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.

Yu Darvish will be on 85-90 pitch count in 2016 debut on Saturday

FRISCO, TX - MAY 1:  Pitcher Yu Darvish #11 of the Frisco RoughRiders warms up in the bullpen before taking on the the Corpus Christi Hooks at Dr Pepper Ballpark on May 1, 2016 in Frisco, Texas. Darvish is on Major League rehabilitation assignment with the RoughRiders, the Double-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers.  (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
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Yu Darvish will be limited to 85-90 pitches when he makes his 2016 debut for the Rangers against the Pirates on Saturday, MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan reports. Darvish hasn’t pitched since August 9, 2014 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Pitching coach Doug Brocail said, “That would be a good pitch count. It all depends on how he looks during the game and how many pitches he has. We’re not going to have him go out there and throw 150 pitches. Hopefully he gets out there and uses his fastball to get early outs and uses his pitches wisely and keeps us in the game.”

Darvish has made five minor league rehab appearances beginning on May 1. Over three starts with Double-A Frisco and two with Triple-A Round Rock, the right-hander yielded four runs (two earned) on nine hits and six walks with 21 strikeouts in 20 innings.

Francisco Rodriguez becomes the sixth to join the 400-save club

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 15:  Francisco Rodriguez #57 of the Detroit Tigers pitches in the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 15, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. Detroit won the game 6-5. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
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Tigers closer Francisco Rodriguez protected the Tigers’ lead in the ninth inning for what turned out to be a 3-1 victory. In doing so, he notched his league-leading 14th save of the season and the 400th save of his 15-year career. Rodriguez gave up a leadoff double to Freddy Galvis followed by a Maikel Franco single. However, he was able to retire Tommy Joseph on a sacrifice fly, Ryan Howard on a 4-3 ground out, and Carlos Ruiz on a strikeout to end the game.

Rodriguez is the sixth member of the 400-save club, joining Mariano Rivera (652), Trevor Hoffman (601), Lee Smith (478), John Franco (424), and Billy Wagner (422).

Rodriguez blew a save opportunity on Opening Day, but has gone 14-for-14 since. He carries a 3.57 ERA and a 16/6 K/BB ratio in 17 2/3 innings on the year.

Jose Canseco will participate in a softball home run derby contest in June

LONG BEACH, CA - JULY 16:  Jose Canseco #33 of the Long Beach Armada fields ground balls before the Golden Baseball League game against the Fullerton Flyers on July 16, 2006 at Blair Field in Long Beach, California.  (Photo By Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Former major leaguer Jose Canseco will be a guest at the Frisco Rough Riders game against the Springfield Cardinals on June 4. After the game, he’ll participate in a Home Run Derby Challenge in which he takes on local challengers and attempts to break his own world record for the longest softball home run at 622 feet.

Here’s the link to the Roughl Riders schedule, which offers details on the event.

For those who might not know, the Rough Riders are the Rangers’ Double-A affiliate. Springfield is the Cardinals’ Double-A affiliate.

Matt Harvey’s struggles continue

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 24: Starting pitcher Matt Harvey #33 of the New York Mets works the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on May 24, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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The Mets considered skipping Matt Harvey‘s start against the Nationals on Tuesday, but the right-hander said he wanted to make the start, so the club relented. Harvey has struggled mightily this season, entering the start with a 5.77 ERA and a 43/15 K/BB ratio in 48 1/3 innings.

Harvey was slammed for nine runs (six earned) in 2 2/3 innings in his most recent start against the Nationals last Thursday. He failed to finish the sixth inning in six of nine starts.

Things didn’t get any better for Harvey against the Nationals on Tuesday. He yielded five runs on eight hits — including three home runs — with two walks and a strikeout in five innings. Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, and former teammate Daniel Murphy each clubbed homers against him. Meanwhile, Stephen Strasburg continued to dominate.

One wonders, if there isn’t anything physically wrong with Harvey — and there’s reason to suspect there might be, particularly due to a decline across the board in velocity — the Mets might just put him on the disabled list to give him a couple of weeks to clear his head. Harvey was booed by the home crowd last week, and failing to live up to expectations in New York can put a lot of pressure on a person.