2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The Atlanta Braves.

The Big Question: Will the Braves be able to overcome an off-season in which they did more subtraction than addition?

Braves outfielders last season combined to hit 57 home runs, drive in 211 runs, and post a .714 OPS. Almost all of the work was done by Justin Upton, Melvin Upton, Jr., and Jason Heyward. However, the Braves traded Justin to the Padres and Heyward to the Cardinals during the off-season, and Melvin will miss most or all of April with a foot injury. Even if he were healthy, he is coming off of two seasons in which he posted a combined .593 OPS with 21 home runs in 1,028 plate appearances.

The Braves’ current outfield is comprised of Nick Markakis (still on the mend from neck surgery after signing a four-year, $44 million deal in early December) and some combination yet to be decided of Eric Young, Jr., Todd Cunningham, Eury Perez, Zoilo Almonte, Kelly Johnson, and Joey Terdoslavich. Whatever posse of outfielders the Braves come up with may seriously struggle to post half the homers and RBI that last season’s outfield put up.

The outfield isn’t the only area where the Braves lack depth. Wandy Rodriguez, who signed with the Phillies and failed a physical before latching on with the Braves, rode a small sample of productive innings to the No. 4 spot in the starting rotation. The fifth spot will go to Eric Stults, Mike Foltynewicz, or Cody Martin and they’ll keep it for as long as Mike Minor – suffering from a tight left shoulder – remains on the disabled list.

The painful departure of Heyward was cushioned a bit in receiving starter Shelby Miller from the Cardinals. However, the 24-year-old right-hander saw noticeable declines in his ability to generate swings and misses, as well as his ability to limit walks. In 2013, his strikeout and walk rates were 23.4 percent and 7.9 percent, respectively. Last season, they were 16.6 percent and 9.6 percent, respectively. Only five pitchers had a strikeout-minus-walk rate lower than Miller’s 7.1 percent: Roberto Hernandez, Jarred Cosart, John Danks, Kyle Gibson, and Chris Young. Not exactly a who’s-who list of pitchers. Of those who posted a similar K%-BB%, which also includes Kyle Kendrick and Mark Buehrle, many are expected to post below-average numbers this season. It would be wrong to state Miller won’t succeed in 2015, but it’ll be tough for him to do so if he can’t improve on his 2014 strikeout and walk rates. As studies have shown, strikeout and walk rates are by far the most accurate statistics with which to predict future pitcher performance.

Overall, it’s tough to see where the Braves are any better going into 2015 than they were last season. FanGraphs projects them to finish as the second-worst team in baseball at 73-89, five games better than the division rival Phillies, who will be more or less intentionally losing in a rebuilding effort. There is a non-zero possibility that the Phillies finish with a better record than the Braves, who are doing a one foot in, one foot out style of rebuilding while also being somewhat competitive.

What else is going on?

  • Freddie Freeman is the only Brave projected by Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS (found at FanGraphs) to hit 20 or more home runs. Melvin Upton is projected at 17, then Zoilo Almonte is at 14 over nearly a full season’s worth of at-bats, which he likely won’t get. As far as slugging percentage goes, which is influenced partially by batting average, Chris Johnson is projected to have the second-highest at .395 behind Freeman’s .472. The conclusion here is that the Braves are going to struggle mightily to generate power.
  • If there is some reason for optimism, it will come from Julio Teheran, now the undisputed ace of the starting rotation. Last season, the right-hander made the National League All-Star roster and finished with a 2.89 ERA and a 186/51 K/BB ratio over 221 innings. It would not be unreasonable to expect him to post All-Star-caliber numbers again in 2015.
  • A year after hitting .321, Chris Johnson ended the 2014 season with a disappointing .263 average and a .653 OPS. While his 2013 average was obviously fluky, he wasn’t expected to tumble 58 points, nor 66 points in on-base percentage and 96 points in slugging percentage. If the Braves are going to have any shot at beating the grim projections, they’ll need Johnson to return close to or at his former All-Star level.
  • 2015 could be the first season since taking over as the Braves’ everyday closer in which Craig Kimbrel will fail to lead the league in saves. The flame-thrower led the NL with 46, 42, 50, and 47 saves from 2011-14. Because the Braves are expected to win so few games, however, Kimbrel’s save chances will be fewer in number. The Braves averaged 89.5 wins over that four year span, affording Kimbrel many opportunities to close out ballgames.
  • As the Braves have their entire core signed to long-term deals, the Braves will likely be quiet at the trade deadline. They may trade a reliever, or one or two of their many utility players, but the Braves will likely end the regular season looking much the same as they will at the beginning.
  • Manager Fredi Gonzalez is signed only through the end of this season. Considering how poorly the Braves are expected to be, Gonzalez is essentially a lame duck manager. And the Braves are just fine with that. The Braves will see how Gonzalez leads a new-look team under recently-hired baseball operations president John Hart before deciding whether to stay the course or move in a new direction.

Prediction: The Braves nudge out the Phillies for the honor of finishing in fourth place in the NL East at 71-91.

Astros, Red Sox look ahead in wake of sign-stealing scandal

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Players from two teams at the center of baseball’s sign-stealing scandal faced their fans on Saturday for the first time since the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox ousted their managers amid the fallout from the investigation into Houston’s elaborate scheme.

The Astros and Red Sox held their annual fan fests on Saturday, and instead of discussing preparations for the season, players from both teams were left to answer questions about the cheating that resulted in both teams’ managers being fired.

“It’s a tough situation and as a team we have to stay together and go through this as a team like we’ve been doing, always,” Houston star second baseman José Altuve said. “We have to talk about it at spring training and try not to let things in the past distract us for for next year.”

Houston manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for a year by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday after he found illicit use of electronics to steal signs during the Astros’ run to the 2017 World Series championship and again in the 2018 season. Team owner Jim Crane then fired both Hinch and Luhnow. Manager Alex Cora left the Red Sox on Tuesday after Manfred’s report identified him as the ringleader of the sign-stealing scheme when he was the bench coach for the Astros in 2017.

Many Red Sox players talked Saturday about how much they liked and valued Cora and hated to see him go.

“I’m heartbroken about it,” Boston designated hitter J.D. Martinez said. “I understood his side of it. He definitely didn’t want to be a distraction. He was one of my favorite, if not my favorite, managers I’ve had.”

The Astros were fined $5 million, which is the maximum allowed under the Major League Constitution, and must forfeit their next two first- and second-round amateur draft picks.

The investigation found that the Astros used the video feed from a center field camera to see and decode the opposing catcher’s signs. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve the batter’s chances of getting a hit.

MLB is also looking into whether Cora installed a similar system in Boston after arriving the following year, when the Red Sox won the World Series. No conclusions have been reached and there is no timetable; the Astros investigation took two months.

Martinez hopes MLB wraps up the investigation into the Red Sox soon so they can put this behind them.

“I’m excited for the investigation to get over with, so they can see there’s nothing going on here,” he said.

While the Astros were meeting with fans in Houston, Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Randal Grichuk called for MLB take away their World Series championship, now that it’s been proven that they cheated.

“I mean, I would like to see that obviously. I bet the Dodgers would like to see that,” Grichuk said. “I’ve got a few friends on the Dodgers that are very disappointed that possibly two years in a row they lost due to a team going against the rules.”

Many Boston players are trying not to focus on the investigation or what could be coming for the team, but instead simply trying to prepare like it’s any other season.

“MLB’s going to do what they have to do to look into it,” pitcher Nathan Eovaldi said. “I’m just trying to focus on baseball. I feel like it’s going to pass, and everything’s going to be fine.”

While Altuve didn’t have a problem answering numerous questions about the scandal, Houston third baseman Alex Bregman refused repeated attempts by reporters to get him to address what happened and kept repeating variations of the same phrase.

“The commissioner made his report, made his decision and the Astros made their decision and I have no further comment on it,” Bregman said in some variation again and again.

After being pressed on if he plans to discuss the sign-stealing in the future, Bregman finally gave an answer that didn’t seem as rehearsed.

“I think in the 2020 year our actions will speak louder than our words,” he said.

Altuve and Bregman were the only two stars at Saturday’s fan fest in Houston who were part of the 2017 championship team. Many of the other big names who helped the Astros win their first title, including World Series MVP George Springer, ace Justin Verlander and shortstop Carlos Correa, did not attend the daylong event where fans can interact with players.

Altuve was the AL MVP in 2017, and since the sign-stealing scandal broke, some have questioned whether he deserved the award. In recent days he’s also been accused of wearing an electronic device under his jersey to tip pitches, which he vehemently denies. He was asked how it feels for people to call him a cheater.

“You don’t want anybody to call you that,” he said. “But … I have two options. One is cry and one is go down and play the game and (perform) and help my team. And you know what one I am going to do.”

MLB’s investigation of Houston began after former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, who played for Oakland last season, told The Athletic about the team’s scheme to steal signs. Martinez said he has spoken to Fiers and gets why he came forward.

“I understand his side of it, being in that division, going against those guys. It’s an uncomfortable position for him, but I understand why he did what he did,” Martinez told reporters in Springfield, Massachusetts. “He obviously felt like he needed to and I understand it.”

In Houston, as the Astros try to put the scandal behind them and focus on the future, Altuve, who has often been described as the heart and soul of the team, is confident it won’t derail the Astros from another successful season.

“Everything will be fine,” he said. “We’re going to be in the World Series again. People don’t believe it. But we will.”