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.

And That Happened: Monday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Reds 10, Braves 4: The good news: the game went on despite the bad forecast I was worried about yesterday. The bad news: I still didn’t go because (a) I am still sick with the crap I had over the weekend; and (b) in light of that it didn’t seem like a great idea to take a 200-mile, drugged-up round trip with the possibility of sitting in rain delays and getting back home after midnight to see it. So, bad news: I missed my first big league game of the season. Good news: I took more NyQuil and went to bed at 9:30 and slept until after 6, so maybe I’m on the mend. Not that most of you care about that. What you do care about is that Atlanta jumped out to a 2-0 lead and then the wheels fell off with the Reds tying it up on a two-run Scott Schebler homer in the fifth and then scoring five in the sixth, with Jesse Winker‘s bases-loaded single putting them ahead for good. Schebler would later single in another run. Jim Riggleman gets his first win as Reds manager. The game was played in front of the smallest crowd at Great American Ball Park in nine years — 9,463 — so maybe everyone else was home taking NyQuil too.

Yankees 14, Twins 1: Miguel Andujar homered and doubled, Giancarlo Stanton went 4-for-4 with a homer and Didi Gregorius hit a grand slam. Gleyber Torres got his first big league hit. Paul Molitor brought in outfielder Ryan LaMarre to pitch in the eighth and Tyler Austin hit a two-run homer off of him on his four-RBI night. One of them nights, I guess. Andujar is 15-for-29 with eight doubles, a triple and three home runs in his last seven games. That’s hot, my friends.

Indians 2, Orioles 1: Kevin Gausman pitched well — allowing only two runs on four hits over eight innings, including one inning in which he struck out the side in nine pitches — but Carlos Carrasco pitched better, allowing one run on six hits in seven and a third. Yonder Alonso‘s two-run homer in the second was Gausman’s only mistake, but it was a big enough mistake to give the Indians the win.

Athletics 9. Rangers 4: Marcus Semien led off the ninth inning with the game tied at 3. His homer gave the A’s the lead and his teammates piled on five more runs, all with two outs, off of Ranger relievers Kevin Jepsen and Jesse Chavez. Oakland has won seven of eight games and is now 12-11. Not bad for the consensus last place team in the AL West.

White Sox 10, Mariners 4: The White Sox had been losing badly and losing big of late, so putting up seven runs in the first two innings had to make them feel better, at least for one day. They started the game with seven straight hits. Jose Abreu hit two homers and had four hits in all, and six other Pale Hose had an RBI each. Yoan Moncada went 3-for-5 and scored three times.

Angels 2, Astros 0Tyler Skaggs tossed seven shutout innings and Justin Anderson and Keynan Middleton each blanked Houston for a frame to complete the shutout. A Kole Calhoun RBI single and a Justin Upton RBI double was all the scoring the Halos needed. The loss snapped Houston’s six-game winning streak.

Padres 13, Rockies 5: San Diego jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first but it was 4-4 after the bottom half of the inning. The Rockies scored once in the third but the Padres put up nine in the seventh, and that is usually too much to overcome, even in Coors Field. Carlos Asuaje homered and drove in four, Wil Myers had four hits and drove in two and Franchy Cordero, Cory Spangenberg and Matt Szczur each drove in a couple as well.

Dodgers 2, Marlins 1: Welcome to the big leagues, Walker Buehler. The Dodgers prospect made his big league debut and shut out the Marlins for five innings, striking out five while struggling a bit with his command. He didn’t get the win because Jaime Garcia was pretty stingy, allowing only one run over six, but Enrique Hernandez homered in the fourth and Cody Bellinger hit a sac fly in the eighth to give the Dodgers the win. The Dodgers remain hot, moving to 11-10 with their seventh win in eight games.

Giants 4, Nationals 2: The Giants beat the Nats thanks in part to a Mac Williamson two-run homer that flew 464 feet and another run he knocked in via a fielder’s choice. Buster Posey also singled in a run. All the Nats could muster on offense was a pair of sac flies. They were supposed to run away with the NL East but they’re in fourth place, 5.5 games out. It’s early, but no, that’s not what you want.