2014 Braves preview: Talented bunch should contend again
FEB 17, 2014 3:00p ET
2013: 96-66, first in NL East (Lost to Dodgers in NLDS)
Manager: Fredi Gonzalez (fourth season)
Key additions: Gavin Floyd, Ryan Doumit, Mat Gamel
Key losses: Brian McCann, Tim Hudson, Eric O'Flaherty
Offense: Fifth in MLB and first in the National League with 181 home runs last season, the Braves return four players who hit at least 21 in Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla and Evan Gattis. It's not just a collection of bashers though, as Freeman was second in the majors in RISP (.443) and Chris Johnson was second in the NL with a .321 average.
Rotation: The top end of the staff is rock solid with Kris Medlen (2.92 ERA after June 3), Mike Minor (1.090 WHIP) and Julio Teheran (8.2 strikeouts per nine innings). If Brandon Beachy can recover fully from his 2012 Tommy John surgery and Alex Wood approaches last year's surprise debut, this rotation has the talent to overcome its average age of 25.4.
Bullpen: Tops in the majors a year ago with a 2.46 ERA, which matched the 2003 Dodgers for the best bullpen ERA since the 1990 A's (2.35), the Braves return their leader in relief innings, Anthony Varvaro (73 1/3); leader in appearances, Luis Avilan (75); and, of course, three-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel. The group also gets an added bonus from the return of Jonny Venters following Tommy John surgery.
Player to watch: B.J. Upton. Last season was a nightmare as he hit a career-low .184/.268/.557 with nine homers in the first year of the biggest free-agent deal in franchise history. After losing McCann, who hit 20 or more homers in six consecutive seasons, the onus will be on the elder Upton to rediscover his power stroke.
Why they will win: The bullpen is as good as it gets and the rotation allowed three runs or less in 75 games last season (third in the NL) and figures to get better should Beachy stay healthy. If the offense can find some consistency, especially from Uggla and B.J. Upton, it's a recipe for an NL East repeat.
Why they will lose: Amid those home runs were 1,384 strikeouts, marking the third season in a row the Braves set a franchise record in that department. It's simply a feast-or-famine club and if the pitching staff can't keep Atlanta in games, it could make it difficult to get anywhere near 96 wins again.
Ken Rosenthal’s outlook: Every season, it seems, people overlook the Braves. I’m tempted to do it again, particularly after the free-agent defections of catcher McCann and right-hander Hudson. The rotation lacks a veteran ace. The bullpen lacks a proven setup man in front of All-Star closer Kimbrel. The offense, unless B.J. Upton and Uggla snap out of it, has too many outs. Yet, even though the Braves’ only additions are super-utility man Doumit and right-hander Floyd, they’re talented enough to compete for a wild card – and maybe even surprise the Nationals, just like they did a year ago.