Atlanta will need big production from the likes of Freddie Freeman to make up for a rash of injuries.
by Christopher Wenrich
Since the 1990s, the Atlanta Braves have always fielded a competitive team and shown the ability to overcome adversity. But with the rash of injuries already taking a toll on the squad, the adversity may prove to be too much. Pitchers Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen are out for the year and will be undergoing Tommy John surgery (Beachy’s second in three years). Tim Hudson – formerly of the Braves – signed with the San Francisco Giants. Pitchers Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd are also injured and may not be back until late April or early May.
Jason Heyward should lead off for the Braves, as he is the only hitter they have – aside from Freddie Freeman – who can get on base consistently. B.J. Upton is not qualified for the role, as he registered a sub-.300 on-base percentage in back-to-back seasons. In 2013, Upton hit a paltry .184 and struck out 151 times in only 391 at-bats. Justin Upton (161 strikeouts in 558 at-bats) and Dan Uggla (171 strikeouts in 448 at-bats) round out the Braves’ swing-and-miss brigade. The threesome provide the Braves with plenty of potential for home runs; however, they swing more violently than a screen door in a tornado. Their penchant for strikeouts render their offense inconsistent and unpredictable.
Freeman will provide consistency and all-star numbers. Chris Johnson is a steady contact hitter. Although it is unlikely that Johnson will repeat last season’s breakout .321 average, it would not be entirely surprising (.289 career average). Outside of Heyward, Freeman and Johnson, there is little consistency in the lineup. Andrelton Simmons is perhaps the best defensive shortstop in baseball, but he is not a spectacular hitter. Simmons does have the potential to grow as a hitter and has decent pop in his bat. Hitting 15-20 home runs is not out of the question for Simmons, and his average may improve as he gains more experience.
Catcher Evan Gattis is another feast-or-famine hitter in the Braves lineup. Should Gattis struggle mightily or suffer injuries, Ryan Doumit could replace him in the lineup. Doumit was a shrewd signing for the Braves, as he can catch, play first base and the outfield.
With Beachy and Medlen out for the year, Julio Teheran gets the nod for opening day. Teheran struggled in his few Major League starts in 2011 and 2012, but he followed with a strong 2013 season and has secured his spot in the Majors. Teheran posted a 3.20 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 30 starts last season. The youngster has tremendous potential and will continue to grow as a pitcher. In the wake of the Beachy/Medlen injuries, the Braves signed Ervin Santana to provide some semblance of stability in their rotation. Santana has displayed bouts of both brilliance and ineptitude in his inconsistent career.
Alex Wood – the Braves’ second-round draft choice in 2012 – will start the season in the rotation. Wood has looked impressive this spring, as he currently sports a 0.45 ERA. Wood may be moved to the bullpen when/if Floyd and Minor return. If Wood continues to impress during the regular season, the Braves may opt to keep him in the rotation and could move Floyd to the bullpen. The Braves recently released Freddy Garcia and signed veteran Aaron Harang.
Craig Kimbrel – widely regarded as the best closer in baseball – will again serve as closer. Jordan Walden will likely serve as the setup man. The Braves had perhaps the best bullpen in baseball for years, but it looks like it may be a shadow of its former self now. Jonny Venters will start the season on the disabled list and may be out until late May or early June. Eric O’Flaherty is now with the Oakland Athletics. An inconsistent lineup combined with a lack of proven depth in the bullpen may add up to many losses for the Braves this year. The injuries to the starting pitchers may also lead to the bullpen being overworked.
Despite the injuries, the Braves will not be lacking catchers. Doumit can catch, play first base and the outfield and Gerald Laird will serve as a backup catcher. Ramiro Pena will back up Uggla at second base and may steal the job if Uggla has another challenging season. Tyler Pastornicky – who tore his ACL last August – will back up Simmons at shortstop. Mat Gamel provides a power bat on the bench and can play first base and the outfield. Gamel was once a top prospect in the Milwaukee Brewers’ organization, but he struggled with injuries and was an underachiever.
Outfielder Jordan Schafer will likely start the season on the bench. If B.J. Upton underperforms, he may lose his starting job to Schafer, who hit .247 last season but registered a respectable .331 on-base percentage. Despite appearing in only 94 games and 234 at-bats as a part-time player last season, Schafer led the Braves with 22 stolen bases and was caught six times.
The Braves could finish second in the National League East if their offense shows more consistency and if they get another Herculean effort from Freeman, but a fourth place finish is more likely. When top relief pitchers like Venters go down with an injury, O’Flaherty signs with another team, and Gamel is a key acquisition, all signs point to a troubled season. Look for the Braves to be surpassed by the New York Mets this season and battle with the Philadelphia Phillies for third place.
Christopher Wenrich is a contributor for Designated For Assignment. Follow him on Twitter (@DuggerSports).