30 Days for 30 Teams: Atlanta Braves

medlen

Kris Medlen walks off the field after tearing his UCL a second time. He underwent Tommy John surgery last Friday.

BY ZACK BECKER

2013 Record: 96-66 (1st Place NL East, – GB)

There were many unanswered questions surrounding the Braves heading into the 2013 season.

Could the team overtake the super-powered Nats rotation and take the division crown back?

Could the Upton brothers both go 20-20 in a stacked outfield?

Did the Braves give up too much for those same brothers?

How would the Braves replace future Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones?

ESPN’s “expert team” predicted the outcome of every division in baseball last season. And as our friends over at You Cant Predict Baseball  have shown us so clearly, you really can’t. Thirty-eight of the 43 “experts” picked the Nats over the Braves in the East.

Atlanta’s rotation finished just ahead of Washington’s in starters’ ERA and took the division easily — by 10 games.

The Uptons were all the rage in Hotlanta at the beginning of the year, with Bossman Junior (yes, that’s what B.J. stands for) coming off a fresh, new 5-year, $75.25 million deal and his younger brother Justin joining him in the outfield via trade that sent Martin Prado to the DBacks.

However, after JUpton’s blazing hot start fizzled out — the 25-year-old hit 12 homers in his first 23 games, then just four in the next 77 — the Upton family was questioned as being thought of too highly.

B.J. (given name Melvin Emmanuel) Upton was an enormous bust, he hit an inexcusable .184 with 9 homers and 26 (26!!) RBIs in 126 games. Right now, he’s looking like the owner of one of the worst contracts in baseball history.

It wasn’t all bad — Chipper Jones’ successor, Chris Johnson, was in contention for the NL batting crown and filled in quite nicely at the hot corner.

The team’s pitching won them the division, and Freddie Freeman had a fantastic season for the second year in a row. While Johnson is Jones’ heir at third, Freeman is looking like the next great Braves leader.

The Braves looked great last year, but bowed out of the playoffs without putting up much of a fight — they were outscored 26-14 in a four-game NLDS against the Dodgers.

But enough about last year.

Key Acquisitions

SP Ervin Santana  (1yr/$14.1 mil)

SP Gavin Floyd  (1yr/$4 mil)

SP Aaron Harang  (1yr/financial terms unannounced)

Plans for the future: The Braves agreed to move out of Turner Field, where they’ve played since 1997. This came as a bit of a surprise, as they’ll be the first team to move out of a “new” ballpark. The team will relocate to a northwestern suburb of Atlanta in Cobb County for the 2017 season and beyond.

While the team will be changing its location, its young, talented core of star players certainly will not be anytime soon. It didn’t sign any big name free agents outside of Ervin Santana, but man, oh man, did the team’s front office stay busy this offseason— it locked up Freeman  (8yr/$135 mil), shortstop and defensive magician Andrelton Simmons  (7yr/$58 mil), Opening Day starter Julio Teheran  (6yr/$32.4 mil), and the best closer in baseball, Craig Kimbrel  (4yr/$42 mil).

For those of you counting at home, that’s 25 contract years and $267.4 million to four players with eight full seasons in the Majors COMBINED.

Santana was initially reported to be heading to the AL East, whether it was Toronto or Baltimore rumored to sign the righty, but fate had other plans. He signed a wealthy one-year deal to pitch in Atlanta. He’s alternated solid and bad seasons for the Angels and Royals in recent years, so the Braves are gambling a bit with this deal. They hope to get the 3.24 ERA Santana of last year, not the 5.16 ERA Santana of 2012.

Floyd and Harang, like Santana, come on one-year rent-a-starter deals that give the rotation a more veteran presence following the departure of Tim Hudson.

Harang was signed to replace Freddy Garcia, whom the team cut this week. He’ll fit into the back end of the rotation.

Now, I know what you’re wondering — if this team had the 5th-best starters’ ERA in the NL (and 6th in baseball) last year, why did they go out and sign three starting pitchers for this season? Well, if you haven’t been paying attention to Spring Training news, scroll down.

Key Losses

The Braves’ losses came in two waves: Late November and Mid March.

The late November losses came by way of free agency.

C Brian McCann — had it not been for Chipper Jones’ presence as the undisputed leader of the Braves, McCann certainly would’ve been in the discussion. He caught games for nine seasons in Atlanta, hitting 176 homers in those seasons. He joined the Yankees on a lucrative deal.

SP Tim Hudson — after sustaining a nasty broken ankle that ended his season in late-July, Hudson left Atlanta, where he spent the last nine seasons, for San Francisco. He was 113-72 with a 3.56 ERA with the Braves.

The mid March losses hurt a bit more.

It’s a good thing the Braves article came so close to Opening Day, because the front office really had to scramble to put together a Major-League-ready rotation after theirs was picked apart by injuries.

Both SP Brandon Beachy and SP Kris Medlen had their second Tommy John surgery of their careers this week and will miss the entire 2014 season. Both showed a lot of promise and were expected to head the rotation this season. Instead, that burden now falls into the laps of Santana and Teheran and the once-great Braves rotation now looks shaky and inexperienced.

As of now, behind Teheran and Santana, the Braves rotation is as follows: Alex Wood, Harang, and David Hale.

More like Who?, This guy, and Who? Not looking good.

Floyd will join the rotation later in the season when he returns from a Tommy John surgery of his own.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Chris Johnson. The Uptons are too obvious of a choice here, as everyone will have their eyes on them to improve this year. I’m interested in seeing Johnson follow up his career-best season after hitting well above (a 42 point boost) his career average last year. His .394 BABIP led the Majors last season, so this year look to see if that was just very good luck or if the 28-year-old can keep it up.

Projected Opening Day Lineup

braves opening day

Since Gattis made it into over 100 games for the Braves last year, this lineup is nothing new. No changes at all — but that may not be such a good thing. At least for Upton and Uggla. That pair batted .184 and .179, respectively, in a combined 839 at-bats. To put that into perspective, if their horrific averages weren’t enough for you, their 152 combined hits are 24 fewer than Freeman put up alone — in 288 fewer at-bats.

Initially, I had this team again finishing atop the NL East yet again, but with the significant blows the rotation has taken in the last week and the improvements the Nationals made to their own staff, I’m going to revise my prediction that I made in my Nats article and say that this is the team that’ll have to fight for the NL Wild Card, not Washington.

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