February 2015

Braves lose Melvin Upton Jr. for start of season

The Atlanta Braves were hoping center fielder Melvin Upton Jr. would finally return to form in 2015. Instead, those hopes have been put on hold as the team turns its attention to finding a suitable replacement to open the season.

On Friday, the Braves announced that Upton will miss the majority of spring training after being diagnosed with sesamoiditis in his left foot. He underwent both an X-ray and MRI, the results of which revealed the ailment. Sesamoiditis is characterized as inflammation in the bone behind the ball of the foot.

The team announced that Upton’s foot will be placed in a short leg cast for the next two weeks, after which time he will be in a walking boot for four to six weeks. He is not expected to be able to begin baseball activities until early April, which means a stint on the disabled list and the necessary rehab assignment to follow could push his season debut back to May.

Upton and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez discussed the news with MLB.com on Friday.

In Upton’s absence, Atlanta has a multitude of in-house options to choose from. Among the outfielders on the 40-man roster who have significant time in center field, both Eury Perez and Todd Cunningham fit the bill. Veteran Eric Young Jr. is in camp on a minor league deal and could provide a short-term solution as well. The Braves could also choose to give Zoilo Almonte the chance to break out of a likely platoon role in left and give center field a go.

Perez, 24, was claimed off waivers from the Yankees in January and would appear to be the front-runner for the job, at least in the early going. Prior to his brief stop in New York, he was ranked among the Nationals’ top prospects by Baseball America from 2010 through 2014. That was thanks in large part to his speed, which sometimes ranked an 80 on the scouts’ 20-80 scale. Perez is a contact hitter, a proficient bunter and an excellent base stealer. He sports a .305/.360/.384 line with 268 stolen bases in 699 career minor league games.

The Braves will certainly explore all the possibilities, but Perez is the most experienced center fielder at the ready. He’s played 585 games there, utilizing his plus-speed to go along with a solid and accurate arm. While he has gotten just 23 plate appearances in 26 games for the Nationals and Yankees, Perez may finally have lucked into an opportunity to prove himself at the big league level.

Should Atlanta decide to go with a more experience hand, Young fits the bill. He owns a similar skill-set to Perez, but has spent the majority of his outfield time in left field. Young, 29, led the National League with 46 stolen bases in 2013 and swiped 30 more in just 100 games last season. A switch-hitter with a .252/.320/.332 slash line in 1,589 plate appearances, Young has made just 34 starts in center field in 504 career games.

One thing that Upton’s injury does is open the door for Young to find a spot on the 25-man roster when the team heads north. His versatility immediately comes in handy, with time at second base and all three outfield spots.

Young told me last week that he came to camp ready to fit in wherever and whenever needed:

“The main discussion so far was to have all my gloves ready. They didn’t necessarily need to tell me that. My mindset coming into it [was] you always want to give yourself the best opportunity to get on the field. If I can do that by being able to play many positions, then I’m going to make sure that I work at all those positions. That way, whenever the situation comes up, they’re not nervous or hesitant to put me in there.  That’s something they don’t need to tell me. That’s something I know. Just be ready whenever the call comes, because you might get it at the last second and you don’t want to be caught off guard. You want to be ready at any time.”

Cunningham is a soon-to-be 26-year-old who had a couple of brief stints with Atlanta in 2013. He put together a strong season in his second go-around with Gwinnett last year. Cunningham batted .287/.347/.406 with 38 extra-base hits, 58 RBI and 19 steals in 120 games there. He’s logged 446 of his 512 minor league games in center field and has been rated above average defensively. Cunningham makes consistent contact from both sides of the plate and runs the bases well. Like Perez, the only thing lacking has been an opportunity to get regular at-bats.  With Atlanta’s once-vaunted trio of the Upton brothers and Jason Heyward now a thing of the past, this may well be the opening he’s been waiting for.

Almonte, 25, figures heavily in the Braves’ left field plans. Yet another switch-hitter in this outfield mix, Almonte enjoyed most of his success against right-handed pitcher last year. That makes him the ideal platoon partner for Jonny Gomes in left. He brings some power to the table after belting 18 home runs in 105 games for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2014. The Yankees gave Almonte a look in each of the last two seasons, though he batted just .211 with two homers and 12 RBI in 47 games in the Bronx.

Almonte has spent far more time on the corners in his career. He’s a solid defender with a good arm in left, who is probably good enough to spend time in right field as well. However, his prospects as an everyday center fielder are somewhat tenuous. Almonte has logged 116 games in center field during seven minor league seasons, but only 42 of those come above A-ball and since 2011.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

2015 Braves Positional Preview: The Rotation

For all of the shortcomings that plagued the 2014 Atlanta Braves, starting pitching was not on the list.

The Braves pitching staff ended up being one of the best in baseball last season. Their 3.39 ERA ranked fifth in the majors, as did the starting rotation’s 3.42 ERA. That overall staff success was anything but expected, especially given the losses of Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. Atlanta plugged in a pair of veteran starters in Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang and proceeded to lead MLB with 110 quality starts (6 IP, 3 ER or fewer).

At the front of that starting five was a pair of 23-year-olds that enjoyed strong seasons despite a dearth of run support. Julio Teheran and Alex Wood provided the Braves with two good reasons to be hopeful about the future, while Mike Minor gave the organization pause after a rocky 2014 campaign. In the winter that has followed, Atlanta acquired Shelby Miller in a trade with the Cardinals. That has created a quartet of arms all 27 years old or younger.

Long considered the foundation of the franchise’s success, the rotation is capable of good things. The aforementioned serviceable veterans are gone, as Atlanta turned its attention to acquiring young, high-ceiling talent over the winter. The kind of prospects they have stockpiled does come with an inherent risk attached, but if even a moderate number become major league contributors, then the Braves may well have positioned themselves to be a factor in the NL East sooner than later.

 

Julio Teheran | RHP | 2014: 14-13, 2.89 ERA in 33 GS

Teheran, who recently turned 24, improved across the board in seemingly every category, save a couple. His 2.89 ERA was just ahead of the likes of Madison Bumgarner and Stephen Strasburg, if you’re into that sort of a thing. Teheran ranked 11th in the NL with a career-high 186 strikeouts, ahead of Jordan Zimmermann and Adam Wainwright in that category.

Yes, 2014 was a fine follow-up to his rookie season. Teheran led the staff with 221 IP and saw his hit rate (7.7 H/9), home run rate (0.9 HR/9) and walk rate (2.1 BB/9) all improve as he earned an All-Star nod.

While he did fan those 186 hitters, a slight drop in velocity likely affected his strikeout rate, which dipped from 8.2 K/9 in 2013 to 7.6 K/9 in 2014. Teheran averaged 92.1 mph on his fastball in 2013, but slipped to 91.3 mph last season according to FanGraphs. Missing bats is something a fly-ball pitcher typically needs to do, and Teheran does it enough right now. If that velocity trend continues, however, it could prove troublesome down the road.

Many reasons exist to be excited about Teheran’s future. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has praised his poise and tenacity on the mound, something that impresses his teammates as well. After being humbled by a poor 2012, Teheran committed himself to making the necessary adjustments and enjoyed the success that followed. The organization promptly committed to Teheran, giving him a six-year, $32.4 million extension with a seventh year option.

With the price of pitching ever on the rise, having an arm like Teheran under an affordable long-term deal like that is an extremely important piece of the puzzle. Every winter you can find another middle-to-back-end starter getting a multi-year deal for upwards of $10 million annually. The Braves remain a middle-market team in terms of payroll, and Teheran’s extension may be the best of the group handed out last year. Consider the kind of money the Reds heaped on Homer Bailey (6-years, $105 million). He is five years older and has yet to enjoy two seasons like those Teheran has just completed.

Teheran diversified his pitch selection in 2014, throwing slightly fewer fastballs and more off-speed offerings. Most notably, he began to integrate his changeup into the equation more often. The overall mix of sliders and curveballs remained consistent with 2013.

Pitching in the Dominican Republic during the winter of 2012, a struggling Teheran got the opportunity to meet Pedro Martinez. While it was not a series of private pitching lessons off a mound, the two sat down over dinner. Teheran credited Martinez with reinforcing the importance of the mental aspect of pitching. The results speak for themselves.

If Teheran has anything to prove in 2015, it would be that he can pitch consistently away from Turner Field. The righty turned in a 2.11 ERA and .208 BAA in 111 IP at home as opposed to a 3.68 ERA and .244 BAA on the road. Buried in those splits was more success by righty hitters when Teheran is away (.244/.288/.341 Road vs. .190/.240/.302 Home). Perhaps it’s just a comfort factor, but finding a way to enjoy more success outside of his home ballpark could perhaps elevate Teheran to another level.

Alex Wood | LHP | 2014: 11-11, 2.78 ERA in 35 G (24 GS)

If you watched Alex Wood on a regular basis in 2014, then a couple of things were quickly evident. First, the kid is legit. Second, pay no attention to his record because he was criminally under-supported.

Wood is just two and a half weeks older Teheran and every bit as formidable for opposing hitters. In some respects, perhaps even more effective. Just look at where he found himself at the end of 2014:

  • 2.78 ERA – 10th in NL
  • 8.91 K/9 – 10th in NL
  • 3.78 K/BB – 9th in NL

 

Wood was incredibly consistent in his first full year in the big leagues. He finished the season with 10 straight quality starts. In fact, Wood turned in the seventh-best quality start percentage in baseball last season at 79 percent (19 of his 24). His 11-11 record underscores the Braves’ biggest flaw in 2014 − lack of offense. Wood received just 2.75 runs per game (RPG), the second-lowest run support among all qualified starters in both leagues.

Oh, the fourth lowest run support? That’d be Teheran at 3.18 RPG. Now we’ve come full circle.

If there was any one game in which Wood made an indelible impression, it would have to be his April 22 start against the Marlins. He went toe to toe with Jose Fernandez in a classic pitchers’ duel. Wood fanned 11 men, while Fernandez struck out 14. The two teams combined for just seven hits and no walks. Though Wood came up on the wrong side of a 1-0 score, it was clear that he had arrived. He went on to set a career-high with 12 strikeouts in a pair of August starts, fortunately both wins.

A few more one-run games didn’t go his way, but Wood stayed the course throughout the season. He was never concerned with things that were out of his control, something Gonzalez and others in the Braves clubhouse noted. He gained a reputation of being a pitcher who was mature beyond his years.

His delivery is anything but orthodox and nothing short of deceptive. Wood mixes his pitches well, flashing a low 90s fastball and effectively sinking the ball. A knuckle-curve is his chosen breaking ball. It’s a pitch he showed that he can throw for strikes when needed or to get hitters to chase. As is seemingly always the case with Braves starters, the continued improvement of his changeup only strengthens Wood’s arsenal. As he continues to refine those pitches, he will give hitters even more to think about.

Wood may have flown under the radar at times during his first year and a half in the majors, but that doesn’t figure to continue after an impressive sophomore year. The Braves like his student-of-the-game approach and competitive fire. Expect both to be on display in 2015, likely to great results.

Shelby Miller | RHP | 2014: 10-9, 3.71 ERA in 31 GS

Miller is the latest addition to the starting five, and yet another 24-year-old. He comes to Atlanta after a little more than two seasons with the Cardinals as the major return in the Jason Heyward trade. Like Heyward, he was a first-round pick and ascended to the big leagues with more than his fair share of expectations. Miller turned in a solid rookie campaign, but saw those numbers regress during his sophomore season in St. Louis.

With a high-octane arm that led to 11.1 K/9 in 78 minor league starts, Miller got off to a fast start in his first year in the big leagues. At age 22 in 2013, he went 15-9 with a 3.06 ERA in 31 starts, punching out 169 hitters in 173.1 IP. Miller could find neither the consistency nor the results in his 2014 follow-up campaign. His walk rate went up (from 3.0 to 3.6 BB/9) while his strikeout rate plummeted (from 8.8 to 6.2 K/9).

Miller spent much of the season looking for an answer, and he found one from new teammate Justin Masterson. Both pitchers may have been enduring some struggles, but it turned out that a new pitch grip shared by Masterson was exactly what Miller needed to turn the corner.

After adding a sinker to his arsenal in late August, Miller turned in a 1.48 ERA in five starts during September. He held opponents to an .189/.224/.279 slash line in those 30.1 IP and averaged 7.7 K/9 and a much improved 5.2 K/BB as well. That gives Atlanta reason to hope that Miller is once again on the rise.

Adding the sinker makes Miller a four-pitch pitcher. His fastball, curveball and occasional changeup comprise the rest of his assortment. If the Braves have shown anything in developing pitchers, then refining the change will be one of the top priorities for Miller as he works with his new pitching coach, Roger McDowell. Utilizing a fastball that sits between 93-95 mph up in the zone to set up his other pitches will help him continue the success he discovered at the close of 2014.

Mike Minor | LHP | 2014: 6-12, 4.77 ERA in 25 GS

The 2014 season is one that left-hander Mike Minor would like to forget. He was behind schedule in spring training after undergoing a surgical procedure on his urethra. That put his throwing schedule behind and ultimately delayed Minor’s regular season debut by a month. Unfortunately, it also led to lingering shoulder soreness than affected him throughout his 25 starts.

After turning a corner in the second half of 2012 and establishing himself as one of Atlanta’s most consistent pitchers, Minor was anything but consistent last season. The home runs once again became a problem for the left-hander. Moreover, it was evident that Minor simply was not the effective pitcher who had really come into his own over the prior year and a half.

Between July 5, 2012 and the end of the 2013 season, Minor pitched to the tune of a 2.90 ERA and .219 BAA in 298.1 IP over 47 starts. That all changed in 2014, when his ERA ballooned to 4.77 and opposing hitters tacked 66 points on that average, all the way up to .285 in 145.1 IP.

The escalation in success of opposing hitters between the last two seasons is alarming:

2013 – .232/.275/.382 with 22 HR in 820 PA

2014 – .285/.341/.458 with 21 HR in 637 PA

Turner Field was a house of horrors for Minor last season as well, which was completely opposite of his career trend. Home was where he sustained eight of his 12 losses and where he gave up 15 of the 21 home runs he allowed. He’s always allowed some long balls, but the fact that his hit rate (10.2 H/9) and walk rate (2.7 BB/9) both jumped roughly 25 percent from their 2013 levels meant that there were more base runners to be dealt with on a nightly basis. That’s not a good recipe for success.

We don’t need to see another slash line to know that Minor had a rough time both home and away a year ago. When September rolled around, Minor finally confirmed his shoulder had been “barking” at him throughout the season. With extended rest over the winter, Minor is hoping to return to form.

Luckily for Minor, his velocity did not see any decrease. In fact, it was up a little at times last season. The pitch data shows that he threw 40 percent fewer changeups than he had the prior two seasons. It was not an effective pitch for him, which could explain why he avoided it. Minor also generated the lowest amount of swinging strikes (7.1 percent) of any season in his career, down nearly 30 percent from 2013.

It could be that 2014 was just a collection of things that never allowed Minor to establish a rhythm − a lost season if you will. Early setbacks coupled with a sore shoulder would certainly explain the regression. Whatever the case, Minor enters an important season in his still young career.

“The Fifth Element”

The competition for the fifth spot in the rotation certainly bears watching during spring training. Various pitchers at various stages of their careers will all vie for the final spot in the rotation. The odds-on favorite could be hard-throwing righty Mike Foltynewicz. The 23-year-old was among the prospects acquired from Houston in the Evan Gattis trade last month.

He has electric stuff, routinely touching triple digits with a fastball that averages better than 96 mph. Foltynewicz entered 2014 ranked among the top 100 prospects in the game by Baseball America (No. 59), MLB.com (No. 54) and Baseball Prospectus (No. 43). Though he scuffled at Triple-A for the Astros, he eventually got a late season audition in the bullpen. Foltynewicz was 0-1 with a 5.30 ERA in 16 appearances, fanning 14 men against seven walks in 18.2 IP.

For Foltynewicz to have success as a starting pitcher, he’ll have to continue refining both his command and his secondary offerings. His curveball and changeup have both received mixed reviews from scouts but could see marked improvement after working with McDowell. The Braves are counting on him to help bring out the best in Foltynewicz.

The other notable prospect in the mix for a rotation spot is left-hander Manny Banuelos. He spent years as a top-rated prospect in the Yankees organization, eventually climbing to No. 29 on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects prior to 2012. That reputation was built on the strength of four pitches, including his 93-95 mph fastball. His advanced repertoire made quite an impression on his teammates. Mariano Rivera called Banuelos the best pitching prospect he’d ever seen. Inconsistency and injury quelled the excitement, specifically Tommy John surgery, which wiped out most of 2012 and all of 2013.

Banuelos, 23, was eased back into action by New York last season. He worked just 76.1 innings in 25 starts spread over three levels, the majority coming at Double-A Trenton. This was a calculated risk for Atlanta, dealing away relievers David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve to acquire Banuelos. If he returns to pre-surgery form, the Braves have added an arm that could factor into their plans for years to come.

“Veteran presence”

Then we get to the mix of veterans on minor-league deals. Wandy Rodriguez, 36, was a serviceable starter for the Astros before running into a rash of injuries with the Pirates over the past two seasons. A right forearm strain limited him to just 12 starts in 2013, though he pitched well enough while he was out there 6-4, 3.59 ERA in 12 starts. Last season, a balky knee led Pittsburgh to release him prior to the All-Star break. Rodriguez had agreed to a deal with the Phillies over the winter, but failed the physical. Atlanta swooped in and offered him a minor-league deal and the opportunity to prove he has something left in the tank.

The Braves also have veteran lefty Eric Stults in camp. If anyone knows about lack of run support, he’s the guy. San Diego gave the lefty just 2.53 runs per start, by far the lowest in MLB last season. That’s a pretty good way to end up 8-17, which is exactly what happened. Stults, 35, has spent parts of eight seasons in the big leagues and enjoyed his most success with the Padres, where he turned in 3.87 ERA in 472 IP from 2012-14. The home run bug bit Stults last year as well. He allowed 26 in 176 IP after surrendered just 18 in 203.2 IP in 2013.

The well-traveled Chien-Ming Wang, 34, spent all of 2014 in the Triple-A international League between the Reds and White Sox affiliates. A two-time 19-game winner for the Yankees, his career has never been the same following a freak base-running injury in 2008. The last six years have been filled with even more injuries and ineffectiveness. Wang made his living with a power sinker, but shoulder surgery has sapped some of the velocity that made him so effective during his early days in New York. Once in the low-mid 90s, Wang lives in the upper 80s now. Never known as a strikeout pitcher, he misses even fewer bats now. If nothing else, Wang figures to be available as a fallback option in Gwinnett.

Getting the necessary innings to evaluate all the candidates this spring will be a unique challenge for the Braves. The good news is that they have four quality arms with room to grow in their rotation already. With Teheran, Wood, Miller and Minor, Atlanta may have the pitching to keep them in games, just as it did a season ago. The onus will be on the offense to find a way to be more productive than it was in 2014 if the Braves are to have any hope of over-achieving this summer.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

2015 Braves Positional Preview: The Outfield

It wasn’t too long ago when the Atlanta Braves believed they’d assembled perhaps the best outfield in baseball. Jason Heyward was the home grown superstar in the making, then the Upton brothers were acquired prior to 2013. Those moves were supposed to give the team three men capable of providing power, speed and defense. There was even talk of 30-30 seasons for all involved. Those projections never materialized.

While Heyward and Justin Upton both had their moments during the last two seasons, the signing of B.J. Upton has been nothing short of a complete disappointment. And that might be putting it lightly.

Regardless, that trio was disbanded over the winter. Heyward was shipped to the St. Louis Cardinals for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins in November, while Justin Upton was dealt to the San Diego Padres for a package of prospects roughly one month later. That leaves Atlanta with only the weak link of its once heavily hyped outfield.

The elder Upton will be flanked by a host of new faces on either side. One thing is for certain for the Atlanta outfield in 2015, they all have something to prove.

Right field:

After the Orioles declined his $17.5 million option, Nick Markakis signed a four-year, $44 million free agent contract with Atlanta in early December. It’s a move that has piqued the curiosity of some and drawn criticism from others. The consensus of the detractors seems to be less about the $11 million annual salary and more about the length of the contract. Markakis, 31, who just finished a six-year, $66.1 million contract with Baltimore, has been a solid hitter with a solid glove for most of his career. The fact remains, his offense over the last two seasons was well short of the levels he reached through the first seven.

He sported a strong .295/.365/.455 triple slash line in 4,556 PA from 2006-2012, but his production has fallen off to .274/.335/.371 over his last 1,410 PA. This is occurring as Markakis enters his 30s, which makes one wonder if he’ll be able to return to prior form. Advanced metrics don’t paint the brightest picture when it comes to his value over the life of the contract, projecting Markakis to be a 1-2 WAR player each season. Dave Cameron over at FanGraphs wrote a tremendous piece detailing the cost of a win about a year ago. By extrapolating data from 83 free agents last winter, he postulated that a win is worth between $5 and $7 million. The goal of that research exercise was to set some kind of market value for what a team pays as relates to that WAR number that is now commonly cited as a top indicator of player performance.

The fact that Markakis underwent surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck also tempers expectations. However, it’s something that Braves President of Baseball Operations John Hart said they factored into their decision to sign Markakis. Hart told me at the Winter Meetings that getting the fusion surgery to repair a herniated disk was something both sides believed was the right route to take:

“When we brought Nick in, we knew that he had a neck issue. There’s no secrets in there. We had all the MRI’s, we got all the scans and we took a great look at it. We’ve had multiple doctors that have taken a look at it and he was cleared to play. He played 150-some games last year… Nick brought up that he was considering having the surgery done because he felt that it would make him stronger and better. We then went back to that same group of doctors and had them analyze it. To a man, they all felt that this [procedure] would be a good thing to have.”

Markakis underwent the surgery in mid-December and figures to be ready for spring training, which is now just around the corner.

It’s obvious that Atlanta is going to have a very different kind of player in right field than they’d grown accustomed to since 2010, but comparing Markakis to Heyward is a fool’s errand at this point. The differences far outweigh a handful of similarities, especially given the age discrepancy. Markakis has been a fairly durable player, playing 155 or more games in seven of the last eight seasons. That is something that no doubt appealed to Atlanta. The price tag was obviously another consideration. Heyward could very well land a nine figure contract when and if he hits free agency after this season. Extension talks never seemed to get off the ground for whatever reason, and allowing him to walk with only a compensatory draft pick to show for it was a less than ideal scenario.

As far as 2015 is concerned, Heyward is gone and Markakis is here. So, let’s look at the things the new right fielder does well. The Braves believe they have a player who is a good fit both on the field and in the clubhouse. While that second dynamic will never have a proven statistical value, it was clear to see Atlanta lacked a strong leadership dynamic on the team in 2014. In fact, it was painfully obvious in the second half, especially during a dismal September. Markakis has built a good reputation as a teammate and possesses the kind of intangibles that a manager likes to see from his players. That has to be worth something.

He won his second gold glove in 2014, despite just 1 defensive run saved. Markakis has committed just two errors (both in 2012) over the past four seasons. That spans 1,142 total chances. He still has a decent arm, but Markakis is not going to freeze a runner in his tracks these days. Yes, there are many other ways and many other metrics that help to determine the finest fielders in the game, but Markakis certainly holds his own in right.

At the plate, he offers a high contact rate, something Atlanta is trying to infuse into a lineup that was built around too many players with too many swings and misses. Markakis was a doubles machine early in his career, but some of those have turned to singles over the past two seasons. That’s taken a toll on his SLG and associated numbers. Without the speed to steal bases which would compensate for fewer extra-base hits, his value could diminish unless Atlanta proves capable of executing the station-to-station ball they have not been so keen on in recent memory. He can work counts and take his walks, but his OBP isn’t out of this world in recent years. Again, solid but not spectacular.

While there’s been enough numbers and analysis thrown around to paint the next four years a foregone conclusion, Markakis will still get the opportunity to actually go out and play. If healthy, his all-around game should be a credit to the team.

Center field:

B.J. Upton will be the highest paid player on the team this season, and the Braves can only hope that he finally breaks out of the mega-slump that has simultaneously sandbagged both lineup and payroll flexibility. The troubling statistics have been front and center for so long, that it’s hard to boil them down to any one factor that is predominantly to blame for his poor play. There can’t be just one.

Well, strikeouts. Those aren’t good, and there have been far too many of those, even from a hitter who had demonstrated a propensity for striking out prior to signing with Atlanta. I’ve given up the ghost on the statistical analysis of Upton and switched over to the visual and scouting report side. He does not look comfortable at the plate, with a swing that has too many moving parts and a faulty trigger mechanism. He has already been working with new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer over the winter in hopes of turning a corner in 2015.

Of course, putting in the work has not been a problem for Upton. His athleticism is still intact, the occasional play in center field that makes you wonder aside, but that alone is not going to carry him any longer. There could be a number of things that contributed to his sordid situation in Atlanta: a flawed swing, a new city in a new league, the pressure of trying to live up to the biggest free agent contract the Braves have ever handed out, maybe even the pressure of trying to keep up with or outperform little brother. Perhaps it was all of the above or something else entirely.

Spilling Upton’s numbers across the page here is best kept at the bare minimum. His .198/.279/.314 slash line in 1,028 PA with the Braves has helped produce a woeful -0.6 WAR in 2013 and just a 0.4 WAR last season. That leads to a modest 0.6 WAR in 2015 according to FanGraph’s Steamer projections. Upton’s defense has also been suspect at times, and that only compounds the situation. Though Hart may have done his due diligence trying to unload Upton on another club willing to take a shot on a reclamation project, the $46.4 million Upton is owed over the next three years made him simply untradable. The Braves were not willing to throw in the kind of cash it would have taken to get another team to bite. Even a bad contract for bad contract swap could not be found. To be honest, I’m not sure that would really benefit Atlanta unless they somehow won significantly on the money side.

The Braves cut bait with Dan Uggla in his fourth season, absorbing a nearly $19 million payroll hit for the final year and a half of his deal. However, Hart made it clear at the Winter Meetings that productivity was going to be Upton’s key to staying in the lineup. No longer was the financial component going to heavily dictate playing time. We could find out how long the proverbial leash is over the course of the first few weeks of the season. Manager Fredi Gonzalez may not have the same amount of talent in the lineup, but he certainly has the pieces the to get creative if he wants to.

Left field:

After trading Evan Gattis last month, Atlanta will be employing a platoon to fill the void at the other corner outfield spot. The well-traveled Jonny Gomes figures to split time with the switch-hitting Zoilo Almonte. It won’t provide the kind of power that Gattis or Justin Upton bring to a lineup, but with no worthwhile full-time players on the free-agent market and no top prospect knocking on the door, the Braves believe they will be able to find a combination that can produce on a given day.

Gomes, 34, signed a one-year, $4 million deal that includes a vesting option after hitting .234/.327/.330 with six home runs and 37 RBI in 321 PA for Boston and Oakland last season. Those numbers were well below his career norm in the power department. This was due in large part to turning in just a .165/.248/.262 line against righties. Per the usual, Gomes handled lefties much better — at .276/.373/.371. His platoon splits match-up nicely with Almonte, who we’ll get to in a moment. An uptick in power from Gomes would definitely be appreciated in an Atlanta lineup that will need all it can get.

After breaking in with the Rays in 2003, Gomes has made stops with the Reds, Nationals, Red Sox and two with the Athletics over his 12 seasons. He’s a career. 244/.335/.442 hitter with 155 homers and 500 RBI. Just like Markakis, the Braves believe they have added a valuable member of the clubhouse in Gomes. He’s a hard worker who is known for his hustle on the field and a positive vibe amongst his teammates. He’s also no stranger to winning teams.

Almonte, 25, is a former Yankee farmhand who signed a one-year major league deal with Atlanta in November. He saw some time in the Bronx over the past two seasons, though not enough to know what to expect this season. Almonte can play all three outfield spots and could provide a little pop in that aforementioned platoon. Though he is a switch-hitter, Almonte is notably better against RHP. He batted .286 with 17 HR and 58 RBI in 315 AB against them for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2014. Almonte is largely unproven at the big league level, turning in just a .211/242/.282 line over 149 PA the past two years. He’s poised to get a shot for some real playing time with Atlanta.

Other notables:

Dian Toscano, 25, is a Cuban defector who signed a four-year, $6 million contract with an option for 2019 in late January. Atlanta had been linked to him since early December, though the deal was not finalized until nearly six weeks later. Unlike many of his fellow countrymen who’ve made a splash in the states, Toscano is not projected to hit for a ton of power. Playing with Villa Clara in Serie Nacional for five seasons from 2008-2012, he batted .300/.403/.427 in 736 PA with 45 XBH (13 HR), 101 RBI and 92 runs scored. A lefty hitter who is likely to begin his career in Triple-A Gwinnett, Toscano is yet another contact bat the Braves acquired over the winter. That trend is no mistake.

Among the other outfielders who will be in camp, the speedy Eury Perez was recently claimed off waivers from the Yankees and could get an extended look. He’s seen 26 big league games with Washington and New York, but hit just .174 in 23 AB with 5 steals. Perez, 24, is a .302 career hitter in the minors and owns 310 steals in 396 attempts over 819 games. At the very least, he is a younger, better version of Jose Constanza. Should Upton fall into a prolonged slump, Perez offers a center field option that could be at the ready.

Holdovers Todd Cunningham, 25, and Joey Terdoslavich, 26, will vie for bench spots. Both are switch-hitters who have seen limited big league time with Atlanta over the past two seasons. It would take a pretty strong showing amongst plenty of competition for either to crack the 25-man roster.

On the non-roster side, speedy Mallex Smith is a 21-year-old who was part of the Justin Upton trade. Smith batted .310/.403/.432 and stole 88 bases in two Single-A stops for San Diego last season. He’ll be heading to Double-A Mississippi to begin 2015, but should be fun to watch on the base paths this spring. Cedric Hunter, 26, formerly a highly thought of prospect in the Padres organization, has bounced around a bit and spent last season in Double-A for Atlanta. Entering his 10th professional season, he’s a long shot to head north.

Next Up: The Starting Rotation

Atlanta boasted one of the best pitching staffs in baseball last season, but an under-performing offense could not support all the fine work by the men on the mound. Julio Teheran and Alex Wood were both strong, while Mike Minor dealt with a nagging shoulder problem all year. This season will bring a new set of challenges, with veterans Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang gone, the Braves are counting on Shelby Miller to have a strong campaign. They’re also hoping to catch lightning in a bottle in the fifth spot, just like they did with Harang last season. One thing is for sure, it will take strong pitching if Atlanta wants to contend in 2015.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

2015 Braves Positional Preview: The Catchers

After eight years of Brian McCann, the Atlanta Braves are turning to their second starting catcher in as many seasons. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The trade of slugging backstop Evan Gattis has opened the door for a young man who has long been referred to as the catcher of the future.

Atlanta will give the keys to Christian Bethancourt, a much heralded prospect who has been top of mind for most Braves fans over the past few years. His defensive prowess has been the talk of scouts since he signed for $600,000 back in 2008. Now he gets a chance to prove he is ready to be the every day catcher.

With the bat finally starting to catch up with the glove, Bethancourt was rated the No. 5 prospect in the organization by Baseball America following a busy winter which saw new President of Baseball Operations John Hart restock the farm system. He’s been in among the Top 10 prospects on most Braves lists since 2011.

His ascent through the system has been at a deliberate pace, but he won’t turn 24 until September. Bethancourt finally made real strides with the bat over the past two seasons, earning him a prolonged stay in Atlanta when Gattis was sidelined in 2014. He belted eight home runs among 26 extra-base hits and turned in a .283/.308/.408 slash line in 91 games with Triple-A Gwinnett last season.

The burgeoning power could allow Bethancourt to follow the Yadier Molina route of offensive improvement. He’s an aggressive contact hitter who doesn’t draw many walks. That’s consistent with a Molina comparison. However, stacking those two men side by side would be an unfair tag to slap on Bethancourt. The similarities are striking, but Atlanta isn’t expecting an overnight hitting sensation. They’ll settle for steady contributions and marked progress over the coming months and years. As for the comparison between Bethancourt and Molina behind the plate, that should be fun to watch.

Bethancourt’s defensive tools do have room for improvement in some areas, particularly blocking pitches. Attempting to backhand balls in the dirt has contributed to a high number of passed balls over the course of his career — 88 in 500 total games. That included half a dozen in his 31 big league games last season. It’s a habit he will have to break. Bethancourt’s ability to manage a staff and call games will be tested more than ever, but this is true of any young catcher transitioning to the big leagues. With 29 starts already under his belt, Atlanta feels confident he’ll be able to handle the responsibility.

One part of his game that comes ready to make an impact right out of the box is Bethancourt’s above average arm. He’s gunned down 37 percent (200-of-545) of attempted base stealers thus far in his career. A strong, accurate arm coupled with a quick release will be an excellent deterrent for opposing base runners.

The Backup

Atlanta signed A.J. Pierzynski, 37, to a one-year, $2 million deal to serve as a mentor and insurance policy of sorts. In fact, he was one of several veteran catchers who call the organization home in 2015. We’ll get to the rest shortly, but it’s worth noting that the Braves like the idea of having their young arms throwing to experienced battery mates en route to the big leagues. That should allow for added development.

Pierzynski is a lifetime .281 hitter with 177 homers and 837 RBI who has proven extremely durable over his 17-year career. He batted .251 with five home runs and 37 RBI last season between the Red Sox and Cardinals. Having a mentor with as much experience as Pierzynski makes perfect sense as Bethancourt begins his first full season in the big leagues. It probably doesn’t hurt to have a left-hand hitting platoon option as well.

For his part, Pierzynski told me he looks forward to the opportunity to work closely with Bethancourt:

“One thing they talked about with me is coming over and helping him. That was something I was very excited about. I’ve seen him play, obviously on TV, and I’ve heard a lot of good things about him from different people. So, they just talked to me about coming over and trying to get the most out of this kid and teach him how to be a big league catcher at an everyday level. I think that’s different than just being a big league catcher. To do it every day is a different animal than just showing up and doing it every couple of days or being a young kid and not having much thrown on you. To do it every day at a [high] level and have expectations is something different and I’ve done it for a long time. Hopefully, I can give him some knowledge to make him a better player.”

The Reserves

As touched on earlier, the Braves have brought in a slew of veteran catchers to help aid the development of the young pitchers working their way through the system. John Buck, 34, is a former All-star who has spent parts of 11 seasons in the big leagues. He joins his eighth organization after signing a minor league deal with Atlanta that includes a invite to spring training. Buck brings some power to the table, but is just a .234 career hitter. He’s likely to see the majority of his time with Triple-A Gwinnett, but could end up being a third catcher on the big league squad if the Braves continue that recent trend.

Jesus Flores, 30, is another catcher who signed a minor league deal with a invitation to spring training. He spent five seasons with the Nationals from 2007-2012, but a stress fracture in his shoulder derailed his career and cost him most of 2009 and all of 2010. Flores worked his way back, but failed to stick in Washington. He’s made stops in the Rays, Dodgers and Royals organizations the past two seasons and figures to compete with Buck for a roster spot or spend his time in Gwinnett.

In addition to those two, there will be plenty of non-roster invitees doing some catching this spring. Yenier Bello, 30, was signed by Atlanta last spring, but only got into 15 games between the Gulf Coast League and High-A Lynchburg. He’s had to go through quite a bit to find his way to a big league team, which Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com detailed last year. The jury is obviously still out on what the Braves have in Bello.

Another intriguing name is third-year prospect Tanner Murphy, a fourth round pick in 2013. Baseball America rated the soon to be 20-year-old Murphy as Atlanta’s No. 17 prospect heading into 2015, citing his power potential among a strong tool set. Regardless, he’s likely to be heading to Low-A Rome this season.

Other non-roster catchers who will be in camp include Matt Kennelly, the recently acquired Chris O’Dowd (son of former Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd), Braeden Schlehuber and Jose Yepez.

Next Up: The Outfield (Feb. 11)

Not too long ago, the Braves rolled out what they hoped would be the finest outfield in baseball. Fast forward to two years later, and much has changed. Jason Heyward and Justin Upton were traded away over the winter and only B.J. Upton remains of that trio. If he can hold onto his starting gig, the elder Upton will be flanked by a new cast of characters in 2015. We’ll size them up in Part 3 of this preview series.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

2015 Braves Positional Preview: The Infield

The Atlanta Braves are coming down the home stretch of the busiest winter in the franchise’s history. With the disappointment of 2014 leading to wholesale change in the front office, we learned very quickly that the same would hold true when it came to the player personnel.

The influx of new talent came from numerous trades and a handful of free agent acquisitions, all designed to bring the vaunted “Braves Way” of doing things back to the forefront. Rebuilding the talent pipeline by stocking the farm system was the central component, regardless of the team’s reluctance to place the “rebuilding” tag on the process.

Over the next five days, we’ll delve into each of the areas on the 25-man roster: infielders, catchers, outfielders, starting rotation and bullpen. With many new faces and a couple of positional battles to be had this spring, this primer should cover all the bases as the team packs its bags for Orlando.

With that said, we get set to go around the horn with the Atlanta infielders.

Part 1: The Infield

The Braves have as many questions as they do reasons to be hopeful about the 2015 season. That is certainly true of the infield. Anchored by Andrelton Simmons, commonly referred to as the best fielding player in the game at any position, the Braves will always be a cut above defensively. They ranked fifth in the majors with a .986 team fielding percentage a year ago, committing the fifth fewest errors (86). Simmons trailed only teammate Jason Heyward (32) for the big league lead with 28 defensive runs saved.

First Base

When it comes to offense, the Atlanta infield has one thumper and a lot of unproven commodities. Freddie Freeman was an MVP candidate in 2013, but even he was not immune to the offensive woes that struck the Braves lineup last season. He was hardly part the problem, but Freeman saw a 31 point drop in batting average and his OPS dipped from .897 to .857. The team’s overall issues with run scoring also affected his RBI total, which went from 109 in 2013 to just 78 in 2014 despite a career-high 708 PA.

At just 25 and in the second season of an eight-year, $135 million contract extension, the Braves made a conscious decision to build around Freeman. He’s a better defender than he often gets credit for, but the impact he makes with the bat will always be his biggest contribution. His strike zone expanded just a bit last season, especially on breaking balls, but Freeman works pitchers over. He saw the fifth most pitches in baseball with 2,826 and had a major league leading 583 foul balls in 2014 (Special thanks to BaseballSavant.com for that really cool leader board).

Long story short, Freeman will once again be the best hitter in the Atlanta lineup. His numbers could trend back toward his 2013 totals if he can simply find a way to make Marlins pitchers pay doubly for what they did to him in 2014 (.135 with 21 K in 81 AB). His supporting cast has changed greatly from a year ago, but a conscious effort was made to bring in more contact hitters. That could bode well for Freeman’s run production numbers.

Shortstop

We’ll save the second base round-up for last, and switch the focus back to Simmons for now. Like Freeman, the Braves extended their young shortstop a year ago. Unlike Freeman, the impact part of Simmons’ game is his work with the glove. While he brought the expected gold glove caliber defense to the fray, Simmons took a big step back at the plate. New hitting coach Kevin Seitzer will try to help him get back on track.

Despite being one of the better contact hitters on the team, he struggled to turn in quality at-bats. Perhaps it was a bi-product of hitting 17 home runs a year prior, but Simmons’ swing got long at times and his aggressive approach worked against him last season. The homer total fell to just seven, which is still one more than he hit in his entire minor league career. Even though he was one of the toughest hitters in MLB to strike out, ranking ninth with 9 AB/K in 2014 and fourth with 11 AB/K in 2013, Simmons does not draw many walks —­ just 84 BB in 1,416 PA. That’s part of the reason he holds a .252/.297/.372 career slash line.

With an improved approach, he should still be able to hit for higher average as he enters his third full season. Simmons turned in a .299/.352/.397 slash line in the minors and hit just six home runs in those 1,024 PA. De-emphasizing the “swing from your heels” mentality that crept into his at-bats far too often will be the key for Simmons.  His line drive stroke will provide some extra-base hits. Some of those will even go over the wall, but he’ll have to make some necessary adjustments if he wants to see an offensive uptick in 2015.

Third Base

Speaking of hitters looking for bounce back seasons, third baseman Chris Johnson is another man hoping to prove 2014 was just a blip on the radar. He’s also another of the Braves extension players from a year ago, though his came in early May and was met with some head scratching. Johnson, 30, got 3 years and $23.5 million from Atlanta after vying for a batting title as he replaced the retired Chipper Jones in 2013.

He would not enjoy a repeat performance. After a nice opening act in 2013, Johnson saw his slash line fall from .321/.358/.457 to just .263/.292/.361 in year two. That came thanks in part to an unsustainable .394 BABIP in 2013 dropping to .345 in 2014. Consider last year’s major league leader, Starling Marte of the Pirates, posted a .373 BABIP. Johnson had a career-high 611 PA, but saw his walk rate (3%) bottom out to sixth lowest in baseball while his strikeout rate (26%) jumped to 15th highest.

Johnson may not be guaranteed another season of 600+ plate appearances either. He raked against LHP yet again in 2014, hitting .394 in 114 AB, but his struggles against RHP (.231/.256/.314 in 486 PA) may open the door for Alberto Callaspo or even Jace Peterson to steal some playing time if the trend continues. Both of those men are in the mix at second base as well, which may grant Johnson an early reprieve. Recently acquired Rio Ruiz could be Atlanta’s long term answer at the hot corner, but his arrival in the big leagues is still a couple of years away.

Second Base

Now we come to what could be the most interesting storyline of the entire spring: Who will be the Braves everyday second baseman? Yes, there are quite a few candidates and it could end up being a platoon, but it sure beats another year spent wondering about the state of Dan Uggla. In fact, the second baseman’s name that is going to be front and center throughout Grapefruit League play this time around is Jose Peraza. That is a most welcome change.

We’ll start with Callaspo, 31, who is the odds-on favorite to open the season with the everyday job, with Peterson and Phil Gosselin also fighting for the opportunity. A veteran switch-hitter coming off a miserable .223/.290/.290 line in 127 games for Oakland last season, Callaspo signed a one-year, $3 million contract in December. It’s an opportunity to rebuild his value on a short-term deal.

He has a little pop, hitting double-digit homers in four of his six full seasons, and puts the bat on the ball consistently (just 331 K in 3695 PA in his career). Those are two things that would prove useful if he returns to pre-2014 form. It’s worth noting that Callaspo hasn’t played second base consistently since 2009 and has actually logged more games at third throughout his nine-year career. As noted earlier, he could see time there depending on how Johnson fares.

Peraza, 20, is the Braves top prospect according Baseball America and just about every other hot sheet. He has a chance to skip Triple-A and jump straight to the majors, a la Rafael Furcal in 2000. There are plenty of similarities between the two, not the least of which would be the ability to solve Atlanta’s lead-off dilemma. Peraza is a contact hitter who can find the gaps, evidenced by his 2014 slash line of .339/.364/.441 between High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi. He roped 20 doubles and 11 triples, while showing off his game-changing speed by stealing 60 bases for the second straight season.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has already stated that he plans to give Peraza a serious look this spring, bringing him on every road trip and plugging him at some point in every game. While a ticket to Triple-A Gwinnett appears to be the most likely scenario, there’s still a chance Peraza could force the issue with a strong showing. Even if he doesn’t break camp with the big club, Peraza’s arrival in 2015 would inject the Atlanta lineup with a dynamic top of the order speed threat it has lacked for most of the last decade.

Check out these numbers (visit the tweet to enlarge):

 

The Reserves

Gosselin and Peterson could both figure heavily into what the Braves hope will be an improved bench. Both men provide versatility and can play second, short or third. Gosselin, 26, earned some extended time in 2014, getting into 46 games and making 30 starts spread across three positions. He batted .264 for Atlanta after hitting .344/.379/.487 in 96 games with Gwinnett. There’s not a lot that stands out about him offensively, but Gosselin makes consistent contact and makes the plays at second.

Peterson, 24, is a former 1st round pick by the Padres in 2011 who came over in the Justin Upton trade. The lefty hitter batted .307/.402/.447 in 96 games at two levels and was up and down with San Diego throughout the season. Peterson has stolen 148 bases in 389 minor league games, so he brings a speed dynamic that neither Gosselin nor Callaspo have to offer. He’s also shown himself to be more than capable of handling both righties and lefties, which is always helpful. Though he showed good plate discipline and was fairly difficult to fan in the minors, Peterson batted just .118 and struck out 18 times in 53 at-bats with the Padres. Thus, insert small sample size disclaimer here.

Kelly Johnson, 33, returned to Atlanta on a minor league deal and received a invitation to spring training. He has played all over the diamond in recent years. Again, this is a case where versatility could help the player earn a roster spot and make the bench more stout than it was in 2014. Johnson earned the odd distinction of  playing for every club in the AL East over the past three seasons, including three different stops last year alone. Outside of some occasional power, Johnson hasn’t enjoyed much success at the plate of late. After hitting .284/.370/.496 with a career-high 26 homers for the Diamondbacks in 2010, Johnson has batted .225/.306/.390 over 1898 plate appearances in the four seasons since. To make matters worse, he’s struck out once every 3.4 AB. His chances of winning the second base job are remote at best, but Johnson could play his way onto the 25-man roster with good Grapefruit League campaign.

Next Up: The Catchers

The Braves have cleared the way for Christian Bethancourt to become their catcher of the future. After getting his feet wet in 2014, the heralded backstop prospect will have to prove he is capable of handling the rigors of the everyday job. Will the glove live up to expectations? Will the bat provide the necessary production? Much will be asked of Bethancourt in 2015.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.