Sunday, April 13, 2014

Atlanta Braves 2014 Preview

Julio Teheran
The season has already started so I've slacked some on my team previews.  I'll hit Atlanta now and follow up with Boston soon.  Atlanta is currently in first place, not surprisingly tied with the Washington Nationals at 7-4. 

My big concern coming into the season is starting pitching.  Atlanta has so far started Julio Teheran (staff ace?), Alex Wood, Aaron Harang, David Hale, and Ervin Santana.  Wood, Harang, and Hale won a total of four games last year while Teheran and Santana combined for 23.  This doesn't give me a ton of confidence.  Starters Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen are lost for the season due to injury but Mike Minor may make it back by the end of April.  That is a lot to deal with for any staff.  Still the starters have so far done well in the short season winning five games and no starter has an ERA over 2.89.  I still think over the long haul the staff will be a concern but I'm happy with their production so far.  They can't keep it up but at least the pressure hasn't got to them yet.

The bullpen, the staff's big strength, has struggled so far though Craig Kimbrel and Luis Avilan have started off strong.   Atlanta will definitely need the relievers to have a good year.  I think the injuries to the starters will put a strain on the bullpen so these guys need to step up.  Johnny Venters is still on the DL and I'm not sure of his return. 

Justin Upton - .366/.435/.635 3 HR 6 RBI Thru 11 Gms (2014)
I won't go too in depth on the starting lineup but do want to hit on each.  While RF Jason Heyward isn't the classic leadoff guy he really has done well since he was moved to the top spot in the order last year.  I really want to see him have more of a 2013 season as opposed to the off year he had last year (he did come on after being inserted into the leadoff spot).  1B Freddie Freeman seems to be the real deal.  I really like him and expect him to anchor this offense for some time.  LF Justin Upton is the key to the offense for me.  He doesn't have to be an all-star but he does need to be consistent and not rely on the long ball as much.  Last year he started off hot (as he has this year) but then cooled off hitting .263 with 27 homeruns but only 70 RBI's and a career high 161 strikeouts.  It seemed to be all or nothing with him.  He needs to cut down on strikeouts and get his RBI count up.

3B Chris Johnson filled a big need at third as a throw in in the Upton trade.  He killed it by hitting .321 and stabilizing a position where there wasn't a clear cut answer after the retirement of Chipper Jones.  C Evan Gattis takes over catching duties full time this year.  He has to get his numbers up from last year (.243/.291/.480) and cut down on strikeouts.  He looks like a guy who could hit 30 homers each year but might also strike out 175 times.  He will also have to show that he can handle the staff while behind the plate.  2B Dan Uggla is the same guy in terms of batting - all or nothing.  I'm actually surprised he is starting this year.  I keep thinking Atlanta will just move on as he doesn't even give you great defense.  Don't get me wrong.  I really like Uggla and loved the move when Atlanta traded for him.  But of late he has played horribly and it is time to move on.  The lack of great options, and his contract, though keep him in the lineup.  I love Andrelton Simmons at shortstop.  He may not hit for anything but he is a stud defensive players who makes this team better with his glove.  I'm willing to give up offense for superb defense at the shortstop position.  Unless CF BJ Upton somehow improves the Braves must also move on.  I'd prefer Jordan Schafer in CF.  More of a contact batting guy who won't strikeout 150 times (in theory) and he can also play solid defense. 

There are definitely some issues with the pitching staff and lineup but this team can compete in the National League East.  Washington will be right there throughout the year making it tough.  While the offense (4th in NL Runs) and pitching (1st in NL runs allowed) were both good last year they each have their challenges this year.  To me the biggest will be the starting lineup and the bats of Gattis, BJ Upton, and Uggla.  Hopefully manager Fredi Gonzalez will make the right moves when he needs to to help both the offense and defense.  I'm thinking this team will win something closer to 88 games and it would be a stretch to say they'll get to the 96 they won last year.  It is early so there is always hope.  I want to give props to Braves' management.  They gave long term deals or extensions to Freeman, Howard, and Teheran.  Nice to see them locking up key pieces to this team even though they don't make the money some of the bigger market teams do.  I'll check back in later this year and see how some of this has played out. 

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