At this time last year, many people (myself included) considered the Atlanta Braves one of the model franchises in baseball. After a four-year stretch of mediocrity*, the Braves reeled off four consecutive seasons of at least 89 wins, making postseason appearances in three of them. General manager Frank Wren and the rest of the front office had successfully transitioned the team from an old guard consisting of Chipper Jones, Michael Bourn, and Tim Hudson to one of the youngest and most talented cores in baseball. Then, they locked up that young core -- Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, and Craig Kimbrel -- to long-term contracts.
Even at the end of August, the Braves were in decent shape. A 14-14 month left them with a 72-65 record, just 1 1/2 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers -- who had lost eight of their previous 10 games -- for the second NL Wild Card spot. The NL East had been all but decided (Washington went 19-10 in August), but there was still plenty to play for in Atlanta.
Then, the bottom dropped out. The Braves went 7-18 in September, worse than anyone in baseball save the hapless Arizona Diamondbacks. The Braves' braintrust fired Wren before the season even ended, then twisted the knife when they said the move was "three years in the making." Like a car going to the scrap heap, they tore down anything of value, trading Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, Tommy La Stella, and relievers Jordan Walden and David Carpenter for prospects.
The deals made some sense, even if they were unpopular. Stripping the team of any assets who won't be around for their next competitive period and flipping them for assets that will is smart management. Signing 31-year-old outfielder Nick Markakis to a four-year, $44 million contract? That's a bit of a head scratcher. It's just what the Braves did, though, leading us to wonder what exactly is going on this year in Atlanta.
*The Braves' stretch of "mediocrity" consisted of one 90-loss year and two winning seasons. Must be nice.
Manager: Fredi Gonzalez (5th season)
2014 record: 79-83
SB Nation blog: Talking Chop
Two years ago, the Braves entered the 2013 season with high hopes that they would sport the best outfield in baseball. Justin Upton and Jason Heyward held up their respective ends of the bargain, accumulating a combined 15.5 WAR over the past two seasons. B.J. Upton -- the highest-paid of the three, ironically -- was worth -0.2 WAR. The elder brother, known as Melvin Upton now, is still around but hopes that he can turn his career around are all but gone. He will likely begin the season on the disabled list due to a foot injury. In right field will be Nick Markakis, who signed the aforementioned absurd contract. Sure, he's coming off a solid .276/.342/.386 season, but his defense is overrated and he had neck surgery this winter.
The left field spot isn't set in stone, but it could turn out to be the most productive position of the three. Jonny Gomes is being paid $4 million to capably fill the short side of a platoon, while Zoilo Almonte's solid 2014 season in the New York Yankees' farm system earned him a big league contract. Eric Young Jr. is a non-roster invitee that could steal away playing time in both center and left field, while Todd Cunningham is a fourth outfielder who earns brownie points from fans because he's not B.J. or Melvin Upton.
Behind the plate, the Braves are content to let Christian Bethancourt and his run-on-me-if-you-dare railgun of an arm learn on the job in 2015. Bethancourt, a strong overall defender by all accounts, hit .248/.274/.274 in 117 plate appearances at the major league level last year. His 2.6 percent walk rate at Triple-A Gwinnett is a major concern, but any progress with the bat makes him a solid starter for years to come. Bethancourt should benefit from the tutelage of backup A.J. Pierzynski, an above average hitting catcher throughout his career. His 75 OPS+ last season was a career low, but what do you expect from a 37-year-old catcher?
If you think watching Jose Iglesias is fun, you will love Andrelton Simmons. He has been hampered by an oblique injuryso far this spring, but the 25-year-old shortstop is the odds-on best defender in the game. Simmons has been worth 88 defensive runs saved in his three-year career. This is the third-best total in baseball since 2010, and Simmons has played about half of the defensive innings of the top man, and former teammate, Jason Heyward. On Simmons' right side will be Chris Johnson, though the frequency of that pairing is up in the air. Johnson was a major bust last year, though his BABIP remained abnormally high. The reason? He struck out nearly seven times as much as he walked. Unfortunately for Braves fans, Johnson is locked up through the 2017 season thanks to an untimely extension from Wren.
In my opinion, one of the smartest moves the Braves made this offseason was to sign versatile infielder Alberto Callaspo. Sure, he's making $3 million despite a horrid 66 OPS+ last season, but he sports a capable glove at both second and third, and can play just about anywhere in a pinch. He will probably spend most of his time at second base, but could slide over to third if either Jose Peraza or Jace Peterson seizes control of the job. Peraza is a 20-year-old prospect with the higher ceiling, but Peterson, a former Padres farmhand, has impressed so far this spring. Phil Gosselin has also gotten a lot of playing time this spring after a 46-game stint in Atlanta last year. At first base, Freddie Freeman will anchor the middle of what looks to be a relatively hapless Braves lineup. After back-to-back seasons with a wRC+ of 140 or better, Freeman may see a big spike in intentional walks this year.
The Braves lost Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, and Gavin Floyd from their rotation to elbow injuries in 2014, but still finished the year with a 3.42 ERA and 3.59 FIP, both of which ranked among the top four teams in the National League. Leading the way was Julio Teheran, who made his first All-Star appearance and handled 221 innings, the seventh-highest total in baseball. He nearly matched his strikeout-to-walk ratio from 2013 and lowered his opposing batting average to just .232. It would be nice to see more strikeouts, but the sky is the limit for the 24-year-old Colombian. It's a long drop from Tehran's innings total to Alex Wood's 171 2/3 frames in 2014, but the left-hander showed that he is ready for the big leagues by posting a 2.20 ERA and 4.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio as a starter after the All-Star break last year.
Fellow left-hander Mike Minor only pitched 145 1/3 innings in 2014 due to shoulder soreness, and this spring has been the same story thus far. Luckily, a recent MRI showed no structural damage. Minor struggled when he toed the rubber, allowing a 4.77 ERA and 4.39 FIP. His strikeout rate dropped below 19 percent for the first time in his career, and was well below the 22.1 percent rate he had in 2013. Also coming off a down year is right-hander Shelby Miller, the former top prospect acquired in the Jason Heyward deal. Miller's strikeout rate dropped and walk rate spiked, but virtually everything else -- velocity, batted ball ratios, etc. -- remained the same as his excellent rookie season. The Braves are banking on their ability to get the 24-year-old Miller back to his 2013 form, and their franchise's track record speaks for itself.
It's probably safe to assume that Minor will begin the year on the disabled list, but this has not deadened the competition for any open rotation spots. There are as many as six pitchers vying for the two open spots. Mike Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos -- who played for the Astros and Yankees, respectively, in 2014 -- have the highest upside of the group. Service time concerns and development issues, respectively, are reasons why they may not get the job. Veterans Eric Stults, Chien-Ming Wang, and Wandy Rodriguez have all been mentioned in the media as rotation hopefuls, while manager Fredi Gonzalez made it a point to mention unheralded minor league Cody Martin.
Luckily, the bullpen is a bit easier to sort through. Craig Kimbrel is the Braves' closer from now to eternity, or at least until they decide to trade him. Many people have criticized the Braves for keeping a superfluous luxury like Kimbrel around, but the Braves may be waiting for his value to spike around the trade deadline when everyone is desperate for relief help. Kimbrel had a 1.61 ERA last year, his highest since 2011. Shae Simmons probably would have been the right pitcher to slot behind Kimbrel in an eighth inning role, but he underwent Tommy John surgery last month. The Braves might look to veterans Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli in a setup role. I'm not saying this is a mistake, per se (it is), but their younger options are probably safer bets to be more effective. Josh Outman, James Russell, and Luis Avila will compete with Banuelos for the left-handed roles.
Down on the farm
The Braves' farm system was particularly weak at the end of the Wren era, though it's hard to completely fault his regime when it turned out a boatload of young talent just a couple years prior. An offseason of unloading major league talent for prospects has helped replenish the coffers, but the Braves' farm system still ranks in the lower half of baseball. Bethancourt, Peraza, and Foltynewicz are players on the cusp of graduation, while top prospect Lucas Sims still has yet to reach Double A. Banuelos, Vizcaino, and left-hander Max Fried are a few of the high-octane arms the Braves acquired this offseason, though Fried will miss just about all of 2015 after having Tommy John surgery last summer.
Player to watch: Christian Bethancourt
I have two overarching questions about Bethancourt this year. The first, and more cynical, is how poorly he can hit before he gets demoted to the minor leagues. He did not impress all that much offensively at Triple A last year, but his glove is more than MLB ready and the Braves don't have much to lose. The second, and more difficulty to track, is how quickly he puts a halt to the running game. Lauded for his lightning-quick pop times and elite-level arm, it should be interesting to watch the cat-and-mouse game between Bethancourt and burner Dee Gordon, who now plays for the division-rival Miami Marlins.
I'm still a bit perplexed by the Braves' sudden change in organizational philosophy this offseason. The firing of Wren is one thing -- I'm not familiar enough with that situation to accurately assess whether it was warranted -- but ripping apart a team that was coming off a pair of 90-win seasons whose only pending free agent of note was Ervin Santana seems a bit rash. Perhaps the stink of a second September collapse in four years led the management to question whether this team could actually compete in the long run. Perhaps they're just cheap. Atlanta is one of the bigger TV markets in the game and the Braves' popularity extends well beyond the Georgia state line, yet the Braves had the 14th largest Opening Day payroll in baseball last year. Perhaps they don't really know what they are doing.
Regardless of the long-term direction of the club, the Braves will probably be an also-ran in the NL East in 2015. They no longer have the talent to compete with the Washington Nationals atop the division, and have more holes than most of the clubs competing for wild card spots. They won't be as bad as the Phillies unless more people get hurt, but it could be another year or two before the Braves turn things around.