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.

And That Happened: Thursday’s scores and highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Rays 2, Red Sox 1Mikie Mahtook had been hitless in 34 straight at-bats before hitting a go-ahead double in the seventh. If it first you don’t succeed, try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try again.

Nationals 4, Orioles 0: The Nats break a four game losing streak thanks to Max Scherzer‘s eight shutout innings and ten strikeouts. Jayson Werth homered in the fourth and Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper each doubled home run(s) in the eighth. Moral victory for the Orioles, though, in trotting out Ubaldo Jimenez and seeing him actually pitch well (6 IP, 5 H, 1 ER) instead of watching him start a tire fire.

Angels 6, Blue Jays 3: A 3-for-4, 4 RBI night for Mike Trout, which puts his batting line at .316/.432/.555. He’s on a pace for 30+ homers, 100+ RBI, nearly 30 stolen bases, leads the league in walks and, as always, has been playing gold glove-caliber defense. My guess is that he finishes third or fourth in MVP balloting.

Mets 10, Cardinals 6Alejandro De Aza hit a three-run homer and drove in five runs in all. That homer doesn’t happen at all if the Cards record out number three on the play before. Which they almost did and would have if not for one of the strangest dang plays you’ll ever see.

Rangers 9, Indians 0: Cole Hamels goes eight shutout innings and allows only two hits to win his 14th game and lower his ERA to 2.67 but, nah, he’s not an ace. Carlos Gomez homered in his first game as a Ranger. Can you imagine the agita Astros fans will feel if Gomez rakes down the stretch for Texas after stinkin’ up the joint as an Astro? In other news, Adrian Beltre drove in three and Jason Kipnis had a lot of fun with Rougned Odor. I’m sure Jose Bautista finds absolutely NOTHING funny about it at all.

Pirates 3, Brewers 2: Andrew McCutchen hit a home run and a pair of RBI singles, one of which proved to be the game-winner in the tenth. Pittsburgh breaks a nine-game losing streak in Miller Park.

Giants 4, Dodgers 0: Obviously the big story here — the one that will lead headlines everywhere this morning — was Matt Moore’s near-no-hitter. I mean, what else could there possibly be to take away from this ga–

Yes. That was EXACTLY the story of this game.

Braves 3, Diamondbacks 1: Lost in Moore’s near no-hit bid was Matt Wisler’s. The Braves starter didn’t allow a hit until the seventh inning and allowed only two overall, producing one run, in eight total innings. Freddie Freeman took a bad tumble trying to make a catch in the stands, smacking his back on an empty seat:

He stayed in the game, but man, that’s one that could’ve been way, way worse.

White Sox 7, Mariners 6: Todd Frazier struck out in his first three at-bats but made his last two count. Frazier tied the game up with an RBI single in the seventh inning and won it with a walkoff single down the left-field line in the ninth. Also in the ninth: three fans running on the field in two separate incidents. David Robertson was on the mound and he didn’t much care for the interruptions:

“The first two guys I was like, `Ok. All right. They’ve got it under control,” Robertson said. “The next guy, I got a little angry there.”

More like Guaranteed Irate field, amirite?

Royals 5, Marlins 2: Alcides Escobar homered, doubled, and drove in two runs but, wow, Jarrod Dyson, man:

Tigers 8, Twins 5: James McCann had four hits including a three-run homer as the Motor City Kitties sweep the Twinkies (note: if MLB is serious about getting young people into the game, all team names should be changed to their cutest possible variants, thereby securing the hearts and fandom of the five-year-old set).

Moore loses no-hitter with 2 outs in 9th, Giants top Dodgers

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LOS ANGELES (AP) San Francisco lefty Matt Moore lost his no-hit bid with two outs in the ninth inning on a soft, clean single by Corey Seager, and the Giants beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-0 Thursday night.

Moore’s try ended on his 133rd pitch. It was Seager Bobblehead Night at Dodger Stadium, and a sellout crowd cheered Moore after the ball plopped onto the grass in shallow right field.

Moore was pulled immediately. Giants manager Bruce Bochy had been pacing in the dugout for a couple of innings as Moore’s pitch count climbed – he missed most of the last two seasons after Tommy John surgery.

Giants center fielder Denard Span sprinted for two outstanding catches, including a leadoff grab in the ninth, to give Moore a chance.

Moore earned his first win for the Giants since they got him in a trade with Tampa Bay on Aug. 1.

The 27-year-old Moore nearly gave San Francisco a major league record five straight years with a no-hitter. And he almost became the first Giants pitcher to no-hit the archrival Dodgers since 1915, when New York’s Rube Marquard stopped Brooklyn.

Moore struck out seven and walked three. Reliever Santiago Casilla needed just one pitch to get the final out.

The win moved the Giants within two games of the NL West-leading Dodgers.