In the ’90s, the Braves were assured a spot in the playoffs. October baseball had become so common fans practically took it for granted. With a trio of Hall of Fame starters in Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux, and a lineup featuring Justice, McGriff and Chipper, it is no wonder the organization put together 14 consecutive divisional titles. After a few seasons of rebuilding, the Braves are back with a new group of stars and a winning mindset. However a series of unpleasant injuries have beset the team making a repeat October appearance all the more challenging.
Two of the Braves best pitchers are already lost for the season. Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy each are done following Tommy John surgery and Mike Minor opens the year on the DL. Melden and Minor throw over 190 innings so replacing them is a tough task. The Braves just released veteran Freddy Garcia and signed Ervin Santana for one year, $14.1 million. Santana waited all winter for a multi-year deal but it never materialized. Instead he is an insurance policy for the other starters. Santana provides good depth and has the gift of an elastic arm. He should be effective in his first NL season. Julio Tehran takes over as the ace of the rotation. At only 23 with 15 career wins, he has the benefit of three MLB seasons. He posted a 3.20 ERA with a 1.17 WHIP and 3.2 WAR. The Braves will lean on Tehran to pitch deep into games. The new high workload could be taxing but Tehran has demonstrated a workhorse mentality. He is up for the task and will have a breakout year for the team desperately needing pitching help. Santana follows with rookies Gus Schlosser and David Hale in the backend. Veteran Aaron Harang is competing for the last rotation spot but if he struggles Garcia could be re-signed. There is too much uncertainty surrounding Schlosser and Hale. Both have electric and overpowering fastballs but have yet to pitch more than 20 innings in the Majors. It is too early to predict their success.
Even with the loss of All-Star catcher Brian McCann to free agency, the Braves still have one of the most potent lineups in the NL. Freddie Freeman just signed the biggest contract in team history during the offseason. At 23, he has yet to reach the prime of his career as his best years are still ahead. He should post big numbers this season. Andrelton Simmons is already be the best player from the Netherlands. The slick fielding shortstop has the glove of Omar Vizquel but needs to make improvements offensively. He had a 6.7 WAR but only a .296 OBP. He needs to draw more walks and show patience during his at-bats to increase his power numbers. Look for Simmons to be more aggressive on the base paths as well. A 20-20 year very likely. After hitting 27 homers in 2012, Jason Hayward battled through injuries playing in only 104 games last year. When healthy, Hayward has produced well and still remains one of the game’s better young players. After four years, he is poised for a breakout season but that revolves around avoiding the DL. Justin Upton endeared himself to Braves fans after a fast start hitting 12 homers in April. He cooled down mightily finishing the year with 27 home runs but provided solid protection hitting behind Freeman. Upton should have another solid season while seeing his batting average and RBIs go up. His brother, B.J., on the other hand was happy to see 2013 end. He had a forgettable season posting career-lows in every category. B.J. is signed to a big contract but if his struggles continue, perhaps a change in scenery is best for both parties. Like B.J., Dan Uggla went through a nightmare performance. He hit under the Mendoza-line at .179 and was eventually replaced by utility player Tyler Terdoslavish. Do not expect Uggla to enjoy the southern hospitality if he cannot return to his All-Star numbers. Both could be traded by the July deadline for pitching help. Evan Gattis takes over for McCann as the starting catcher. El Oso Blanco (Spanish for “The White Bear”) became an immediate fan favorite. From the seventh inning on in games with the score within one run, he hit seven homers (second-most) and slugged .864 (first). Gattis struggled behind the plate (dWAR of -0.9) and had only 21 walks with a .296 OBP. However the former janitor and ski-lift operator is not one to let this unique opportunity slip. He worked hard during the offseason to make positive strides in his all-around game. Gattis could have a home 30 homer, 100 RBI year.
Pitching is a dime a dozen. Even if Tehran elevates his game, the Braves will not be able to overcome the loss of two prime starters. The offense will put up good numbers but with two rookies in an inexperienced rotation, it will be difficult to keep up with the other playoff-tested teams. The Braves will make a push for the Wild Card but unless players step up or a trade is made to bring in another front-end starter, October baseball is a long shot in Atlanta.
All stats are courtesy of http://www.baseball-reference.com/.