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2013 Preview: Atlanta Braves

Mar 14, 2013, 4:01 PM EST

Jason Heyward, Justin Upton

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Atlanta Braves.

The Big Question: is there life after Chipper Jones?

Sure there is. Because for as good as his final year was — and every year before that — Jones still only managed to play in 112 games last season and only managed to play in more than 140 games once in his final nine seasons. I’m not meaning to suggest that Jones was some sort of liability, obviously, but the fact is that the Braves had to replace Jones often in the last decade of his career, just not all at once. This is not like losing Lou Gehrig here.

But he certainly does create something of a leadership vacuum. For years this didn’t matter all that much on the Braves as Bobby Cox was the dominant figure in Atlanta, but under Fredi Gonzalez, Jones certainly stepped up by all accounts.  As we’ve said many times before, it’s impossible to quantify leadership. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a thing, and as you look up and down the Braves’ roster, you notice a distinct lack of guys with either years under their belt, years in Atlanta under their belt, or the reputation as leadership types. I’m not suggesting that this will be the difference between the Braves winning and losing, but it may be the single biggest impact of Jones’ departure.

What else is going on?

  • Obviously the production matters more than anything, so what of it? While many have been inclined to say the Braves loaded for bear over the offseason, it’s not at all clear that the offense is substantially improved over last year. Yes, B.J. and Justin Upton have arrived, but losing Chipper, Martin Prado and Michael Bourn is pretty damn significant, as they were all offensive contributors and two of them were strong defensive contributors.
  • There are other factors that may make this less of a problem than it seems, though. The key offensive contributors — Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons and the Uptons — are all young and, for the most part, improving. If any of them had their single best year n 2013 it would not be some fluke given their ages and a couple of them — particularly Simmons — can certainly be expected to take a big leap forward. If most of them do, people may be asking “Chipper, Martin, and Michael who?”
  • But with great power comes great strikeoutability. And boy howdy are the Braves gonna strike out a lot. They were the most whiffingest team in all of baseball last year and the additions, including Jones replacements Juan Francisco and/or Chris Johnson, along with old reliable hackers like Dan Uggla, are gonna make Turner Field a pretty breezy place indeed. There is some serious power potential here. Serious slump potential. Serious Three True Outcomes potential. It’s gonna be quite the scene, man.
  • Over to pitching, it’s not saying much to say the Braves’ bullpen is the best in the game. Craig Kimbrel is an absolute assassin. The setup trio of Johnny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty and Jordan Walden are pretty impressive too. Bullpens exhibit great variance from year to year — and it’s possible that Venters will never be what he was a couple of years ago — but Fredi Gonzalez has an awful lot to work with once the starters tire.
  • About those starters: it’s a good group. Not a great group, and this is where I think the biggest difference between the Nationals and the Braves truly lies. Kris Medlen was fantastic last season and may very well be a number one starter, but he obviously will not repeat the performance he put up in 2012. Behind him are Tim Hudson, Mike Minor, Paul Maholm and most likely Julio Teheran. In the second half of the season a returning-from-Tommy John surgery Brandon Beachy could join them. All of them are capable of quite good things and, at times anyway, I feel like Hudson has one more truly dominant season left. But it’s more likely that the Braves have a collection of solid number three starters. Which can certainly work — you want rotation health and you want to avoid disaster starts from guys who belong in Triple-A — but none of these guys are “we need you to pitch one game vs. the Martians for the survival of Humankind” material.

Prediction: Second place, National League East. Likely wild card winner.

  1. bobulated - Mar 14, 2013 at 4:12 PM

    Think Medlen comes back to pack a bit while still maintaining #1 type control and consistency but also see some regression from Maholm to balance it out, not sure which Minor shows up either. Agree with everything else you say.

  2. nsauser - Mar 14, 2013 at 4:28 PM

    We need McCann to be healthy and productive this year. Even if he isn’t ready by Opening Day he should take his time to get right.

    I also think the season will come down to Fredi and his decision making ability. There are times when it feels like he can’t get out of his own way!

  3. chacochicken - Mar 14, 2013 at 4:37 PM

    I feel like Kimbrel could probably save our species in 9th inning situation if necessary.

    • Chris Fiorentino - Mar 15, 2013 at 10:34 AM

      The Dominican Republican begs to differ…

      • chacochicken - Mar 15, 2013 at 12:52 PM

        Hindsight being 20/20…

  4. Kevin S. - Mar 14, 2013 at 5:01 PM

    Yeah, having Brian McCann back healthy and reasonably approximating his career numbers would provide a huge boost over what the Braves got from him last season.

  5. wwttww - Mar 14, 2013 at 5:16 PM

    Minor breaks out this year…..he’ll be our best sp.

  6. joecool16280 - Mar 14, 2013 at 5:30 PM

    The Braves are so well rounded this year. Watching them battle with the Nats will be a privilege. Great baseball to come.

    -S.F. Giants fan in DC.

  7. schmedley69 - Mar 14, 2013 at 8:52 PM

    Prediction: Third place, National League East. Likely lots of beer cans on the field at The Ted.

  8. phillyphannn83 - Mar 14, 2013 at 11:01 PM

    homer

  9. sawxalicious - Mar 15, 2013 at 1:00 AM

    Kimberly wasn’t able to save the USA tonight….he’s still the most dominant closer this side of Mariano Rivera, though…

  10. sawxalicious - Mar 15, 2013 at 1:01 AM

    *Kimbrel* -stupid autocorrect….EDIT FUNCTION!

  11. bdunn151 - Mar 15, 2013 at 9:11 AM

    El Oso Blanco.

  12. professormaddog31 - Mar 15, 2013 at 10:14 AM

    If you’re putting faith in Paul Maholm, you’re in for a sad season. My two favorite teams are the Cubs (yeah, I don’t understand that either) and the Braves. I’ve seen him pitch a lot, never had anything else than a severe case of indigestion and nerves.

    Meds probably won’t have the lights out year he did last year. That’s rare air. I still think he will be among the best starters in the game this season, I can’t imagine he’d have that big of a drop. He had been getting better anyway, even before his surgery.

    I’m most looking forward to when Beachy returns. I have a good feeling about it.

    • aawsum - Mar 19, 2013 at 3:35 PM

      Look who he played for, the “Cubs”! Maholm knew he had to go out and pitch lights out most games to get a win…add to that the “friendly confines” factor and I am sure he doesn’t feel he has to be as “fine” when pitching and can relax! I am happy to have him as part of the rotation.

  13. subwindow - Mar 15, 2013 at 7:05 PM

    Correction: The Braves were not ” most whiffingest team in all of baseball last year”- they were the fourth-most-whiffingest in the NL.

    • aawsum - Mar 19, 2013 at 3:32 PM

      After reading I thought that was high and was about to post the same thing until I read you post. Kudos!

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