2013 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 2013 season. Up next: The Atlanta Braves.

The Big Question: is there life after Chipper Jones?

Sure there is. Because for as good as his final year was — and every year before that — Jones still only managed to play in 112 games last season and only managed to play in more than 140 games once in his final nine seasons. I’m not meaning to suggest that Jones was some sort of liability, obviously, but the fact is that the Braves had to replace Jones often in the last decade of his career, just not all at once. This is not like losing Lou Gehrig here.

But he certainly does create something of a leadership vacuum. For years this didn’t matter all that much on the Braves as Bobby Cox was the dominant figure in Atlanta, but under Fredi Gonzalez, Jones certainly stepped up by all accounts.  As we’ve said many times before, it’s impossible to quantify leadership. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a thing, and as you look up and down the Braves’ roster, you notice a distinct lack of guys with either years under their belt, years in Atlanta under their belt, or the reputation as leadership types. I’m not suggesting that this will be the difference between the Braves winning and losing, but it may be the single biggest impact of Jones’ departure.

What else is going on?

  • Obviously the production matters more than anything, so what of it? While many have been inclined to say the Braves loaded for bear over the offseason, it’s not at all clear that the offense is substantially improved over last year. Yes, B.J. and Justin Upton have arrived, but losing Chipper, Martin Prado and Michael Bourn is pretty damn significant, as they were all offensive contributors and two of them were strong defensive contributors.
  • There are other factors that may make this less of a problem than it seems, though. The key offensive contributors — Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons and the Uptons — are all young and, for the most part, improving. If any of them had their single best year n 2013 it would not be some fluke given their ages and a couple of them — particularly Simmons — can certainly be expected to take a big leap forward. If most of them do, people may be asking “Chipper, Martin, and Michael who?”
  • But with great power comes great strikeoutability. And boy howdy are the Braves gonna strike out a lot. They were the most whiffingest team in all of baseball last year and the additions, including Jones replacements Juan Francisco and/or Chris Johnson, along with old reliable hackers like Dan Uggla, are gonna make Turner Field a pretty breezy place indeed. There is some serious power potential here. Serious slump potential. Serious Three True Outcomes potential. It’s gonna be quite the scene, man.
  • Over to pitching, it’s not saying much to say the Braves’ bullpen is the best in the game. Craig Kimbrel is an absolute assassin. The setup trio of Johnny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty and Jordan Walden are pretty impressive too. Bullpens exhibit great variance from year to year — and it’s possible that Venters will never be what he was a couple of years ago — but Fredi Gonzalez has an awful lot to work with once the starters tire.
  • About those starters: it’s a good group. Not a great group, and this is where I think the biggest difference between the Nationals and the Braves truly lies. Kris Medlen was fantastic last season and may very well be a number one starter, but he obviously will not repeat the performance he put up in 2012. Behind him are Tim Hudson, Mike Minor, Paul Maholm and most likely Julio Teheran. In the second half of the season a returning-from-Tommy John surgery Brandon Beachy could join them. All of them are capable of quite good things and, at times anyway, I feel like Hudson has one more truly dominant season left. But it’s more likely that the Braves have a collection of solid number three starters. Which can certainly work — you want rotation health and you want to avoid disaster starts from guys who belong in Triple-A — but none of these guys are “we need you to pitch one game vs. the Martians for the survival of Humankind” material.

Prediction: Second place, National League East. Likely wild card winner.

And That Happened: Sunday’s scores and highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Orioles 6, Yankees 3: Tim Beckham hit two homers and drove in three to help the Orioles come back from a 3-0 deficit to win the game and avoid the series sweep. Baltimore finishes the year 7-12 against the Yankees which, given how bad they are overall, is actually pretty dang good. If the Yankees fall behind the A’s in this last week and end up having to travel to Oakland for the Wild Card game, I think the Orioles should take credit for that. Print up t-shirts and everything.

Rays 5, Blue Jays 2: Blake Snell tossed shutout ball into the seventh, struck out 11 dudes and won his 21st game on the season. His ERA went down to 1.90 too, and his Cy Young chances, I suspect, went up to about 98%. Snell has not lost since before the All-Star break. C.J. Cron and Brandon Lowe homered for the Rays and Tommy Pham reached base three times. The season will, effectively, be over for them in the next couple of days, but it has been a hell of a second half. That’s worth celebrating if you’re a Rays fan. It’s probably also worth wondering if they couldn’t have done a couple of things differently early in the season to have made them a few games better. Rays fans get pissed at me for saying stuff like that, but sorry, fans of every team should think that way in these sorts of situations. To not do so is to be a fan of a front office, not the fan of a baseball team.

Cardinals 9, Giants 2: Miles Mikolas had no trouble with a Giants lineup which looked like it was already in offseason mode, Matt Carpenter homered and St. Louis swept San Francisco. They’ve won six of seven overall. They’re two back of the Brewers and host them for three games starting tonight. I’m in St. Louis right now and I caught the game in Busch on Saturday. I’m here tagging along with my wife who’s on a conference for work and I have to play dutiful spouse at various social functions in the evenings so I don’t think I’ll get to any of these games before I go home, but the cool thing about St. Louis is that Cards games are on virtually everywhere you go. Living in Columbus, where you have to beg bartenders in sports bars to devote even one TV to a baseball game, I forget that that’s not the case everywhere else. Seriously: in Columbus, if there is no football on, the TVs will put on ESPN talk shows and crap before baseball. Even with the sound down. Which, now that I think about it is probably an improvement, but still. Not the case in St. Louis of course. I feel like I watched the whole game yesterday simply by walking around and in and out of places.

Royals 3, Tigers 2: Brad Keller allowed one run over seven, Adalberto Mondesi homered and Cam Gallagher hit a two-run single to give the Royals the win. Thus ends the Tigers home season. It wasn’t great. As I write this I’m watching the Lions game. They’re at home and they’re leading the Patriots in the fourth quarter. I have no idea why I’m watching this — I’m in a hotel room and everything is weird right now, so that’s probably why — but I can’t remember the last time the Lions had more to be proud of than the Tigers. Maybe it’s the End Times? I dunno. Maybe me just watching football is a sign of the End Times.

Marlins 6, Reds 0: It must’ve been “dude most of you have never heard of tossed seven shutout innings” day yesterday because it feels like several of them did so. Here it was Trevor Richards doing it. Yes, THE Trevor Richards. Chad Wallach hit a three-run homer. I probably should’ve known that Tim Wallach’s kid was a ballplayer but I did not and I do this for a living, so don’t feel too bad about you not knowing who Trevor Richards was. Also: the Marlins had traded Wallach to the Reds back in 2014 in the Mat Latos deal. They got him back on waivers last winter. It’s gotta hurt Cincinnati a little to have a castoff beat you like this.

Braves 2, Phillies 1: The Braves put out the post-clinch hangover lineup against the Phillies ace and still finished off the sweep. Gotta say, I thought the Phillies were gonna have more fight than this but the late season whimper from this club has been quite the thing. Lane Adams homered and drove in both of the Braves’ runs and Anibal Sanchez of all people got the win after allowing just one run five innings. The Braves have a chance to earn home field for the NLDS against, probably, the Dodgers by holding up in the final week. If they have a great week and the Cubs crater they could get home field in the NL playoffs. Doubtful, but still possible.

Mets 8, Nationals 6Michael Conforto hit a go-ahead, bases-loaded triple in the fourth inning and just piled on from there. Jeff McNeil had four hits too, and the Mets took three of four from the Nats. This offseason a lot of people are going to note that the Mets, absent their disastrous May and June, were actually not terrible for most of the year and that with a little more luck with health and some help from the front office they could be a contender in 2019. Then the front office won’t make any moves and they’ll disappoint next season and everyone will act as if it was inevitable even though it isn’t.

Brewers 13, Pirates 6Christian YelichTravis Shaw and Mike Moustakas all hit homers to help Milwaukee win three of four and maintain its two game lead over the Cardinals for the top Wild Card spot. They are two and a half behind the Cubs. Fun play — the Brewers scored three runs on a wild pitch:

My favorite part of that highlight is watching Clint Hurdle chew his gum. I’d be punching walls but I guess that’s why he’s been around so long.

Cubs 6, White Sox 1: Kyle Hendricks pitched one-run ball into the eighth. Kyle Schwarber homered. Ben Zobrist had three hits. Kanye West threw out the first pitch for some reason:

It was also White Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson’s final game. He wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but he was an institution for the Sox.

Astros 6, Angels 2Yuli Gurriel hit a two-run homer and Evan Gattis had three hits and two RBI as the Astros sweep the Angels, but the real story here was Charlie Morton, who left early due to shoulder discomfort which is not what you want this close to the playoffs.

Rangers 6, Mariners 1: Texas put up a four-run sixth inning to take a lead they would not relinquish and Joey Gallo hit a two-run homer in the eighth. Once the Rangers had a safe lead, they took Adrian Beltre out of the game. It may very well have been his final game in Texas, and the fans gave him an ovation for it:

Twins 5, Athletics 1Kyle Gibson allowed one run while pitching into the eighth, Jake Cave hit a two-run homer and the Twins prevented the A’s from celebrating a Wild Card clinch at home. The need one more win or one Rays loss to be ensured of a game next week. They remain one and a half games back of the Yankees and need to catch up in order for that one game to be in Oakland rather than the Bronx.

Dodgers 14, Padres 0: It was Matt Kemp‘s birthday and it was a pretty good one: he went 3-for-4 with a single, double and a homer and drove in three. Everyone on the Dodgers partied yesterday, in fact, as the team banged out 16 hits in a walkover. Even Hyun-Jin Ryu got into the act, pitching six scoreless innings and getting three hits of his own. Max Muncy drove in four runs and he didn’t even start in the game.

Rockies 2, Diamondbacks 0: Kyle Freeland tossed seven shutout innings, scattering seven hits, as the Rockies keep their playoff hopes alive. They remain a game and a half behind both the Dodgers in the NL West and the Cardinals in the Wild Card race. The good news for them is that they get to take on Philly and Washington, each of which is sort of mailing things in right now, in their final two series and they’re at home. The bad news is that they need some help.

Indians 4, Red Sox 3: Greg Allen hit a bases-loaded single to give the Tribe a walkoff win. It was the second 11th inning walkoff win for Cleveland in as many nights, in fact, with Michael Brantley doing the honors on Saturday. There’s a chance these two teams could meet in the ALCS — Boston will have to beat the Wild Card winner in a division series and Cleveland will have to beat Houston — but if this past weekend was any indication, such a matchup could be kinda fun.