Atlanta Braves Predictions

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The Atlanta Braves have been steadily improving over the past five seasons. They followed up an impressive 94-68 campaign in 2012 with a 96-66 record in 2013 and a first place finish in the NL East. They would go on to lose to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, but rest assured, this team is built to contend for years.

The Braves feature young cornerstones in Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel. They even managed to win 96 games last season while getting essentially nothing from B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. Can they hold off the Washington Nationals in the NL East once again in 2014? Let’s take a look.

Projected Lineup

Jason Heyward (RF) – Heyward has turned into a quality big leaguer in his time with the Braves. The 24-year-old hasn’t lived up to his enormous expectations, but injuries have slowed him a bit. The Braves trusted him to play center field down the stretch and into the postseason. He did have a monster 2012 campaign in which he hit .269/.335/.479 (average/on-base/slugging) with 27 homers and 21 stolen bases, which really showed his potential. But it was aided by a .319 BABIP (batting average on balls in play), and that number dipped to .281 in 2013. As a result, Heyward only hit .254/.349/.427 with 14 homers and 38 RBIs. That effort came in 211 fewer plate appearances than in ’12, so it can be taken with a grain of salt. A little better luck in the BABIP department could lead to a big 2014 campaign.

Justin Upton (LF) – Upton had a monster April in which he hit 12 homers and garnered MVP consideration. He would only hit 15 long balls the rest of the way, and while his final line was a decent on at .263/.354/.464, it left little to be desired. He didn’t even make the All-Star Game, which tells you how poorly he played from May to July. An eight-homer August saved his season again. The Diamondbacks hated how streaky he was, and the Braves are seeing it first-hand now. Still, the 26-year-old has loads of talent and is entering his physical prime.

Freddie Freeman (1B) – Off a season in which he hit .319/.396/.501 with 23 homers and 109 RBIs, Freeman earned a new eight-year contract worth $135 million. This is the longest contract in Braves’ history, and it clearly makes Freeman the face of the franchise going forward. He struck it rich due to an unsustainable .371 BABIP a year after posting a .295 BABIP in 2012, which led to a .259/.340/.456 slash line. Chances are that the slow first baseman isn’t going to see his batted balls drop for hits 37% of the time in a single season ever again. Atlanta fans could be disappointed in 2014 given the expectations that the 24-year-old has now created for himself.

Evan Gattis (C) – Gattis proved to be a huge contributor for the Braves last season. He hit 12 homers through May, but then went on a three-month slump, which was aided by a strained oblique. He would rebound over the final couple months of the season to finish with a .243/.291/.480 slash line with 21 homers and 65 RBIs. He may be better suited for a part time role, but Gattis will have to try and fill the monster shoes left by former catcher Brian McCann, who signed with the Yankees this offseason. He’ll need to improve upon his 21.2% strikeout percentage if he wants to become a more consistent hitter.

Chris Johnson (3B) – Johnson is coming off the best offensive season of his career. He hit .321/.358/.457 with 12 homers and 68 RBIs for the Braves last season. However, he was aided by an unsustainable .394 BABIP, though he is known for being a line drive hitter. That is evidenced by the fact that he owns a career .361 BABIP.  I expect him to finish closer to that number in ’14, which will still produce a great season. One of the biggest reasons for his improvement last year was the fact that he cut down his strikeout percentage from 25 to 21 percent from ’12 to ’13.

Andrelton Simmons (SS) – Easily the best defensive shortstop in baseball, Simmons proved that he could handle a bat in 2013, too. In his first full season in the big leagues, he hit .248/.296/.396 with 17 homers, 59 RBIs and 76 runs scored. The Braves will certainly take that from a guy who simply snatches up everything that comes his way in the field. At age 23, he finished with the fourth-lowest strikeout rate in baseball last year, getting punched out only 8.4% of the time. Just being average at the plate would make Simmons one of the best players in the game because of his defense.

Dan Uggla (2B) – It’s pretty gross to consider that Uggla is making $26 million over the final two years of his contract. He is coming off back-to-back ugly seasons, hitting just .220 and slugging .384 with 19 homers in 2012, while hitting .179 and slugging .362 with 22 homers in 2013. He struck out a career-high 32 percent of the time last season, and he’s one of the worst defensive second basemen in baseball to boot. The only bright spot is the fact that Uggla finished with a career-low .225 BABIP last season, so he was very unlucky. If that number can come back up closer to his career BABIP of .287, the 34-year-old has a chance to be one of the most improved players in he league in 2014.

B.J. Upton (CF) – Upton was every bit as bad as Uggla in his first season with his new team. B.J. managed to hit just .184/.268/.289 with nine homers, 26 RBIs and 12 stolen bases over 446 plate appearances. He did not start a game in October, lost some pop in his bat, and had a career-worst success rate on stolen bases (70.6%). B.J. struck out a career-high 33.9% of the time last season. He did finish with an unlucky .266 BABIP, which makes one feel there is a good chance for a rebound considering his career BABIP is .317. He’s still only 29 years old and in the prime of his career.

Projected Rotation

Kris Medlen (RHP) – Certainly, Medlen wasn’t going to live up to the expectations he created for himself in 2012. He went 10-1 with a silly 1.57 ERA and 0.91 WHIP over 138 innings that year thanks to an opponents’ BABIP of .261 against him. However, he did prove that he could handle a full season’s work load with solid success in 2013. Over 197 innings, Medlen went 13-12 with a 3.11 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. Opposing hitters managed a .306 BABIP off of him, which is actually a little high compared to league average and could come back down in 2014. The most encouraging sign last year is that Medlen got better as the season wore on, posting a 1.37 ERA over his final nine starts.

Julio Teheran (RHP) – Teheran dominated spring training to earn a spot in the rotation in 2013. He would falter through the first couple months of the season, but he simply rolled from June-on. The end result was a 14-8 record with a 3.20 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP to go along with an 8.2 K/9 ratio. He showed tremendous control, walking just 2.2 batters per nine innings. His fastball and slider are plus pitches, and if he can develop his changeup, the sky is the limit for this 23-year-old.

Mike Minor (LHP) – Minor is coming off the best season of his career. He pitched well in 2012 with a 4.12 ERA and 1.15 WHIP over 179 1/3 innings, but that was nothing compared to his 2013 campaign. The left-hander finished 13-9 with a 3.21 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. He improved his strikeout rate from 7.3 K/9 in ’12 to 8.0 in ’13, and lowered his walk rate from 2.8 BB/9 in ’12 to 2.0 in ’13. He was the lone Braves pitcher to top 200 innings last year to boot. While Minor won’t get much ace consideration, Atlanta is more than happy to have this 26-year-old as its No. 3 starter.

Brandon Beachy (RHP) – Beachy missed the first half of 2013 due to Tommy John Surgery. He recovered in time to start five games in July, but then went on the disabled list for the remainder of the season with another elbow injury that required surgery. This procedure was much more minor, and it means that he should be ready to go by opening day. The Braves are hoping they get the 2012 Beachy who went 5-5 with a 2.00 ERA and 0.96 WHIP over 81 innings before suffering the injury. The 27-year-old needs to show whether or not he’s more than just a middle-of-the-rotation starter.

Alex Wood (LHP) – Wood felt what it was like to pitch in the big leagues for the first time in 2013. For the most part, he fared well by going 3-3 with a 3.13 ERA and 1.33 WHIP over 77 2/3 innings. Wood made 11 starts and 20 relief appearances last year, striking out 8.9 batters per nine innings in the process. He did fare better as a reliever last year, posting a 2.08 ERA and a 4.6 K/BB ratio. Some believe his unorthodox mechanics make him more fit for the bullpen, but the Braves are likely going to try him out in the rotation first in 2014.

Bullpen

The Braves finished with the No. 1 bullpen in all of baseball in 2013, which is perhaps the biggest reason they won 96 games. Their relievers combined to go 29-15 with a miniscule 2.46 ERA. Craig Kimbrel finished 4th in Cy Young voting after going 4-3 with a 1.21 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. He posted a 13.2 K/9 while recording 50 saves. The best closer in baseball will be back handling the ninth inning duties once again in 2014.

Kimbrell will be set up by David Carpenter, who has a stranglehold on the eighth inning. He deserves it after going 4-1 with a 1.78 ERA and 0.99 WHIP while striking out 10.1 batters per nine innings a year ago. Luis Avilan will take the ball in the seventh inning most of the time. The left-hander went 5-0 with a 1.52 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in his first season in the majors last year. The 24-year-old was effective against batters from both sides of the plate, and he allowed only one home run over 65 innings in ’13.

Betting Odds

  • To Win World Series: 20/1
  • To Win NL Pennant: 9/1
  • To Win NL East: 5/4

2014 Season Win Total: 89

Oddsmakers have set the number for the Braves at 89 this year. Considering they have won 89-plus games in four consecutive seasons, averaging 92.5 wins during this span, I believe they have set the bar a little too low. I expect the Braves to win 90-plus game in 2014 and contend for another division title.

Prediction: 2nd Place NL East (90-72)

It’s amazing that this team was able to win 96 games a year ago with the seasons that Uggla and B.J. Upton had. They did so by getting big years out of Freeman, Gattis and Johnson, as well as a near-flawless effort from the bullpen. The starting rotation really came together despite having a ton of question marks coming into the year.

This rotation features a bunch of little-known guys, but that’s only because they are all so young. This should once again be one of the best rotations in baseball with a dynamite bullpen to boot. If Uggla and Upton can bounce back this season, it’s scary to think how good this team could be. However, I do expect both Freeman and Johnson to regress quite a bit, which will be a big reason why the Braves finish second to the Nationals in the NL East.

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