Atlanta Braves 2014 Season Preview: Boom or Bust?

Can Heyward and the Upton brothers carry the Braves to another division title?

Gone are the frugal ways of the Atlanta Braves. Brace yourself for another run of double-digit division titles in the NL East.

That might be a stretch at the moment, but considering Frank Wren threw over $72 million at B.J. Upton, traded for Justin Upton last year and then signed the “Core Four” to multi-year extensions, the minimal salary cap mindset for the Braves has left the park.

With Wren giving Freddi Gonzalez a good group of young players for the long term, the Braves can form a good chemistry and put together longer postseason runs. But the more casual fan just wants to know about this year. So let’s take a look at what the 2014 season holds for the Atlanta Braves

Bye Bye, Brian

Everyone looks at the Braves and wonders why they let their homegrown, seven-time All-Star leave the team. The Braves knew they would have to pony up the cash to keep him, but as we’ve seen in the last few weeks, Frank Wren wanted to spend his money elsewhere. And why spend it on Brian McCann in the first place? He may have been an All-Star, but McCann was not worth the money.

Prior to 2011, McCann never played in less than 130 games. But then In 2011, he played in 128, which went down to 120 in 2012 and 108 in 2013. Despite decent numbers, why would Wren want to pay for a player that’s starting to show wear and tear at a position that takes a toll on the body?

McCann’s durability wasn’t the only thing declining either. After driving in at least 87 runs from 2006 to 2009, we have seen RBI totals of 77, 71, 67, and 57 from 2010 to 2013, respectively. His average has gone down as well. McCann has hit over .300 only twice in his career, but after hovering around .270 in 2010 and 2011, we saw his average dip to .230 in 2012 and .256 in 2013.

With McCann now a Yankee, the Braves are now going with a catcher-by-committee approach: Evan Gattis, Gerald Laird, Ryan Doumit, and the Braves top catching prospect Christian Bethancourt. Gattis will be the main catcher, and has the advantage of playing the outfield in case the Braves are in need of his bat. Laird is your usual backup defensive-oriented catcher, and Doumit was a steal in a trade to provide more flexibility behind the plate.

Gattis is still young and learning. The power is there, but the Braves need him to be consistent in the lineup. Laird’s average won’t give the crowd “oohs and ahhs,” but he’ll be loved for his defense, an anchor for the beat up pitching staff, and a great teacher to the younger catchers.

Doumit has power and will be another versatile asset. He’ll be counted on late in games to pinch hit or to spell Gattis or another outfielder. However, the best of the bunch might be Bethancourt, who is still down in AAA.

A highly-regarded prospect among all of baseball, Bethancourt might be more of the heir apparent than Gattis. He exudes a lot of abilities listed above all in one package. There's no need to rush him considering the three-headed monster in Atlanta right now, but the sum of all the parts at catcher for the Braves might be greater than McCann himself.

The Core Four Five

Since Frank Wren decided to skip on paying McCann, he spent elsewhere. First it was a two-year, $13.3 million extension to outfielder Jason Heyward. Heyward's shorter, cheaper contract could pay off the best for the Braves. The Braves haven't had a true leadoff hitter in quite a few years and finally found on in Jason Heyward last season until he got plunked in the face.

During the 20 games Heyward was batting leadoff, the Braves went 17-3 and Heyward posted a .438 on-base percentage. If Heyward can carry that through a full season, the Atlanta offense could get off to a great start. If Heyward doesn't pan out over the next two years, the Braves still win since they did not invest a lot of money in him.

Then the biggest contract ever to a Brave was handed out - $135 million for eight years to first baseman Freddie Freeman. This was a well deserved contract for a player the Braves hope can be the cornerstone of the team like Chipper Jones was for so many years.

In Freeman's three seasons, we have seen his RBI total and on-base percentage improve on a year to year basis and his strikeouts continue to drop each year. As he learns the game more and continues to develop his power, the Braves will make sure he never leaves Atlanta.

But Wren wasn’t done handing out contracts and turned his attention to a couple key pitchers on his team: Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel. Teheran wouldn’t have been a free agent for five more years, but the Braves decided to give $34 million over six years to lock him up at a reasonable rate. Kimbrel, the best closer over the past few seasons, was then signed for $42 million over four more years.

However, the most underrated signing may have been shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Simmons isn’t known for his offense just yet, but this was more of an investment for a key defensive player at a challenging position. Simmons could prove to be one of the best young players in the game and the Braves get him for the next seven years.

These signings were dubbed the “Core Four” at first, but by the middle of February, it was all about these five players for the Braves.

If you’re wondering where Wren expects to get all this money from, he's banking on the announcement over the winter that the Braves would have a new stadium in 2017. Wren figures the revenue generated from having a newer ballpark – and a better location for said ballpark – will help stomach this big contracts.

The contracts are a great mix too. The catcher situation is something to pay attention to for the next few years, but no drastic moves are needed yet. Justin and B.J. Upton are both around for the next four years to go with Heyward’s extension, locking up the outfield.

The rest of the infield isn’t that huge of a concern as Chris Johnson just entered his first year of arbitration. And when Dan Uggla’s contract is up at the end of 2015, the Braves should have some prospects ready to take over. Thanks to bringing in John Hart as a front office advisor, the Braves are putting themselves in a great position financially.

Pitching Woes

While it’s all rosy and sunny financially, it's started to rain on the rotation. With Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, and Julio Teheran all cemented as starters from 2013, the Braves retained Freddy Garcia, brought in Gavin Floyd and hoped for a bounce-back season from Brandon Beachy.

But as Opening Day is dawning, the Braves watched Medlen and Beachy go back under the knife for Tommy John surgery (the second time for both pitchers), placed Floyd and Minor on the DL (Minor is expected back by May), signed inning-eating veterans Ervin Santana (as well as Aaron Harang at the 11th hour), threw Alex Wood into the rotation and promoted David Hale and impressive minor leaguer Gus Schlosser.

The Braves will have to go with a lot of patch work to make their rotation work for the first month or two in order to stay afloat, but thankfully they reside in one of the weakest divisions in baseball and have a batting lineup capable of scoring runs by the basket-full.

We already know that Teheran has grown in the past two seasons, so he should be able to carry the rotation until Minor is back. Once he is back, they will likely be 1A and 1B followed by Santana. Santana will need some time to get to full strength and considering his ERA is usually above 4.00, the Braves should not rush him.

In the meantime, Wood, Hale, and Schlosser will be expected to hold their own. Wood is one of the best pitching prospects the Braves have, and weren’t expecting to throw him in the starting role just yet. The hope was to keep him in a long-relief position for a little longer, but he will have to grow up sooner than expected.

Not much is known about Hale and Schlosser, but Schlosser did well in AA and had an even more impressive Spring Training. Hale was impressive in two starts last year throwing 14 strikeouts, issuing only one walk and allowing only one run in 11 innings pitched. It is obviously a super small sample, but if Hale keeps his WHIP down he should be serviceable.

Schlosser is considered to have close to elite type of stuff, and has only walked 85 batters in 335.1 innings of minor league ball. With a good mix of a fastball, slider, and changed up, Schlosser has accumulated 282 strikeouts as well. Injuries to Medlen and Beachy were not wanted but the Braves always seem to be prepared with additional arms ready at a moment’s notice.

Lineup in Limbo

With McCann gone, the heart of Braves order will look very different this year. Considering how Freddi Gonzalez likes to mix things up, it may take until the All-Star break to find a true lineup solution. And that’s with expecting Uggla and B.J. Upton to return to form, which is no guarantee.

Two spots within the lineup are for certain: Jason Heyward proved to be a great leadoff hitter for the team, and while Freeman could bat clean-up, he will likely stay cemented in the third spot. Evan Gattis will be the biggest factor in the lineup though. If Gattis bats cleanup, that will allow Chris Johnson to slot into the fifth or sixth spot depending on where Justin Upton gets slotted; but Johnson could end up seeing a lot of time at the cleanup spot as well.

Justin Upton could be second in the order, but could be slotted at fifth with B.J. Upton getting a shot at batting second. If Gonzalez prefers B.J. batting second, we would likely see Andrelton Simmons batting seventh or eighth depending on how Dan Uggla is doing. If neither Upton brother hasn’t been slotted in at the second spot, Simmons would be the next logical choice.

If Gattis isn’t in the lineup, all the above scenarios could be off the table. Gattis could be kept in the lineup if he doesn’t play catcher, but I don't think we will see that happen right away unless one of the Upton brothers needs a day off or is not hitting the ball well. Gattis would likely end up as the first pinch-hitter off the bench if not in the lineup or playing the designated hitter spot if not playing catcher during inter-league games.

Either way, Gonzalez will have plenty of room to tinker with the lineup – much to the chagrin of many fans. But with the Braves needing to overcome a patchwork of a rotation, fans should be patient and let Gonzalez find the right mix.

Take last year for example; it was hit or miss with the Braves offense, as they hit the fifth-most home runs in the league, but were third-worst in terms of strikeouts on their way to 96 wins. They were also 12 runs away from scoring 700 as a team in 2013, and had a modest finish of 13th in on-base percentage for the season. With a full season under their belts and Heyward leading the charge, the ceiling for the Braves offense is enormous.

2014 Outlook

The Braves could be ready for another run of consecutive division titles if everything goes their way. The pitching staff may be a mess, but they may be able to overcome the deficiency. If Medlen and Beachy were pitching, I think it would be easier to say the Braves would be a lock to win the division again, but considering how good the youthful core is, I don't think the Braves take a considerable dip.

Everyone may be talking about the rotation, but I think the bullpen is a bigger deal. Let's focus on Craig Kimbrel and his dominance first. I'm sure any team would love to have a closer with a 1.39 ERA while averaging 46 saves a season over the past three seasons. If that doesn't impress you, Kimbrel's 15.2 strikeout per nine innings rate should. He's put three amazing years together as a closer, and the shelf-life of a closer is not very long. While Kimbrel is great, the combination of a youthful rotation and a boom-or-bust offense could put even more on Kimbrel and the rest of the bullpen's shoulders.

Gonzalez will micromanage his lineup as much as he wants, but he needs to keep even more attention on his relief pitchers. Wood was supposed to be the gem of the bullpen outside of Kimbrel but since he’s now a key middle-of-the-rotation piece, it somewhat weakens the bullpen. Of course the Braves could bring up some AAA guys here, and there to help ease the workload.

Once Minor is healed up and Santana is ready to pitch, the rotation will not be so bad. Teheran, Minor, and Santana in some order followed by Wood will take pressure off of the young pitcher and leave the open spot for the hot hand, whether it be Hale, Schlosser, or even Gavin Floyd.

If the Braves get through the first month of the season with only a few scratches, they should be looking good. If Gonzalez rests his pitchers appropriately early in the season so he can weather the dog days of summer, the Braves will easily be in contention for a wild-card spot. But I wouldn’t count them out to steal the division from the Nationals. And if someone else can take care of the Dodgers in the playoffs for them, maybe - just maybe - they can earn a spot to the World Series. Our numbers give them a 4.3% chance to win it all this year.