Saturday, March 16, 2013

2013 Preview: Atlanta Braves

Atlanta Braves
(2012: 94-68, 2nd Place NL East)
(2013: 2nd Place NL East, Wild Card Berth)

First and foremost Happy St. Patrick's Day everyone!!! (Yes I know it's tomorrow, but I know you're celebrating today)  Those of you of age, go and enjoy a shot of Jameson and an Irish car bomb, both staples of the Irish diet.  Now, on to baseball.

The Braves are a very balanced team, with a solid lineup, a good rotation, and a GREAT bullpen.  In the off-season, the Braves brought in Justin and BJ Upton, and they should help bolster the lineup despite the losses of Martin Prado and Michael Bourn.  Randall Delgado was also lost due to trade, but the Braves still have some good young pitching.  However, the biggest loss was of Chipper Jones to retirement.  The first overall pick of the Braves in 1990, Chipper spent his entire career with the Braves.  Baseball will definitely miss him.

The Braves will no doubt miss Bourn and Prado at the top of the lineup, but with the Upton brothers, they get two guys who are 5 tool players.  A change of scenery might do both good and they will no doubt enjoy playing together.  While the pitching staff is talented, there might be a lack of depth in the rotation due to the injury of Brandon Beachy, but the Braves have some young, very talented arms both at the Major League level and in the Minor Leagues.  

Here's is what the Braves look like this year:

PITCHING:
The Braves leader in the rotation is veteran Tim Hudson, but the ace of the staff is Kris Medlen. Hudson is regressing some, but he still has the sinker ball that will get guys out.  Medlen had an amazing stretch last year with the Braves winning 23 of Medlen's starts in a row.  He should continue that success as a top line starter.  Behind those two are lefties Mike Minor and Paul Maholm.  Minor is a good young arm while Maholm, who was acquired from the Cubs last year is a steady arm at the bottom of the rotation.  The number 5 will most likely be Julio Teheran, the Braves top prospect.  Teheran has fantastic stuff and should fit into the rotation nicely.  However, as with all first year starters, the workload will be a dilemma.  The mid to late season return of Brandon Beachy will help the depth of the Braves rotation.

The Braves bullpen is among the best in the league, if not the best.  Closer Craig Kimbrel is a hard thrower with an unhittable breaking ball.  With Kimbrel as the closer, the game is pretty much over after the 8th inning.  Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty are the setup men for this club.  Venters is a lefty who throws hard and can get both lefties and righties out.  O'Flaherty is also a lefty who is practically impossible for lefties to hit.  Another power arm includes newly acquired Jordan Walden.  If Walden can cut down on the walks, he will be a dominant reliever for the Braves.

Besides Teheran, some Braves top pitching prospects include Lucas Sims, J.R. Graham, Sean Gilmartin, and Alex Wood.  Sims won't crack the roster for a couple more years, but Gilmartin, Graham, and Wood have a chance to be with the team in 2013.  Gilmartin has the kind of stuff to crack the rotation if they have trouble with injuries or guys are ineffective.  

LINEUP:
The Braves return three infielders in 2013, with third baseman Chris Johnson being the only newcomer.  First baseman Freddie Freeman has tons of power and can hit for average as well.  Look for a great season from the youngster.  Second baseman Dan Uggla struggled immensely last year.  I look for him to bounce back and be the Dan Uggla of old.  He will hit home runs in bunches, but won't provide much else.  Shortstop Andrelton Simmons started out hot last year but then got hurt.  He is a very exciting player who can hit for average, steal bases, and play great defense.  Simmons should be great at the top of the order.  Third baseman Chris Johnson has some pop, and if he hits like he did late last year in Arizona, he will have a great 2013.  Catcher Brian McCann has had vision problems in the past, but he hopes those are behind him.  He isn't much defensively, but when healthy, McCann is one of the best hitting catchers in baseball.

The Braves employ one of the best outfields in baseball, with Justin Upton in left, BJ Upton in center, and Jason Heyward in right.  Justin Upton is one of the most talented players in baseball and should playing in a new city with his brother.  I look for Justin to have a huge year in 2013.  BJ Upton can really go get the ball in center field and is a quality player.  He struggles hitting for average, but he can hit home runs and steal bases.  Right fielder Jason Heyward is a great player, who can hit and field, evidenced by his gold glove last year.  Heyward should continue to get better and should have a big 2013 as well.

The only quality Braves hitting prospect is catcher Christian Bethancourt.  Bethancourt is an absolute defensive wizard, but he struggles a bit with the bat.  If called up, he would instantly have one of the best arms in baseball behind the dish.  He won't wow with the bat, but he should definitely be able to be an average offensive catcher when all is said and done.



NON-ROSTER INVITEE TO WATCH:
There isn't much of note here, so I'll go with former Cub Blake DeWitt.  DeWitt is decent with the bat and is a solid bench guy, but in reality, with backup infielders Paul Janish, Juan Francisco, and Tyler Pastornicky, DeWitt probably doesn't have a very good chance of making this team.

PROGNOSIS:
This Braves team is a very good club, with everything a team needs to win in this league, especially in the bullpen.  The NL East is very top heavy with the Nationals and Braves, and in reality, both should not have much of a problem making the playoffs.  I worry a bit about the depth in the rotation for the Braves, but if Brandon Beachy can come back strong, they are much better here.  The maturation of Sean GIlmartin is also a big key in the depth of the rotation.  The Braves should score runs with quality guys in the lineup like the Upton brothers, Heyward, Freeman, and Simmons.  Lastly, with their bullpen, the Braves have the ability to make games a lot shorter, leading me to believe that a playoff spot is theirs to lose.

TWITTER ACCOUNT OF THE DAY:
They're both new to town, so go follow the Upton brothers and make them feel welcome.  Justin, @JUP_8TL and BJ, @BJUPTON2