2013 Preview: Atlanta Braves

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Atlanta Braves.

The Big Question: is there life after Chipper Jones?

Sure there is. Because for as good as his final year was — and every year before that — Jones still only managed to play in 112 games last season and only managed to play in more than 140 games once in his final nine seasons. I’m not meaning to suggest that Jones was some sort of liability, obviously, but the fact is that the Braves had to replace Jones often in the last decade of his career, just not all at once. This is not like losing Lou Gehrig here.

But he certainly does create something of a leadership vacuum. For years this didn’t matter all that much on the Braves as Bobby Cox was the dominant figure in Atlanta, but under Fredi Gonzalez, Jones certainly stepped up by all accounts.  As we’ve said many times before, it’s impossible to quantify leadership. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a thing, and as you look up and down the Braves’ roster, you notice a distinct lack of guys with either years under their belt, years in Atlanta under their belt, or the reputation as leadership types. I’m not suggesting that this will be the difference between the Braves winning and losing, but it may be the single biggest impact of Jones’ departure.

What else is going on?

  • Obviously the production matters more than anything, so what of it? While many have been inclined to say the Braves loaded for bear over the offseason, it’s not at all clear that the offense is substantially improved over last year. Yes, B.J. and Justin Upton have arrived, but losing Chipper, Martin Prado and Michael Bourn is pretty damn significant, as they were all offensive contributors and two of them were strong defensive contributors.
  • There are other factors that may make this less of a problem than it seems, though. The key offensive contributors — Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons and the Uptons — are all young and, for the most part, improving. If any of them had their single best year n 2013 it would not be some fluke given their ages and a couple of them — particularly Simmons — can certainly be expected to take a big leap forward. If most of them do, people may be asking “Chipper, Martin, and Michael who?”
  • But with great power comes great strikeoutability. And boy howdy are the Braves gonna strike out a lot. They were the most whiffingest team in all of baseball last year and the additions, including Jones replacements Juan Francisco and/or Chris Johnson, along with old reliable hackers like Dan Uggla, are gonna make Turner Field a pretty breezy place indeed. There is some serious power potential here. Serious slump potential. Serious Three True Outcomes potential. It’s gonna be quite the scene, man.
  • Over to pitching, it’s not saying much to say the Braves’ bullpen is the best in the game. Craig Kimbrel is an absolute assassin. The setup trio of Johnny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty and Jordan Walden are pretty impressive too. Bullpens exhibit great variance from year to year — and it’s possible that Venters will never be what he was a couple of years ago — but Fredi Gonzalez has an awful lot to work with once the starters tire.
  • About those starters: it’s a good group. Not a great group, and this is where I think the biggest difference between the Nationals and the Braves truly lies. Kris Medlen was fantastic last season and may very well be a number one starter, but he obviously will not repeat the performance he put up in 2012. Behind him are Tim Hudson, Mike Minor, Paul Maholm and most likely Julio Teheran. In the second half of the season a returning-from-Tommy John surgery Brandon Beachy could join them. All of them are capable of quite good things and, at times anyway, I feel like Hudson has one more truly dominant season left. But it’s more likely that the Braves have a collection of solid number three starters. Which can certainly work — you want rotation health and you want to avoid disaster starts from guys who belong in Triple-A — but none of these guys are “we need you to pitch one game vs. the Martians for the survival of Humankind” material.

Prediction: Second place, National League East. Likely wild card winner.

A child was carried out of Yankee Stadium after being hit by a foul ball

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A scary thing just happened in Yankee Stadium. A young fan, it appeared to be a young girl, sitting down the left-field line was struck by a Todd Frazier foul ball. Play was halted on the field as she was attended to. They carried her out, not waiting for a stretcher to come. It was hard to see how bad her injuries were, but those on the field — including Eduardo Escobar of the Twins — were visibly shaken.

Major League Baseball has encouraged — not demanded or required, but merely encouraged — teams to extend netting farther down the foul lines in the name of fan safety. Many teams have done so. The Yankees have not, and have remained somewhat non-committal about it all.

We’ll provide an update of the girl’s condition once it is known.

Everything you wanted to know about collusion but were afraid to ask

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Most of you are likely aware of baseball’s history of collusion. Specifically, the three instances between 1985 and 1988 when the league, the owners and their general managers entered into a conspiracy to suppress salaries by agreeing to share information and to not to sign free agents away from other teams. The scheme, which violated the explicit terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, led to a series of arbitrations which resulted in the owners being forced to pay the players $280 million in damages.

While you may know that large-arc story of collusion, there is an awful lot of stuff relating to it all that is seldom talked about. Interesting stuff which, despite its genesis over 30 years ago still impacts baseball to this very day. If you want to hear some talk about that, I was on the This Week in Baseball History podcast with Michael Bates and Bill Parker last night, and we talked about it, all in honor of the first decision in the three collusion cases which came down 30 years ago this week.

We covered a lot of topics you may not know arose out of the collusion cases. For example:

  • Did you know that the collusion cases led more or less directly to the existence of the Marlins, Rockies, Rays and Diamondbacks?
  • Did you know that it led, eventually, to Bud Selig becoming commissioner?
  • Did you know that it contributed greatly to the 1994-95 labor impasse which led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series?
  • Did you know that it spun off litigation that continued for nearly 20 years after the collusion plan, so that in the year 2005 people were STILL talking about what Steve freakin’ Garvey was supposed to earn back in the 1980s?
  • Did you know that, in one key respect, the collusion cases of the 1980s had their genesis in something Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale did back in 1966?

Maybe you knew some of that, maybe you didn’t, but it was all kinda wild. If the topic interests you, I highly recommend you take a listen to the podcast. We go light on the legalities, heavier on talking about stuff like what might’ve happened if Kirk Gibson signed with the Royals in 1986 and never made it to the Dodgers in 1988. It’s baseball talk that you may not hear every day.