Catcher Brian McCann has been the man calling the signs for the Atlanta Braves over the past eight seasons, but 2013 could mark the end of his tenure with the team.
Since 2005, the Atlanta Braves have enjoyed a brand of stability behind the plate that very few teams in baseball can boast. However, a shoulder injury will sideline McCann in the early going this season. That leaves the Braves in a somewhat unfamiliar place.
While Atlanta did exercise its team option on McCann over the winter, and remain in high hopes that he will return to action before April is out, there is some degree of uncertainty as to what to expect from the catcher’s position this season.
Capable backup David Ross departed via free agency, leaving Atlanta to search for viable reinforcements. Veteran Gerald Laird was signed to fit that bill, but that is not all the Braves have in camp this year. Top prospects and non-roster invitees will all be trying to make their mark during spring training as well.
With free agency looming and McCann at a pivotal juncture in his career, the future could be here sooner than later for Atlanta.
Brian McCann has an irrepressible smile and passion for the game. That has been evident since he burst onto the scene as a fresh-faced 21-year-old rookie in 2005.
Since then, McCann has earned the respect of the Atlanta pitching staff and his teammates. He has also built a reputation as one of the best hitting catchers in baseball.
The average McCann season from 2006-2011 was .287/.359/.491 with 22 homers and 86 RBI in 137 games. Those numbers earned him six All-Star appearances and five Silver Slugger awards.
Then 2012 happened. It was a career-worst campaign that ended in a.230/.300/.399 slash line. He did connect for 20 home runs and drive home 67 runs in 121 games, but this was not the McCann of years past. There were not many if any encouraging ways to look at his splits.
The early struggles may well have been a slump that was bound to happen sooner or later, but eventually it became clear that McCann’s injured right shoulder was contributing to his substandard performance. It was affecting the slugger’s swing more so than his throwing.
Rather than end his season prematurely, McCann opted to have a pair of injections in hopes of alleviating the pain and playing through the injury.
Those cortisone shots may have kept McCann on the field, but his swing was clearly affected. Even this spring, McCann told Gabe Lacques of USA TODAY that playing through the pain is a decision he stands by.
“In the moment last year, I wanted to keep going, I wanted to be a part of that team that was having such a good season. I grinded through it. I wasn’t playing at my best. I knew I wasn’t at my best. It’s a decision I made.”
McCann batted just .202 with four extra-base hits and 11 RBI in the final two months of the season, and found himself benched in favor of Ross in Atlanta’s Wild Card game against St. Louis.
Despite coming off the worst season in his eight-year career, the Braves decided to exercise his $12 million team option for 2013. They have seen McCann at his best and believe he can get back there once fully healed.
The October surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder has McCann targeting a mid-April return to game action if his rehab goes according to schedule. The procedure has kept McCann out of Grapefruit League action thus far.
It has not been uncommon for McCann to battle through aches and pains over the years. He has proven to be quite durable, catching an average of 125 games in his six full seasons prior to 2012.
The word leadership has been a hot topic around spring training for Atlanta. It is a period of transition, but not the kind that involves rebuilding. The Braves have simply reloaded.
There is no one player in the Atlanta locker room who is more qualified to lead than McCann. He saw the Braves’ success as a rookie, then the struggles that followed. He watched his club be both a buyer and a seller at different stages before returning to the playoffs in 2010.
McCann is now 29 years old. He is truly a homegrown talent, an Georgia native who grew up in suburban Atlanta and was developed in the Braves’ farm system. McCann studied under the legendary Bobby Cox and played alongside Atlanta sports icon Chipper Jones for eight campaigns.
He has always seemed wise beyond his years, and has learned from the best the Braves had to offer.
As ESPN‘s Jerry Crasnick wrote just prior to spring training, Jones eyed McCann as his successor to lead the team after his retirement. That is, if McCann remains in Atlanta after 2013.
“I’d like to say it’s Brian McCann. He’s a great kid. He’s a great player, and he’s the kind of guy you want to build a ball club around. It would be sad to see him go somewhere else. Unfortunately, the business and economics of baseball may not allow it to happen.”
The winter was filled with a flurry of activity. Jones retired. B.J. Upton signed as a free agent, and Justin Upton was later acquired in a trade that sent Martin Prado to Arizona.
Once, left-hand heavy, Atlanta lineup is now much more balanced. With McCann back and in top form, the Braves batting order would get that much better.
Gerald Laird was exactly what Atlanta was looking for after losing trusty backup catcher David Ross to the Boston Red Sox over the winter.
Laird, 33,came in handy for the American League champion Detroit Tigers last year, capably filling in for the injured Alex Avila midway through the season. He will be asked to fill the void of another All-Star catcher to open 2013, as Brian McCann makes his way back from off-season shoulder surgery.
Perhaps Laird can also serve as a good luck charm of sorts for the Braves. After all, he has played in the last two World Series. First for the champion Cardinals in 2011, and then for the Tigers last season. Atlanta would have no problem if that trend continued.
Laird enjoyed a solid season for the Tigers, batting .282 in 63 games, his highest mark since 2008. Much to the Braves liking, Laird turned in a .293/.350/.390 line in his 51 starts in place of Avila last year.
While he may not provide as much power as Ross, he certainly fits the mold of veteran right-handed hitting option to spell McCann. Laird is also capable of handing the pitching staff for longer stretches of time if injury should strike.
This will actually make the third consecutive year that Laird has served as the backup to an All-Star catcher. He split from Detroit for a year in 2011 to play behind Yadier Molina in St. Louis.
Laird told Mark Bowman of MLB.com that is perfectly comfortable filling the reserve role.
“I know I’m a backup, but I think the asset I bring is that I can play every day, too, like last year when Alex [Avila] went down. I can play as a starter for a while and be productive. I know my role now, and that’s just to play when the guys need a day off. I just want to make sure I’m prepared when the guys get a day off to give the team a chance to win. I take pride in that.”
Atlanta will depend on Laird to be the starting catcher as the season opens, while using Grapefruit League games to determine who his backup will be.
Evan Gattis almost passed on baseball altogether. The Braves are certainly glad he reconsidered.
Last spring, David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution detailed Gattis’ odyssey.
Gattis, 26, may have gotten a late start but he has certainly done his best to make up for lost time. Since being taken by Atlanta in the 23rd round of the 2010 draft out of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, all he has done is post gaudy offensive totals.
Listed at six-foot-four, 230 pounds, Gattis is not short on power, yet has also shown an ability to hit for average thus far in his career as well. Gattis played primarily split much of 2012 season between High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi, and put together a combined .305/.389/.607 slash line.
After a white-hot start at Lynchburg, Gattis quickly jumped to Mississippi, where he suffered a wrist injury that derailed his season for nearly two months. While his average came back down to earth in Double-A, Gattis belted 18 home runs among his 42 extra-base hits in just 272 at-bats overall in 2012.
Gattis has played exactly 162 games combined in his last two minor league seasons. The carnage inflicted on minor league hurlers has been immense. He batted .315/.387/.604 with 44 doubles, 40 home runs and 138 RBI in 691 plate appearances over that time.
As if his slugging exploits in the minor leagues were not enough of a resume builder to warrant a look in spring training. Gattis was hard at work with Zulia in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he batted .303 with 16 homers 53 games.
Coming to camp this year, Gattis has a chance to earn a spot as the back-up catcher while McCann rehabs his shoulder. However, he has only 182 at-bats above the Class-A level.
Gattis has done well through the first two weeks of spring training, going 8-for-19 with a home run and three RBI. There is some question about his defense, both behind the plate and in left field, but he would truly be a reserve player were he to break camp with Atlanta.
O’Brien opined in the AJC that placing Gattis on the big-league roster without regular playing time is an interesting proposition. It was was one he discussed with Braves general manager Frank Wren.
If he had big-league experience, Gattis’ catcher-outfielder versatility and big bat would make him a natural for a bench job.
“No question,” Wren said. “That’s a tough role for a young hitter. But he’s making himself a better fit for a team because he can do a couple of things. He’s not locked into one position.”
The Braves must factor in what best serves the club, as well as what is best for the burgeoning slugger. More time in the minors would allow Gattis to continue his development as catcher, a spot where he could fit into the long term plans. Left field, meanwhile, is occupied.
Christian Bethancourt has drawn rave reviews for his defense since signing with the Braves in 2008 as a non-drafted free agent. His bat, however, has yet to mature in his four seasons stateside.
Bethancourt, 21, represented Atlanta in the Futures Game during All-Star festivities last season. Injuries and inconsistency led to just a .243/.275/.291 in 71 games with Double-A Mississippi in 2012, so one can gain a pretty decent understanding of Bethancourt’s defensive prowess to have made the mid-season trip to Kansas City.
He has been ranked the best defensive catcher in the Braves organization three of the last four seasons by Baseball America, who also rated him the top receiver in the Southern League in 2012.
Atlanta added Bethancourt to the 40-man roster in November. His ability to throw out runners is well documented, 39 percent caught stealing with Mississippi last year and 34 percent since debuting with the GCL Braves in 2009.
Though his career .265 average is not bad, Bethancourt’s power numbers have simply not materialized. He has just 14 homers in 1,336 minor league at-bats. Walk totals are not exactly pumping his on-base percentage up either.
He will have a little extra work to do to round into form this spring, after a broken hand ended his 2012 season in August. Bethancourt was able to play 23 games of winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but batted just .224 with three doubles in 58 at-bats for Licey.
With nearly six months to heal and build strength since the injury, Bethancourt will be looking to turn the corner offensively this season. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez told Mark Bowman of MLB.com that he is already seeing some improvement with the bat this spring.
“That swing has gotten better. When you listen to the reports and hear the guys talk, they always talk about his swing and say he’s not ready yet. But just watching batting practice and the four at-bats I saw in winter ball, I think there is improvement there.”
As he continues to mature, Bethancourt is using his time in big league camp to his advantage. It is an all-around learning experience, as he told David O’Brien of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.
“This is my third year (in major league spring training), and I learned a lot my first two. I learned from B-Mac and David Ross. I want to keep doing the same, just learning…. I go wherever they send me, just go play baseball. It doesn’t matter if it’s low-A, high-A, Double-A Triple-A, I’m just going to play.”
There is no question that his hitting requires some work before he has any chance to supplant McCann as Atlanta’s everyday catcher. For now, he will have a chance to impress Fredi Gonzalez and company in spring training before likely heading to Gwinnett to open the season.
Following the retirement of third baseman and team icon Chipper Jones, the Atlanta Braves knew that things were going to be different on the infield in 2013.
Not only was Jones out of the picture, but Martin Prado was shipped to the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of a seven-player trade in January. It was a move left the Braves without their two most consistent hitters from a year ago, as well as devoid of an heir-apparent for Jones.
Unlike the new-look Atlanta outfield, there is a mix of young and old around the horn. Some of these men exemplify youth and potential, while one man in particular is trying to get his career back on track.
General manager Frank Wren has done well to balance the once lefty-heavy lineup, but there are definitely questions that will have to be answered if the Braves are to make a postseason run in 2013.
A productive infield could help Atlanta address some of those concerns.
FIRST BASE: Freddie Freeman
Considering what Freddie Freeman had to deal with last season, his final numbers were a testament to his competitive nature.
After finishing second to teammate Craig Kimbrel in the 2011 NL Rookie of the Year balloting, it appeared Freeman was on track to have an even better sophomore season. He was batting .302 on May 5, but then a pair of maladies sapped some of the slugger’s productivity.
Vision problems began plaguing Freeman in early May. That led to repeated changes of contact lenses during games and an eventual switch to prescription glasses in hopes of solving the problem. It was also a major reason why he hit just .249 over his final 121 games.
Freeman was also dealing with a left index finger injury suffered on June 6 against the Marlins, when he was struck in the left hand by a throw from Jose Reyes while sliding to break up a double play. The X-Rays were negative, but Freeman dealt with discomfort for the remainder of the season.
His final numbers were certainly indicative of his importance to the Atlanta line-up. He set career-highs in multiple categories, including a team-leading 94 RBI. Only Washington’s Adam LaRoche had more RBI among NL first basemen.
Freeman, 23, worked hard alongside teammate Dan Uggla to shed some excess weight over the winter. He told David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that both men are hoping that a better diet and some good old fashioned hard work pays dividends this season:
“It’s something I wanted to do, feel leaner. It was a lot of fun just changing things up. We worked out together, did everything together this offseason. It was a lot of work, and hopefully it pays off.”
There is not much keeping Freeman from being among the top first basemen in the game, but he will need to step up against left-handed pitchers. He turned in just a .237/.315/.399 line against southpaws last season.
Like many hitters in the Atlanta lineup, Freeman is also prone to the strikeout. He has fanned an average of once every 4.1 at-bats in his career. That is a rate he would no doubt like to bring down as he evolves as a hitter.
If he can improve those numbers, then he should take the next step in his progression toward becoming a premier first baseman.
SECOND BASE: Dan Uggla
Dan Uggla was one of the better offensive second basemen in baseball with the Marlins, but has been nothing short of streaky since joining the Braves.
While his career-high 36 home runs and a 33-game hitting streak took the edge off his 2011 performance somewhat, there was no such luck last year.
Uggla, who turns 33 this month, has failed to meet the overall expectations after signing a five-year, $62 million extension immediately after being traded to Atlanta in November of 2010.
Looking over last season’s numbers, it bears pointing out that he led the NL in walks and was a notably better hitter with runners on base. It is also worth noting that the Braves did not acquire Uggla to draw walks while turning in a .384 slugging percentage.
Though Uggla’s 78 RBI were the fewest in any season of his seven-year career, that total still ranked third-best among all major league second basemen. Perhaps that is not the most subjective way to look at the statistics, but it does show that Uggla’s run production was at or above the level of his positional counterparts.
Defensively, Uggla has been adequate at best throughout his career. Combine that fact with his decline at the plate, and it leaves the Braves with an expensive liability on both sides of the ball.
Uggla has always racked up large strikeout totals, which included a team-leading 168 in 2012. In his seven-year career, he has averaged 155 K’s per season.
His offseason regimen helped Uggla come to camp slimmer this year, but the Braves are hoping to see his bat feasting on opposing pitchers once again.
Uggla discussed the depth of his struggles with Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
“After a year like that, something I’m not used to having – if I didn’t see a problem there, there’d be something wrong with me. That would be a lack of caring, and that’s not me. I take a lot of pride in what I do, and that was a hit to my pride. And I will do anything and everything to get it right.”
Uggla has three years left on his contract with Atlanta, and will have to improve drastically from the man who batted .185 in his final 99 games last season.
With Jones gone, Uggla’s veteran status could require that he take on more of a leadership role in the clubhouse as well.
SHORTSTOP: Andrelton Simmons
Andrelton Simmons had played just 44 games above the Single-A level before the Braves turned to him to help solve their shortstop dilemma last season.
As it turned out, Atlanta may have found its shortstop of the future.
Simmons, 23, made quite an impression on the Braves last spring, but the club decided to send him down for more seasoning.
However, by the time June rolled around, Simmons found himself in the big leagues to stay. He batted .289 with three homers and 19 RBI while committing just three errors in 49 games.
A broken right hand slowed his roll in mid-July, keeping him out of the lineup until September. He was back in time for the final three weeks and the ill-fated Wild Card game against St. Louis.
The strong-armed native of Curacao provides excellent defense and possesses good plate discipline as well. Simmons has shown the ability to get on base regularly, turning in a .352 OBP in parts of three minor league seasons. He was hovering around that mark with Atlanta before going 1-for-10 to finish the regular season.
With Michael Bourn gone, the Braves are looking for a leadoff hitter. Early indications this spring are that manager Fredi Gonzalez is going to look to Simmons to fill that void.
According to MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, Simmons is chomping at the bit for the opportunity to prove himself as a top of the order hitter.
“I always feel like I’m the guy people doubt. So it’s a good feeling to stand out, do what people don’t expect. It’s satisfying for myself. I always challenge myself to jump out of nowhere.”
Leading off is something Simmons is certainly equipped to do. Including his minor league work, he strikes out just once every 11.2 at-bats on average. His OBP has also improved in each one of his three professional seasons.
With a lack of other candidates to assume the table setting duties, it appears Simmons is poised to play a big part in Atlanta’s offensive success.
THIRD BASE: Chris Johnson
It will not be easy to follow the Chipper Jones show, but there would be at least a little bit of irony if Atlanta’s next third baseman also has the initials C.J.
In fact, it might just be fitting for Chris Johnson to follow Jones at the hot corner.
He told Carroll Rogers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he welcomes the opportunity:
“I’m excited to play third. I know the history over there. Got some shoes to fill, going to do the best I can and try to just make sure that I play Chris Johnson’s game and obviously not Chipper Jones’ game.”
A Florida resident like Jones, Johnson played his collegiate ball at Stetson University under the guidance of Pete Dunn, who is Jones’ godfather. As Rogers pointed out, that allowed Johnson, a Braves fan growing up, the opportunity to get to know the Jones family.
Johnson, 28, split his 2012 season between the Houston Astros and the Diamondbacks, and set career-bests in virtually every offensive category. Among those were 48 extra-base hits and 76 RBI while playing in 136 games.
As the less-heralded part of the trade with Arizona, which landed Justin Upton in Atlanta, Johnson brings a solid bat to a lineup that is sizing up to be one of the most powerful in the majors.
His run in Arizona was short, but that had more to do with the fact that the Braves were in need of a viable third base option after including Martin Prado in the deal for Upton.
There will not be many comparisons between Jones and Johnson besides the position they play and the home state the share. Johnson is more impatient at the plate, less likely to take walks and more prone to strikeouts than Jones.
Johnson ranks toward the bottom in most metrics defensively, as Mark Bowman of MLB.com pointed out:
The concerns about [Johnson] center around his defense. He had a -10.7 UZR/150 defensive rating last year. The only player with a lower mark was Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera with a -11.2.
However, he can drive in his fair share of runs and could also shift over to first base and give Freeman the occasional day off against a tough lefty pitcher.
The starting job was not handed to Johnson upon his arrival. Manager Fredi Gonzalez will give extended looks to both Johnson and Juan Francisco, who flashed some power in limited at-bats with Atlanta last year.
THIRD BASE: Juan Francisco
Acquired from Cincinnati in a trade just before the 2012 season got underway, stocky third baseman Juan Francisco displayed the power that moved him up the ladder in the Reds system.
Francisco, 25, belted nine home runs for the Braves in just 192 at-bats, and then followed it up with a strong showing in winter ball.
His .307/.368/.575 slash line was complemented by nine homers and 29 RBI in 32 games for Licey in the Dominican Republic.
Though he has a strong arm, Francisco’s range is far from tops in the league. His weight has also been a concern when it comes to his ability to serve as starting third baseman in the majors. Francisco is listed as 245 pounds and did not do much slimming down over the offseason.
Cracking the starting lineup typically leads to better results from Francisco, who batted just .122 with one home run while striking out 20 times in 41 at-bats as a pinch-hitter last season.
All nine of his homers in 2012 came off righty pitchers, further suggesting a platoon could be a distinct possibility.
The Braves will use the Grapefruit League season to determine who is the best everyday option at third base. If neither man impresses enough to gain the regular job, then a platoon to start the season would become a reality.
All in all, the Braves infield offers a great deal of offensive firepower if all of these men play up to their potential. The continued emergence of Freeman, a bounce back campaign from Uggla, a strong first full season from Simmons and some kind of stability from third base are things that Atlanta is looking for.
The Nationals certainly are not going to make it easy to capture the NL East title.
The Atlanta Braves rotation has made headlines countless times over the past two decades. While this year’s starting staff has the potential to be one of the best in the National League, it is the Atlanta bullpen which may prove to be the best in baseball.
Last season, the Braves were 83-1 when leading after eight innings, a testament to the late inning stability provided by the relievers.
Boasting an elite closer and a supporting cast that is the envy of baseball executives in both leagues, the Braves enter 2013 with a definite late inning advantage. This group of relievers will be tasked with protecting the leads as Atlanta seeks to unseat the Washington Nationals on its way to a division title.
The most dominant closer in baseball can be found finishing games in Atlanta.
His name is Craig Kimbrel. And while he hails from the planet Earth, his late inning exploits have been otherworldly.
Kimbrel, 24, followed up his 2011 NL Rookie of the Year performance by pacing the league with 42 saves last season.
That gives the righty a total of 88 saves in two years as Atlanta’s closer, a job he took over following Billy Wagner’s retirement.
Hitters around the league may have been relieved to see Wagner call it quits after 16 seasons, but Kimbrel has taken dominance to a whole new level. His imposing presence has batters hoping to avoid facing Kimbrel with the game on the line.
Braves second baseman Dan Uggla discussed the general consensus of opposing hitters with MLB.com’s Mark Bowman.
“Guys will get on base and sarcastically say to us, ‘Oh man, can’t wait to face Kimbrel in the ninth!'” Uggla said. “We’re like, ‘Yeah, I know, bro. Good luck with that. Better you than me.'”
The righty used his electric stuff to strike out 116 batters in 62.2 innings pitched last season, an average of 16.7 K’s per nine innings. Just over half the batters (50.2 percent) who faced Kimbrel went down on strikes. He did all of this while walking just 14 men and allowing opponents to hit just .126 against him.
Combining a 98 mph fastball with a power curveball has led to a pair of All-Star game appearances as well as a fifth place finish in the NL Cy Young voting in 2012.
Need one more impressive stat to sum up how hard it is to have any success against the Atlanta closer?
Kimbrel led all of baseball by striking out 4.3 batters for every hit allowed. Reds closer Aroldis Chapman and his 100+ mph heater finished second with 3.5 K’s per hit surrendered.
The bottom line is that Kimbrel is the best in the business at what he does. And that gives the Braves an advantage over the opposition.
Jonny Venters has been the perfect lefty complement to Kimbrel over the past two seasons.
A hard-thrower who features a sinking fastball in 93-95 mph range, Venters overcame elbow soreness and mechanical issues to recapture his previous form in the final two months of 2012.
The heavy workload from his first two seasons in the majors may have brought about some of the early struggles Venters faced last year. He was used 79 times as a rookie in 2010, and followed that up with a league-leading 85 appearances in 2011.
His results were nothing short of outstanding. Venters turned in sub-2.00 ERA’s in each of those seasons and was selected for the NL All-Star team in 2011. Like Kimbrel, Venters has been known to pile up his fair share of strikeouts, fanning 189 batters in his first 171 innings of big league work.
After a strong April showing, things came off the track for Venters in May of last season. His strikeout rate plummeted, while opponents batted .423 against him in 14 appearances that month.
As the struggles continued throughout June, the Braves opted to give Venters and his elbow a rest in July. It turned out to a move that provided the lefty reliever with time to heal and time to regroup.
His 4.45 ERA over the first 40 relief outings was a stark contrast to the 1.71 mark he turned in over his final 26 appearances. Also telling, the league was batting .313 against Venters prior to the stint on the DL, and managed just a .211 mark after his return.
Venters told Mark Bowman of MLB.com that he is prepared to hit the ground running in his age-28 season.
“I definitely came in a little more prepared this year than I did last year,” Venters said. ” I took a lot of time off throwing last year and then I kind of got behind the eight ball. Once camp started, I had a hard time getting going and my arm started getting sore. This year, I started to crank it up a little earlier and be a little more prepared.”
The Braves will rely on Venters as the primary left-handed set-up man for Kimbrel again this year. His workload may decrease given the other arms available to manager Fredi Gonzalez, but there is no doubt that Venters will be called upon in pressure situations this season.
Many waiver claims never bear fruit, but sometimes a general manager will select just the right player.
That was the case when Atlanta GM Frank Wren claimed Eric O’Flaherty off waivers from the Seattle Mariners in November of 2008. An integral piece of the bullpen for the last four seasons was plucked from an organization that had no plans for him.
With Seattle, O’Flaherty managed just a 5.91 ERA in 78 appearances over parts of three seasons. Those numbers were hardly a harbinger of things to come.
O’Flaherty, 28, has been a model of consistency as a left-handed specialist in his time with the Braves. He has averaged 69 appearances over the past four seasons while turning in a 1.95 ERA in 231.1 innings.
Though O’Flaherty can pick up a strikeout when he needs it, his value has come in match-up situations. His 11 double plays induced were the best on the staff last season.
It was going to be hard for O’Flaherty to provide an encore for the 0.98 ERA he turned in during 78 games in 2011. He had a couple of bumps in the early going last season, but settled in to allow just one earned run in his final 39 appearances.
With a track record of success firmly established in Atlanta, O’Flaherty talked about his goals for this season with Jim Buchan of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, his hometown newspaper.
“My goals are never numbers,” he said. “It’s more about effort and focus. I feel like if I prepare every day and work my butt off, at the end of the season, no matter what happens, I can be proud of that.”
That hard work has paid dividends thus far, so the Braves will expect O’Flaherty to handle his duties with that same kind of efficiency again this year.
Jordan Walden was an All-Star closer for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2011. It is certainly nice to be able to acquire such a pitcher to strengthen an already capable bullpen.
A slow start and control issues led to his removal from the closer’s role for the Angels last season, but there is no questioning the kind of stuff Walden adds to Atlanta’s late inning crew.
After collecting 32 saves in 2011, Walden, 25, converted just one of his two save opportunities before losing his late inning duties to Scott Downs last season. That was just one of many times the Angels were forced to make a change to their late inning depth chart.
Neck and arm woes caused Walden to have a six-week stay on the DL in July and August, but he still turned in a respectable line for the season.
Despite never getting another save chance, Walden finished with a 3.46 ERA in 45 appearances, fanning 48 batters in 39 IP. He has racked up 138 K’s in 114.2 career innings.
The Braves sent Tommy Hanson to Los Angeles in exchange for Walden this winter, in hopes that he would be able to utilize the same triple-digit heater that made him an effective closer to help in the late innings.
With Walden added to the mix, manager Fredi Gonzalez ran down the bullpen options he will have to choose from with Carroll Rogers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“Our bullpen got better with the kid Walden, a guy that’s pitched in the back end of games. If everything goes well, he’s throwing the seventh inning for you, which is good. In the last two years the way we’ve set up, we go O’Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel or Venters, O’Flaherty, Kimbrel, the other team knew that we had those two lefties in the seventh, eighth inning. So now we could throw (Walden) and split those lefties up.”
Even though closing games is out of the question for the time being, if Walden pitches like the guy who allowed just one earned run in his final 11 appearance of the season, then the Braves will certainly be able to find a role that suits him.
The Braves stumbled upon a quality long reliever in right-hander Cristhian Martinez, thanks to yet another astute waiver claim by Wren and company.
Martinez, who turns 31 on March 6, was claimed from the Florida Marlins in April 2010. He may not be as flashy as O’Flaherty, but Martinez gets the job done.
Originally property of the Detroit Tigers after signing as an amateur free agent in 2003, he was nabbed by the Marlins in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft in 2007.
Over the past two years, Martinez has established himself as Atlanta’s go-to long man. He has made 100 appearances over that time, turning in a 3.63 ERA in 151.1 innings. The righty has walked just 38 batters while registering 123 strikeouts as well.
Relying on fastball location that accentuates his quality changeup, Martinez mixes in the occasional slider. He has a penchant for staying around the plate, which has helped him issue just 52 walks in 203.2 IP during a four-year big league career.
Every bullpen needs a guy who can come in and supply innings. Whether the starter exits early or an extra-inning affair turns into a marathon game, Martinez will be the arm summoned to do most of the heavy lifting.
Luis Avilan was a pleasant surprise for the Braves in 2012 after being recalled from the minors in July when Venters was placed in the disabled list.
Avilan, 23, pitched very well in his rookie season with Atlanta. He went 1-0 with a 2.00 ERA in 31 appearances. He posted 33 strikeouts while walking just 10 batters.
The southpaw’s best work came against lefty bats, who hit just .180 against him. Avilan also made himself right at home at Turner Field, where he allowed just one earned run in 17 appearances.
Primarily a starter for Double-A Mississippi, Avilan went 3-6 with a 3.23 ERA in 16 games (12 starts) before earning the chance to jump to Triple-A Gwinnett. His stay there lasted just one day, as the big club found itself in need of left-handed depth with Venters sidelined.
Signed by Atlanta as a 16-year-old amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2005, Avilan has dabbled in both starting and relieving in the minors, but it appears he has found a niche for the time being.
Atlanta turned to Cory Gearrin for three stints in 2012, and the side-arming righty made the most of his time with the big club. His multiple auditions may have won him a spot in the bullpen this season.
Originally a fourth-round selection out of Mercer University in 2007, Gearrin, 26, has spent the last three seasons with Triple-A Gwinnett.
Gearrin earned International League All-Star honors there last year. He turned in a 2.30 ERA in 39 appearances, saving nine games. He racked up 66 strikeouts against 22 walks in 54.2 innings of work.
Perhaps seeing some time with the Braves in 2011 helped Gearrin get over any nerves he might have been dealing with. After posting a 7.85 ERA 18 appearances during his first go-round, he settled in nicely in 2012. Gearrin trimmed his ERA to 1.80 in 22 games last season, striking out 20 batters while walking just five men.
His deceptive delivery has been tough for righty hitters to figure out, evidenced by their .151/.245/.174 slash line through Gearrin’s first 40 games. That has not been the case for left-handed bats, however. They have tuned him up for a .368/.463/.614 line thus far in his big league career.
Those early trends are extreme, but Gearrin’s minor league splits suggest that he can be effective against both righties and lefties. He will see the bulk of his action in the middle innings for Atlanta this season.
The Braves will use the Grapefruit League action to assess what other options they have in camp. Unlike many other clubs, Atlanta does not have nearly as many question marks in the bullpen.
Despite the strength of relievers who have already been featured, there are a number of pitchers attempting to make a lasting impression, or perhaps even earn a spot when the team breaks camp.
Anthony Varvaro, 28, is a righty who got a look in Atlanta last season. He remains on the 40-man roster after going 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA in 12 games. He fanned 21 hitters in 16.2 big league innings and put up strong numbers in Gwinnett. Varvaro is yet another waiver claim, snagged from Seattle in January of 2011.
Cory Rasmus is a 25-year-old right-hander who was selected as a first-round supplemental pick in 2006. He is the younger brother of Blue Jays outfielder Colby Rasmus. Like Varvaro, Rasmus is on the Braves 40-man roster.
He moved to the bullpen in 2012 with Double-A Mississippi, going 3-5 with a 3.68 ERA in 58.2 IP. Rasmus fanned 62 batters but walked 32, and is likely to start the season with Triple-A Gwinnett to continue adapting to the relief role.
Wirfin Obispo, 28, has certainly had an interesting journey through professional baseball. A shortstop turned pitcher who has played in the Red Sox and Reds chains as well as in Japan, Obispo signed with Atlanta as a minor league free agent in November.
His deal included an invite to big league camp. Obispo is coming off a 5-3 season with a 3.00 ERA and 91 K’s in 96 IP for the Reds Double-A and Triple-A affiliates. Most of his success came in Double-A Pensacola.
Dusty Hughes, 30, is a lefty who spent last year in Gwinnett, turning in a 3-2 mark with a 3.31 ERA in 54 games. A non-roster invitee, Hughes does have some big league experience.
He pitched well for Kansas City in 2010, but was not good at all for Minnesota in limited action the next year. Hughes will try to impress the Braves enough to earn his way back to the majors at some point this season.
David Carpenter, 27, is getting the reputation as a journeyman with the way he has been going through teams of late. He came up through the Cardinals organization, but has been traded three times since 2010.
Most recently, he was dealt from Toronto to Boston along with manager John Farrell for Mike Aviles. Atlanta claimed him off waivers from the Red Sox in late November.
A closer in the minors, he showed promise with Houston in 2011 before getting hit around with the Astros and Blue Jays last season. Carpenter is looking to get his career back on track and give the Braves some organizational depth from which to pull from in 2013.
Yohan Flande, 27, was signed as a minor league free agent in December of 2010 after six years in the Phillies organization. The lefty was on the verge of perhaps making the club last spring before the Braves signed Chad Durbin late in March.
Flande has spent the last two seasons in Gwinnett, primarily as a starter. He got another non-roster invite this year and could be converted to a reliever if the need arises at the big league level.
Ryan Buchter, 26, is yet another lefty non-roster invitee. He was traded from the Twins to the Cubs in 2008 before Atlanta sent Rodrigo Lopez to Chicago for him in May of 2011.
Buchter was extremely impressive with Double-A Mississippi last year, posting a 1.31 ERA in 35 games, but faltered in his trial with Gwinnett. He is likely to get another look at Triple-A this year.
Daniel Rodriguez, 28, was signed out of the Mexican league last season and given a non-roster invite to big league camp this year.
He will show the Braves what he has to offer, though most of his career has been spent as a starter. Rodriguez will probably end up back in Gwinnett, where he made two appearances after signing in 2012.
Many of those arms are likely to spend significant time in the minor leagues, but the collective unit that Atlanta has assembled at the big league level is poised to be a true difference maker this season. It certainly does not hurt to identify pitchers who can contribute to the cause in times of need.
Kimbrel, Venters, O’Flaherty and Walden will be given countless leads to protect this season. If the middle inning corps does its part, then it stands to reason that Atlanta’s bullpen will rank among baseball’s elite.
If pitching wins championships, then the Atlanta Braves have the arms to lay the foundation for success in 2013.
There is a good mix of old and new in the starting rotation. Some already have impressive resumes, while others have something to prove this season.
The National League East could prove to be a two team race as it was in 2012. The Braves will rely heavily on their starting staff in order to overcome the Washington Nationals and bring Atlanta its first division title since 2005.
Each of these men will play an integral part in the Braves’ quest for October.
Tim Hudson is the veteran anchor of this rotation. He enters his 15th season in the big leagues and ninth with the Braves.
Hudson, 37, stands just three wins shy of 200 for his career and has led the Atlanta staff in victories five times, including each of the last three seasons.
Since the Oakland Athletics opted to break up the famed “Big Three” of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Hudson after 2004, it has been the Atlanta right-hander who has yielded the most consistent results. His .654 career winning percentage ranks fourth best among active hurlers with at least 100 decisions.
The Georgia native, who played his college ball at Auburn University, was given the chance to pitch for the team he grew up watching when he was traded from Oakland to Atlanta on December 16, 2004.
Hudson’s tenure in Atlanta has been productive, something he discussed with Mark Bowman of MLB.com this week:
“It’s been a while, and I feel like it’s been a good time here,” he said. “I feel like I’ve pulled my weight, or I wouldn’t have been here this long. Those were the expectations when I got here — to establish myself as a guy who could be here for a while.”
A tenacious competitor who utilizes a split-finger fastball, Hudson has historically done a great job of keeping the ball on the ground. He boasts a career mark of just 0.6 HR per 9 IP, which is fifth best among active pitchers with at least 100 decisions.
However, his 2012 ground ball to fly ball ratio of 1.71 dipped slightly below his career mark of 2.05, which led to a career-low nine double plays being turned behind him.
Atlanta exercised its $9 million team option on Hudson last October, a relative bargain for a proven 15-game winner in today’s market. He will need to get back to his ground ball ways in order to help the Braves make a run in the postseason.
Kris Medlen was perhaps the most dominant starter in Major League Baseball over the final two months of 2012. His ascension from long man to staff ace was one of Atlanta’s major second half storylines.
The 27-year-old enters the spring with his spot in the rotation already sewn up. Medlen’s incredible ride through the final months of 2012 proved he was more than ready for the responsibility of taking his turn every fifth day.
One tends to attract quite a bit of attention by going 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA over a 12 start stretch, especially when it comes to close out the season. That fine work earned Medlen NL Pitcher of the Month honors in August and September.
Opponents batted just .191 against him in his 12 starting assignments last season. Medlen’s superb control and nasty change-up had hitters shaking their collective heads according to ESPN’s Mark Simon.
Medlen was not shabby in 38 relief outings prior to replacing Jair Jurrjens the rotation on July 29. He finished 2012 with a 1.57 ERA in 138 IP across 50 total appearances, falling 24 innings shy of qualifying for the ERA title.
Perhaps the most staggering statistic was the run of success the Braves enjoyed when Medlen started a game. Dating back to 2010, Atlanta won 23 consecutive games started by Medlen before suffering the Wild Card loss to St. Louis last October.
Following the righty’s final regular season start, teammate Chipper Jones summed up Medlen’s value to MLB.com‘s Mark Bowman:
“He’s developed himself into the ace of our staff,” Jones said. “We know that if we go out there and give him three or four runs, the game is basically over. We all knew he was capable of that. He just needed to get healthy and be given the opportunity. He was very valuable to our ballclub out there in the ‘pen, but I think you see he’s a little more valuable to us in the starting rotation.”
Atlanta entered last season with Medlen as somewhat of a luxury arm in the bullpen, but things are very different in 2013. His mettle will be further tested over the course of a full season in the rotation.
The Braves are counting on Medlen to provide an encore performance this year.
It was a tale of two seasons for left-hander Mike Minor in 2012. His great second half erased the memories of early struggles and rewarded the Braves for sticking with him.
Minor was 4-6 with a 6.26 ERA after 16 starts in the season’s first half. He had surrendered 19 home runs and walked 40 batters in 92 innings to that point, but a different Minor appeared after the All-Star Break.
The lefty pitched with much more precision in the second half, cutting his walks down to just 16 over his final 14 starts. Keeping the ball in the park was the other area Minor needed to improve on. He passed that test as well, allowing just seven home runs over that stretch.
What a difference those two things made. Minor turned in a 2.16 ERA in 87 1/3 innings after the break. His second half record was just 6-4, but the Braves offense scored two or fewer runs in eight of Minor’s final 14 starts.
According to Jay Clemons of Fox Sports South, the Atlanta brass was expecting Minor to step up last season:
“We felt, when we left spring training last year, that Mike had turned the corner in maturity,” said Braves general manager Frank Wren. “He got off to a great start in the first month and then had two months of growing pains, before finally figuring it out the rest of the year. We look for Mike to build off what he learned from last year.”
The final three months of the season were proof that the Braves not only gauged his potential properly in the first round of the 2009 draft, but also in spring training.
ESPN’s David Schoenfield believes Minor’s improved location, especially with the change-up to right-hand batters, was the key to his second half turnaround.
While his work may have been in the shadow of Medlen down the stretch, Minor established himself as a major part of the rotation.
More of the same will be asked in 2013.
Like Minor, fellow southpaw Paul Maholm is a former first round pick. That is more or less where the similarities end between the two.
Maholm, 30, spent the bulk of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates before signing as a free agent with the Chicago Cubs in January of 2012. His stay in Chicago was brief, but Maholm did enough to entice the Braves to add him to their starting staff last July.
Atlanta acquired Maholm to bolster the rotation and help cope with the loss of Brandon Beachy to season-ending elbow surgery.
Maholm enjoyed the best season of his career between Chicago and Atlanta. He set career-highs with 13 wins and 140 strikeouts, while his 3.67 ERA was just a fraction off his previous best set in 2011.
The lefty also came with an palatable $6.5 million team option which Atlanta exercised in October.
Every staff needs a veteran pitcher who can supply innings. Maholm is that man for the Braves, averaging 30 starts and 184 innings per season since 2006.
Maholm provided stability to the rotation in his 11 starts last season and will be expected to do so again.
Paired with Minor, Maholm gives Atlanta two solid lefties to balance the starting staff.
Given Beachy’s injury, opportunity is once again knocking at the door of highly regarded right-hander Julio Teheran.
One look at the Braves depth chart proves it.
With his name appearing with the likes of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Matt Moore, the expectations for Teheran’s success were built in. He got a taste of the big leagues in 2011 after finishing with an impressive 15-3 record and a 2.55 ERA in 144 2/3 innings of work at Triple-A Gwinnett.
The stage was set, but the spring of 2012 was nothing short of disastrous for Teheran. He struggled mightily and never got on track after being sent back to Triple-A. His final numbers there included a 7-9 record with a 5.08 ERA in 131 IP.
More disturbing was the spike in the number of home runs allowed by the 21-year-old. He served up nine homers in just five appearances last spring, including six in one outing. His Grapefruit League struggles carried over to his International League performance, where he allowed 18 more long balls in 26 starts with Gwinnett.
Keep in mind, Teheran had given up just 20 total home runs in his first 383 2/3 professional innings.
Coming off a solid winter-ball showing in the Dominican Republic, Teheran spoke with David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after reporting to camp:
“I feel like I have more confidence,” said Teheran, who allowed just two hits in 16-2/3 scoreless innings over his final three winter-ball starts, to finish 2-1 with a 3.23 ERA in seven starts for Licey. “I know I have to work hard to be the fifth starter, but in my mind, just work hard and I’ll be there.”
With Randall Delgado now in Arizona, Teheran is the favorite to land the fifth starter spot. There is always the possibility that a dark horse candidate may emerge to challenge him. Lefty Sean Gilmartin will get a look, but the 2011 first round pick has just seven starts above Double-A.
This could be a make or break season for the talented but as yet unproven Teheran.
Beachy held a major league-leading 2.00 ERA through 13 starts before he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow last June. It was a big blow to the Braves staff, but helped open the door for Medlen to eventually join the rotation.
Despite the fact that he may not be ready to pitch until mid-season, Beachy still figures heavily into the Atlanta rotation. His rehab from Tommy John surgery is progressing, but there are still hurdles to clear before Beachy is ready to return.
In a 2011 article, Will Carroll of Sports Illustrated wrote that the typical recovery time from Tommy John surgery is 9-12 months. Beachy reported along with all the other Atlanta pitchers this week, but is still unable to throw off the mound.
The righty updated David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the timetable for taking the mound again:
“I’m not going to get hung up on an actual date,” he said, “because I haven’t even been on a mound yet. And I don’t know how it’s going to respond to the build-up. I’m just excited to get on the mound.”
Over parts of three big league seasons, the 26-year-old Beachy is 12-10 with a 3.07 ERA. He is without question the biggest strikeout pitcher on the Atlanta staff, piling up 252 K’s in 237 2/3 career innings. That is fine work for a third baseman turned occasional closer who went undrafted out of Indiana Wesleyan University.
Even without Beachy, the rotation has the depth and the talent to keep Atlanta in contention. There is a mix of experience and potential to go along with a balance of righties and lefties. It is a formidable group that will play a big part if the Braves are to make an extended run through October.
Though the offseason still has a few days remaining before pitchers and catchers descend on Florida and Arizona, most teams have already completed the majority of their winter shopping. Save a couple of key free agents who are still searching for work, rosters have been shaped for what should be an interesting season in the National League East.
In 2012, the Washington Nationals announced their arrival with a division title. The Atlanta Braves waved goodbye to franchise icon Chipper Jones after a disappointing Wild Card loss, while the perennial powerhouse Philadelphia Phillies were beset by injuries. It was a frustrating season for the New York Mets, who fizzled in the second half. Down in Miami, the Marlins underwent a baffling and well chronicled identity crisis of epic proportions.
While the balance of power may not be shifting all that much, it is time to look at what to expect from the NL East in 2013.
The Braves went into the winter on the most disappointing of notes. A Wild Card loss to the St. Louis Cardinals stung on multiple levels, and put a halt to Chipper Jones’ magical retirement tour. GM Frank Wren did not spend his time dwelling on losses, and instead has positioned his club for big 2013 season thanks to an offseason packed with major moves.
Offseason Grade (A): Signed B.J. Upton. Traded Martin Prado and prospects for Justin Upton. Traded Tommy Hanson for Jordan Walden. Exercised team options on Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm and Brian McCann. Re-signed Reed Johnson. Signed Gerald Laird. Non-tendered Jair Jurrjens and Peter Moylan.
What they have: The Braves have a starting rotation that contains the grit and guile of proven veterans the pure stuff and potential of youthful hurlers. Hudson is the most battle tested, while Kris Medlen and Mike Minor flash the most promise. Maholm should capably hold down the fourth spot in the rotation, but top prospect Julio Teheran needs to return to his pre-2012 form at the back end. Brandon Beachy should be returning around the All-Star break from Tommy John surgery as well. Walden, an All-Star for the Angels in 2011, joins the trinity of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel to establish an incredible bullpen. On the offensive side of things, Atlanta’s lineup is much more righty-lefty balanced than in years past with plenty of run producing potential. However, for all the power they boast, Braves hitters will rack up quite a few strikeouts this season.
What they need: Big production from the young and talented outfield is an absolute must. B.J. and Justin Upton did not come cheap, and will be expected to play at a high level on both sides of the ball. Their contributions will complement the play of Jason Heyward, while all three men seek to prove themselves as the best outfield in the game. Atlanta also needs steady results from the third base position with Jones’ retirement and Prado’s departure. That will be tasked to Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco. A healthy McCann and a resurgent Dan Uggla could make this the most powerful lineup in the National League. But this game is not played on paper.
What to expect (2nd Place): The power potential of the lineup is off the charts. The rotation is strong, and the bullpen is stronger still. Atlanta won 94 games last season and has taken considerable steps to get better. If any team in the division has the pieces to unseat the Nationals, it is the Braves.
The Marlins are a study in what not to do with the public image of a sports team. They completely threw in the towel on contending for the division crown not even one year after spending big money on player acquisitions and a new stadium. That being said, they have managed to stockpile an impressive amount of young, talented and controllable players for the foreseeable future. The jury remains out.
Offseason Grade (C+): It is not as simple as a letter grade with the Marlins, because nothing is simple with this team. Only time will tell when assessing the long term return from all the trades.
Traded Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck to Toronto. Traded Heath Bell to Arizona. Traded Yunel Escobar to Tampa Bay. Fired manager Ozzie Guillen.
Miami hired Mike Redmond as its new manager. To fill the numerous player voids, the Marlins opted to sign a slew of veteran players to short term or minor league deals. Those include pitchers Jon Rauch, Chad Qualls, John Maine, and Kevin Slowey, outfielders Juan Pierre and Austin Kearns, as well as infielders Placido Polanco, Kevin Kouzmanoff and utility man Chone Figgins.
What they have: Miami held onto homegrown slugger Giancarlo Stanton, while it compiled a fascinating stock portfolio of young talent. As a manager, Redmond is a sharp baseball mind who has been working with young players in the Toronto system and will be a stark departure from Guillen. A crowded camp gives Remond more than a few options to choose from as the Marlins attempt to put the pieces back together following a chaotic 2012 season.
What they need: The Marlins could definitely benefit from some veteran reinforcements for the rotation and the bullpen. Some of the players signed over the winter could fit the bill, but many of them are on the comeback trail or simply far removed from their prime. There are plenty of prospects gleaned from other organizations through multiple trades. Some will break camp with the Marlins, while others are knocking on the door. The Marlins also have several high ceiling prospects ascending through the system. Among those are outfielder Christian Yelich and pitcher Jose Fernandez.
What to expect (5th Place): It is doubtful that this season’s Marlins will do much more in the win column than their 2012 predecessors. The unexpected rebuilding process will create challenges for the club when it comes to drawing crowds to its state of the art ballpark as well. However, the youth movement from all the trades made over the past eight months could bear some fruit this year.
NEW YORK METS
The 2012 Mets were trending in the right direction over the first three months, but a July collapse pushed them from a first place tie on June 3, to 24 games out by year’s end. R.A. Dickey’s Cy Young campaign, Johan Santana’s no-hitter, a healthy season from David Wright, and the debut of fireballer Matt Harvey were about the only highlights. They now find themselves in the midst of a rebuilding process.
Offseason Grade (B): Traded R.A. Dickey to Toronto. Released Jason Bay. Extended David Wright. Signed Shaun Marcum, Brandon Lyon, Scott Atchison, LaTroy Hawkins, and Pedro Feliciano.
What they have: Wright is now cemented as the face of the franchise after signing an eight-year extension. Even without Dickey, the starting rotation should still be a strength. Jon Niese is coming off a very respectable season. Add recently signed Marcum to Santana and Dillon Gee, then slot those arms in front of Harvey and New York has a nice starting five. Top prospect Zack Wheeler is also fast approaching, so there are reasons to be excited about the pitching staff. The offense is a different story, however. Wright and Ike Davis will provide some power at the infield corners, while the double play combo of Daniel Murphy and Ruben Tejada handle the bats relatively well. GM Sandy Alderson cobbled together what should be a serviceable bullpen.
What they need: There are several areas that could use marked improvement, none bigger than the outfield. The Mets appear to be stuck in neutral with Michael Bourn since they are in no hurry to sacrifice the #11 pick in this June’s draft. Any way you slice it, more production is needed from the outfield. Additionally, Davis needs to step forward as a true middle of the order threat. He started very slowly but ended the season with 32 home runs and 90 RBI’s thanks to a stronger second half. New York believes Davis is capable of more.
Stud catcher Travis D’ Arnaud was the big haul from Toronto in the Dickey trade and is a major piece of the puzzle. He could make the team with a strong showing this spring. Meanwhile, the oft-injured Santana threw the first no-hitter in franchise history on June 1, 2012, but did not seem to be the same after that. Though he may not be a true ace-type pitcher anymore, he could still be a 15-game winner in the big leagues if healthy.
What to expect (4th Place): There’s very little chance that the Mets will be contending for even a Wild Card spot this season, but the future is looking brighter.
Call it a combination of age and injury, but whatever it was did no favors to the Phillies last year. Losing key pieces in the lineup and pitching staff kept the club from ever enjoying any kind of consistent success. Philadelphia found themselves doing some selling at the trade deadline last season, and questions remain heading into the 2013 campaign.
Offseason Grade (C+): Traded for Michael Young. Traded for Ben Revere. Signed Delmon Young, John Lannan and Mike Adams.
What they have: This is a team comprised largely of proven winners. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard remain the core offensive pieces, while the rotation boasts Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. Closer Jonathan Papelbon had his fair share of success in Boston before signing with Philadelphia prior to 2012. Trading for Michael Young gives Philadelphia a player who brings consistency at the plate and versatility in the field, though he will start at third base. Getting center fielder Ben Revere from Minnesota brings speed, defense and a top of the order type bat to offset last season’s trade of Shane Victorino.
What they need: Health is the key for the Phillies. In order to compete, Utley and Howard have to be in the lineup on a regular basis, and Halladay must be taking his turn every fifth day. The corner outfield spots are anything but certain. Philadelphia signed Delmon Young, and hope that he can be a full season regular in right field for the first time since 2007. Offseason ankle surgery could delay his season debut, however. A long awaited step forward by Dominic Brown would go a long way toward alleviating at least some of the problem. John Mayberry Jr. and Darin Ruf could see some time in the outfield as well. Even though Michael Young has established a reputation as a professional hitter, Philadelphia needs him to bounce back to pre-2012 form. Last year with Texas, Young collected his fewest hits and RBI’s in a season since 2002, and set a career-low with only eight home runs.
What to expect (3rd Place): Philadelphia’s 2012 woes were due in large part to injury. Even with Hamels, Lee and Halladay all pitching well, there are still quite a few lineup and run production questions that must be addressed. This group could get back around or above .500, but bypassing Washington and Atlanta to win the division and/or a wild card spot is a stretch.
The Nationals spent recent years building their team in hopes of jumping into the mix. Player development was key, but utilizing the free agent market effectively was of the utmost importance. Instead of simply dipping their toe in the pool, Washington went ahead and bought the entire property. Now they are set up to swim with the big fish in all of baseball for years to come.
Offseason Grade (A): Traded for Denard Span. Signed Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano. Re-signed Adam LaRoche. Traded Michael Morse to Seattle.
What they have: This is a talented team that seems destined for great things. The rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, Haren and Ross Detwiler will provide the foundation for contention. Signing Soriano to close games made the bullpen even better. The lineup has a balance of speed and power that is perhaps best exemplified by Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, and to a lesser extent, Danny Espinosa. The veteran presence of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth, Denard Span and Kurt Suzuki rounds out a batting order which should provide plenty of runs this season. Manager Davey Johnson is going to have an extremely talented team to defend the division title, but repeating is generally the tricky part.
What they need: It may be as simple as having a full season of Strasburg to put Washington deep into October. Shutting him down for the stretch run and playoffs in 2012 did not stop the club from clinching the East, but there is no doubt it impacted the team’s ability to advance beyond the NLDS. The postseason is the time of year when a team depends on its staff ace more than ever. A bullpen which was strong last year was made even better when Soriano signed over the winter, but the Nationals are counting on seeing the dominant Soriano who was a late inning force in 2010 and 2012 rather than the somewhat listless 2011 version. Though Washington does have some very capable closing candidates in house if he falters, the move to bring in Soriano was designed to make the late innings a steep task for opposing hitters. It was also a decision that did not come cheap.
What to expect (1st Place): Another good season in the Nation’s capitol seems to be in the making. The strength of pitching and talented lineup should allow Washington to maintain its status as the team to beat in the East.
“The last few days have been kind of crazy,” said Upton. “It hasn’t really sunk in completely, and it won’t until you step on the field in spring training.”
Upton was living amidst speculation that he could be traded by the Arizona Diamondbacks for months. Numerous teams inquired, and an early January deal to the Seattle Mariners was ultimately vetoed by the young outfielder. For the native of Chesapeake, Virginia, this trade to Atlanta represented the perfect opportunity to begin the next chapter of his career.
Having the chance to play with his brother and be closer to his entire family is a dream scenario. One that the Upton brothers could not have foreseen would play out so favorably, or so soon.
“I didn’t think it would happen this year,” said the younger Upton. “You don’t get that lucky. But for us both to have that chance now, for that to actually happen, and for us to be on the same team, [it’s] tough to really put into words how it feels. We’re excited about it and looking forward to it.”
Their dream of playing together became a reality when the Braves and Diamondbacks agreed to a seven-player trade on January 24. Upton and Chris Johnson came to Atlanta in exchange for Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and three prospects.
Even before signing the elder brother, B.J., to a five-year free agent contract in late November, Braves general manager Frank Wren was intrigued to discover that Justin might be available.
“I don’t think it was realistic for us until probably 10 days ago,” remarked Wren on of the trade talks. “We inquired going back even before we had signed B.J., when we started hearing some rumblings around the general managers meetings that Justin would be a guy they would talk about. So we inquired at that time and kind of got pushed back with some of the names.”
Initially, Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers was shopping for a young, major league ready shortstop and Wren was not interested in trading away Andrelton Simmons. Once Arizona pulled off a three-team deal that landed Didi Gregorius in part from the Cincinnati Reds, Arizona’s desire for Simmons was no longer a stumbling block.
“I think after that we started to settle in on some names and started building the deal as it turned out,” said Wren in regards to renewing negotiations following the nixed deal between Arizona and Seattle.
Bringing the Upton brothers to Atlanta generates an exciting dynamic for the team as it moves on from the Chipper Jones era. Specifically, combining the Uptons with Jason Heyward creates one of the finest outfields in baseball, a fact that is not lost on Justin.
“Everybody out there can move, [and] can cover some ground,” he said. “I think it’s special to have that kind of athleticism in the outfield.”
With the Uptons and Heyward all young and under team control for a minimum of three seasons, Braves fans can expect many special things to come.
The trade speculation surrounding Justin Upton has been swirling for months. It all came to a head on Wednesday as the Braves and Diamondbacks agreed to a seven-player deal that will unite Justin with older brother B.J. in Atlanta.
Let’s start with the players changing addresses. Atlanta sent the versatile Martin Prado, as well as RHP Randall Delgado, shortstop Nick Ahmed, RHP Zeke Spruill and corner infielder Brandon Drury to Arizona in return for Justin Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson. Those are the pieces, so now it’s time to break this trade down.
The storyline was penned as the ink was drying on B.J.’s 5-year deal with the Braves back in November. What a dream scenario it would be if Arizona and Atlanta could find a way to unite the Upton brothers. The topic came up during the press conference and B.J. was obviously excited about the possibility. Now it has become a reality.
Atlanta added a young impact bat just months after Chipper Jones‘ retirement presented questions about how the lineup would cope with his loss. Prado is a free agent at the end of the season and the Braves could have found themselves in a similar scenario as this winter with Michael Bourn. That’s to say, a good but not great player, over 30, looking for max years and max dollars on the open market. That’s not a scenario where you want to feel your hand is being forced to retain the services of a player. Acquiring Johnson gives Atlanta a third base candidate with power potential who comes at a fraction of the price of extending Prado.
What they got…
Atlanta constructed the finest outfield in the National League by acquiring one the most talented young players in all of baseball. They now have three players who have 30-30 potential, play strong defense and are all 28 years of age or younger.
Upton, 25, finished 4th in the NL MVP voting in 2011 while taking home his first silver slugger. This is a former first overall pick who debuted in the big leagues at just 19 years old, is already a two-time All-Star and brings with him that “5-tool player” tag. His 2011 campaign (.289/.369/.529 with 31 homers, 88 RBI’s and 105 R’s) led many media types, talent evaluators, baseball execs and fans alike to believe that he could actually be the MVP as soon as 2012. That prediction may not have come to pass, but Upton’s talent and potential are still tantalizing.
Last year was a frustrating season on many levels for Upton and the Diamondbacks. Still, he turned in a .280/.355/.430 line while scoring a career-high 107 runs. On the flip side, his RBI total fell by 21 and he had 30 fewer extra-base hits in just nine fewer games than in 2011. While it was a step back in what many expected to be a break-out season, the Braves are still getting a phenomenal young talent who is entering the prime of his career. Putting him together with his brother will deliver both comfort and motivation that can be found in a good natured sibling rivalry.
The Braves parting with Prado in the deal meant third base became a top priority. Hence, the D-Backs added the 28-year old Johnson, who they acquired from the Astros last season, to the deal. He has power, and has shown the ability to hit for power and produce runs in parts for four big league seasons. Johnson’s run production totals (171 RBI’s & 121 R’s) are remarkably similar to those of Cardinals third baseman David Freese (177 RBI’s & 142 R’s).
Both debuted in 2009, but Johnson has more extra-base hits (114 XBH’s in 348 games) than Freese (93 XBH’s in 328 games). However, Freese does have two more homers (35) than Johnson (33) in 84 fewer plate appearances. While the two are certainly not carbon copies of one another, it does provide a decent measuring stick for production. Johnson will presumably compete for the starting job at third or serve as part of a platoon with the lefty hitting Juan Fransisco, who turned heads in winter ball after belting nine homers in 192 at-bats for Atlanta last year.
What they gave…
We start with the obvious – Prado will be missed for a multitude of reasons. Many wondered aloud how/why the Braves could be going to arbitration with Prado over a $400,000 difference his request ($7.05 MM) and the team’s offer ($6.65 MM). Maybe that was a sign that Atlanta was silently shopping one of its most consistent hitters. Regardless, Prado did everything and more Atlanta has required of him since debuting in 2006. He hasn’t taken the mound, but he has played every position except for catcher.
Prado, who turns 30 on April 23, was an All-Star in 2010 and has averaged a .294/.342/.436 line since playing his way into the everyday lineup in 2009. Those seasonal averages break down to 12 HR’s, 60 RBI’s and 78 runs scored per 138 games. He battled injury and inconsistency in 2011, only to bounce back and hit .301 while setting career bests in games played (156), hits (186), doubles (42), walks (58) and on-base percentage (.359). Oh, and he played five positions in 2012. Factor in his gritty, competitive nature and popularity among teammates and fans alike and you have a player that any team in baseball would be happy to have. Our friends over at MLB Trade Rumors have already started compiling the links to prove it, since the Diamondbacks are apparently already working toward a deal to keep Prado in the desert for the foreseeable future.
Now for the prospects involved. Delgado, who turns 23 in two weeks, was ranked the #46 prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to 2012. He split time between Atlanta and Gwinnett last season and showed flashes of brilliance in 17 starts for the big club. Overall, Delgado has gone 5-10 with a 3.95 ERA in 25 games (24 starts) in Atlanta. Over 127.2 big league innings, he’s struck out 94 hitters against 56 walks while surrendering 13 homers. With a mid-90s fastball and quality secondary pitches, Delgado fanned 620 hitters in 582.1 minor league innings since signing as a 16-year-old out of Panama in 2006.
Ahmed, 23 on March 15, was a 2nd round selection in 2011 out of the University of Connecticut. He has a good build (6’3″-205 lbs) and plenty of speed. Baseball America rated Ahmed the #11 prospect and best defensive infielder in the Atlanta organization following 2012. He stole 40 bases in 50 attempts during his 130 games spent with High-A Lynchburg last season before playing in the Arizona Fall League. Ahmed found more success there, hitting .288/.361 /.452 with 10 RBI’s and 13 runs scored in 19 contests for the Phoenix Desert Dogs. The AJC’s Dave O’Brien had a great blog highlighting Ahmed’s winter ball performance. There had been some speculation that the Braves could use Ahmed as part of a trade package, given the team’s refusal to part with Andrelton Simmons.
Spruill, 23, a high school arm nabbed in the 2nd round back in 2008, has been ranked among Baseball American’s Top 10 Braves prospects in three of the last four seasons. He’s had some growing pains – specifically a broken hand suffered after a poor outing in 2009 that led to even more struggles in a truncated 2010 campaign. With that squarely behind him, Spruill matured emotionally and on the mound. His numbers improved between Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi in 2011 (3.19 ERA in 174.2 IP) and he was tabbed the “Best Control” pitcher in the system by Baseball America after the season. In 2012, Spruill returned to Double-A, where went just 9-11, but walked only 46 batters in 161.2 IP.
Drury, 21, was the last player confirmed to be heading to Arizona in the deal. He was a 13th round pick in 2010 and had some serious steam coming off a successful Appalachian League campaign with Danville in 2011 (.347 with 8 HR and 54 RBI in 63 games). After Baseball America named him the #10 Braves prospect going into 2012, Drury faltered mightily with Rome last year. He batted .229 in 123 games, connecting for just six homers. Neither his strikeout (73) nor his walk (20) totals were particularly high, and Drury did put together a better second half to check in as Baseball America’s #27 prospect in the organization.
What I like about it…
There you have a complete listing of all the players involved. I’m a firm believer that the Braves have added a young impact player – and get this – Upton won’t be bolting anytime soon. His contract over the next 3 years is $38.5 MM, which is less per year than agent Scott Boras was seeking for Bourn. There is no comparison between those two players, but from a financial perspective the Braves got the better man. Of course, you have to factor in the player cost of this trade as well. Atlanta needed to balance its lineup with more right-hand hitters, something general manager Frank Wren accomplished by acquiring the Uptons this winter. I also like the fact that the Braves have managed to set aside a little chunk of money to spend on further improvements this season. They could also utilize the money to sign some young core players to multi-year deals, something that has become more and more common in the game.
By seizing the opportunity to combine Justin and B.J. Upton with Jason Heyward, Atlanta has created an outfield that could rival or perhaps even edge out the Los Angeles Angels trio of Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Mark Trumbo. While the Braves aren’t concerned with comparing their outfield with anyone else, they are concerned with putting the best group of players on the field.
Atlanta needed to do something bold in order to close the gap between the Washington Nationals and the rest of the National League East. The outfield trio comprised of two Uptons and Heyward should produce both offensively and defensively. It seems to me that both teams could win this deal, especially if Arizona extends Prado and he continues his quality level of play. Not to mention what all the young talent can do to replenish and bolster the Arizona ranks.
What concerns me…
Let’s go ahead and take a look at all those strikeouts the Braves now have in the lineup. This has been the topic du jour when it comes to the trade. Atlanta added two more players who fanned in excess of 120 times last season to the four players it already had who piled up at least 129 K’s in 2012. It’s not ideal from a traditional perspective, but the way the game is played has changed drastically over the past three decades. Strikeouts from hitters have become more acceptable. Shaking your head? Don’t believe me? Well, Adam Dunn was named the 2012 AL Comeback Player of the Year in a season that saw him bat just .204 and strike out 222 times. How does that happen? (Yes, that’s a rhetorical question.)
I went on a historical fact finding mission, looking over all baseball team statistics by the decade from 1900 to 2012. It wasn’t until the year 1960 that any MLB team combined to strike out over 1,000 times (Philadelphia Phillies with 1054). Teams’ K-totals escalated throughout the 60’s, topping 1,000 on numerous occasions until the mound was lowered in 1969. Then, from 1972 through 1982 only two teams in all of baseball struck out 1,000+ times. Team totals began to escalate again in the 1990’s.
To say that the way the game has changed would be a gross understatement. Are you ready for the proof? No MLB team struck out fewer than 1,000 times in 2012. Even if the thought of strikeouts continues to frustrate fans, players and executives, those elevated punch-out totals have become more acceptable. That’s why I lean toward not taking Atlanta’s strikeout prone bunch to task here. Let’s wait and see what the numbers look like for situational hitting.
What to take away…
Time will tell for both sides. What can the Braves do with Upton on board? What will Prado and the group of young players do for the Diamondbacks? Obviously, I like the price and years of control Atlanta has with Upton more than what turned out to be a disastrous acquisition of Mark Teixeira in 2007. That deal is a case study on what can happen when you trade young players away and don’t get any sizable return for your investment. And it’s also a topic I don’t care to delve into any further.
Atlanta does not have a prototypical lead-off hitter, but they do have plenty of speed between their outfield trio. They also have a nice group of righty and lefty hitters to mix and match. I’d imagine Justin Upton will see most of his at-bats in the #3 spot in the order. The opportunity to lead off could be given to Simmons, followed by Heyward hitting second (though he might get a chance to lead off as well). Older brother B.J.’s days of hitting atop the lineup are likely behind him. I picture him slotting into the 5-spot, behind clean-up man Freddie Freeman.
But hey, these choices and more are manager Fredi Gonzalez‘ to make. And does he ever have some options.
The Atlanta Braves need to win one game to continue their quest through the 2012 Postseason. That game comes on Friday against the St. Louis Cardinals at Turner Field and determines the National League’s true “Wild Card” under Major League Baseball’s new expanded playoffs.
On the surface, the decision to start backup catcher David Ross over All-Star stalwart Brian McCann seems unorthodox to say the least. It was certainly not a question of loyalty for manager Fredi Gonzalez, but with the Braves’ postseason aspirations tied to a single game, one cannot afford to simply play favorites.
Initially it was not a popular decision with McCann. How could it be? What player would not want to be in the lineup at a time like this?
It was a tough pill to swallow, but after taking the the news the way one would expect, McCann put his support squarely behind his teammate Ross by the time he spoke to MLB.com’s Mark Bowman on Thursday:
“I wish I was playing, but I’m not,” McCann said. “That’s it. Rossy has been playing unbelievable and I’m his biggest fan. He’s one of my best friends in the world and he’s going to play great.”
This has been the worst of McCann’s seven full seasons in the majors. An ailing right shoulder has plagued him throughout a campaign in which he set career lows with a .230 AVG, .300 OBP, and .399 SLG. Based on McCann’s downward trend over the final two months of the season, Ross represents the best option for Gonzalez and the Braves in the one-game “win or go home” scenario.
Ross has spent four seasons with the Braves and has established himself as the best backup catcher in baseball. His powerful bat and veteran presence have been the perfect compliment for McCann when it was time for a day off. In his 577 at-bats with Atlanta – about a season’s worth of work for an everyday player – Ross has batted .269 with 24 homers and 94 RBI’s.
Despite McCann’s down year, it remains common practice for most managers to load their lineup with left-handed bats against a right-hander like St Louis starter Kyle Lohse. In that regard, this is a case of going against the book. It is also a move that Gonzalez believes will give Atlanta the best chance to win this game.
This season’s numbers support the decision there as well, with McCann batting .230 with 15 homers and 51 RBI’s in 84 games started by righties. Ross hit .260 with 4 home runs and 13 RBI’s in his 28 games against right-handed starters.
Another – and perhaps more glaring – split statistic for each was performance at home this season. McCann connected for 11 of his 20 homers at Turner Field, but batted just .198 in 56 games there. That low mark for McCann included a dreadful 2-for-49 skid to close out the home schedule. While his sample size may be much smaller, Ross batted a solid .260 with 4 HR’s and 13 RBI’s in 23 home contests.
The Medlen connection…
Offensive numbers are one thing, but there is more to consider when it comes to what Ross has to offer his club. Friday starter Kris Medlen will be pitching the biggest game of his young career. His season deserves a blog post of its own, but what is important to note here is that, while Medlen has shined with both men behind the plate, he has been at his best working with Ross.
Over 13 total appearances, Medlen sported a 0.81 ERA in 44-1/3 innings this year with Ross calling the signs. Perhaps more to the point was the success that the two men enjoyed as a battery in a trio of September starts. Two of those games rank among the best performances of the young right-hander’s career.
Medlen allowed one unearned run to Washington while setting a career-high with 12 strikeouts in a complete game effort on September 3. Two starts later, he eclipsed that mark by fanning 13 Miami hitters over seven innings of one-run ball. Medlen capped his season by winning his ninth consecutive decision, defeating New York on September 30.
When Medlen worked with Ross in September, he allowed just 1 ER (3 total) in 22 innings for a 0.41 ERA. The 31 strikeouts came against just two walks and at the staggering rate of 12.7 K/9 IP. Opponents batted just .121 in those three starts.
Any way you slice Medlen’s season, the numbers border on the absurd. McCann should be credited for his excellent handling of the staff, which included a 1.75 ERA in 92-2/3 innings pitched by Medlen during the regular season. The postseason, however, has proven itself to be a different monster entirely.
Looking solely at what has been working lately with the pairing of Medlen and Ross, there is simply too much chemistry to ignore. That is not a swipe at McCann. It is simply the circumstances that the Braves find themselves in.
A one-game playoff scenario.
What to take away…
All of those spits and statistics tell the story of why Fredi Gonzalez arrived at his decision to go with Ross over McCann. Plugging in a reserve catcher as skilled as Ross is a luxury that most if not every other team in baseball do not have.
Make no mistake about it, Atlanta will need McCann to regain some of his All-Star form in order to make a successful run toward a World Series championship. One can only imagine that McCann would be more than happy to oblige. After all, the games only get bigger from here.
We can throw a few more statistics and facts at the wall prior to the game.
This post will be brief, but perhaps the first step in getting back to some Major League blogging once my minor league season comes to a close on September 2. I had the opportunity to talk with Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton about his rehab from right knee surgery, his path to the Majors and the 2012 Marlins.
Enjoy — G-Mc