2014 Finish: 79-83 (Tied for Second in NL East)
Projected Batting Order My Batting Order
RF Nick Markakis CF Eric Young Jr./Cameron Maybin
SS Andrelton Simmons SS Andrelton Simmons
1B Freddie Freeman RF Nick Markakis
LF Johnny Gomes 1B Freddie Freeman
3B Chris Johnson /Juan Uribe LF Johnny Gomes
C Christian Betancourt 3B Chris Johnson/Juan Uribe
2B Jace Peterson C Christian Betancourt
CF Eric Young Jr./Cameron Maybin 2B Jace Peterson
Projected Starting Rotation/Closer
RHP Julio Tehran
RHP Shelby Miller
LHP Alex Wood
LHP Mike Foltynewicz
LHP Eric Stultz/Matt Wisler
CLOSER Jason Grilli
The Braves went into the offseason in a difficult position. While they have enjoyed enormous success in the regular season, their struggles in the post season have been well documented. After former GM Frank Wren’s approach failed, the Braves turned to John Hart to right the ship and he started to dismantle the roster, frustrating many Braves fans. To save money and re-build a farm system weakened by the top prospects becoming major leaguers, the Braves traded away Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, Evan Gattis, Jordan Walden and Craig Kimbrel. They also parted ways with Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. The only front-line major leaguer they got in return was Shelby Miller. To hold the fort, the Braves bargain shopped for a number of free agents including Jason Grilli, Alberto Callaspo, Jim Johnson and A.J. Pierzynski. The only guy they spent legitimate money on was new right fielder Nick Markakis. So while the future is bright with young talent signed to long-term deals and more talent in the pipe, the present may be rough for fans of the Braves who have already dealt with a lot of recent frustration.
The Braves offense was very hit and miss last year. They ranked near the bottom of the league in Hits and AVG (241). But the Braves thought having prodigious power would make up for that. The problem was, they didn’t have prodigious power. They ranked in the bottom half of the league in HR with only 123 and were second to last in Runs scored. So this offseason, the plan was to shed some offensive contracts and take a step back and see if they had some young players who could contribute at the plate. But beyond Nick Markakis and Freddie Freeman there are a lot of questions with this offense.
First baseman Freddie Freeman is the focal point for this Braves offense. He hits for contact and power and has been locked up to an 8-year deal so he’ll be the cornerstone of the offense for the future. Last year, he played in all 162 games, but saw his AVG, HR and RBI totals drop from 2013. He still hit 288 with 18 HR and 78 RBI. But the 78 RBI is indicative of Atlanta’s problems as no one was on base for him to drive in. The HR total was disappointing, but he is not looked at as a 30 HR guy, more of a 20-25 HR guy. And 288 with a 386 OBP is good for anyone. He should be fine this year and will likely be the best offensive piece the Braves have again. The only concern is that he will continually be pitched around. I have him down for 290 with 22 HR and 90 RBI. He’s well on his way to that and more at this point in the year.
Newcomer Nick Markakis is the other threat at the plate. The former Oriole is from the Atlanta area originally and the Braves jumped at the chance to add him to their club. His 4 year $44 million contract is a good deal all the way around and shows what Atlanta thinks of him, as they are generally very hesitant to spend on free agents. Over his first 9 years, he hit 291 with a career 359 OBP. He averages 15-20 HRs, 55-70 RBI and 80 R. Moving from Camden Yards to Turner Field will hurt his stats some, but I still think he’ll be a good player in Atlanta. I don’t like him leading off because I think the Braves need his bat in the middle of the order. While he’s a good leadoff option, the bigger impetus for Atlanta has to be on driving in runs. Fredi Gonzalez agreed and has him hitting cleanup to provide some protection to Freeman. I had him down for 280 with 12 HR, 70 RBI and 80 R. That seems attainable at this point.
Shortstop Andrelton Simmons is one of the other established major leaguers still on the roster, though he is more known for his defense than his offense. At the plate, he still leaves a plenty to be desired. Last year, his second full year in the majors, he hit 244 with 7 HR and 46 RBI. He also went 4 for 9 on stolen base attempts and only scored 44 R. This was an across the board decline from 2013, when he hit 248 with 17 HR. I think trying to be a home run threat has hurt his development. The good news is that he’s young and has excellent contact skills as the hardest hitter in the national league to strikeout. Now, he just has to use that contact to hit the ball into the gaps. Perhaps he settles down with his HR swing, gets more doubles and hits closer to 260 with 10 HR. My projection was 245 with 9 HR and 50 RBI. He has to settle into a lineup spot, which he’s yet to do. His current pace seems to be close to my projections, though his AVG is higher and hitting primarily in the 6th spot could give him a few more RBI.
The rest of the Braves offense is young or unproven. The original plan at third was to go with Chris Johnson with an occasional sprinkling of Alberto Callaspo who would also play some second. But Johnson has struggled, as many predicted. He hit 263 last year with 10 HR and 58 RBI. The year before he hit 321 so he signed a 3-year deal worth over $20 million, another shortsighted mistake from Frank Wren. This year he’s struggled enough to lose his everyday starting gig and the Braves are actively trying to trade him. Callaspo wasn’t any better, playing even worse and eventually being traded to LA.
Juan Uribe was the return for the Callaspo trade. Uribe played well last year hitting 311 with 9 HR in 103 games. But with the rise of Alex Guererro, he became expendable in the city of angels. So Atlanta acquired him and he’s played well for the Braves early on. I don’t know what he does from here on out, but can say that Atlanta and LA have similar ballparks. 260 with double digit HRs is a real possibility.
Cameron Maybin was acquired in one of the Braves many trades this offseason. Once a highly touted prospect, Maybin has had trouble staying healthy and playing effectively when he was healthy. He only played in 95 games for San Diego last year hitting 235 with 1 HR and 4 SB. Moving to out of San Diego will help any hitter, but Atlanta is also a pitcher’s park, though not an extreme one. I had low expectations of 240 with perhaps 5 HR and 5 SB. But to this point he is playing exceedingly well. He was originally in a timeshare with Eric Young Jr. who played some center and left for Atlanta to start the year. But Maybin was far superior defensively in center and has hit very well this year. He’s already reached my HR prediction and has already doubled my SB total for him, while hitting close to 300. This made the struggling Young expendable as he was cut and Maybin took over the everyday duties in center field. Maybin has been an unexpected success.
Another unexpected success has been second baseman Jace Peterson. Peterson was another Padre who joined Atlanta this year through their many trades. The Padres got Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Craig Kimbrel. The Braves got a ton of prospects and a few major league ready pieces. Peterson was on the bubble between the two, but quickly won the second base job and hasn’t looked back. Atlanta thought he’d be good, just not this soon. He only appeared in 27 games last year. But he was excellent in the minors and has found his stroke in Atlanta. I wasn’t even sure he’d start the whole year, so I didn’t even make predictions for him. But he’s started and been the clear starter from Opening Day. He has played well enough that he’s become the leadoff man. At this point he’s hitting over 280 with an OBP over 350. Nobody saw this coming this soon. He’s still learning to be an effective base stealer (7 for 14), but I think he will be an offensive staple in Atlanta for years to come.
The Braves were hoping Christian Bethancourt would be another staple on this team, but he has struggled greatly. An excellent defensive catcher, Bethancourt hasn’t had the bat to keep pace with his glove. He appeared in 31 games last year hitting 248. This year he made it through 29 games with 1 HR and a 198 AVG. While his defense is already among the best in the major leagues, his bat was so bad that the hot hitting veteran A.J. Pierzynski ate into his playing time over and over again until he was finally sent down to the minors to figure things out. I had him hitting 230 with 7 HR this season. That seems like it will be impossible for him to attain this year.
Pierzynski was only supposed to be a backup. He was going to be a capable one, but a backup nonetheless. He got hot early, but has since cooled. I didn’t even bother making predictions for him this year. He’ll play better than I thought he would, but he is only a stopgap and not a long-term solution in Atlanta.
Jhonny Gomes was another veteran who was only supposed to play sparingly. He’s not a good defender, so the Braves signed him to provide some pop and clubhouse leadership. He’s nailed the leadership stuff, but has been abysmal at the plate. Early on he was sharing time with Eric Young Jr. and Kelly Johnson. Now that Young is gone, he’s ceded most of his playing time to Johnson and is primarily a bat off the bench and occasional left handed starter, though not even a full platoon man.
Johnson has become the starter in left field now that he has returned to Atlanta, where his career started. He’s played left, third and second in the major leagues and was adequate enough with the bat to stick at second in Atlanta, Arizona, Tampa Bay and Toronto. He then bounced around Baltimore, New York and Boston last year playing a number of positions before re-signing with the Braves this offseason. I didn’t make predictions for any Braves left fielder and can honestly say I saw Johnson getting the shortest cut of the playing time. But he’s played better than anyone thought hitting over 260 at this point and becoming a middle of the order bat. He’s already got 6 HR and 21 RBI in 37 games. He is also a short-term solution, but one who is playing very well in Atlanta.
That’s the offense. There are some young players who are trying to stick on the bench, but none with any serious experience. Atlanta has a bright future ahead of them, but the present looks a little bleak at the plate. The Braves can pitch and so they will be in almost all their games. But this offense looks thin on paper and has proven to be very weak thus far in the season. More frustrating is the fact that the upper levels of the minors don’t have any clear answers for Atlanta’s offensive holes either, so if the offense grows over the next few years, it looks like Atlanta will have to do something it doesn’t do well….spend money.
The good news is that the defense looks excellent. Freddie Freeman has grown tremendously at first and was never bad. He’s now on the verge of Gold Glove status, perhaps a top 3 defender at his position in the NL. Jace Peterson has a great glove and good range at second. Andrelton Simmons is the best defender in the game at short. The only infield position that isn’t great is third where Uribe and Johnson are both average to below average. Bethancourt is one of the best defenders behind the plate, but can’t seem to hit enough to stick. So Pierzynski is doing the majority of the catching right now. He’s not great. In the outfield, Markakis is a Gold Glover in right, though he’s not as good as Heyward. Maybin is well above average in center. Left field is a question. Gomes is bad. Kelly Johnson is serviceable, but really probably only average at best, and that seems generous. So the left side of the field looks bad, but Simmons and Maybin have enough range to help out and offset that. Overall, Atlanta has a very good defense.
The Braves pitching staff was very strong last year. They were third in the league with a 3.38 ERA and fourth in the league in Ks. They were fairly average in Hits and Walks allowed, but overall the Braves pitching staff is always one of the best. Last year the Braves lost 40% of their starting rotation in Spring Training when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy needed Tommy John surgery. Both are gone, as are their replacements from last year Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang. The only new starter on this team is Shelby Miller. After Miller, the rotation is pretty much the same as last year and will be supplemented young arms from the Braves farm system. The only additions were in the bullpen as the Braves added Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson to offset the loss of Walden Kimbrel.
The man the Braves tabbed to be their ace is Julio Tehran. Tehran led the Braves with 186 Ks last year while going 14-13 with a 2.89 ERA. He threw 221 IP and pitched to a 1.08 WHIP and 232 BAA. Long considered a top prospect, Tehran finally gave the Braves a great full season in 2013 (14-8 with a 3.24 ERA) and improved his numbers across the board from 2013. An underrated pitcher, Tehran has shown that he can live up to his ability and I saw him having another strong year, though perhaps suffering due to a lack of offense. While I thought a 500 season was possible, I still thought he’d have a good year with 12+ wins, an ERA under 3 (think 2.80) and 180 Ks in 200 IP. However, he has struggled this year and has mixed great outings with terrible ones, to really look like an average pitcher with an ERA far higher than average. He’ll need a strong second half to turn things around and reach my projections. I’d be surprised if he did.
The Braves real ace was the man they got in return for their trade of Heyward and Walden: Shelby Miller. The Braves were hoping he could continue to develop and live up to his talent. The Cards parted ways with him, thinking he was the least talented of the young arms on their team. Last year he went 10-9 with a 3.74 ERA in 187 IP. That’s not bad, but it was worse across the board than his year in 2013. Not a lot worse, but all the numbers trended the wrong way. So the Cards cut ties, sending him to Atlanta. I had decent hopes for him this year. My estimate was 10-12 Wins/Losses with an ERA of 3.80 and 150 Ks in 180 IP. But he is having a Cy Young caliber season to this point. I fully expect him to sail past those estimates of mine and be the Braves All Star selection.
Lefty Alex Wood also returns for another year in Turner Field. He is the number 3 man and has proven that his funky delivery can work in the big leagues. Last year, he spent less time in the bullpen with 35 games and 24 starts. He improved across the board going 11-11 with a 2.78 ERA and 170 Ks in 171 IP. By the end of the year, it was clear he would be a valuable piece of the starting rotation going forward. I expected him to build off another strong year and win around 12 games with an ERA close to 3 and 180 Ks in 190 IP. But he hasn’t pitched quite as well this year. That being said, he’s still keeping Atlanta in games and has a very strong 3.17 ERA at the time of this writing. But his K rate has dropped and his WHIP and BAA are both way above average and I mean that in a negative way. If he keeps pitching the way he has to start the year, expect that ERA to climb quickly. He can still reach my expectations, but he has to keep runners off base.
Mike Minor was supposed to be back for another year in the rotation, but was felled with a shoulder injury in spring training and will miss the entire season. Eric Stults was brought in to add depth and take some of those starts, but was sent to LA for the trade that brought Juan Uribe to Atlanta after making only 8 starts. Trevor Cahill was added in an early season trade, but struggled in his 3 starts before being banished to the bullpen for 12 games and subsequently released. So with 2 open rotation spots, the Braves have shuffled a number of names around to take those innings.
The guy they hoped would be ready was Mike Foltynewciz, who was added in the Evan Gattis trade with the Astros. Foltynewciz was a highly touted prospect with Houston who appeared in 16 games out of the bullpen last year. Atlanta gave him a chance early on to start, but he struggled with an ERA over 5. The Braves think he can be a part of their future, but decided to let him work some things out in the minors. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he returns to the big club later in the year.
With the other options not working out, the Braves went to their farm system and called up Williams Perez. Perez has not had any major league experience prior to this season and made 8 starts and 3 relief appearances for Atlanta early on. He pitched well going 4-0 with 1 Save and a 2.88 ERA in 50 IP. He needs to learn to keep runners off base if he’s really going to succeed. Unfortunately he’s now on the DL with a foot injury, but he’ll make more starts after the All Star Break. For the time being, Atlanta is rolling with youngster Matt Wisler in the 5th spot.
The top of Atlanta’s rotation looks strong, but Tehran and Wood aren’t playing as well this year. The last two rotation spots are up in the air as injury and ineffectiveness have really hurt Atlanta. When you lose 40% of your starting rotation for the second year in a row, you struggle.
This puts added pressure on a bullpen that has gotten worse. Losing Craig Kimbrel is a blow you just can’t recover from. Jason Grilli can stabilize things for a year or two, but isn’t nearly as good or as sure of a bet. The rest of the bullpen includes reclamation projects Jim Johnson and David Aardsma ,over-used lefty Luis Avilan and a number of youngsters.
The Braves have young arms and talented arms. The top 3 are so good, that this pitching staff as a whole looks solid. But it’s not deep and has holes, both starting and in the pen. This is a re-building year for the Braves, and the pitching staff is the clearest evidence of that so far.
The Braves are in the midst of a rebuilding year. Liberty Management, the new owner, runs the team on a strict budget, which is continuously slashed if the Braves don’t make money. Braves fans became accustomed to winning, and routinely stopped showing up in seasons that the Braves won the division. They haven’t come back now that the team is worse, and don’t look to return soon, which likely means more budget cuts for this team. A board of directors gives the team only enough money to make a profit, and gives less and less each year they don’t bring in what was expected. But they won’t cut ties with this team because they always make money with this approach. The problem is they don’t make enough money to compete with the big boys despite the fact that they do all the little things right in drafting and developing players.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Braves have a strong core of young players already on the major league team: Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Julio Tehran and Alex Wood. They have replenished their farm system with the trades of Heyward, Gattis and Kimbrel. And, equally important, they were able to get out from under the contract of B.J. Upton, which may have been one of the worst free agent signings of all time. They have a new stadium being built for them in nearby Cobb County and that should bring in some fresh faces and new income. Add to that the young talent coming up the pipe and already on the team, and the future looks bright for Atlanta. And, unlike other teams in their division, they have a clear vision for their re-build and what looks to be a fairly short turnaround time.
For the present, things look bleak. The bullpen is weak, the back end of the rotation is unproven and there is no question that this offense will struggle. So this may be a rough season for Atlanta. That being said, I feel like neither the Mets nor Marlins are that good, so the Braves may stay in the running a while, even if they fade and finish in fourth place in the division. With Washington being so good, I don’t think any other eastern team will come close to winning the division or even make the playoffs.
My initial projection for Atlanta was 80 Wins, which is close to what I predicted for the Mets and Marlins. Based on the way they have played so far, they look to be back on track to get 80 Wins and flirt with 500. But I don’t think they will be playoff bound this year.