This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 26: the Atlanta Braves.
2014 Record and Finish: 79–83 (.488), second place in NL East (16th overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 71–91 (.438), fourth place in NL East (26th overall)
The Case For
Andrelton Simmons is the best defensive shortstop in baseball, and he’s a good fastball hitter who’s made strides against breaking balls, which offers hope that he can reverse his decline from 2013 to '14 (.672 OPS and 17 home runs in the former, .617 and seven in the latter). Freddie Freeman has averaged 21 home runs and an .834 OPS in his four full seasons and newly acquired rightfielder Nick Markakis, due to return in April from neck surgery, is a career .290 hitter who can work a walk. Righthander Julio Teheran is only 24, was an All-Star last year and has great stuff; over the last two years, he’s 11th among NL starters in percentage of swings and misses (24.1). Craig Kimbrel might be the best closer in the game. If those five have All-Star seasons and everything else breaks right, the Braves will be better than expected.
The Case Against
Atlanta traded away 62 home runs (Evan Gattis, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton) and lost 400 1/3 innings (Aaron Harang, Ervin Santana) from its rotation. Probably the best team in the NL in 2013, the Braves now have an outside chance to lose 100 games. Outside of Freeman and Markakis there are no real offensive threats, and the largely unimpressive pitching staff can only do so much.
X-Factor: Melvin Upton Jr.
Upton showed flashes of All-Star caliber tools after the Rays took him with the second pick of the 2002 draft, had a great '08 postseason and averaged a respectable 2.7 WAR in his six full seasons with Tampa Bay, but he’s been the worst regular in baseball since. In 2014, he flopped to a .208/.287/.333 line in 582 plate appearances, with his 75 OPS+ ranking as the sixth-lowest mark among all qualified hitters last season (Simmons was fifth at 74). In his two seasons with the Braves, Upton's line is a miserable .198/.279/.314 with 324 strikeouts.
Mechanical problems may be at the root of Upton's slump. He’s always tended toward flexing the bat twice during his swing, making it tough for him to catch up to anything, and that's festered since he arrived in Atlanta. Upton is likely out until May with inflammation in his left foot, but if he's able to finally regain his Tampa Bay form upon returning, he could help the Braves surprise some people.
Number To Know: 0
No one in Atlanta's projected starting lineup hit 20 home runs last season. Freeman led the way with 18, but it’s a steep drop-off after that, with only Upton (12) and Chris Johnson (10) also cracking the double-digit mark in 2014. The Braves will have to rely on small-ball this year and hope their pitchers can keep the game close.
Most Overrated: Chris Johnson
“He had such a good year in 2013, but he had a down year last year. He struggled to hit anything down and away. They kind of got a book on him. A lot of rolling over, a lot of weak pullside grounders. The year before, things went his way, but his discipline last year wasn’t as good. He doesn’t walk much. It’s not a great swing. It could be a really tough year for him.”
Most Underrated: Julio Teheran
“He really had a great year last year. He was not overthrowing and he threw his offspeed pitches for strikes. That really stood out. When he was a young kid, he was more of a thrower with a great arm. He had the stuff, but now he’s learned how to use it. He’s got swing-and-miss stuff. Teheran’s probably a No. 2 or No. 3 starter on a first-division club.”