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.

The Phillies pulled Jeremy Hellickson back from trade waivers

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 5:  Jeremy Hellickson #58 of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches during the first inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at PETCO Park on August 5, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
Denis Poroy/Getty Images
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CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury reports that a team claimed Phillies starter Jeremy Hellickson on trade waivers, but the two clubs were unable to work out a deal. As a result, the Phillies pulled Hellickson back from trade waivers, which means he’s ineligible to be traded for the rest of the season.

Hellickson, 29, has had a nice bounce-back season after three poor years from 2013-15. He’s 10-8 with a 3.80 ERA and a 131/36 K/BB ratio in 154 innings.

The Phillies could attempt to re-sign Hellickson in the offseason. It’s also possible the club makes a qualifying offer — estimated to be worth $16.7 million — so that the Phillies will at least get back a compensatory draft pick if Hellickson opts to sign elsewhere.

Ever wonder what umpires and players say to each other during arguments?

LAKELAND, FL - FEBRUARY 27:  J.D. Martinez #28 of the Detroit Tigers poses during photo day at Joker Marchant Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Lakeland, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images
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Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez was ejected by home plate umpire Mike Everitt after he struck out looking in the bottom of the sixth inning of Saturday’s game against the Angels. He had a brief conversation with Everitt, which resulted in Martinez getting ejected.

MLive.com’s Evan Boodbery spoke to Martinez about what happened and got a word-for-word recollection of what happened. If you’ve ever wondered what umpires and players say to each other during their arguments, here’s a look:

No one has ever accused umpires of having thick skin.

Martinez finished the game 1-for-3. After an 0-for-4 performance on Sunday, he’s hitting .315/.377/.561 with 18 home runs and 52 RBI in 385 plate appearances.