Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four

2014 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 2014 season. Next up: The Atlanta Braves.

The Big Question: Can the Braves follow up on a 96-win season and defend their NL East title?

The Nationals were heavy favorites going into 2013, but it was the Braves who won the NL East crown at season’s end. They relied on a fantastic starting rotation and the league’s best bullpen to stampede their way to 96 wins. Unfortunately for them, they were ousted in the NLDS by the Dodgers in four games.

The Braves weren’t very active in the free agent market during the off-season. They lost catcher Brian McCann (Yankees) and starters Tim Hudson (Giants) and Paul Maholm (Dodgers) while only adding Gavin Floyd, who won’t be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery until mid-to-late May.

Rather than spend on free agents, the Braves spent their off-season signing their core players to contract extensions:

  • Freddie Freeman: eight years, $135 million
  • Andrelton Simmons: seven years, $58 million
  • Julio Teheran: six years, $32.4 million plus $12 million club option for 2020
  • Craig Kimbrel: four years, $42 million plus $13 million club option for 2018
  • Jason Heyward: two years, $13.3 million 

Not only are the Braves returning the same roster that dominated the National League during the regular season with virtually no turnover, they will be seeing the same core of young, productive players for years to come. The Braves will be a force to be reckoned with during the 2014 season.

While not necessary for their continued success, the Braves would like to see rebounds from B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla.

Upton had a miserable 2013, hitting .184 with a .557 OPS in the first year of a five-year, $75.25 million contract. The mechanical issues hidden by gaudy home run and stolen base totals over the years finally came to a head, resulting in Upton finishing as one of baseball’s least productive players. As I wrote about last week, Upton made some mechanical adjustments, which included eliminating his left leg lift and the slide step with his front foot.

Uggla, meanwhile, finished with a .179 average but a comparatively better .671 OPS at second base. He still hit 22 home runs, but finished with a career-low 10 doubles and tied a career-high in strikeouts.

What else is going on? 

  • Simmons is looking to duplicate what was arguably one of the best defensive seasons in baseball history. The Braves shortstop saved 24.6 runs according to Ultimate Zone Rating, found at FanGraphs. He was plus-41 according to Defensive Runs Saved from Baseball Reference. Simmons wasn’t anything to write home about offensively, but was still one of baseball’s most valuable players with his defense alone.
  • Evan Gattis will be looking to reprise his role as power hitter extraordinaire behind the dish now that the Braves are without McCann. Gattis slugged 21 home runs in 382 trips to the plate in his rookie season in 2013, but otherwise left a lot to be desired. He finished with a .291 on-base percentage. If the Braves regress in 2014, it’s very likely to be because they couldn’t replace McCann’s production at the catching position.
  • Many are expecting third baseman Chris Johnson to regress as well. Part of their return in the Martin Prado trade with the Diamondbacks, Johnson hit .321. PECOTA, from Baseball Prospectus, projects Johnson to post a .270 average this season, for example. ZiPS, from FanGraphs, isn’t that much more kind, pegging him at .275. Over 500 at-bats, the 55-point difference would account for 20-25 hits.
  • If Uggla continues to struggle, the Braves could eventually call on prospect Tommy La Stella. With Double-A Mississippi last season, La Stella hit .343 with a .422 on-base percentage. He can certainly hit for a high average at the Major League level, but he doesn’t hit for any power and it remains to be seen if he can handle the speed at which the game is played at the highest level. 

Prediction: Lots of us, including myself, were too high on the Nationals last year. The Nats, though, are a better team now and it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Braves hit hard by regression at third base and catcher. Second place, NL East.

Braves sign Jacob Lindgren to one-year deal

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 29:  Jacob Lindgren #64 of the New York Yankees watches Brett Lawrie #15 of the Oakland Athletics round the bases after he hit a home run in the eighth inning at O.co Coliseum on May 29, 2015 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Braves signed left-handed reliever Jacob Lindgren to a one-year deal, according to a team announcement on Sunday.

Lindgren, the Yankees’ top draft pick in 2014, was nicknamed “The Strikeout Factory” after blowing through four levels of New York’s farm system in 2014. He started the 2015 season in Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and was called up for his major league debut only two months into the 2015 season. The 22-year-old lasted seven innings with the club before succumbing to bone chips in his elbow, and underwent bone spur surgery in June before trying his luck again during spring training in 2016.

In August, the Yankees shut Lindgren down for the remainder of the season so the lefty could undergo Tommy John surgery. With a projected return date of 2018, Lindgren was non-tendered by the Yankees on Friday.

While the Braves won’t get the benefit of Lindgren’s top prospect skill set in their bullpen anytime soon, he will remain under club control if they keep him on their 40-man roster beyond the 2017 season (per ESPN’s Keith Law).

Report: Mark Melancon is fielding several four-year, $60+ million offers

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 13: Mark Melancon #43 of the Washington Nationals works against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the eighth inning during game five of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park on October 13, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Free agent closer Mark Melancon is entertaining at least two offers in the four-year, $60+ million ballpark, reports FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal. The teams thought to be in the running are the Giants and Nationals, with the Giants having a slight edge due to their strong interest in him last summer (per ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick).

Crasnick also said that while the Giants are keeping tabs on the top three free agent closers this winter, the other two being Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman, they’re leaning toward Melancon as a (slightly) more affordable option in the ‘pen. It’s worth noting that Melancon would not cost the Giants a draft pick if they decided to sign him.

Melancon had an outstanding season in 2016, nearly reaching career-best numbers with a 1.64 ERA, 2.42 FIP and 5.42 K/BB rate in 71 1/3 innings split between the Pirates and Nationals’ bullpens. The veteran right-hander earned his third career All-Star distinction after stifling opposing hitters with a 1.23 ERA and 7.9 K/9 rate in the first half, and went on to appear in his fourth consecutive playoff run.

Despite the Giants’ apparent lead in the bidding for Melancon, Rosenthal mentioned a third mystery team who might throw their hat in the ring as well. No clubs have been name-dropped as of yet.