A splashy offseason has made this one of the most highly anticipated Braves seasons in recent memory. With Opening Day just hours away, here are the five biggest questions facing the team.
1. Could this be the most prolific offense in franchise history?
The 2003 Braves are the measuring stick for potency, holding 12 team records – including most home runs (235), runs (907), hits (1,608) and RBI (872) – and sharing another.
But that group, which was led by Javy Lopez (43 home runs, 109 RBI), Gary Sheffield (39 HRs, 132 RBI) and Andruw Jones (36 HRs, 116 RBI) could be challenged by this year’s Braves.
While the ’03 lineup had six players with at least 21 home runs that season – Chipper Jones hit 27, Vinny Castilla had 22 and Marcus Giles added 21 – this year’s Braves are even deeper in that department. Atlanta has six regulars who have seasons of 23 or more in Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, Dan Uggla and newcomers B.J. Upton and Justin Upton.
This year’s edition of the Braves may have trouble matching the efficiency of the ’03 team, which also holds the mark for highest team average (.284) and struck out just 93 times.
In ’12, Atlanta struck out a franchise-high 1,289 times and they added two more players with high K numbers in B.J. (121 strikeouts in ’12) and Justin Upton (169), while the duo with the lowest strikeouts, Jones and Martin Prado, are gone.
But it’s clear what this Braves lineup was built for: displays of power.
That was on full display this spring as they led all National League teams with 49 home runs, seven courtesy of Freeman, while Justin Upton, third baseman Juan Francisco and catcher Evan Gattis hit six apiece.
2. What will a full year of Kris Medlen in the rotation look like?
It’s impossible to expect Medlen to be as dominant as he was over the last two months of last season.
Going 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA, 84 strikeouts and 10 walks over 82 2/3 innings in 12 starts and being on the mound for 23 straight games the Braves won, which broke the record of 22 set by Hall of Famer Whitey Ford, just isn’t a reasonable expectation.
For one, let’s not forget that what we saw out of Medlen in ’12 was a small sample size as he made 38 relief appearances before moving to the rotation. It was the first time that he had thrown 150-plus innings in his professional career, a number that is certain to climb as he makes 30-plus starts this year.
But if there’s one thing weighing in Medlen’s favor, it’s his makeup. His 3.63 pitches per plate appearance last year was nearly 14 percent below the major league average of 3.83 and his 4.4 percent walk rate was among the top seven among all pitchers to have thrown at least 130 innings.
He has a chance to be elite, but until we’ve seen it over 200 innings, Medlen should be considered what he is: a pitcher who has shown very encouraging signs as he develops into becoming an ace. 3. Can Dan Uggla turn it around after a forgettable season?
Outside of third base, which we’ll get to momentarily, no position on the everyday roster is wrought with more concerns than second base with Uggla.
Uggla said this spring he wasn’t ready for last season to end. While he would end the year with career lows in home runs (19), RBI (78), batting average (.220), slugging percentage (.384) and OPS (.732) and struck out a career-high 168 times, he was playing well down the stretch. Over the last 23 games of the year, Uggla hit .299 with an .876 OPS.
He detailed how he had found the error in his approach at the plate and believes he’ll carry it into this season — but the spring results aren’t encouraging.
Uggla had a .200 average with two home runs, six RBI and a .548 RBI in 75 Grapefruit League at-bats and he struck out 25 times.
To his credit, Uggla has largely put up pedestrian numbers in the spring. Aside from last year when he hit .277, Uggla had averages of .212 (2011), .197 (’10) and .206 (’09) the last three seasons.
He should see better pitches this year as a result of hitting sixth in the lineup and having B.J. Upton in front of him but if Uggla continues to struggle, we could see the return of Tyler Pastornicky. Last season’s Opening Day shortstop, Pastornicky is starting ’13 in Triple-A Gwinnett and spent time at second base this spring.
4. Will the third base platoon of Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson deliver?
No one is looking for Francisco and Johnson to replicate what Jones, a future Hall of Famer, meant to the Braves’ clubhouse, fans or the city of Atlanta. But they could provide a nice combination from a purely statistical standpoint.
This spring, the left-handed Francisco and Johnson, a righty, combined for a .347 average, nine home runs, six doubles and 26 RBI in 141 at-bats, though there are some concerns with both.
Francisco struggles against lefties, hitting .189 over his career, while Johnson, the more experienced of the two, committed five errors this spring. It underscores the biggest trouble with Johnson, who had a minus-10.7 UZR/150 last season, second-worst among all third basemen behind only the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera.
But with the way both responded at the plate to this competition over the last month, their sharing the position may be the best outcome for both sides unless one clearly seizes the job in-season. 5. Can the Braves wrest the NL East title away from the Nationals?
There may not be a better divisional battle than the Braves vs. the Nationals, the defending East champions and a team that many believe are the favorites to win the World Series.
Washington may be the more complete team, boasting a rotation headlined by Stephen Strasburg, who finally has the chains off, and 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez and a lineup that features Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and love-him-or-hate-him Bryce Harper. Plus, they muscled up by adding center fielder and lead-off man Denard Span and brought in Rafael Soriano to a bullpen that already included Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen.
But the Braves can easily counter with their Up, Up and a Hey outfield, a rotation that could be potent if Julio Teheran’s spring – 1.04 ERA and 35 Ks in 26 innings — is any indication and the best bullpen in the game if Jonny Venters’ elbow isn’t a lingering issue.
Washington won the regular-season 10-8 series in finishing four games ahead of Atlanta but the Braves certainly have the firepower to outslug it this time around. Even without the Uptons, Atlanta had 31 runs less than the Nats. It’s the new-look, high-powered offense that could be what tips the East in the Braves’ favor.