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.

Evan Longoria: “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base.”

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The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.