“Round Robinson”: 2015 NL East Team Previews: Atlanta Braves
You won’t find a team that underwent a bigger makeover than did Atlanta, and that includes the renovation that took place in San Diego. The reason we aren’t talking about the facelift the Braves are undergoing as much is that the returns won’t be nearly as immediate as that of the Padres or Cubs for example. I don’t want to say Atlanta has turned into the Sixers, but clearly there was a plan set in motion to prepare the Braves to return to relevance upon the opening of their new stadium, SunTrust Park, in 2017, and not a moment sooner.
Call it a tank job, call it a holding pattern, but it’s clear the Braves are sacrificing this season, and probably next year as well, with an eye towards competing when they move to Cobb County. Considering there’s a juggernaut a few hundred miles up the coast, perhaps it’s not the worst strategy they could’ve gone with. Still, there are some very fantasy relevant pieces in play here that are worth considering for your lineup.
The cornerstone of the Braves’ offense and face of the franchise is now Freddie Freeman. Although the smooth-hitting first baseman had another quality year in 2014 (.288/.386/.461, 18 HR, 78 RBI, 93 R), it was a step back from the numbers he posted the season prior when he finished in the top five for NL MVP. Still, it’s hard not to enjoy the consistency and four-category production you’re assured year after year. Freeman would need to ramp up his power numbers to get in the conversation with the elite at first base, but he’s a quality second-tier option who’s baseline should be around .285/20/80/80. The one thing I’m not buying is that the lack of offense around him will damage Freeman’s totals further. The Braves were 29th in the majors in runs scored last year (573) with all those pieces. Even without them, the fall can only be so far, and I think Freeman’s floor remains as safe as any at the position.
Another young building block the Braves have committed to is Andrelton Simmons. It’s no secret what he can do with the glove, but he surprised many with his bat in 2014, just not in a good way. After 17 long balls in 2013, it seemed like Simmons’ career arc had him trending towards a 20-HR campaign in a power-starved SS group. But he never got his bat going and disappointed many an owners looking for MI power. The batting average and stolen bases, which looked so promising in his rise through the minors, don’t look like they’ll ever manifest themselves at the major league level, leaving Simmons to rely on that power for his fantasy value. He’s worth a late-round pick only in deeper leagues considering there’s about 20 or more shortstops who interest me more.
… on the offensive side, that is. Defensively? (In my best Stephen A. Smith voice) Andrelton Simmons is a bad man…
Speaking of crashing back down to Earth, we slide over to third base. That’s where we find Chris Johnson and his career low .653 OPS from 2014. It was going to be hard for Johnson to duplicate his surprise 2013 campaign, one that saw him hit .321 with 34 doubles. It was going to be next to impossible for him to duplicate that .394 BABIP, and his 21.2% K-rate was also a substantial improvement. Both of those came back in line with Johnson’s career averages, relegating him to being nothing special last year, and in store for a similar fate in 2015. He won’t kill you in any one particular category, but he won’t be anything close to a difference maker either.
The Braves did what everyone expected by trading Evan Gattis this offseason, making room for youngster Christian Bethancourt behind the plate. Bethancourt, like Simmons, is a whiz with the glove but struggles overall when inside the batter’s box and not behind it. You might get a few homers and an average around .240, but his ceiling is still pretty low at this point, especially with the addition of veteran A.J. Pierzynski taking away at-bats. It appears Pierzynski’s swan song for fantasy was in 2012, and he’s not much more than filler at this point. Should one of these two be pressed into steadier action, there could be some value to be had in two-catcher or NL-only leagues. As it stands now, neither one is too exciting an option.
Rounding out the infield is the position most in flux, second base. This time one year ago, Dan Uggla had a firm grasp on the job with youngster Tommy La Stella poised to make a dent in the big leagues at some point. Both of those guys are now gone and the Braves will go with the combination of Alberto Callaspo and Phil Gosselin. I’d give the slight edge going into the year to Callaspo based on his experience, but the decision should end up being moot when Atlanta turns the reigns over to young Jose Peraza. The 20-year old Peraza should end up being the top of the order presence the Braves have been looking for and gives them a dynamic double play combination. In just over 1,000 PA over the last two years in the minors, Peraza is hitting over .300 with a whopping 124 SB. There’s no power to speak of, but it’s not a stretch to see him as a three-category contributor early in his major league career.
The page has been turned in Atlanta’s outfield as none of the three names you saw penciled into last year’s starting lineup will be present this year. Jason Heyward is now a Cardinal, Justin Upton is now a Padre, and B.J. Upton is now Melvin Upton Jr., ditching his nickname and hopefully the putrid production that went with it. When Atlanta ponied up the $75 million for his services, you better believe they never expected his first two seasons to produce a .198 AVG and a higher number of K (324) than his slugging percentage (.314). Toss in that Upton is now expected to miss the first month of the season with a left foot injury and it becomes that much harder to justify rostering him. Should you choose to do so, you’re almost painting yourself into a corner and being forced to punt batting average to make his addition palatable.
The one move I really wasn’t a fan of this offseason was the acquisition of longtime Oriole Nick Markakis. I understand that he fits in with Atlanta’s new contact-driven approach, but signing a 31-year old to a four year deal when you’re two years away from competing doesn’t add up in my book. He’s a solid overall ballplayer, but fantasy owners know he’s nothing special. Markakis hasn’t had more than 15 HR since 2009 and has only swiped six bags the last three seasons combined. His draw has been his consistently high OBP, which I do expect to continue, and his ability to produce runs, something you won’t be able to count on considering he’s leaving the stronger Baltimore lineup and being perched atop a statistically weaker Atlanta lineup.
Those are really the only “stable” entities in the Braves’ outfield, and consequentially, they are both hurt at the moment, although Markakis is expected back by Opening Day. This leaves the door open for a plethora of options, albeit none that are too exciting. Jonny Gomes will be pressed into more regular duty, but we know by now he’s best served both in the real game and the fantasy version to being deployed only when he’s facing a lefty. Recent signee Eric Young Jr. could end up getting the majority of the ABs while Upton is out of the lineup. He could be an early season source of cheap speed for NL-only leagues, but he’ll be relegated to pinch running duties at best after Upton returns. Former Yankee farmhand Zoilo Almonte has shown a little bit of pop in the minors and has a shot at a handful of at bats over the first few weeks of the season.
The strength of the Braves roster, much like it has for the past 25 years, comes from their starting pitching. Gone are Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy after both underwent multiple Tommy John surgeries. Their fading stars have allowed others to step to the forefront, none more than Julio Teheran. Teheran should easily find himself among the top-20 pitchers taken in fantasy, but losing Jason Heyward among others will hurt Teheran considering his fly ball tendencies. Although I don’t see a repeat of last year’s exquisite numbers on the horizon in 2015, his numbers should still be very good and worth of SP2 status.
Another youngster who turned many a head in 2014 was southpaw Alex Wood. His funky delivery baffled hitters, especially in the second half when, in 17 starts, Wood posted a 2.43 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 107 K. Whether or not hitters can make the adjustment now that he’s had a full run through the league will determine what level of success Wood can continue to reach, but I’m confident he’ll be a top-30 starter by year’s end.
The biggest piece the Braves acquired in their offseason wheeling and dealing was former Cardinal Shelby Miller. Most will agree the arm talent is certainly there, but a downward trend in strikeout rate coupled with a modest rise in his walk rate have left some wondering what his true ceiling is. There are some mechanical difficulties to iron out, but Miller will be an interesting sleeper late in drafts. I still think he has the stuff to be a #2 starter, just don’t look for that jump to happen all at once. Not this year at least.
It looked as if there were going to be two spots available in the rotation on Opening Day, but one of those spots again has the name Mike Minor written all over it. It looks like he should be good to go early in the season after getting a clean bill of health from Dr. James Andrews regarding his inflamed rotator cuff. When he’s on the mound, the telling stat for Minor will be that home run rate considering his strong trend as a fly ball pitcher himself. Oversimplifying it a bit, the difference between his 2013 and 2014 seasons could be traced back to that huge jump his HR/FB rate took, up to 12.9% last season. That has to come down for Minor to see any modicum of success.
That fifth spot is a bit more up in the air. Odds are, we’ll see veteran Eric Stults getting the ball to start the season. He comes over from San Diego after a disappointing 2014 hoping to make the most of what could be his last shot. He’ll have to show signs of redemption quickly as the prize of the Evan Gattis trade, Mike Foltynewicz, will be breathing down his neck in no time. The hard throwing 23-year old did have his share of struggles in 2014 with both the Astros and their AAA affiliate, Oklahoma City. But much like Miller, Foltynewicz has a lot of the physical tools the Braves’ front office is looking for and expectations will be high whenever he does get the call to come to Atlanta.
Amid rumors that he could be moved as well, Craig Kimbrel still calls Atlanta home and still finds himself sitting at #1 or #2 in most relief pitcher rankings. Hard to argue considering both the dominance and consistency he’s displayed since taking over the closer role in 2011. Since then, Kimbrel has led the NL in saves each season and hasn’t had a year with less than 95 K, strong returns from a closer. There might be a subtle dropoff in save opportunities, but nothing that should discourage you from making Kimbrel among the first relievers off the board.
There was a lot of turnover in the rest of the bullpen as Atlanta waived goodbye to David Carpenter, Anthony Varvaro and Jordan Walden. The Braves added a few former closers to shore up their back end, hoping they can turn around recent misfortunes. Jason Grilli lost his job in Pittsburgh before being dealt to the Angels mid-season. Although some, including myself, predicted he would reclaim the closer role, Grilli stayed in the setup role and pitched much more like his 2013 self that was named to the All-Star team. Another former All-Star, Jim Johnson, looks to turn it around after the wheels fell off in 2014 to the tune of a 7.09 ERA. I much prefer Grilli to Johnson at this point, but both could have some speculative value if they can rediscover their old form.
Atlanta didn’t need anything else working against them coming into the season considering all the new faces they’re trying to integrate, but injuries to Minor and Upton were just that. The best case scenario for the Braves is if their offense could somehow not be worse than last year, which would take a monumental effort from Freeman and some resurgent efforts out of Simmons, Johnson, Upton and/or Markakis. The starting pitching will once again be relied on heavily, meaning they will have to stay relatively healthy and continue to build on some solid foundations. Kimbrel will still be Kimbrel, but can the Braves find an adequate bridge to get to him? Even if all of this were to fall perfectly into place, the potential of this team is still a few years from being realized. Anything over .500, even just reaching .500, would have to be considered a success in 2015, a position Atlanta fans aren’t used to being in.
2015 NL East Projection:
- Atlanta Braves (76-86)
- Philadelphia Phillies (70-92)
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