It's remarkable that the 2013 Atlanta Braves won 96 games and dominated the NL East from wire-to-wire given how much went wrong for them. B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla were quite literally two of the worst everyday players in the majors. Three separate injuries limited Jason Heyward to 440 plate appearances in which he slashed just .254/.349/.427. Justin Upton had two awful months, but bounced back for a strong second half of the season.
The Braves prospered thanks to the steadying influence of breakout star Freddie Freeman in the lineup and one of the very best pitching staffs in the league. The five pitchers in their Opening Day starting rotation made a combined 140 starts with Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran leading the way. Craig Kimbrel dominated once again at the backend of the bullpen, and Luis Avilan and David Carpenter gave the, the left/right setup combo they previously had with Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty.
This year's Braves are largely the same group from last season. Power hitting catcher Evan Gattis will be the everyday starter with Brian McCann on the Yankees, and Kris Medlen could miss the entire year after getting hurt in the spring, but the rest of the roster looks almost identical to last year's NL East champions. Freeman is on the brink of stardom, Justin Upton is a top-10 outfielder and Heyward could be among the biggest bargains in fantasy leagues this year. Minor and Teheran both have the juice to be top-20 pitchers (though Minor could start the year on the DL), and freshly signed Ervin Santana should be owned in most mixed leagues. As we'll get to later, Alex Wood is among the best starting pitcher sleepers in the league.
MORE TEAM PREVIEWS:
1. Jason Heyward, LF
2. Justin Upton, RF
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
1. Mike Minor
2. Julio Teheran
3. Ervin Santana
4. Alex Wood
5. Brandon Beachy
Bullpen: Craig Kimbrel (closer), Luis Avilan, Jordan Walden, David Carpenter, Corey Gearrin, Jonny Venters, Anthony Varvaro, Wirfin Obispo
Can B.J. Upton wake up from his 2013 nightmare? There's really no way to sugarcoat Upton's first year in Atlanta. He was one of the worst everyday players last year, putting up a -0.6 fWAR while hitting .184/.268/.289 with a 33.9 percent strikeout rate in 446 plate appearances. Upton has never hit for much average, but he seemed to be on the rise; he was coming off a season in which he had 28 homers and 31 steals, and in 2011, he left the yard 23 times while swiping 36 bags. Last year, he had just nine homers and 12 steals -- an unmitigated disaster.
While it's tempting to buy into the idea of a bounce-back campaign, especially since he'll come at a very cheap price, there just isn't a whole lot of reason for optimism with the older Upton. Even in his best years, he was a drain on batting average and OBP. His swinging-strike rate has been climbing steadily, with one small decline, every year since 2008. His batted-ball rates last year were generally in line with his career numbers, but he traded a large portion of homers for popups. Even if he reclaims some of his power, he's going to strike out a ton, and he doesn't have a lot of run or RBI upside hitting at the bottom of the order. What's more, last year was the first in which he was successful in fewer than 73 percent of his stolen-base attempts. He'll turn 30 in August, and appears to be declining in all facets of the game. This isn't a lottery ticket I want to purchase.
Will Justin Upton finally put together strong back-to-back seasons? Ever since the younger Upton's breakout in 2009, he has been an every-other-year player. He suffered through a terrible May and June last season, but rebounded to hit .263/.354/.464 with 27 homers, the second most of his career. It would be nice to see a measure of consistency from him, rather than his familiar even-year plunge. Upton's peripheral stats from last season paint a rosy picture for 2014.
Let's get the one bad number out of the way first. Upton had a 25-percent strikeout rate last year, the highest of his career. His swinging-strike rate spiked to 12.3 percent even though he swung at the lowest percentage of pitches he saw out of the strike zone since 2010. Simply put, Upton swung and missed more than anyone would like to at pitches in the zone.
The good news is that when Upton did make contact, he did so more effectively than at any point during his career. He posted career highs in line-drive rate (21.5 percent) and HR/FB ratio (17.9 percent). His average true home run distance was a booming 416.3 feet, second only to Mike Trout, according to ESPN's home run tracker. His 6.6-percent popup rate was the lowest of his career. He had a strong .321 BABIP, but his xBABIP was up at .336, suggesting he got more than a little unlucky with balls in play. He also brought a more discerning eye to the plate, setting new career bests in walks and walk rate.
Upton is entering his age-26 season, his theoretical prime. Last year's positive steps may have been a sign that he is primed to achieve his potential as a perennial All-Star. J-Up's time has arrived.
Can Julio Teheran jump a level this year? There has been plenty of injury-related tumult in Braves camp this spring. Kris Medlen is expected to undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the season. Mike Minor was behind in his throwing program because of urinary tract surgery, and could start the year on the DL with shoulder soreness. Brandon Beachy could miss time due to general soreness in his right arm, and he topped out at 87 in his last spring start. The team signed Ervin Santana to stanch the bleeding, but all the injuries mean that there is more responsibility than ever on Teheran.
The 23-year-old was overshadowed in the Rookie of the Year race by Jose Fernandez, Yasiel Puig and Shelby Miller, but he was a huge part of the Braves' NL East championship last year. He went 14-8 with a 3.20 ERA, 3.69 FIP and 170 strikeouts in 185.2 innings. He issued just 45 non-intentional walks, and his 3.78 K/BB ratio was 16th in the league. His 10.5-percent swinging-strike rate was tied for 16th with Jeff Samardzija, Justin Verlander and Ricky Nolasco, trailing Stephen Strasburg and A.J. Burnett by one-tenth of a point. No matter how you look at it, Teheran's strikeout stuff is legitimate.
Teheran does have one red flag, however -- he couldn't get the ball past lefties last year. While he held righties to a .201/.264/.317 slash with eight homers, lefties touched him up to the tune of .284/.340/.483 with 14 bombs. A nasty platoon split like that could spell trouble for him against certain teams. One such team in his own division, the Philadelphia Phillies, features a combination of five left-handed and switch hitters in its everyday lineup.
That split is no reason to avoid Teheran, especially at his very fair average draft position of 29th among starting pitchers. His strikeout totals are a huge asset, and there remains room for growth, here. He makes a great No. 2 or 3 starter when attempting to build a cheap staff.
Alex Wood, SP -- Wood was a pretty safe bet for the rotation before all the injuries to Braves pitchers, and now he'll certainly open the year as one of their five starters. He made 31 appearances last year, including 11 starts, and put up a 3.13 ERA, 2.65 FIP and 77 strikeouts in 77.2 innings. His repertoire includes just three pitches, headlined by a deadly changeup. He had a strikeout profile all through the minors, and could be the team's version of Teheran this season.
Chris Johnson, 3B -- Johnson was among the league leaders with a .321 batting average last year, but there's a lot of evidence for regression. He had a sky-high .394 BABIP, outpacing his xBABIP by 55 points. He offers little in the power department and nothing in the speed department to make up for a decline in batting average. He has a career walk rate of 4.9 percent and strikeout rate of 23.7 percent. Stay away.
Evan Gattis, C -- Gattis hit just 21 homers in 382 plate appearances last year. He had a 17.1-percent HR/FB ratio and an average true home run distance of 408.3 feet. The power is absolutely for real. He's going to hurt your averages, but he has 30-homer ceiling and could drive in a ton of runs hitting cleanup all year.
NL-only guys to know
Andrelton Simmons, SS -- One of the best glove men in the league could be mixed-league relevant, but he will be universally owned in NL-only leagues. He hit just .248/.296/.396 last year, but he did belt 17 home runs.
Dan Uggla, 2B -- When Uggla was regularly hitting 30 homers, it was a lot easier to deal with his terrible rates. Can you stomach the unsightly batting average for somewhere between 20-25 homers? That's a question all NL-only leaguers must ask themselves.