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.

Red Sox analyst Remy struck by monitor as wind causes havoc

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AP Photo
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BOSTON — Red Sox TV analyst Jerry Remy was hit in the head by a falling TV monitor as swirling winds caused havoc during the first inning at Fenway Park.

Remy was sent home from Boston’s game Saturday night against the Minnesota Twins but is expected back Sunday. Former player Steve Lyons, also an analyst during some games, came in for Remy.

The strong winds made for an interesting first.

Minnesota’s Robbie Grossman hit a fly that appeared headed for center, but a gust blew it to right, sending right fielder Michael Martinez twisting as the ball fell for a triple.

There were a handful of stoppages as dirt and litter swirled around the field. Batters stepped out to wipe their eyes and Red Sox first baseman Hanley Ramirez headed to the dugout to have a trainer help him clear his left eye.

White Sox ace Chris Sale scratched for ‘clubhouse incident’

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Getty Images
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CHICAGO — Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale was scratched from his start against the Detroit Tigers on Saturday night after he was involved in what the team said was a “non-physical clubhouse incident.”

Sale, who was to attempt to become the majors’ first 15-game winner, was sent home from the park.

“The incident, which was non-physical in nature, currently is under further investigation by the club,” general manager Rick Hahn said in a statement. “The White Sox will have no additional comment until the investigation is completed.”

The White Sox clubhouse was open to reporters for only 20 minutes before it was closed for a team meeting before the game. Manager Robin Ventura did not discuss the incident later in his pregame availability.

Right-hander Matt Albers started in Sale’s place and the White Sox planned to use multiple relievers. The crowd booed when Albers was announced as the starter as the teams warmed up.

Sale had been shown as the starter on the scoreboard until about 15 minutes before the scheduled first pitch, which was delayed 10 minutes by rain.

With the White Sox fading from playoff contention, Sale’s name has been mentioned as a possible trade target for contending teams.

The left-hander, 14-3 with a 3.18 ERA, has been outspoken in the past.

Sale was openly critical of team president Ken Williams during spring training when he said the son of teammate Adam LaRoche would no longer be allowed in the clubhouse. LaRoche retired as a result, and Sale hung LaRoche’s jersey in his locker.

The 27-year-old Sale has said he’d like to stay in Chicago. He was the 13th overall pick out of Florida Gulf Coast in 2010 and has been selected as an All-Star five times. He started for the American League in this month’s All-Star Game.

Sale, who is 71-43 in his career, entered the day leading the majors with 133 innings pitched and three complete games.

In his last outing Monday, Sale allowed one hit over eight shutout innings before closer David Robertson gave up four runs in the ninth in Chicago’s loss to Seattle.

The White Sox, who started 23-10, had dropped eight of nine games before Saturday and sat in fourth place in the AL Central, creating speculation that Sale and fellow lefty Jose Quintana could be dealt.

Hahn said Thursday the White Sox were “mired in mediocrity” and hinted at possible big roster changes.

Tigers GM Al Avila said before the game that many teams were looking for starting pitching.

“Yet there are not as many good starting pitchers available,” Avila said. “And the guys that may come available are going to come at a steep price.