2014 Team Preview: The Atlanta Braves are contenders for the long haul

Victor Decolongon

A busy offseason has the Braves' future secure for the rest of the decade, but can they get over the hump in 2014?

After getting bounced from last year's National League Division Series by the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games, the Atlanta Braves did a whole lot of nothing for the next few months. Sure, there was a big announcement involving a new stadium that will get the team out of downtown Atlanta, but otherwise the Braves were quite lethargic for most of the offseason.

Then, the calendar hit February and the team got busy. Eager to lock up their young core, the Braves agreed to multi-year extensions with Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, Craig Kimbrel, and Andrelton Simmons. By the time you read this, someone else may have signed a big contract too. With their young stars secure for the next half decade, the Braves will be annual front-runners in the National League East.

Manager: Fredi Gonzalez (4th year)

2013 record: 96-66, 1st in NL East

SB Nation blog: Talking Chop

Other Braves coverage: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Tomahawk Take, Chop County

Lineup

The Braves lived and died by the long ball in 2013. They led the National League with 181 home runs, but only hit two dingers in their ALDS loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Six players hit at least 20 homers, with left fielder Justin Upton's 27 round-trippers leading the way. The younger Upton drew headlines for his white-hot April, but cooled off afterward. From May 1st to the end of the year, he hit .256/.343/.409 with 15 home runs. To his left, B.J. Upton put together an abysmal .557 OPS in 446 plate appearances. He ranked dead last among all Braves who swung a bat last year -- yes, even the pitchers -- with -0.6 WAR. Right fielder Jason Heyward rounds out the starting outfield, with Jordan Schafer and Joey Terdoslavich coming off the bench. Heyward is coming off an injury-riddled 2013 season, but he still put together a .776 OPS.

Both Evan Gattis and Ryan Doumit spent time in the outfield for the Braves and Twins, respectively, last season. Expect both to fill much different roles in 2014. Gattis will be the team's starting catcher, filling a massive void left by Brian McCann. Gattis -- whose road to the big leagues was unorthodox, to say the least -- hit .243/.291/.480 with 21 home runs last year. The Braves would welcome that type of offensive production from the catcher slot, but can't afford to see him slip much given his inexperience behind the plate. Doumit will primarily fill a pinch-hitting role while former Tiger Gerald Laird serves as Gattis' backup. G-Money only saw 141 plate appearances last season, but finished with a respectable 103 OPS+.

Like the rest of the roster, the Braves' infield is all but set. First baseman Freddie Freeman and shortstop Andrelton Simmons were officially established as franchise cornerstones when they signed contract extensions earlier this month. The former is coming off a breakout season in which he hit .319/.396/.501 with 23 home runs and 109 RBI. He is also BFFs with Chipper Jones, which makes for great moments in Twitter history. Simmons sports an all-world glove, but surprised many by hitting 17 home runs in 2013. He probably won't continue to hit for that much power, but does it really matter when you can do this?

Simmonsmarlins1

On the other end of the defensive spectrum, second baseman Dan Uggla is still under contract for two more years. He put up a career worst 83 OPS+, which was lower than guys like Jordan Schafer, Juan Francisco, and Elliot Johnson. Somehow, he still maintained a 14.3% walk rate. Third baseman Chris Johnson finished second in the National League with a .321 batting average last year, but benefited from a .394 BABIP. His .361 career BABIP suggests that there is more to this than just luck, however. He might not hit .320 again, but don't expect a massive decline.

Rotation

The Braves' pitching staff led all of baseball with a 3.13 ERA last season, and it was not all Craig Kimbrel's doing. The rotation ranked fifth in the National League (and sixth in the MLB) with a 3.51 ERA despite having just one starter -- left-hander Mike Minor -- log 200+ innings. Minor allowed a 3.21 ERA with a strikeout-to-walk ratio just under 4.00. Like many of the pitchers on this Braves staff, his fly ball rate sits well above 40%. Brandon Beachy only threw 30 innings after returning from Tommy John surgery, then went under the knife again in September. He has not any setbacks so far this spring, and will likely be ready for Opening Day.

Right-hander Kris Medlen made headlines in 2012 when he allowed a 1.57 ERA in 138 innings. This included a 9-0 record and 0.97 ERA in 12 starts after the Braves stashed him in the bullpen for the first half to keep his inning count in check. In 2013, Medlen was fairly inconsistent but ended the year with a 3.11 ERA in 197 innings. He seemed to handle the increased workload well, allowing just four runs in 43 innings in his last six regular season starts. He is also bald now (for a good cause). Julio Teheran will slot somewhere in the rotation -- there doesn't seem to be much of a hierarchy among this talented group -- in an attempt to replicate his excellent rookie season.

With their young stars secure for the next half decade, the Braves will be annual front-runners in the National League East.

The fifth starter spot is lefty Alex Wood's for the taking, but a healthy Gavin Floyd -- he is currently recovering from Tommy John -- could provide a boost in the middle of the season if someone struggles. Wood started 11 games and made 22 relief appearances in 2013, allowing a 3.13 ERA in 77 2/3 innings. He was more effective as a reliever, but his platoon splits were not as severe as you would expect in this case. That said, he struck out lefties at a 29% clip with a solid fastball-changeup combo. His ability to remain a starter may depend on how his breaking ball develops -- he missed the strike zone with it 50% of the time in 2013 -- but at worst he looks like a high leverage reliever.

Speaking of relievers, the Braves have successfully reduced games to eight inning contests thanks to closer Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel filed for nearly $10 million in arbitration this year before signing a four year contract extension. While paying for saves is viewed as an inefficient use of resources, a guy as dominant as Kimbrel deserves every penny. Slotting behind Kimbrel will be Jordan Walden, David Carpenter, and Luis Avilan. Carpenter and Avilan provided breakout performances in 2013 and will be relied upon in high leverage situations again in 2014. Walden's ERA regressed a bit last year, but he still struck out 10.3 batters per nine innings. Left-hander Jonny Venters is recovering from Tommy John and could provide a boost down the stretch.

Catch me if you can

One of the more underrated talking points about the Braves this offseason has been the transition from Brian McCann to Evan Gattis behind the plate. Gattis' bat should stay productive, but there are reasons to be concerned about the other half of El Oso Blanco's game. Gattis' pitch framing was generally regarded as a positive asset in 2013, but game calling skills and the ability to manage a pitching staff remain to be seen. Additionally, how will he hold up over 100+ games behind the plate? He only caught 42 games in 2013 and has not spent more than 52 games behind the plate in any of his professional seasons. Christian Bethancourt landed on top 100 prospect lists after an excellent season at Double-A Mississippi last year, but it will probably take an injury to earn him a call-up.

Player to watch: Julio Teheran

Teheran was starting to become a frustrating subject for Braves fans prior to the 2013 season. A perennial name among national top prospect lists, he followed up a stellar 2011 season with a worrying 2012 campaign. Despite the down year, Teheran lived up to his earlier expectations with a 14-8 record, 3.20 ERA, and 3.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 185 2/3 innings last season. Still only 23 years old, he will be counted on to move up the rotation hierarchy in order to replace the departed Tim Hudson. Teheran's left-on-base rate will suffer in 2014 and there may be homer problems in his future, but there is no question that he has ace potential.

Outlook

There are a lot of reasons to like the Braves in 2014. They are young and talented, and have already gotten some valuable playoff experience under their belt. However, the losses of Tim Hudson and Brian McCann may have brought them back to the pack in the NL East. They are still head-and-shoulders above the Mets, Marlins, and Phillies, but should get a stiffer test from Washington this season. They don't quite have the depth that the Nationals do, but the Braves' window will be open for a long, long time.

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