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2014 Preview: Atlanta Braves

Feb 28, 2014, 6:00 PM EDT

Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four Getty Images

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 2014 season. Next up: The Atlanta Braves.

The Big Question: Can the Braves follow up on a 96-win season and defend their NL East title?

The Nationals were heavy favorites going into 2013, but it was the Braves who won the NL East crown at season’s end. They relied on a fantastic starting rotation and the league’s best bullpen to stampede their way to 96 wins. Unfortunately for them, they were ousted in the NLDS by the Dodgers in four games.

The Braves weren’t very active in the free agent market during the off-season. They lost catcher Brian McCann (Yankees) and starters Tim Hudson (Giants) and Paul Maholm (Dodgers) while only adding Gavin Floyd, who won’t be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery until mid-to-late May.

Rather than spend on free agents, the Braves spent their off-season signing their core players to contract extensions:

Not only are the Braves returning the same roster that dominated the National League during the regular season with virtually no turnover, they will be seeing the same core of young, productive players for years to come. The Braves will be a force to be reckoned with during the 2014 season.

While not necessary for their continued success, the Braves would like to see rebounds from B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla.

Upton had a miserable 2013, hitting .184 with a .557 OPS in the first year of a five-year, $75.25 million contract. The mechanical issues hidden by gaudy home run and stolen base totals over the years finally came to a head, resulting in Upton finishing as one of baseball’s least productive players. As I wrote about last week, Upton made some mechanical adjustments, which included eliminating his left leg lift and the slide step with his front foot.

Uggla, meanwhile, finished with a .179 average but a comparatively better .671 OPS at second base. He still hit 22 home runs, but finished with a career-low 10 doubles and tied a career-high in strikeouts.

What else is going on? 

  • Simmons is looking to duplicate what was arguably one of the best defensive seasons in baseball history. The Braves shortstop saved 24.6 runs according to Ultimate Zone Rating, found at FanGraphs. He was plus-41 according to Defensive Runs Saved from Baseball Reference. Simmons wasn’t anything to write home about offensively, but was still one of baseball’s most valuable players with his defense alone.
  • Evan Gattis will be looking to reprise his role as power hitter extraordinaire behind the dish now that the Braves are without McCann. Gattis slugged 21 home runs in 382 trips to the plate in his rookie season in 2013, but otherwise left a lot to be desired. He finished with a .291 on-base percentage. If the Braves regress in 2014, it’s very likely to be because they couldn’t replace McCann’s production at the catching position.
  • Many are expecting third baseman Chris Johnson to regress as well. Part of their return in the Martin Prado trade with the Diamondbacks, Johnson hit .321. PECOTA, from Baseball Prospectus, projects Johnson to post a .270 average this season, for example. ZiPS, from FanGraphs, isn’t that much more kind, pegging him at .275. Over 500 at-bats, the 55-point difference would account for 20-25 hits.
  • If Uggla continues to struggle, the Braves could eventually call on prospect Tommy La Stella. With Double-A Mississippi last season, La Stella hit .343 with a .422 on-base percentage. He can certainly hit for a high average at the Major League level, but he doesn’t hit for any power and it remains to be seen if he can handle the speed at which the game is played at the highest level. 

Prediction: Lots of us, including myself, were too high on the Nationals last year. The Nats, though, are a better team now and it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Braves hit hard by regression at third base and catcher. Second place, NL East.

  1. El Bravo - Feb 28, 2014 at 6:09 PM

    “Prediction: Lots of us, including myself, were too high on the Nationals last year. The Nats, though, are a better team now and it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Braves hit hard by regression at third base and catcher. Second place, NL East.”

    You talk them up and then sell them out. You fail to mention their rotation is even better this year as a result of dumping those aging, injured SPs. Braves. First place.

    • recoveringcubsfan - Feb 28, 2014 at 10:01 PM

      That awesome bullpen from last year isn’t anymore, except Kimbrel. I think, all told, the author’s assessment is still more reasonable than your rebuttal, which doesn’t address the idea that one team got better while the other stood pat.

      • El Bravo - Mar 1, 2014 at 10:29 AM

        The Braves had a brilliant offseason in my opinion locking up their core. They did get better by the pure fact many of those players should improve from last year. Their bullpen is changed but still dominant with Kimbrel at the backend. The Nats stood pat. Sooo, that’s my point.

      • jjschiller - Mar 1, 2014 at 12:54 PM

        Who’s gone from the bullpen? The Braves most used relievers were Avilan with 75 appearances. Kimbrel 68, Varvaro 62, Carpenter 56, Walden 50. They’re all still there.

        Luis Ayala, 37 appearances, departed, but he was the last man out of the pen.

        Eric O’Flaherty left, but he’d made only 19 appearances before going down with Tommy John surgery.

        And speaking of Tommy John surgery, Jonny Venters didn’t make a SINGLE appearance last season, due to TJ surgery, and he’s coming BACK in May.

        And Alex Wood, who made 11 starts and 20 relief appearnces, will probably be holding down the second lefty spot until Venters returns, and he held opponents to a .563 OPS as a reliever.

        The bullpen has every chance to be BETTER than last years bullpen.

  2. bostonboresme - Feb 28, 2014 at 6:20 PM

    ATL
    WAS
    PHI
    MIA
    NYM

  3. moseskkim - Feb 28, 2014 at 6:29 PM

    Braves need some leadership. they need something. they have the talent but need someone to light a fire under them. they looked lethargic and lacked passion in the playoffs. if they can get it together, they will be a force. i agree the nationals are going to be tough to beat with that starting pitching. 2nd place sounds about right.

  4. President Charles Logan - Feb 28, 2014 at 7:40 PM

    I like this team alot but they arent built for a long playoff run . too many free swingers that K to much, feast or famine types, young inexperienced pitching that melts under the big lights .

  5. shyts7 - Feb 28, 2014 at 7:49 PM

    Nats are overrated. Their rotation is great however their bullpen isn’t that good, despite what some stats say, their defense could be better, and their offense was nonexistent for much of the year. The Braves are solid at all aspects. Not spectacular but solid. Braves won last year with Uggla and BJ not hitting, Heyward and McCann hurt at various times, and Justin being streaky. Last year was the Johnson and Freeman show. This year the team will be better. 1st place by a few games over the Nats.

    • recoveringcubsfan - Feb 28, 2014 at 10:06 PM

      Or you could believe that the Nats’ offense underperformed last year and is due for a rebound. The assertion that the bullpen is bad even though “stats” say otherwise is laughable. The defense is average, true. With the exception of Frreman and Simmons, though, I don’t see many defensive studs in Atlanta. And no matter what, that lineup is going to lead the East in Ks, if not the NL. So what I’m saying is, there’s wishful thinking and then there’s outright fantasy. Let’s try to keep things a bit grounded, eh?

      • jjschiller - Mar 1, 2014 at 1:00 PM

        Just a minor quibble. Jason Heyward is the best rightfielder in baseball, defensively.

        And if we want to say the Nat’s offense “underperformed,” well, the Braves carried TWO OF THE 15 WORST REGULARS OF ALL TIME last season, and won the division. That won’t happen again. They gave 1000 combined plate appearances to Dan Uggla and BJ Upton and got a .180 BA. Those two players may not be guaranteed to improve, but I’d bet one of the two will. But regardless, if they play like that, they won’t get 500 plate appearances. There will be at least a replacement level player in their spot, which will be an improvement over last season.

  6. musketmaniac - Feb 28, 2014 at 8:56 PM

    Doumit will have a big season. Nats win the East, followed by Atlanta, mets, phils, fish.

  7. stercuilus65 - Feb 28, 2014 at 9:31 PM

    The question is will the Braves fans forgive Chipper for picking them to lose to the Dodgers 4-2? I mean they were all whining loudly how they got no respect and were going to steamroll the Dodgers! LOl

  8. craigssideburns - Feb 28, 2014 at 10:14 PM

    The Braves suck.

  9. ajonesmc931 - Mar 1, 2014 at 12:17 AM

    You suck

    • craigssideburns - Mar 1, 2014 at 9:09 AM

      Yo momma

  10. bravojawja - Mar 1, 2014 at 2:40 PM

    I still don’t know what to make of this team. The offseason was a net loss for 2014 (minus McCann and Hudson, plus Floyd) but a huge win for the organization overall.

    It’s easy to argue, though, that another year’s experience is worth far more than bringing in a high-priced free agent. This isn’t the Phillies, where another year is just more wear and tear on a bunch of old guys. This Braves team is young and getting better.

    The NL East won’t be decided until late September, with the Braves and Nats neck-and-neck till the end. Hopefully, the Braves won’t have to rely on a couple of 20-game win streaks again, but maybe just one can put them over the top and avoid the wild card.

  11. jonmarkbarre - Mar 31, 2014 at 9:47 AM

    braves
    nats
    marlins
    mutts
    phils

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