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.