Friday, February 8, 2013

2013 Atlanta Braves Preview

While all the attention was focused on the Mariners, the Braves swooped in and made a trade with the Diamondbacks for Justin Upton, nabbing a talented, cheap outfielder for 50 cents on the dollar.  This will be the first Braves team since 1994 without Chipper Jones in the lineup, and so the team needed to get a bat to replace him in their lineup from somewhere.  Mission accomplished.  How does this new lineup look?

CF   B.J. Upton (R): .248/.329/.436, 23 HR, 35 SB, 4.0 WAR
RF   Jason Heyward (L): .272/.360/.483, 26 HR, 20 SB, 6.1 WAR
LF   Justin Upton (R): .289/.372/.492, 25 HR, 19 SB, 5.2 WAR
C     Brian McCann (L): .266/.346/.467, 23 HR, 4.0 WAR
2B   Dan Uggla (R): .238/.341/.439, 28 HR, 3.2 WAR
1B   Freddie Freeman (L): .282/.358/.481, 24 HR, 3.4 WAR
SS   Andrelton Simmons (R): .289/.351/.416, 10 HR, 18 SB, 4.4 WAR
3B   Chris Johnson (R): .280/.324/.440, 13 HR, 1.4 WAR

The elder Upton should probably be hitting lower in the lineup, where he can make fewer outs and perhaps drive in more runs with his power, but I imagine that Fredi Gonzalez will put him at the top of the order instead, in the name of both lineup balance and stolen bases.  Regardless, he is also a serious power threat at the top of the order, as are hitters two through six.  I suspect that the projections are a tad low for both Heyward and Justin Upton, who are only now beginning to enter their prime.  Now that Justin's thumb is healthy, I would bet on his bat coming back in a big way.  Aside from Bossman Junior, the major questions are regarding McCann (also coming off of a nagging injury, harder for a catcher to deal with), and the stupendously inconsistent Uggla, who is equally capable of hitting ten home runs in two weeks or collecting just ten hits in a month.  I like McCann to bounce back from the most disappointing season of his career with a solid campaign, perhaps a touch better than what is projected above, and return to All-Star form as the third-best catcher in the National League (behind Posey and Molina).  Uggla, meanwhile, is what he is at this point, and while he still can provide plenty of value, I don't know that his approach will change.

Chris Johnson is stepping into some giant shoes, but fortunately for him he only needs to not drag down the offense for this team to succeed.  If you're getting those numbers from your eight hitter, you're probably pretty happy.  Simmons is perhaps the key to the Braves' season; if he can give them decent offense and a full season of his terrific glove (he might be the best shortstop in the league right now), Atlanta will be a vastly better team.  Speaking of defense, how about that outfield?  Both Uptons and Heyward are superior defenders; Fangraphs is projecting the trio to save 20 runs this year (probably a conservative number), which should help out the young pitching staff, which lacks the type of hurler who can pile up 10-strikeout outings that their top competitors have.

RHP   Kris Medlen: 190.0 IP, 173 K, 36 BB, 2.94 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 4.2 WAR
RHP   Tim Hudson: 193.0 IP, 120 K, 54 BB, 3.36 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 3.0 WAR
LHP   Mike Minor: 189.0 IP, 177 K, 61 BB, 3.76 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 2.8 WAR
LHP   Paul Maholm: 198.0 IP, 126 K, 58 BB, 4.00 ERA, 3.97 ERA, 2.7 WAR
RHP   Julio Teheran: 149.0 IP, 119 K, 55 BB, 4.23 ERA, 4.05 FIP, 1.6 WAR

In 2012, Medlen began his recovery from Tommy John surgery in the bullpen before morphing into Greg Maddux for a dozen starts down the stretch, a stretch during which he only twice gave up more than a single earned run.  While he probably won't be that good across a whole season, he has grabbed the mantle of Atlanta's top pitcher from Hudson.  The metronomical Hudson has, apart from a semi-disastrous 2006 season, been inducing a steady stream of frustrated hitters and easy three-hoppers for the last fourteen years, and should continue to do so in 2013.  Minor should come into his own this year and make a leap in production, but he should cut down a little on the walks.  Teheran has been one of the Braves' top prospects seemingly forever; it will be interesting to see how he adapts to the major league rotation.

The Braves don't have a single starter projected to throw 200 innings, but that's not a worry when you have a bullpen as good as theirs. Setup men Johnny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty are good, and closer Craig Kimbrel merely put together one of the best seasons by a reliever in baseball history, punching out 116 batters in only 62.2 innings, while allowing just 43 baserunners and a microscopic 7 runs.  SEVEN.  It is rare indeed that I praise the value of closers, given how rare ninth-inning comebacks are in the first place, but Kimbrel's 2012 was on a whole 'nother level.  He's a legitimate weapon in Gonzalez' holster, and ensures that the Braves should protect the leads that they have late in games.  I think that the Braves will win plenty of games, but their rotation is just enough weaker than that of the Nationals that I think they will have to be content with a wild card spot instead.