Wednesday, March 27, 2013

2013 MLB Preview #3: Atlanta Braves

Greetings! This is kinda high, eh?

Projected Starters - Brian McCann (injured)/Gerald Laird/Evan Gattis (C), Freddie Freeman (1B), Dan Uggla (2B), Andrelton Simmons (SS), Juan Francisco/Chris Johnson (3B), Justin Upton (LF), BJ Upton (CF), Jason Heyward (RF)

This is going to get long (as I'm going in straight positional order), so I'll warn you now.

The catcher situation is up in the air a bit with the injury to Brian McCann. He's expected back sometime in late April/Early May, but McCann is coming off the worst season of his career, where he failed to reach a .700 OPS and hit .230. I firmly believe he bounces back to the .260-.280 range with a .350 OBP and 20 homers (pro-rated to probably 16 with the missed time) and I'm not worried about him. Behind him, Gerald Laird was inked to be a consistent veteran, but he has a career .662 OPS in 2400+ AB's and he's certainly a pure back-up with no upside. Evan Gattis garnered all kinds of buzz in spring with a big-time power breakout, and he'll make the team as the back-up until McCann returns. He's got 70 power (on the 80 scale), but it's unclear whether a) he can field, or b) he can Major-league pitching right now.

At first base, Freddie Freeman will play most of the 2013 season at just 23 years old, and that is kind of crazy. With two full seasons as the Atlanta starter, he has a career slash line of .269/.340/.449 and an average of 22 homers per season. There is a significant debate about his glove, but it's not up for discussion that he can't move (lol), but that he does possess nice skills around the bag at 1st. If we assign him average defense, and his bat falls in line with most projections (.280 average, 25-ish homers), that's a 3-4 win player, and for the money he's making, you can't beat it. I'm not sure there is 30+ homer upside, but with the exception of his eyesight issues last year, he made strides with the bat, and I like him.

Dan Uggla returns at 2nd base, and the contract is still looming. He managed to be worth 3.5 WAR last season (thanks to a bump in fielding metrics that absolutely no one can justify), but Uggla's power was sapped to just 19 homers and he hit just .220 on the year. On the bright side, Uggla walked at an absurdly high 14.9% rate, which lifted his OBP to a very acceptable .348. He's one of the worst defensive second basemen in the league, and that's not changing, but if he can return to hitting 30 homers, he's still a valuable player. Projections vary wildly for Uggla, but with a gun to my head, I think I would go .240/.340/.450 with 27 homers and a WAR around 3.0.

Andrelton Simmons is considered to be either the best or 2nd-best (behind Brendan Ryan) defensive shortstop in baseball (also see this article proclaiming as the best defender at any position). He's 23 years old. This fact combined with a great contact rate make his floor pretty high, and I'm very excited about having him in the lineup to cover up the multiple defensive sins from 2nd base and 3rd base. Whether his bat will play at a high level is up for debate, but he a career K-rate of under 10% in the minors, and that rose to just 11.5% in a small sample size in the majors last season. It looks like he may lead-off (which I disagree with) and I would project a .270-.280 average with 6-8 homers and somewhere around 20 steals from him offensively. With the lineup behind him, that probably equals 80-90 runs and when you add in his defense, we could be looking at a guy in his first full season posting a 4.0 WAR.

Third base is a bit of an enigma for 2013 in Atlanta. Chipper Jones has been penciled in for nearly 2 decades, and for the first time, he's nowhere near the picture. Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson are expected to start the season in some sort of platoon, and if you think Juan Francisco was bad at 3rd base, you haven't seen anything like the work of Chris Johnson. I'm actually pretty high on Francisco, as his power is incredibly legit, and his defense, while below-average, isn't a disaster thanks to a big arm. In 298 MLB at-bats against right-handers, he has an OPS over .800, and with that being the more prolific side of the platoon in baseball, that's a good sign. With 400+ at-bats, I think Francisco could easily hit 20 homers, and if he's deployed correctly (not always a given), I like him. On the Johnson side, he is probably the worst fielder at 3rd base in all of baseball, posting a -33.8 UZR in the last 3+ seasons, and he's an unmitigated disaster over there. If you don't believe me, give it a couple of weeks and you'll see it. With the bat, however, he could be an asset. He's got a career OPS over .750 with some decent pop, and along with Reed Johnson, they will be the strongest right-handed pinch-hitting options. The weird thing about Johnson is a reverse platoon split that messes things up a bit. Johnson's career OPS is over .100 points lower against lefties than righties, but even with that, there should be no scenario where he starts against a right-handed pitcher given Francisco's better defense. Eventually, I think "fat Juan" could steal the full-time job on more of an 80/20 basis than a straight platoon, but if Johnson hits lefties, he'll stay involved.

In the outfield, the Braves are elite at all three positions, and in my opinion, possess the best outfield in all of baseball (challenged only by the Angels, and only if Trout and Hamilton both repeat last season). Justin Upton was acquired from Arizona in the Martin Prado trade, and he's a big-time prize. He showed his tremendous upside with a 6.4 WAR season in 2011 where he hit 31 homers, scored 105 runs, stole 21 bases, and posted an OPS of .898 for Arizona. Then, in 2012, his stock dropped a little bit with a rocky season headlined by some managerial confrontations (rumored), but the skills remain, and even in a "down" year, Upton posted a 2.5 WAR. I firmly believe that his baseline for this season is in the neighborhood of his career numbers (.278/.357/.475) and if he can produce that (or better, obviously) with above-average defense, it's like stealing. In center, Justin's brother BJ Upton was inked to a 5-year, $75 million contract to replace Michael Bourn. BJ is a fascinating player, who basically has been two completely different guys at times during his career. In his first two full seasons in the big leagues, BJ Upton put up OBP's of .386 and .383 respectively with 33 combined home runs (an average of 16.5 per season). Then, in the next four seasons in Tampa Bay, his OBP's were .313, .322, .331, and .298 while his power shifted upward. Which Upton are we getting? I really have no idea, but the good thing is that it almost doesn't matter. Even with the dreadful .298 OBP last season, Upton managed to generate 3.3 WAR thanks to good defense in center field, 28 home runs, and 31 steals, and with the move to a more "neutral" ballpark in Atlanta coupled with a better lineup around him, it's a good bet that his across-the-board numbers will uptick a bit. I would project a .255/.345/.440 slash line with 24 homers and 30 steals, and that is tremendously valuable. Finally, the team's franchise player, Jason Heyward, resides in right field for his fourth full season. Defensively, Heyward is probably the best right fielder in the entire league and one of the best defenders in all of baseball. In 2012, he was 2nd in all of baseball at every position in UZR (+21.5) and he won the NL gold glove in right field. In addition to his tremendous glove, Heyward slugged .479 to go along with a .335 OBP and hit 27 homers while stealing 21 bases in his "breakout" campaign, and when you put it all together, he was worth 6.6 WAR last season at age 22/23. He's an absolute monster, and if anything, I would expect a small bump in his slash line across the board. The steals may be a little high, but there is more power and OBP potential there, and Heyward is a star already.

On the rest of the bench (outside of Gattis/Laird and the Francisco/Johnson duo who we already covered), the Braves are going with Reed Johnson, Ramiro Pena, and Jordan Schafer. Johnson is a normal 4th outfielder type, but he does mash lefties (career .828 OPS vs. LHP) and can defend as well. He was the only "lock" of this group, and I like him as an option that the Braves hopefully won't need unless to pinch hit. Pena beat out Tyler Pastornicky for the infield utility job, and he's a complete glove-only guy. Need evidence? He has a .552 career OPS (!) over 338 big-league plate appearances, and he barely even hit in the minors with zero power. I would've liked to have seen Pastornicky win the job because of his bat upside (although limited, still a big upgrade on Pena), but he'll get full-time AB's in Gwinnett until Paul Janish returns. When Janish returns, he's the best defender of the three, and I think Fredi/Wren will have him up pretty quickly. The final spot belongs to Jordan Schafer, who the Braves brought back as a minor-league contract, as the 5th-outfielder. I don't know that I would've gone this route, but he is out of options and if the Braves think he has any future, the move was to keep him up. Schafer has a lifetime .301 slugging percentage (less than his .305 OBP somehow) has flashed exactly no power in the majors. He was an elite prospect at one point, so I guess I can see the urgency to hang on to him, but unless he's significantly better, he's the worst position player on the roster by a pretty wide margin.

Projected - Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Paul Maholm, Julio Teheran/Brandon Beachy (injured)

I think I'm higher on the Braves' rotation than most people, but the biggest question mark is the lack of a dominant #1 starter.

Tim Hudson is the "opening day starter" (which means nothing), and the most trusted guy of the five-man group. Huddy's ERA has gone the wrong way over the past 3 seasons (from 2.83 to 3.22 to 3.62), but the more alarming trend there is a decrease in his ground-ball rate. With that said, he's still getting enough ground balls to offset his pedestrian K-rate (5.13 per 9), and I think he's safe for an ERA in the mid-3.00's with a WHIP around 1.20. Kris Medlen had one of the most insane stretches of pitching that I can ever remember in the second half of 2012, as he threw 95.1 innings after the All-Star break and they resulted in an ERA of 0.94 with a walk rate of just 1.32 per 9 and a K-Rate of 8.97 per 9 innings. Those stats are obviously unsustainable, but I do think that Medlen has the tools to be an upper-echelon starting pitcher. His FIP and xFIP were both under 3.00 over last year, and I think it's reasonable to project 180-190 innings with an ERA in the high-2.00's/low-3.00's with some built-in regression downside. With Mike Minor, it was a tale of two halves in 2012, as he was largely dreadful in the first half, finishing 92 innings with a 5.97 ERA, but he was utterly fantastic after the break, throwing 87 innings of 2.16 ERA baseball. The truth is somewhere in the middle (obviously), but if Minor can keep his walk rate and home run rate down (as he did in the second half), he's a very, very good pitcher. In the fourth spot, Paul Maholm is a guy no one ever talks about, but he's so solid. Maholm has back to back seasons with a sub-3.70 ERA and all he did in 2012 was up his K-rate to a much better 6.67 per 9 and lower his walk-rate to a career-low 2.52. At worst, he's a guy who will post an ERA in the low-4.00's with 190 innings, but at best, it could be an ERA between 3.50 and 3.70 and that's very good for a 4th spot. The fifth spot is very, very interesting. It looks as if Julio Teheran has parlayed an incredible spring (sub-1.00 ERA and an MLB leading # of strikeouts) into the 5th spot, and there's no surprise there. The issue for Teheran is just how bad he was in 2012, when he sported an ERA north of 5.00 in AAA, and struggled to a 6.66 K/9 rate. His skills are much, much better than that, but it's tough to rely on spring as a pure indicator of success, and there's significant downside to Teheran. At the same token, there's significant upside with his really good pedigree, and his good minor-league numbers prior to 2012. Anyone making a prediction on Teheran is throwing darts, but if you made me, I would say 160 innings of an ERA around 4.20 and a K/9 between 7.00 and 7.50. As a wild card, Brandon Beachy is set to return to action (scheduled, at least) mid-summer, and people seem to have forgotten just how good he was pre-injury. Beachy's ERA was 2.00 in 13 starts in 2012 (3.49 FIP, but still), and he's got a career K/9 of 9.54 in the major leagues. You never want to assume health/command/stuff after TJ surgery, but he's certainly a factor down the line.

Projected - Craig Kimbrel (closer), Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, Jordan Walden, Cristhian Martinez, Luis Avilan, Cory Gearrin/Anthony Varvaro

Craig Kimbrel just completed the greatest season by a closer in baseball history. Don't believe me? Check out these final 2012 numbers. 1.01 ERA, 0.78 FIP, 0.88 xFIP, 116 strikeouts in 62.2 innings (for a K/9 of 16.66!!!), 42 saves in 45 chances, and a 3.6 WAR from a closer. That's insanity. There's probably a slight regression coming because, well, there just has to be, but he's never had a FIP higher than 1.53 in 3 seasons, so there's reason to assume that the video game numbers will continue. The primary set-up role will be filled in some fashion by Venters, O'Flaherty, and newcomer Jordan Walden. O'Flaherty actually outperformed Venters last year, but his stuff isn't quite as electric, and I'd project Venters for the best overall season of the three (something like a 11.00 K/9 with an ERA in the low-2.00's). Walden is a wild card of sorts, and he came over from the Angels in the trade for Tommy Hanson. He sports a career K-rate of nearly 11 per 9, a career ERA of 3.10 and a career FIP of 2.80 so he's an uber-talented guy, but he fell out of favor in LA after blowing 10 saves in 2011. I don't care (at all) about that, and if he's healthy, he's a dominant right-handed arm. After that, I absolutely love Cristhian Martinez, and he's the long reliever of record. As a multi-inning reliever, he's got a career ERA in the mid-3.00's, and he bumped his K/9 up to 7.94 last year. Not many teams have a valuable guy like that in a swing role, and he is extremely valuable. Fredi Gonzalez and company round out the bullpen with a LOOGY in Luis Avilan and a ROOGY in Cory Gearrin, and each guy should do his job effectively. One thing to watch is Fredi's insistence on using Gearrin against lefties at times,  and he's an absolute grease fire (opposing LH have a 1.077 OPS against him in his career. Yes, over a thousand) against them.


This is the most talented Atlanta Braves roster in years, and I'm obviously high on the Braves as my #3 team in Major League Baseball. There are certainly some spots to be skeptical of (top-end starting pitching, 3rd base), but Atlanta possesses the best outfield and the best bullpen in all of baseball, and when you combine that with an above-average rotation, things are very, very interesting. Unfortunately for Braves fans (myself included), the Nationals are a bit of a juggernaut, and with this projection, I have Atlanta participating in the Wild Card play-in game for the second straight season. We'll deal with that when it comes, but for now, this could be a special Braves team.


96-66, 2nd in NL East

1 comment:

Taylor Douglas said...

I agree with wanting Pastornicky over Pena. I'd rather have offense over defense on the bench for the guy that is backing up the best defensive SS in MLB. Uggla won't sit much (if at all), so I'd just rather have that bench spot be a guy that can PH now and then and play some SS if absolutely necessary. If there was a multiple game stretch where Simmons would be out then you call up the defense guy.

Also agree Schafer has no place on this roster. We really don't need to carry 5 OF's at all given the 4 we have on the roster in front of him can all play all 3 OF positions. Just useless. I actually think when McCann comes back we trade/release Schafer and keep Gattis up. Gattis becomes the big right handed bench bat who can play LF or C in a pinch.

I too was high on Venters, but now it looks like there is a decent chance he's headed for TJ. Maybe I'm just a pessimist but when I hear the words "strained elbow" it seems like it is always followed by a trip to Dr. James Andrews which inevitably leads to going under the knife. Sigh.

I'm expecting the rotation to be very solid 1-5, but without any big, big season from a starter. Medlen should regress a ton, and Minor is still young enough that you'd expect some ups and downs. I'm expecting to get absolutely nothing from Beachy this season aside from a few spot starts down the stretch on the weeks that we don't have off-days. I hate to say that, but the Braves were super cautious with Medlen when he had TJ around the same time of the season in 2010. Remember we only got 2.1 innings out of Medlen in 2011. Even if he's back "on time", he'll most certainly have an innings limit and will likely be shut down during the playoffs.

Great write-up all around. Very excited for this upcoming season.

Go Braves!