Jason Heyward, Justin Upton

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.

Sanchez hits another home run, Yankees rout Orioles 13-5

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NEW YORK (AP) Rookie Gary Sanchez kept up a most remarkable run, homering for the third straight game as the New York Yankees routed the Baltimore Orioles 13-5 Saturday.

Sanchez hit a drive that bounced off the top of the right-center field wall and over in the fourth inning. He reached 11 career home runs faster than anyone in major league history – 23 games, including two hitless games last year.

After the switch-hitting catcher connected, the crowd of 38,843 emphatically chanted his name. Mark Teixeira stepped out of the batter’s box, pausing the game and allowing the 23-year-old to tip his batting helmet to the fans from the top of the dugout steps.

Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks also homered as the Yankees won their fourth in a row. A day after trouncing the Orioles 14-4, New York moved within 2 1/2 games of them for the second AL wild-card spot.

Chris Davis homered twice and Mark Trumbo hit his big league-leading 39th home run for Baltimore, which has dropped three straight.

Sanchez is now hitting .400 with 21 RBIs in 21 games this year.

Castro had four hits and drove in three runs, Hicks also drove in three runs and Brian McCann got three hits and drove in two.

Every Yankees starter has gotten a hit in back-to-back games for the first time since July 26-27, 2009.

Tommy Layne (1-1) pitched a scoreless inning for the win.

Dylan Bundy (7-5) gave up five runs in four innings.

The Yankees got 18 hits and drew seven walks. For all that offensive output, it was a disputed play on the bases that put them ahead.

Baltimore led 2-1 in the third when with two outs, singles by Teixeira, Didi Gregorius and Castro brought home the tying run.

With runners at the corners, Castro broke for second. Catcher Matt Wieters‘ throw was then cut off by shortstop J.J. Hardy as Gregorius tried to steal home.

Hardy’s throw appeared to be in time, but Gregorius neatly tucked in his right arm and extended his left arm across home plate.

Umpire Ron Kulpa called Gregorius out, but the Yankees challenged and the ruling was overturned. After the review, McCann hit an RBI double for a 4-2 lead.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Yankees: McCann returned to the starting lineup after being away following the death of his grandmother.

Orioles: CF Adam Jones was held out of the lineup after aggravating his hamstring injury on Friday. He tried to talk his way into starting, manager Buck Showalter said.

UP NEXT

Orioles: RHP Kevin Gausman (5-10, 3.92 ERA) is set to make his fourth start this season against the Yankees. He’s 0-1 in the previous three outings despite a 1.31 ERA.

Yankees: LHP CC Sabathia (8-10, 4.33) was originally scheduled to pitch Monday in Kansas City. But manager Joe Girardi made a switch, starting Sabathia instead of RHP Michael Pineda. Manager Joe Girardi cited Baltimore’s better numbers against right-handed pitching and the Royals’ success vs. lefties.

Urias matures on mound in Dodgers’ 3-2 win over Cubs

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Julio Urias allowed one run over six innings, Corey Seager set a Dodgers franchise record for a shortstop with his 23rd home run and Los Angeles defeated the Chicago Cubs 3-2 on Saturday to even the series between NL division leaders.

Urias (5-2) pitched better at home than the last time he faced the Cubs. The rookie left-hander made his second career start in Chicago on June 2 and gave up six runs – five earned – and eight hits in five innings while serving up three homers.

This time, he allowed six hits and tied a career high with eight strikeouts and two walks. He is 4-0 in six games (four starts) since the All-Star break.

Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his 38th save a day after allowing a run on a wild pitch in the ninth in a 6-4, 10-inning loss.

The Cubs’ four-game winning streak ended behind the shortest outing of the season from Jason Hammel (13-7). He gave up three runs and five hits in 2 1/3 innings.

The right-hander was coming off a poor performance against Colorado, allowing a season-high 10 runs (six earned) in 3 1/3 innings of an 11-4 loss. Hammel remained winless in nine career games (six starts) at Dodger Stadium.

The Cubs’ rally in the seventh came up short. They got to 3-2 on pinch-hitter Jason Heyward‘s RBI single off reliever Pedro Baez.

Heyward got caught stealing, and Baez walked Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant before getting Anthony Rizzo on an inning-ending grounder.

Los Angeles took a 3-1 lead in the third on RBI singles by Chase Utley and Justin Turner. Utley’s hit was the third straight given up by Hammel to start the inning.

Seager tied the game at 1 in the first, giving him the most homers by a Dodgers shortstop in franchise single-season history. He broke the old mark of 22 set by Glenn Wright in 1930.

The Cubs led 1-0 in the first on Rizzo’s RBI single.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Cubs: RHP John Lackey (right shoulder strain) will throw a bullpen session on Monday in Chicago.

Dodgers: OF Scott Van Slyke won’t play again this season. He’s on the DL with right wrist irritation after being out nearly two months earlier in the season with low back irritation. “He doesn’t have the range of motion he needs to contribute,” manager Dave Roberts said. … LHP Clayton Kershaw (mild disk irritation) will face hitters in a simulated game on Tuesday in Los Angeles, Rancho Cucamonga or Arizona.

AT THE TURNSTILES

The announced attendance of 49,522 pushed the Dodgers over the 3 million mark for the fifth consecutive year and made them the first team in the majors to top that number this season.

DAY TRIPPIN’

The game featured the major leagues’ top two clubs in day games. The Dodgers improved to 24-11, while the Cubs fell to 38-21. Los Angeles came in averaging over a run more during the day (5.56) than at night (4.17).

UP NEXT

Cubs: LHP Jon Lester (14-4, 2.81 ERA) is 1-1 with a 4.05 ERA in two career starts at Dodger Stadium. The team is 7-0 in his last seven starts.

Dodgers: RHP Brock Stewart (0-2, 11.25) makes his third career major league start after being recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma City on Friday. He last pitched on Aug. 19 against Albuquerque, allowing four hits in five scoreless innings.