The spring started with sunshine in the Sunshine State, as the Braves followed Freddie Freeman’s contract extension with a barrage of more long-term deals and optimism flowed freely for a team coming off a National League East title.
But Atlanta heads into the 2014 season with a slightly different narrative at the forefront, as the season-ending surgeries to Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen and the additions of Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang have rocked the rotation.
Will the Braves be able to thrive amid the chances to the staff? What’s next for Gold Glove/Platinum Glove-winning shortstop Andrelton Simmons? And what about one of ’13’s biggest surprises, Chris Johnson? Here are five bold predictions for Atlanta in ’14.
Medlen’s rise since the 2012 All-Star Break has been well documented, with a 2.40 ERA that is second only to the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw among starters with at least 250 innings. That’s been stated time and time again.
That consistency saw him total 22 quality starts last season as the Braves led the majors in that department with 102 (nine more than anyone else) and losing him, along with Beachy, whose second Tommy John comeback was derailed, hurts. But Atlanta’s rotation may be in a position to be just as reliable in ’14 behind a top three of Mike Minor, Ervin Santana and Julio Teheran.
It was Minor that led the Braves with 23 QS last year and he established himself as a workhorse last year as the only Atlanta player over 200 innings pitched and he saw his walk rate fall and his strikeout rate rise. While he won’t be available until at least mid-April after dealing with left shoulder tendinitis, there’s no reason to expect a drop-off this season.
Teheran, dominant from May 9 on as he posted a 2.86 ERA with 150 K’s and 37 walks, had an impressive spring overall (1.80 ERA, 26 strikeouts and four walks in 25 innings pitched), though it tailed off by allowing a combined four earned in his last two starts. He’s already shown the swagger of an ace and has earned the Opening Day start.
While no one would have predicted Santana would be on this staff back in February, he provides another innings-eater (204 2/3 with the Royals in ’13) and is coming off 23 QS — and a signing that shows that the Braves are all-in despite the injuries.
Like Minor, Santana won’t be ready to start the season and is expected back in the season’s opening weeks. It leaves the Braves with a rotation of Teheran, recent addition Aaron Harang, Alex Wood and David Hale/Gus Schlosser.
Should Wood (3.54 ERA in 11 starts) continue the promise of his rookie year, Harang — whose fastball has, per general manager Frank Wren, been clocked at 90-91 mph — and Hale (0.82 ERA in a very small sample size of two ’13 starts) or Schlosser (never pitched above Double-A) provide any stability to the backend, this is a rotation that should have flexibility for the returns of Minor, Santana and, by late-April/May Gavin Floyd.
The opening weeks could be difficult until reinforcements arrive, but if the Braves are faced with a May reality of a staff of Floyd, Minor, Santana, Teheran and Harang/Wood (which can offer the opportunity to limit the 22-year-old Wood’s innings), it’s a much stronger position than things looked when Beachy and Medlen’s seasons were hanging in the balance.
The defense is undeniable. In his first full season, Andrelton Simmons led the majors with 41 defensive run saved, was second in UZR/150 (31.6) and fourth in UZR (24.6).
The 24-year-old shortstop was rewarded with a five-year, $58 million extension with the expectation that the bat will catch up the glove-work, if just a little bit, after Simmons hit .248/.296/.396 last season with a surprising 17 home runs.
The major projection services aren’t expecting another power outburst, with the Steamer and Oliver groups Fan Graphs uses forecasting Simmons at 13 and 15 HRs, respectively, while Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA expecting 11. Those numbers seem low given that Simmons arrived at camp heavier and that last year’s line drive rate (18.5 percent) wasn’t that much higher than what we saw from his rookie season (17.0).
PECOTA predicts a slash line of .264/.308/.393 and given what we saw of Simmons as ’13 wore on — from July 2 on, he struck out 23 times in 317 plate appearances — it’s a strong baseline for a player that is positioned to establish himself among the best overall shortstops in the game with an uptick offensively.
Dan Uggla showed signs of a turnaround this spring, hitting hit .269/.403/.538 with four HRs and 14 RBI and he led the Braves with 12 walks.
Dan Uggla may never be the player that hit .263/.349/.488 from 2006-10, but Uggla stands a very good chance of rebounding after last season’s .179 average, the lowest of any qualifying player.
The spring has been a very positive sign, as Uggla hit .269/.403/.538 with four HRs and 14 RBI. He also leads the team in walks (12) and is second in strikeouts (18).
Basically, Uggla’s Three True Outcome ways aren’t going anywhere, as 34 of his 64 Grapefruit League plate appearances resulted in a HR, walk or strikeout. But where the positive forecast lies is that the spring numbers show Uggla is able to make contact, with 14 hits overall.
He’s never had a trouble with plate discipline in regards to chasing bad pitches, though last year’s Z-Contact percentage (contact on pitches in the zone) was his worst at 75.9 and his overall contact rate was at 66.9, also his lowest in eight years. The eye issues may have played into that, but he also saw just 44.1 percent of pitches in the zone overall, the fewest he’s ever seen.
The key is, quite obviously, the strikeouts. If he can decrease a rate that last year climbed to a staggering 31.8 percent and get closer to his career average of 24.1 percent, Uggla could be in for a strong season. His spring rate sat around 27.8, which is at least a sign that things have improved in that department, if ever so slightly.
The state of B.J. Upton’s game is also a hot topic and, much like Upton, Braves brass have been raving about his mindset and approach as he hit .267/.343/.383 line — and he’s running with a team-high four steals.
Expectedly, how these two react after their worst season as pros is going to be closely monitored.
Broken down in further detail here, Jason Heyward will make major league history when Fredi Gonzalez turns in the Braves’ lineup card on March 31 as he’ll become the tallest Opening Day leadoff man ever at 6-foot-5.
It’s a role that Heyward thrived in during his injury-riddled ’13, cutting through the team’s struggles — Atlanta was 12th in the majors at the top spot, hitting .261/.315/.383 — to hit .322/.403/.551 with six home runs over 30 games. To put that line into perspective, it’s nearly .100 points higher than what Heyward hit at second, his usual spot in the lineup.
Certainly having a player with power potential at leadoff at least, theoretically, limits his run-producing ability, he didn’t prove a source of steals (Heyward had zero steals and was caught once) in the role and overall, a 10.9 walk rate is above average but could increase to maximize his effectiveness.
But Heyward provided a spark that no other Braves player consistently could in the role and now he’s had an offseason to prepare for the role full-time. So far so good, as he posted a .380 OBP in the spring.
Coming off a season in which Chris Johnson hit .321, manager Fredi Gonzalez is looking at hitting the third baseman fourth in the order.
Another run at a batting title may not be in the cards, as Chris Johnson finished second to the Rockies’ Michael Cuddyer last year with a .321 average, but don’t believe that we’re going to see a dramatic slip from the third baseman, because ’13 was only an elevated version of exactly the type of player Johnson’s past says he is.
Johnson set a Braves record for batting average on balls in play (an absurd .394), but he’s a career .361 in that department, with his four full major league seasons producing BABIPs of .387, .317, .354., all above the average of .290-.310. Simply put, he has a knack for putting the balls where defenders aren’t, and coupled with a career line drive percentage of 24.9 (it was at 27 last season), and a fly ball rate of 31.5 (27.5 in ’13), last season wasn’t an aberration.
Johnson certainly didn’t offer any glimpses of a letdown this spring, hitting .265/.282/.397 with 10 RBI in 68 at-bats.
Gonzalez is clearly a believer. After he had more than 100 at-bats in the fifth, sixth and eight spots in the order, Gonzalez is looking at hitting Johnson fourth. That comes despite being an atypical presence there having never hit more than 15 home runs in a season, with 12 last year. Evan Gattis was being considered for that spot, but now the catcher could be sixth or seventh (depending where Uggla fits in).
"I like Chris Johnson (at cleanup)," Gonzalez told reporters earlier this week. "He gives you good at-bats. And he’s a guy thatâs not going to change his approach. He’s going to put the ball in play. He uses the whole field and has some big at-bats."