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.

World Series Preview: Marquee starting pitching matchups lead the way

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The Astros were the best team in baseball in 2019, winning 107 games, so everyone expected them to be here. As you’ve heard a thousand times by now the Nationals started out poorly in 2019, standing at 19-31 in late May. After that, however, they went on a 74-38 tear in 112 games. A tear which, if extrapolated to 162 games is a . . . 107-win pace.

Which is to say that, despite whatever the oddsmakers are telling you, this is not quite the mismatch some may want to make it out to be. The Astros are a great team, no question, but the Nationals as they stand right now are a strong match for them. If you doubt it, go ask the Dodgers and Cardinals about whether Washington played like a 93-win Wild Card team when they met in the earlier rounds.

No matter how you think the teams matchup overall, however, you can’t help but love the matchups between the clubs’ starting pitchers.

The Astros feature the top two Cy Young candidates in the American league in Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander and feature a third starter, Zack Greinke, who would be most teams’ ace. The Nationals, meanwhile, counter with Max Scherzer, who won the Cy Young in 2016 and 2017, finished in second place last year and, before for an injury this season, was a strong contender to take home the hardware again. After him comes Stephen Strasburg, also a 2019 Cy Young candidate, and Patrick Corbin, who was last offseason’s big pickup and who won 14 games and posted an ERA+ of 141 this season. It may be the Era of Bullpenning and all of that, but this Fall Classic looks to be a throwback to a time when — gasp! — starting pitchers mattered.

Here’s how it all breaks down:

THE ROTATIONS

We just listed the big names. The exact order in which they appear is not yet officially known but you’ll color me shocked if Game 1 isn’t Max Scherzer vs. Gerrit Cole, Game 2 isn’t Stephen Strasburg vs. Justin Verlander, and Game 3 isn’t Zack Greinke vs. Patrick Corbin. In Game 4 the Nats will likely go with the hot Aníbal Sánchez who, if he stays on his game like he has been of late, gives them depth the Astros can’t quite match. Brad Peacock or “Bullpen” could get the ball for A.J. Hinch in Game 4, depending on the circumstances of the series at that point.

As for Game 1, Scherzer is coming off two strong postseason outings, allowing one run on five hits with 18 strikeouts in 14 innings in those starts. Cole was somewhat human in his last start, walking five guys. But, um, yeah, he still tossed seven shutout innings. It seems like all he has done since before Memorial day is toss seven or eight shutout innings or something close to it.

We simply couldn’t ask for a better head-to-head matchup to start this bad boy. There isn’t a hitter on either of these teams happy about who they’ll have to face in this series.

THE LINEUPS

Saturday night’s José Altuve walkoff blast notwithstanding, the Astros’ mighty offense has been somewhat less mighty over the past couple of weeks, averaging just 3.7 runs per game and posting a .645 team OPS. A lot of that was due to the scads of fresh and strong bullpen arms the Rays and Yankees trotted out, but it’s not like things will get easier, at least against Washington’s starting pitching. The Astros had timely hitting — and some big home runs — as they made their way to the World Series, but they’ll definitely need to rattle the ball off the walls and get on base at a higher clip like they did in the regular season if they want to win this thing. To do so, I don’t suspect A.J. Hinch will do much shuffling or fiddling with his lineup — his dudes are his dudes — he’ll just have to hope that they snap out of their relative funk and remind everyone that, when everyone is healthy on this club, there is no better offense in baseball.

Washington’s lineup was nowhere near as fearsome during the regular season but it was the second-best unit in the National League, so they’re no slouches. Like the Astros, they have not exactly set the world ablaze offensively in the playoffs, posting a team OPS about a hundred points lower than their regular season mark. Also, like the Astros, they’ve had some huge hits at great times, as do all teams that get this far. Luck and good timing matter a whole heck of a lot in October.

Editor’s note: Need World Series tickets? Click here to see the Nats try to stop the Astros

A bit of a wild card here: the de-juiced ball everyone is talking about. While the Nats, like everyone else, hit a lot more homers in 2019, they were somewhat less reliant on homers than a lot of other winning teams, finishing only sixth in that category in the NL. The Astros were third in the AL and might’ve come close to matching New York and Minnesota’s totals if they didn’t have so many injuries to key offensive performers in the first half. Which is to say that the dead ball’s taking away of a few feet of flight from equally-struck balls probably hurts the Astros a bit more than the Nats, even if the Astros hitters are better on average.

One can overstate all that, of course. At the end of the day both of these teams have MVP-candidates — Alex Bregman for Houston, Anthony Rendon for Washington — and a good supporting cast of thumpers like Juan Soto, José Altuve, Yordan Álvarez and hot-in-October Howie Kendrick, who will likely see DH action in the games in Houston. Ultimately it will come down, as always, to who is hotter over the next 4-7 games.

THE BULLPENS

The bullpen was the Nationals’ biggest weakness all season long. In the NLDS against the Dodgers Dave Martinez masked the problem by creatively deploying starting pitchers in relief, praying a bit, and watching it work. in the NLCS they so thoroughly steamrolled the Cardinals that it didn’t truly matter, though they did get some good innings from guys not named Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Meaning that, heck, you may even see Fernando Rodney and Tanner Rainey in games that aren’t blowouts. Either way, the week off the Nationals have been given by wrapping up the NLCS so quickly means that every arm is fresh, with extra rest even, so the team’s biggest weakness is about as contained at the outset as it can be. As suggested above, the deeper Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Sánchez can go, the better.

Houston’s bullpen has allowed 16 earned runs in 35.1 innings this postseason (4.08 ERA). This after having the third-best bullpen ERA in all of baseball during the regular season (3.75). Sample sizes are obviously an issue here. As is the class of competition. They were more than capable of getting the job done during the ALDS and their failures — like Roberto Osuna‘s blown save in Game 6 — were either contained by the work of others or led to less-than-fatal wounds. They simply have better arms that Washington does down there even if, as is the case with the Nats, they’ll hope to need them as little as possible.

THE MANAGERS

A.J. Hinch has hoisted a trophy before and rarely harms his team. Dave Martinez learned over the course of the season that the less he does the better. Without putting too fine a point on it, if it comes down to a chess match, it’s advantage: Astros. At this point Martinez simply needs to let his horses run and muster enough will to pull them out of the race if they’re tired. That’s easier said than done when it’s, say, Max Scherzer. His arm could be hanging by frayed tendons and he’d still probably glare at Martinez if he walked out to pull him.

THE HISTORY

There is virtually none. These teams share a spring training complex but they have not faced each other in interleague play since 2017. A host of players on each squad has never faced the pitchers on the other. In addition to starting pitchers being so critical here, add “NL vs. AL, in a matchup of unknowns” to the list of things that make this Fall Classic a throwback to olden days.

If we did the usual “Advantage: [TEAM]” for every one of those categories, I feel like we’d probably end up with the Astros coming out on top in each of them. The closest is probably the rotation, with the top-end talent of Cole, Verlander and Greinke outweighing the four-deep depth the Nats have at the moment. But as the earlier rounds showed, it’s not as much of an advantage as you might think and being able to run four starters out there whom you trust matters a lot.

Which is to say that, yeah, I think the Astros are the better team. They’re better in record, better on paper and should be favored. But I don’t think they’re overwhelming favorites. And I don’t think it could or should be considered a massive upset if this better-than-most-people think Nats team comes out on top. I feel like this will be a very, very even and competitive series, in fact.