Where Do They Go From Here?: The Atlanta Braves in 2014

Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons warms up in the on deck circle.Entering 2013, the Atlanta Braves dreamed of a World Series. They spent big money in the off season shoring up their OF by acquiring the Upton brothers. B.J. Upton was thought to be a CF that could solidify a position that had been in flux since Andruw Jones departed. Justin was considered to be a superstar right-handed bat that would balance out a LH-hand starting nine. Neither approached that expectation. Despite not featuring an ace, the pitching staff performed admirably, rankings amongst baseball’s best by season’s end (MLB leading team ERA+ of 122).

Perhaps most impressively, the Braves controlled the National League for much of 2013, despite weathering injuries to two of the three best bullpen arms, their starting catcher, their starting right fielder, multiple bench players and a starting pitcher, not to mention Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton pulling complete disappearing acts. It’s an accomplishment that should garner Manager Fredi Gonzalez some Manager of the Year votes, even if he’ll run a clear second to Clint Hurdle.

But 2013 did not end as planned. The Braves were eliminated in the Divisional Round by the Dodgers. Now Frank Wren must set about determining what lies ahead. Where do the Atlanta Braves go from here?

The Strengths

Bullpen

Most clubs constantly scramble to piece together a formidable pen. Contenders often dole out useful assets to acquire ROOGYs and LOOGYs for a playoff run, only to watch them sign elsewhere in the off season. When the Braves lost Jonny Venters before the 2013 season even began, and Eric O’Flaherty a month in, there was good reason to believe the Braves pen would regress from their dominant form in 2011 and 2012. The Braves bullpen lead the National League with 11.5 wins over that two-year span. In 2013, only the Rockies pen (5.2 wins) topped Atlanta’s (4.8 wins). Atlanta’s best reliever is clearly Craig Kimbrel, but the rest of the cast is revolving. In 2013, journeyman reliever David Carpenter threw 65 innings while youngsters Luis Avilan and Anthony Varvaro chipped in another 65.1 and 73.0 respectively. Cristhian Martinez, George Sherrill, Cory Gearrin, Scott Downs, Luis Ayala and Jordan Walden have all contributed positive innings for the Braves over the past three seasons. Give Roger McDowell lemons and he makes lemonade.

Corner OF

Though Justin Upton may not have ascended to the superstar talent level he exhibited in 2011, he’s still just 26 years old, gets on base at a good clip and produces top-30 value at the plate. His defense languished in 2013, and while there’s likely enough evidence to suggest he’ll never become a great OF, despite his obvious athleticism, he makes his hay at the plate. Upton endured wild swings of production at the plate in 2013, going on an absolutely torrid run in April and August, while struggling mightily in May and June. Despite the inconsistencies, Upton is still a 3-win player with the upside of being a 6-win MVP candidate, if he’s able to regain the consistency he exhibited in 2011. He’s likely to get a new deal in Atlanta, when his current one expires after the 2015 season.

Jason Heyward further proved his outstanding value in 2013, becoming the Braves everyday CF once it became apparent that B.J. Upton, nor Jordan Schafer, were equipped for the job. It’s likely that Heyward will shift back to RF on Opening Day 2014, largely because the Braves cannot afford to simply castoff B.J. Upton, and he’s too expensive to stash on the bench. Heyward is amongst the league’s best right fielders. Other than some overzealous Braves fans not believing Heyward is living up to his potential, the rest of the baseball world is painfully aware of his prowess. Heyward’s 2013 started slowly, but he thrived when shifted to lead off, something the Braves will likely continue to experiment with in 2013. Heyward really seemed to find himself in the second half, until being drilled in the face with a Jon Niese fastball. Despite the struggles, he still churned out a season that was good for about 20 runs above average, according to wRC+. He added another feather to his cap in 2013, as well, more consistently hitting lefties. Heyward has yet to put it all together, but he’s an MVP candidate at full potential.

SS

Most of the baseball world spent the season marveling at Andrelton Simmons’ insane defensive play making ability. It’s no surprise Simmons earned his first Gold Glove in 2013. Defensive metrics suggest he’s on an absolutely historic pace at the position. Simmons’ defense alone makes him one of the league’s top SS, posting a 4.7 WAR in 2013, despite having a sub-league average wRC+ and OPS+.

But there’s still hope for his bat. He’s only 24 and showed an improve power stroke in 2013. His ISO jumped 22 points (.127 to .149), while he hit a HR every 38.7 PAs compared to 60.6 in 2012. Of his 17 HRs, 8 were considered “Just Enough” by Hit Tracker Online, so there’s reason to believe it’s not merely a mirage. If Simmons can become a 20 HR threat, while improving his ability to draw walks, he’d be a stealthy MVP candidate. If he makes no progress at the plate, he’ll be simply the best defensive shortstop in the game and any offense he brings is lagniappe.

1B

At just 24 years old, Freeman emerged as Atlanta’s best, most consistent offensive threat in 2013. Freeman escapes the second-half swoons that plagued him in 2011 and 2012, posting a .380/.449/.620 triple slash in September. While Freeman may never cross the threshold as a 30+ HR slugger, he can hit with power to all fields, while getting on base better than every 1B in baseball other than Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt.

His defense rates out poorly by most any advanced metric, but his length and hands allow him to overcome his lack of range at the position, which likely accounts for the more favorable DRS rating. Further, with Brian McCann heading for greener pastures this off season, Freeman will assume a leadership role within the ball club.

The Weaknesses

CF

B.J. Upton and his $75 million dollar contract look a bit like an albatross going forward. The Braves can’t afford to deal him, and while they could relegate him to a bench role/late-inning replacement, my guess is they’ll give him another shot to right himself.

If not, the Braves could turn to Heyward in CF. Doing so, however, would require the Braves to invest resources into a playable RF. However, a quick perusal of the FA OFs reveals a lack of options. The starter quality OF are likely out of the Braves price range, while the rest are hardly the type you’d feel comfortable with as an everyday starter. The Braves will almost certainly sign an insurance OF, especially in light of the news of their decision to decline Reed Johnson’s option. How, or what that looks like, we just don’t know.

2B

Dan Uggla, woof. Frank Wren has already let it be known that he intends to move Dan Uggla this off season. Uggla has so fallen out of grace in Atlanta, he wasn’t even placed on the postseason roster. He’s battled with the Braves F.O. over his eyesight, and it’s clear his time in Atlanta is coming to a close.

So how do the Braves fill the spot? Youngster Tommy LaStella appears to be major-league ready. Though scouting reports are mixed on LaStella’s upside, he mashed the ball in Double A last season, posting a .343/.422/.473 triple slash. LaStella won’t bring much power to the table, but he’s got outstanding on-base numbers and low strikeout totals. In an Atlanta lineup that struggles in both those areas, he could be just what they need. The Braves could also turn to Tyler Pastornicky. He struggled in 2012, but seemed to turn the corner some in 2013, in an admittedly small sample size. This is also reported interest in an Uggla for Brandon Phillips swap, but that doesn’t seem to make a ton of sense for either side.

The Unknowns

Starting Rotation

The Braves got quality work out of young arms Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran. Veteran Tim Hudson pitched reasonably well after some early season bumps, while Paul Maholm lit on a roaring start, only to regress back to typical form. Maholm is gone and Hudson could opt to sign elsewhere this off season. Minor, Medlen and Teheran are the only three locks for the rotation, though injury-troubled Brandon Beachy and youngster Alex Wood look to be the favorites to lock the other two spots, if Hudson doesn’t return.

Minor showed great signs of improvement, and while he may never profile as a true ace, he’s capable of being a solid no. 2 type starter. Medlen’s 2013 started inconspicuously, but by season’s end, he became the staff’s best pitcher. In the past, there have been concerns with his durability, due to his slight stature, but he pitched nearly 200 innings this season. Medlen quietly outperforms his peripherals, limits the HR ball and thrives on inducing weak contact with his devastating change-up. He won’t likely improve much, but he’s a capable no. 3 starter. If there’s a potential ace of the lot, it’s Julio Teheran. After struggling in the minors last season, Teheran looked to be back on the path to becoming a top of the rotation starter in 2013. He notched 185.2 innings with a respectable 121 ERA+. The Braves will need all three to continue to build upon their early successes.

The other possibility here is that the Braves go out and make a deal for a true ace. Frank Wren and Fredi Gonzalez have both alluded to this in postseason interviews, but how realistic of a possibility it is remains to be seen.

3B

Chris Johnson’s 2013 came as a surprise to everyone, including the Braves, who originally intended to platoon him with heavyweight Juan Francisco. Johnson hit the ball so well, the Braves released Roadrunner and made Johnson the everyday 3B. Johnson transformed himself, becoming a consummate go-the-other-way type hitter, eschewing a power swing he tried to have, in favor of a make contact approach. Johnson’s .321/.358/.457 was the best of his career, though perhaps unrealistically supported by a .394 BABIP.

Johnson, 29, may have “figured it out,” but the Braves wouldn’t be wise to count on that. As a hitter that lacks power, strikes out a lot and doesn’t draw a lot of walks, he could quickly be in turn for dramatic regression. Further, Johnson brings nothing in the field or on the base paths. He likely won’t be nearly as effective as his 2013, but he should at least be suitable, despite lacking power or speed.

Catcher

McCann’s departure means the Braves will need a new every day catcher. Gerald Laird will still be around, but the starting duties likely fall to Evan Gattis. Gattis performed respectfully enough behind the dish, but he’s certainly a player you pencil into the line-up for his bat. His clout is well noted. He finished the season with an OPS+ of 106, despite the fact that he doesn’t consistently get on base. Still, a good showing for a rookie. If he can drive up his walks and cut down the strikeouts some, he’d be a pretty formidable offensive catcher. His 110 wRC+ would put him ahead of guys like Salvador Perez and Russell Martin, though he obviously doesn’t boast their defensive abilities.

The big question here is whether or not he can continue to develop as a hitter.

The Plan

For the Braves, the plan looks murky. Their roster is mostly in place. Wren must find a landing spot for Uggla. The Winter Meetings next month will likely lay the ground work for the deal, or perhaps even see it to completion. If the Braves do manage to pull off a deal with Uggla, don’t expect any type of playable return. This will be entirely about shaving a few million off the payroll to pursue some additional assets. Trying to find a landing spot is a little more tricky. The Royals are looking to upgrade 2B and they’ve been long trading partners with Atlanta, under former Braves executive Drayton Moore. But they don’t really fit the profile from a payroll perspective. The Orioles could be another fit, especially since he could then double as a DH.

Now is probably a good time for the Braves to try and lock-up some of their young studs to long-term deals. Heyward, Simmons, and Freeman are all certainly deserving. You could probably make the case for Medlen and Minor as well. The Rangers recently extended youngster Martin Perez through 2020. Julio Teheran, who is the same age, and performed better, would make sense for a similar extension. Even if they elect not to sign any of them to longer term deals, a significant chunk of their payroll, which is rumored to be rising, will go to arbitration cases.

Can the Braves land an ace? Should they try? It’s an interesting question. For the Braves to acquire a top-end guy, such as David Price or Max Scherzer, it’s hard to see a package that would be terribly appealing. The farm system isn’t favorably considered. The deal would almost certainly have to include one of the Braves young pitchers, and it seems like Julio Teheran would be the most coveted asset. That said, he’s also the one pitching asset the Braves are least likely to part with. Would a deal built around Mike Minor be sufficient? I’m guessing not, since there are few ace-level pitchers available on the Free Agent market.

Realistically, I see the Braves shipping off Uggla for some salary relief (though they’ll likely still be paying 70%+ of his deal), targeting a LOOGY for the pen, re-signing Hudson, signing a veteran, reserve OF type and paying out the rest in arbitration. They could also sign a lower-tier SP to give them some flexibility in the rotation, but that will largely depend on how much confidence they have in Alex Wood, who performed well in his short stint up this season, to become a 5th starter. Jesse Crain makes sense as a reliever, though he won’t be cheap. Eric O’Flaherty is likely to leave in Free Agency, though the success of Luis Avilan may make Wren feel comfortable with the pen.

Ultimately, don’t expect this Braves team to look tremendously different than what they fielded in 2013. I suspect B.J. Upton will get another shot to prove himself as the everyday CF, with Heyward moving back to RF. The most notable change will be the loss of long-time Brave Brian McCann, though it’s been anticipated. Overall, the Braves are in pretty tremendous shape, despite only being given a middling payroll and not having the luxury of a monster TV deal to support the bottom line. They are the youngest team in baseball and should be anticipated to improve, even beyond their 96 wins from a season ago.