2014 Season Preview: Atlanta Braves
2013 Record and Finish: 96-66, first place in NL East (third overall); lost in NLDS to Los Angeles
2014 Projected Record: 84-78, second place in NL East
The Case For
Atlanta returns most of the same roster for 2014 that easily cruised to an NL East title in 2013. On offense, the Braves are led by Freddie Freeman, who broke out with a .319/.396/.501 line in 629 plate appearances; his 144 OPS+ was sixth among all qualified National League hitters, and third best among first basemen, trailing only Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt (160) and Cincinnati's Joey Votto (154). And at just 24 years old, Freeman could be even better in 2014. Atlanta's lineup features plenty of other young players with considerable upside, including Justin Upton (26), Jason Heyward (24) and Andrelton Simmons (24). Simmons is far and away the best defensive shortstop in the game, and perhaps the best defender at any position in baseball. Ervin Santana and Julio Teheran give the Braves a potent 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Then there's the bullpen, anchored by MLB's top closer, Craig Kimbrel, who posted an eye-popping 98 strikeouts in 67 innings to go with 50 saves—and that was a down year for him, as far as strikeouts go.
The Case Against
Thanks to injuries and free-agent departures, the Braves will feature an almost entirely new and likely downgraded rotation for 2014. Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy are both gone for the season and beyond after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and shoulder soreness has Mike Minor on the shelf as well. Things have gotten so bad in Atlanta that the team brought in veteran punching bag Aaron Harang (ERA+ of 68 in 143 1/3 innings last season for two teams) to fill the fifth starter role. 23-year-old Alex Wood will provide some rotation relief, but he'll likely be capped at 170 or so innings this year. That means a lot of innings to be soaked up by the Harangs of the world, especially if Minor's injury turns out to be more severe than originally thought. On offense, B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla are coming off horrific 2013 performances, Chris Johnson can be expected to regress (.394 batting average on balls in play last year), and the departure of Brian McCann forces the Braves to turn to the limited Evan Gattis at catcher.
X-Factor: Ervin Santana
Despite having a career season for the Royals last year (3.24 ERA, 127 ERA+ in 211 IP), the 31-year-old Santana found his employment options few and far between thanks to a qualifying offer that forced any signing team to give up a draft pick. As a result, Santana went unsigned until early March, when the losses of Medlen, Minor and Beachy forced the Braves to reinforce the rotation from outside by giving him a one-year, $14 million deal. Teheran is the Braves' ace, but Santana will be asked to assume a bigger role thanks to those aforementioned injuries. His career has been marked by frustration and inconsistency—the last time he posted a season as good as last year's, in 2008 with the Angels (127 ERA+, 219 IP), he followed it up with a dreadful 87+ ERA in 139 2/3 innings. Santana cut down on his homers allowed and walks last year, and the move from the AL to the NL should bode well for even better results. The Braves are going to need ace-level work from Santana every time out to have any hope of keeping the NL East crown.
Number To Know: .181/290/.304
That was the collective batting line for Uggla and B.J. Upton in 839 at-bats. That the Braves managed to make the playoffs despite carrying Uggla and Upton in the lineup roughly all season is a testament to how good the rest of the team was—and how weak the rest of the division was—but Atlanta can't afford another performance like that out of the pair. There are decent options on the farm to replace Uggla and Upton if they start slow again: At second base, the Braves can call up Tommy La Stella, and in the outfield, they can bring up Joey Terdoslavich. But given that Uggla and Upton are both signed long-term (Uggla through 2015, Upton through 2017 for another $60 million), Atlanta would probably prefer the two rediscover their stroke.
Most overrated: Justin Upton
"He had a fast start last year, a lot of home runs in April, and then really didn’t do much the rest of the year. He’s not a superstar. He just has a lot of holes still. He tries to hit home runs too much, doesn’t make enough consistent contact. There’s a lot of talent there. It’s just translating it onto the field is tough at times"
Most underrated: Freddie Freeman
"As good a player as he is, he’s still underrated. He’s easily the best player on the team. Uses the whole field, has power, understands what he's trying to do at the plate. The reason they gave him such a long contract is they know his makeup is so good, he’s going to work really hard to be even better than he is now. You see him in batting practice, he works at his game, going the other way, pulls pitches he should be pulling. An MVP candidate, no question."
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