Thanks to the Upton-Upton upgrade, the Braves now have the National League's best batting lineup.
By JAY CLEMONS FS South
The following listing rationalizes the National League's top 10 batting lineups heading into spring training, with an emphasis on the six best
offenses for the 2013 season.
As you'll see when scrolling down, the Braves stand atop the countdown. But this isn't some kind of charitable act for FOX Sports South teams. Bottom line: If GM Frank Wren hadn't moved heaven and earth to acquire
Justin Upton last week, Atlanta would probably rate somewhere between third and seventh.
That alone should highlight the razor-thin margins separating the 10 clubs (plus one).
With the additions of B.J. Upton (free agent) and Justin Upton (trade) over the winter, the Braves boast the only trio of MLB outfielders with 20/20 seasons in either of the last two years. And the third member of the group, Jason Heyward, could reach the 30/30 mark by October — with just a nominal bump in his 2012 production.
As scary as that sounds, the Braves' lineup is more than just a tribute to outfield power and versatility. Catcher Brian McCann notched 20-plus homers in five straight seasons (2007-11). Dan Uggla should flirt with 25 homers and a .340 on-base percentage. Chris Johnson (15 HR, 76 RBI, .281 batting) incurred bumps in production (per-game basis) with hits, runs, homers, RBI and batting average with the
Astros and Diamondbacks last year.
And Freddie Freeman, Atlanta's highly productive first baseman, may stand as the club's RBI leader by season's end — in the neighborhood of 110. At the very least, he's a healthy lock for 25 homers, 35 doubles and a .350 OBP.
On the defensive end, Andrelton Simmons may have no peer among his fellow shortstops in the National League East. But don't mistake that brilliance with the glove as a shortcoming at the plate. In the minors, Simmons was an annual cinch for 20 steals, a .300 average and .350 OBP — which should serve him well as the Braves' leadoff hitter.
It's a pressure-packed spot, for sure, especially with a championship-contending club. But there's a reason why Atlanta execs were reticent — back in December — to part with Simmons in any blockbuster-trade scenarios involving Justin Upton.
From my perspective, the Braves and Nationals possess the National League's preeminent starting rotations and everyday lineups, heightening each club's necessity to start the season strong — or risk being mired in wild-card purgatory come October.
For Washington's 2-7 hitters, each batter has the realistic capacity for 25 homers and/or 90 RBI, with Harper (22 homers), Desmond (25 homers, .292 BA) and Zimmerman (25 HR, 95 RBI in just 145 games) being sound bets to maintain or improve upon last year's numbers.
Regarding Werth (.300 batting, .387 OBP) and LaRoche, they're still in their prime as productive assets, but injuries and inconsistency must be factored into 2013 projections.
For example, LaRoche played at an all-world level in the final five weeks (10 HR, 19 RBI, .324 batting, 1.057 OPS) and finished the year with 33 homers and 100 RBI; but he also posted a .182 batting average and porous walk- to-strikeout ratio (9/29) for June, conjuring up images of past struggles.
Werth missed 81 games to various injuries (primarily a broken wrist), which isn't a major concern for 2013, given that he played in 150-plus games for 2009-11. But here's something to ponder: Werth has never batted .280 or higher in consecutive seasons.
The wild card of the bunch: Denard Span. If the ex-Twin can steal 25-30 bases and maintain an OBP north of .340, he'll be the ideal table-setter for a lineup full of diverse potential.
But if he has trouble putting the ball in play, it might create some prolonged hassles for the entire group. It's somewhat troubling that Span only has nine triples over the last two seasons.
On paper, the Reds made out like bandits in landing Shin-Soo Choo (annual bet for 19 homers, .370 OBP) in the offseason swap among Cincinnati, Cleveland and Arizona. No corner-infield prospects surrendered, and the club likely upgraded at center field — switching out
Drew Stubbs for Choo. It was the ideal move for a team seemingly on the brink of title contention, especially if pitcher
Aroldis Chapman successfully transitions from unstoppable closer ... to virtually unhittable starter.
Let's circle back to the offense. With Votto (.337 batting, 1.041 OPS in just 111 games), Phillips (125 homers from 2007-12), Bruce (36 HR/196 RBI the last two seasons), Ludwick (26 HR, .346 OBP last year) and the aforementioned Choo anchoring the lineup, it enables Cozart, Frazier and a heralded catching prospect like Devin Mesoraco to grow and develop, minus the burden of carrying a veteran team to the playoffs.
Speaking of youngsters, there's a chance
Billy Hamilton and his blinding speed (155 steals last year) will be permanently etched into the Cincy lineup sometime in late May — either at shortstop or an outfield slot.
Of course, it helps that Cincinnati plays 81 games in Great American Ballpark. But the Reds execs were smart enough to build around the nuances of a hitter-friendly park, while developing a pitching staff that keeps the ball relatively down on windy days.
In 2012, the Rockies and Brewers were the only National League offenses to post top-five rankings in runs, hits, doubles, triples, homers and RBI.
Regarding Colorado, the club
needs Carlos Gonzalez (22 HR, 85 RBI, .303 batting last year) and Troy Tulowitzki (missed 115 games to injury) to remain healthy for large chunks of the season, enabling catcher Wilin Rosario (28 homers as a rookie) and Josh Rutledge (a potential superstar at second base) to blossom without the burden of carrying a pitching staff that's consigned to mediocrity. (Denver's thin air dictates such a fate.)
How prolific are the Rockies, on paper? Todd Helton, the Hall of Fame candidate with a lifetime batting average of .320, is the proverbial "weak link" in a lineup full of 25-homer or .300-batting candidates.
Arizona's No. 5 status may raise some eyebrows, in the wake of the Justin Upton trade. But you can also see the stealth logic of the Diamondbacks solidifying third base with Martin Prado (agreed to a four-year extension last week) and clearing an outfield path for Adam Eaton (.375 batting, .456 OBP in the minors last year) to play on opening day.
By season's end, Eaton might be the National League West's most impactful leadoff man. Subsequently, Prado (10 HR, 70 RBI, 17 steals, .301 batting with Atlanta last year) should see a steady stream of juicy pitches in the 2-hole. After that, Hill, Montero, Goldschmidt, Kubel and Ross all have the capacity for 25 homers, 90 RBI and/or .300 batting average.
Of the last four seasons, Hill blasted 26 or more homers three times. And from a fantasy perspective, Goldschmidt (20 homers, 18 steals in 2012) could be the next superstar corner infielder. Regarding Cliff Pennington, his pedestrian tallies in homers, RBI, runs and batting average are a sore spot; but in a hitter-friendly park like Chase Field, he's a threat for 15-20 steals and OBP north of .320.
One could make the case for the
Giants or Phillies earning the No. 6 spot, but the six-man contingent of Braun, Aoki (four homers, .896 OPS last September), Lucroy (.881 OPS in 96 games), Carlos Gomez (19 homers, 37 steals), Aramis Ramirez and rookie Jean Segura ultimately pushed Milwaukee ahead.
In 2012, Braun arguably enjoyed a better season (41 HR, 112 RBI, 108 runs, 30 steals, .319 batting) than his MVP campaign of 2011. Of equal importance, the Hebrew Hammer dominated opposing pitchers under the watchful eye of fans and media who believed Braun's greatness from 2007-11 was the inflated byproduct of performance-enhancing drugs.
Last year, Aramis Ramirez improved upon the 2011 tallies in runs, doubles, triples, homers, RBI, steals, slugging and OPS and replicated his .300 batting average. And Segura, the key piece in the Brewers-Angels trade involving Zack Greinke last July, is a viable play for 12 homers and 35 steals -- assuming he's with the big club out of spring training.
One last caveat: I'm presupposing that Corey Hart (knee) will rejoin the Brewers' lineup sometime in early May. He blasted 87 homers from 2010-12 and will be playing for a lucrative free-agent deal next winter.
7. Cardinals: If future stars Oscar Taveras and Matt Carpetner (potential move to second base) permanently crack the lineup by mid-May, the Cardinals might be a top-five offense by late June.
10a. Giants: The defending champions are more than just a pitching-heavy outfit. But for the offense to take a sizable leap here,
Brandon Belt and reigning MVP
Buster Posey (24 HR, 103 RBI, .336 batting) must compensate for an outfield that's devoid of pure power.
10b. Phillies: The infield may be a who's who of one-time stars ... but there's too much uncertainty (age, injuries, depth) in Philly right now. Especially if
Delmon Young draws more starts in right field than