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The Atlanta Braves made a couple of high-profile offseason moves to improve their team, but will they be enough to overtake the Washington Nationals in the National League East?
The Atlanta Braves were the darlings of the national media during the offseason after trading for former Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton. Both he and his brother B.J. will look to boost an offense that was in the middle of the pack in the National League last season and will be without the services of both Martin Prado and Chipper Jones this year.
Manager: Fredi Gonzalez
2012 record: 94-68, 2nd in NL East
SB Nation blog: Talking Chop
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Series vs. Tigers: April 26-28 @ Comerica Park
Now that Michael Bourn is patrolling center field in Cleveland, the leadoff duties will be passed on to shortstop/uber-prospect Andrelton Simmons, a player that Braves fans wouldn't trade for [insert deity here] himself. Simmons' glove is so good, it has advanced statistic aficionados doing unmentionable things to themselves behind closed doors. His bat was the bigger surprise last year, though. In 49 games, he held his own by hitting .289/.335/.416 with three home runs.
Behind Simmons is where everything gets interesting. Jason Heyward had a great year in 2012, hitting .269/.335/.479 with 27 home runs and 82 RBI, but did this primarily as the #3 hitter in the lineup. This year, it looks like Justin Upton will be the #3 guy while Heyward hits in the second spot. Whether Heyward's approach at the plate changes or not remains to be seen, but it makes sense given the lack of a prototypical #2 hitter on the roster.
Freddie Freeman will hit fourth after putting up nearly identical numbers to his Rookie of the Year runner-up campaign in 2011. If he can maintain the increase in walk rate while bumping his average back up closer to .280, this lineup becomes even more dangerous. B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla will likely follow Freeman. The elder Upton saw his walk rate drop four percent (!) in 2012, but he was able to turn up the power by hitting a career-high 28 home runs.
The final non-pitcher lineup slots will belong to the third baseman and catcher on most days, unless Brian McCann can rebound from offseason shoulder surgery and prove that 2012 was a fluke. Until he is healthy, our good buddy Gerald Laird will perform the catching duties, though Evan Gattis is making a push for playing time. Gattis, a 26 year old who hasn't played above Double-A, is hitting .438/.457/.781 in 16 games this spring. Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco are battling for playing time at third base, while Reed Johnson and Ramiro Pena will get some playing time off the bench. Speedster Jordan Schafer is out of options and might make the team as a fifth outfielder.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez hasn't announced his Opening Day starter yet, but my guess would be that veteran Tim Hudson gets the ball to open the season against the Philadelphia Phillies. Hudson hasn't been very impressive this spring, but was 16-7 with a 3.62 ERA/3.78 FIP/4.10 xFIP last season.
The other possible Opening Day starter would be Kris Medlen. You may remember Medlen as the guy who started the year in the bullpen, then went on to go 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts down the stretch. He got great run support during that stretch (over 5.5 runs per game), but allowing nine earned runs in 83 2/3 innings is just silly. He was hit by a couple of line drives in his start on Thursday, but seems to be fine so far.
Mike Minor is coming off of his first season as a full-time big league starter, and the numbers weren't bad. He was 11-10 with a 4.12 ERA/4.38 FIP/4.32 xFIP in 179 1/3 innings. His flyball tendencies -- 43.7% of all batted balls were flies last season -- will play well with three above-average defensive outfielders behind him.
Paul Maholm finally escaped Pittsburgh last season and celebrated by putting up a career high 13 wins, nine with the Chicago Cubs before coming to Atlanta. His other numbers were nearly identical to his 2011 season when he was 6-14, though. The 31 year old will be a free agent in the offseason.
The fifth starter battle hasn't been too dramatic thus far, as Julio Teheran has all but taken the spot with four strong starts this spring. Non-roster invitees Sean Gilmartin and J.R. Graham were also in the running, but will likely begin the season in the minor leagues.
Brandon Beachy was in the middle of a lights-out season in 2012 before an elbow injury required Tommy John surgery in June. He will probably be back around mid-season for the Braves. It will be interesting to see what Gonzalez does with the rotation if Teheran is pitching well when Beachy is ready to return.
The bullpen, as you may have heard, is excellent. Loss against the Dominican Republic aside, Craig Kimbrel is arguably the best closer in baseball right now. Jonny Venters had a poor first half in 2012, but rebounded well. When on, he is one of the best left-handed options in the game. Eric O'Flaherty, Jordan Walden, and Cristhian Martinez all put up good numbers in 2012 as well.
Spring Training storylines
The Braves made headlines this offseason by signing B.J. Upton and trading for Justin Upton to replace the now-retired Chipper Jones. So, naturally, the biggest story out of their camp this spring is the battle for the fifth starter spot. Julio Teheran looked excellent in his start against the Tigers, giving up just one run on a balk and a great piece of hitting by Prince Fielder. He has been just as impressive ever since, striking out 18 hitters in 14 innings.
The other main positional battle has been at third base, where Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco have been competing for playing time. Johnson hit .281/.326/.451 in 126 games with the Houston Astros and Arizona Diamondbacks last season, but made his living against right-handed pitching, hitting .295/.338/.481 against them. Francisco also hits right-handed pitching well, but his abysmal .190 career average against left-handed pitching may have more to say about how much playing time he gets. Neither player is particularly well-liked by any advanced defensive metrics, but Francisco seems to be the lesser of two evils in this regard.
Player to watch: Dan Uggla
The Braves ranked 7th in the National League last year in runs scored and 9th in OPS, and there was no shortage of move made this offseason in attempt to improve those figures. However, a large portion of the blame falls at Uggla's feet after he hit just .220/.348/.384 with a career-worst .164 ISO in 2012. He is never going to be a .300 hitter, but Uggla needs to regain the power stroke that earned him that 5 year/$62 million contract he signed with the Braves prior to the 2011 season. If he doesn't, we may see the Braves offense flounder again when it matters in 2013.
Optimism is sky-high in Atlanta, but I'm still hesitant to suggest that they have surpassed the Washington Nationals in the NL East. The rotation is good, but they are without Brandon Beachy for at least half the year and Kris Medlen will fall back to earth. The lineup has a lot of production to make up before they even begin to improve upon last year's league average-ish output. The bullpen is probably the best in baseball, but that doesn't mean a whole lot if you can't give them a lead to protect. They will probably win 90+ games again, but I think that they lost too much in Prado and Jones to call them clear-cut division favorites in 2013.