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: Tuesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Nationals 2, Padres 1: Michael Taylor had a night. He made an incredible throw home to save a run, then doubled home the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.

Here’s the throw:

Here’s the walk-off double:

Jeremy Hellickson held the Padres to one run but had to leave with one out in the sixth due to a blister. The Nats’ bullpen took it from there, fanning five over the final 3 2/3 innings. Opposing starter Eric Lauer was also solid, yielding a run in his six innings of work. Bryce Harper hit his 14th dinger of the year.

Braves 3, Phillies 1: The Braves hold onto their first-place lead over the Phillies, winning this nail-biter. Brandon McCarthy and Vince Velasquez matched up for a fourth time this season. McCarthy has won all four starts. He gave up a run on on four hits and two walks with five strikeouts. He owns a 2.08 ERA against the Phillies this season and a 6.53 ERA against everyone else. Velasquez struck out nine, but lasted only 4 1/3 innings, giving up two runs (one earned) on six hits and three walks. Ozzie Albies hit his 14th homer of the season and scored all three runs for the Braves. His power progression has been impressive, to say the least.

Indians 10, Cubs 1: Ugly loss for the Cubs. Starter Tyler Chatwood walked six and gave up four runs in 2 2/3 innings. Mike Montgomery, who relieved him, wasn’t any better, giving up six runs in 2 1/3 innings. Yonder Alonso racked up three hits and three RBI. Jose Ramirez hit a three-run home run. The top-third of the Indians’ lineup combined to go 5-for-11 with four walks and six runs scored. Trevor Bauer continued to deal, tossing six shutout frames with six strikeouts. His ERA stands at 2.35. Something, something, spin rate. The first-place Indians are back at .500 with a 23-23 record.

Blue Jays 5, Angels 3: The Blue Jays put up a five-spot in the first inning against Garrett Richards, proving to be all the offense they would need on the evening. The Angels helped them out with a wild pitch and a fielding error. Kendrys Morales capped off the frame with a two-run homer. J.A. Happ went seven innings, limiting the Angels to two runs on three hits and three walks with five strikeouts.

Reds 7, Pirates 2: Scooter Gennett put the Reds’ offense on his back, contributing an RBI double, a grand slam, and a sacrifice fly. You may recall Gennett hit four grand slams last year, becoming one of only a handful of players to accomplish the feat. He has five in the last calendar year. Matt Harvey limited the Pirates to just one run on three hits and two walks with five strikeouts over six innings. Jameson Taillon was on the hook for all six runs the Reds scored, going six innings with eight strikeouts.

Red Sox 4, Rays 2: It was mostly a bad night for the Rays, as starter Jake Faria and catcher Wilson Ramos both exited the game in the third inning with injuries. However, shortstop prospect Willy Adames crushed his first major league homer off of Chris Sale. Sale went 7 2/3 innings, giving up two runs (one earned) on four hits and two walks with nine strikeouts. He now holds a 2.17 ERA. Mookie Betts hit his major league-leading 16th homer of the season. Rafael Devers also went yard.

Marlins 5, Mets 1: Zack Wheeler pitched pretty well but the Mets just couldn’t swing the bats enough to support him. Wheeler struck out nine and gave up three runs (one earned) on seven hits with no walks over six innings. Caleb Smith was better, limiting the Mets to a lone run on three hits and two walks and eight strikeouts in 6 2/3 frames. Jose Bautista made his Mets debut, going 1-for-3 with a double.

Brewers 1, Diamondbacks 0: Another heart-breaker for the D-Backs. They have now lost six games in a row and 12 of their last 13. The Brewers’ lone run scored on a Domingo Santana sacrifice fly in the sixth inning. Jhoulys Chacin narrowly out-pitched Matt Koch and the Brewers’ bullpen took it from there. Matt Albers, Josh Hader, and Corey Knebel combined to hold the D-Backs scoreless for the final 12 outs. The first-place Brewers are 30-19. The Brewers might’ve scored more if not for Jarrod Dyson:

Rangers 6, Yankees 4: Jurickson Profar kicked things off for the Rangers with a three-run homer in the first inning. The Rangers scored two more in the second against Domingo German, who lasted 3 2/3 innings and was on the hook for all six runs in total. Cole Hamels held the Yankees to a pair of runs on four hits and two walks with seven strikeouts over seven innings. The two runs came on solo home runs from Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar. Austin Romine added two more in the eighth with a two-run shot off of Jake Diekman.

White Sox 3, Orioles 2: May continues to go well for James Shields, who now owns a 3.27 ERA in five starts this month (but a 4.62 ERA overall). He gave up only two runs on five hits and two walks with five strikeouts over seven innings. Kevin Gausman blanked the Sox over 6 1/3 innings on nine hits and a walk while striking out 10. Mark Trumbo went 3-for-3 with a pair of doubles and an RBI. Mychal Givens and Richard Bleier combined to fork over three runs to the White Sox in the bottom of the eighth inning, saddling Gausman with a no-decision.

Twins 6, Tigers 0: Lance Lynn finally put together a good start for the Twins. He shut out the Tigers across 6 2/3 innings, yielding only five hits and a walk while striking out four. The effort lowered his ERA to 6.34. The Twins scored three runs in the fifth and seventh innings, providing more than enough run support. Brian Dozier knocked in three of those runs with a pair of doubles. Ehire Adrianza reached base three times and picked up a pair of RBI in the effort as well.

Astros 11, Giants 2: The Astros singled and doubled the Giants to death, pounding out 12 total hits, none of which went for more than two bases, and drew five walks. Gerrit Cole gave up two runs on four hits and three walks with eight striekouts in six innings. His ERA ballooned all the way up to 1.86. Each pitcher that entered the game for the Giants gave up at least one run. It wasn’t all bad for the Giants — at least Brandon Crawford got to homer off of brother-in-law Gerrit Cole.

Royals 5, Cardinals 1: The Royals got homers from Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez plus seven strong innings from Jason Hammel. Hammel gave up nine hits, walked none, and struck out six in the effort. On a lot of other nights, Luke Weaver would’ve had a W, but settled for the L with seven innings of three-run ball. He struck out eight. Yairo Munoz and Marcell Ozuna each collected three hits. Gordon and Alcides Escobar had three hits each for the Royals.

Mariners 3, Athletics 2 (10 innings): Guillermo Heredia broke a 2-2 tie in the top of the 10th with an RBI double. Edwin Diaz worked a perfect bottom half with a pair of strikeouts to close it out. Both starters — Trevor Cahill for the A’s and Mike Leake for the Mariners — pitched into the seventh inning and gave up two runs.

Dodgers 5, Rockies 3: Chris Taylor hit a go-ahead two-run home run in the bottom of the sixth and Yasiel Puig tacked on an insurance run with a solo homer. Ian Desmond went yard for the Rockies.