2013 Atlanta Braves Preview
The Braves have restocked an already potent roster and are a legitimate threat to take the National League Pennant this season.
2012 did not end well for the Atlanta Braves. After spending much of the season riding high with hopes of making the World Series for the first time this century, the ball club fizzled out and exited fall play when they were eliminated in the Wild Card game by the St. Louis Cardinals. This offseason, the Braves upgraded their outfield by acquiring free agent B.J. Upton to play center field and allowing Michael Bourn to walk away from the club. They then went out and got Justin Upton to play left field and allowed Matt Diaz to leave in free agency. The two Uptons will be a defensive upgrade in the outfield and should bring a bit more stability to the club’s line-up at the plate as well. The club also upgraded their back-up catcher by bringing in Gerald Laird and landed a new third baseman in Chris Johnson in the same deal that brought Justin Upton to the club. The added pieces to their offense combined with a very strong pitching rotation have Atlanta looking poised to make some serious noise this fall.
Not many rotations in the majors look as promising as Atlanta’s does this season. Kris Medlen (10-1, 1.57 ERA) will anchor the bunch and if the youngster can continue what he started last season, opposing line-ups might as well forget scoring off the right hander when he’s on the mound. After joining the rotation in late July, Medlen posted a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts. He doesn’t walk batters, allowing 1 ½ walks per nine innings pitched, and his changeup is one of the best in the game. He is everything the Braves need to keep pace with the fire-throwing Washington Nationals provided that he can keep his momentum going for a full season.
Pitching behind Medlen will be veteran right-hander Tim Hudson (16-7, 3.62) who is more-or-less a lock for at least 15 wins. Hudson has logged at least 28 starts in each of the past three seasons after missing much of 2009 and he is consistent, keeping his ERA in the mid-3.00’s and holding his opponents around the .240 mark but at age 37, injuries are a concern. Hudson has had Tommy John surgery as well as surgery on his back, so at his age the club may not be able to count on 200-plus innings from him anymore, but if he stays healthy this season there is little doubt that he will be a major contributor to the success of the ball club.
Hudson will be followed by a pair of lefties in Mike Minor (11-10, 4.12) and Paul Maholm (13-11, 3.67). Minor got off to a rough start last season, but rebounded in the second half largely due to his ability to find his control and limit the number of walks he issued. Minor could have the chance to move back into the second spot in the rotation if he pitches like he did from August on, and if Hudson has a setback due to injuries, Minor should be able to step up and keep things in check. Maholm adjusted to his new surroundings nicely last season after coming over to the club from the Chicago Cubs. Last season saw Maholm make 11 starts for the Braves and he was a strike-out machine, but that is not his style and it is likely that he will see a bit of a regression this season, but he is still a strong number four guy for the club who should give them anywhere from 11 to 14 wins.
The final spot in the rotation looks to be going to Julio Teheran, who finished the season with a 7-9 record and a 5.08 record at Triple-A. So far, the success that Teheran has seen in the minors as one of Atlanta’s top prospects has not translated well into the major leagues. In his 7 big league appearances, Teheran has surrendered 15 earned runs in 26 innings, but he is still the organizations’ top prospect and the Braves has certainly shown time and time again that they know how to groom a starting pitcher. A full season as a true major leaguer will certainly have its ups and downs for the youngster, but don’t be surprised if he turns in 9 or 10 wins for the club and has a fine rookie campaign. If he does not, the club will have to wait things out until Brandon Beachy is ready to return following his Tommy John surgery. Exactly when he will be ready to come back is a bit up in the air at this point, and given that he overthrew before he hurt his elbow last season, don’t expect the Braves to rush him back into things until he is good and ready to return.
The Braves should have another dominant season from their bullpen this year as they return the second best relief corps in the league. The Braves dominated their opponents late in the game, blowing just 13 save opportunities all year. They return closer Craig Kimbel who saved 42 games in his sophomore season. He will be supported by lefties Eric O’Flaherty and Johnny Venters, two of the better southpaw relievers in the game right now. Venters saw a bit of a drop in his velocity last season, but that can be attributed to some issues with this throwing elbow. Provided that he can stay healthy this season, he should get some of that velocity back and return to the dominant set-up man he was in 2011. If Jordan Walden can regain his control as well, the Braves will have a very solid middle-to-late relief corps in Walden, Christhian Martinez, Luis Avilan and Cory Gearrin to keep the club out of trouble once their starting five call it a day.
Atlanta scored almost 60 more runs in 2012 than they did in 2011, and while some pieces of their offense from last season have left, they have been replaced by very competent hitters. Of the two Uptons the club received this offseason, they will need Justin to step up the most and try to return to his 2011 form. Last season, Upton saw his OPS fall from .898 in 2011 to .285, but the club feels a lot of his regression was caused by a thumb injury that nagged him early on in the 2012 campaign. That is also their explanation for his 17 homers last season, and now that the injury is healed there is no reason to believe that he will not return to the 25 to 30 homer hitter that he is capable of being. From B.J. Upton, the Braves are hoping to get 25 to 30 homers as well and are hoping to get the disciplined hitter that he was prior to last season. B.J. traditionally took a very patient approach at the plate, but last season he struggled with his discipline and thus saw his walks decrease as well as his batting average. If Upton can relax and regain his swing, the Braves will get a .250 hitter out of him and their 25 to 30 homers.
The club hopes that right fielder Jason Heyward and first baseman Freddie Freeman will also settle down at the plate and give them the seasons that the club has been looking for over the past two seasons. If the two of them can relax and post the numbers that they are capable of, and second baseman Dan Uggla can find the power that he seemed to lose last season, the Braves will have a very strong line-up form the top down. The weak spots in the line-up will be catcher Brian McCann, who struggled with shoulder issues last season and had surgery to repair it this offseason. The team brought in Gerald Laird as a back-up in case McCann struggles in his return this season, but neither man is going to be a power hitter for the club. The other weak spot will come from the third base platoon of Andrelton Simmons, Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco.
Simmons had a respectable rookie campaign last year, but he does not walk much which could hurt the club. He can hit for power, but he will likely strike-out a lot. With Johnson and Francisco, the club also has two low-walk, high-strikeout prone guys who can also hit for power. Whether or not any of the three of them will emerge as the club’s every day man at the hot corner remains to be seen, but they could produce 30 to 40 home runs between the three of them, despite the fact that they will likely lead the team in strikeouts.
Atlanta won 94 games last season but their early playoff exit was an embarrassment to everyone associated with the ball club. Their offense has improved this offseason and their bullpen and starting rotation look to be among the best in all of baseball heading into the 2013 campaign, so there is little reason to think that the team will regress at all. If the club fires on all cylinders all season and if they can stay healthy, 96 or 97 wins is not out of the question at all. Unfortunately for the Braves, the Nationals look even stronger and will likely edge out the club for the NL East crown by a game, but Atlanta will not exit the playoffs early this season, and I fully expect them to make a run for the pennant if they are able to stay healthy and if they get the production that they need from their offense.