyward entrenched in rightfield, Upton will shift to left, where he'll replace the departed Prado, who had a nice bounceback season (.301/.359/.438) after an injury-plagued 2011. More on Prado and the void he leaves below.
Taking something of a step back will be the catching corps. Ross, an outstanding backup, signed a two-year deal with the Red Sox, a loss that will be magnified as starter Brian McCann works his way back from October labrum surgery that contributed to his 2012 struggles (.230/.300/.399, all career worsts) and could cost him the first couple weeks of the regular season. Laird, 33, had an uncharacteristically good season with the bat (.282/.337/.374 in 191 PA for the Tigers) but threw out just 19 percent of would-be base thieves, after throwing out just 20 percent the year before. In time, the hope is that McCann recovers the form that helped him hit .286/.358/.486 from 2005-2011; given that the Braves picked up his $12 million option, they don't appear to be overly alarmed.
The other bench pieces Atlanta acquired are even less enticing than Laird. Pena, 27, is a product of the Yankees system who has hit just .233/.266/.288 in 338 PA for the big club, with most of that action coming in 2009-2010; he played only three major league games last year and hit just .258/.325/.328 for the team's Triple-A affiliate. Schafer is a former Braves draftee who spent the past season and a half in Houston. Though he's just 26 years old, his lifetime major league line of .221/.305/.301 in 893 PA mark him as a disappointment, to say nothing of his 50-game HGH suspension in 2008 and his felony marijuana bust in 2011. Outfielder Reed Johnson, who was acquired from the Cubs last July and who hit .290/.337/.398 in 288 PA split between the two teams, was retained via a one-year,$1.75 million deal that includes an option for 2014; he's a proven lefty-masher (.311/.367/.461 career) whose ability to hit righties is still superior to that of Schafer.
The trades of Hanson to the Angels (for Walden) and Delgado to the Diamondbacks and the nontendering of Jurrjens do clear out the crowded rotation a bit, though it's fair to wonder if they gave up on any of those players too soon — particularly Hanson, a former top prospect. The likely starting five is Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Paul Maholm and Julio Teheran, with Brandon Beachy on track to return from Tommy John surgery in late June. As noted in the wake of the Hanson deal, it's a group with plenty of upside but relatively little experience. Hudson and Maholm are the only starters with more than one full season in a rotation, with Minor's 2012 the only other 30-start season from the rest of the group. Teheran, 22 is a top prospect — fifth on Baseball America's list in both 2011 and 2012 — whose ERA doubled from one season to the next at Triple-A Gwinnett (5.08 in 2012) as his homer rate spiked and his strikeout rate fell. Inconsistencies with both his breaking ball and his fastball were to blame, but he did dominate the Dominican Winter League and is still considered to have top-of-the-rotation potential.
Walden, 25, took over closer duties for the Angels in 2011 and saved 32 games, but he lost the job early in 2012 and missed six weeks with a biceps strain in the middle of the season. Even so, he did strike out 11.1 per nine with a respectable 3.46 ERA in 39 innings. He'll serve as the top righty setup man in front of Craig Kimbrel, joining lefties Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty for a dominant late-game unit.
Unfinished business: Chipper's successor. The Braves' elimination marked the end of Chipper Jones' illustrious 19-year career, one that seems quite likely to be commemorated with a bronze plaque in Cooperstown in due time. Prado, who often filled in for Jones during the star's frequent trips to the DL, was the prime candidate to take over at third base, but he was sent to the Diamondbacks along with Delgado and a trio of minor leaguers (shortstop Nick Ahmed, first baseman Brandon Drury and righty pitcher Zeke Spruill) who are years away from the majors.
The trade brought back one candidate to fill the third base vacancy in Johnson, a 28-year-old who hit .281/.326/.451 with 15 homers split between the Astros and Diamondbacks. Alas, Johnson has notoriously lousy command of the strike zone (25 percent strikeout rate and 5.9 percent walk rate last year), and isn't so hot with the glove either. Juan Francisco, 25, is the top in-house alternative, but he's hit just .234/.278/.432 with nine home runs and even worse strikeout and walk rates (34.2 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively) than Johnson. Perhaps there's a platoon to be found here given that Johnson's a righty and Francisco's a lefty, but this appears to be a significant step backwards from even latter-day Chipper.
While there isn't much on the free agent market, one option that might be worth exploring would be to bring in Scott Rolen. The 37-year-old hit just .245/.318/.398 with eight homers in 330 PA for the Reds, and has played in just 157 games over the past two years due to injuries. He's in no shape to play every day, but spotted judiciously, he could provide better defense and perhaps better offense than either of the aforementioned candidates. The Braves would have to ward off the Dodgers and Reds, both of whom have expressed interest in him recently.Preliminary grade: B. The addition of the Upton brothers is certainly noteworthy, though both players have work to do to live up to their early promise, so their deals carry some risk. The rest of their solutions are less impressive, but the pitching depth still is, and Atlanta should compete for another postseason berth.