Winter Report Card: Atlanta Braves
With less than two weeks remaining until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, 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 2013. To see the report cards already published, click here.
2013 results: 96-66 (.593), 1st place in NL East, lost in NLDS (Hot Stove Preview)
Tim Hudson and Brian McCann were the two longest-tenured Braves, yet both left to free agency riches, Hudson (two years, $23 million) to join the Giants' rotation and McCann (five years, $85 million) to become the Yankees' starting catcher. Paul Maholm, Luis Ayala and a pre-Tommy John surgery Eric O’Flaherty have also been big contributors on the mound over the last couple years, but they likewise exited via free agency. Atlanta only made two notable additions, longtime White Sox starter Gavin Floyd (who probably won’t pitch until about May because of his own Tommy John surgery) and Ryan Doumit for some catching depth.
The front office’s decision to allow such attrition to the big league roster was clearly motivated by its confidence that last year’s 96-win NL East champions have the internal depth to replace that lost production and also the desire to redistribute that financial savings to lock up its homegrown core players to long-term deals. Closer Craig Kimbrel and starters Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy are all arbitration-eligible, meaning they are starting to reap large salaries and are in line for even larger ones soon once they reach those free agency years. Now is the best time to extend them -- something the Braves began to do on Tuesday, by locking up first baseman Freddie Freeman with an eight-year, $135 million contract and buying out rightfielder Jason Heyward's final two years of arbitration with a two-year, $13.3 million deal.
Atlanta’s pitching staff led the majors with a 3.18 ERA last season, and the two departing starters, Hudson and Maholm, were actually the least productive from that group with a 3.97 and 4.41 ERA, respectively. The club’s hope is that a fully-healthy Beachy, 2013 rookies Alex Wood and David Hale and Floyd (when he’s ready) can at least match what Hudson and Maholm did, which seems like a reasonable bet. Meanwhile, Kris Medlen, Julio Teheran and Minor all return. (They also re-signed Freddy Garcia to a minor league deal.)
In the bullpen, Ayala and O’Flaherty combined for only 49 innings so it’s not wishful thinking to believe the returning relievers can more or less replicate last year’s dominance. Besides, the Braves have a penchant for developing arms in their farm system and finding value in waiver wire reclamation projects.
The Braves’ offense scored the NL’s fourth-most runs a year ago and, while losing a player of McCann’s caliber is never ideal, there’s a chance the lineup could produce even more in 2014. Freeman broke out as a star last season by batting .319 with 23 home runs and 109 RBIs, while Heyward and Justin Upton both had good years that fell short of their high potential.
The critical players, however, are centerfielder B.J. Upton and second baseman Dan Uggla, both of whom posted sub-.185 batting averages last year, and catcher Evan Gattis, who had stretches of being a dominant power hitter. Upton is only 29 and seems capable of straightening things out in his second year of a five-year, $75.25 million contract. Uggla’s numbers, however, have declined three consecutive seasons; he’s 34, but there’s hope that he’s now fully adjusted after his midseason LASIK surgery. Gattis, meanwhile, hit six home runs in each of April, May and September but struggled in between with only three homers total in the other three months of the season. Gattis is a fine catcher -- and will have the defensive-minded veteran Gerald Laird backing him up -- and his short swing should help him find more consistency.
Unfinished business: Middle infield depth
If Uggla can’t turn things around, Atlanta doesn’t have a great backup. Infielders Tyler Pastornicky and Ramiro Peña are fine defenders but subpar hitters. Prospect Tommy La Stella, who hit .343 in 81 Double A games, may be the long-term answer, but that half-season is all the time he’s logged above A ball. At shortstop, Andrelton Simmons is the game’s premier defender, but there’s no good recourse should he suffer an injury.
Preliminary Grade: B+
It’s indisputable that the Braves allowed far more talent to leave than they added, but for a franchise that’s never been comfortable with an excessively high payroll, it was perhaps inevitable. Atlanta’s player development system has offset such losses, however, with an enviable churn of productive young players (Freeman, Heyward, Minor, et al.). The franchise extended the first of that group in Freeman this week and should have the resources to do the same with others, given they did not re-sign McCann or Hudson and have a new ballpark opening in a few seasons.
The front office showed commendable restraint in not deviating from its proven long-term strategy that has served it well over the last two decades. After all, the club made so many moves last winter -- the additions of both Uptons, most notably -- that there wasn’t much work left to do. This is still a very good team destined for 90-plus wins and a neck-and-neck battled with the Nationals for the NL East crown, but they don't deserve a grade in the A range when they didn’t appreciably improve for the coming season.