NL East

MLB Preview: Injuries Could Haunt 2014 Braves

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Atlanta will need big production from the likes of Freddie Freeman to make up for a rash of injuries.

by Christopher Wenrich

Key acquisitions:  Ryan Doumit, Gavin Floyd, Mat Gamel

Key losses:  Tim Hudson, Brian McCann, Paul Maholm, Luis Ayala, Eric O’Flaherty

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.

THE LINEUP
C:  Evan Gattis
1B:  Freddie Freeman
2B:  Dan Uggla
3B:  Chris Johnson
SS:  Andrelton Simmons
LF:  Justin Upton
CF:  B.J. Upton
RF:  Jason Heyward

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.

THE ROTATION
Julio Teheran
Ervin Santana
Alex Wood
David Hale
Aaron Harang

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.

THE BULLPEN
Craig Kimbrel
Jordan Walden
Luis Avalan
David Carpenter
Anthony Varvaro
Cory Gearrin

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.

THE BENCH

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).

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MLB Preview: Marlins Fishing for Wins In ’14

The Marlins must prove they are committed to winning in order to strike a long-term deal with Giancarlo Stanton            The Marlins must prove they are committed to winning to keep star Giancarlo Stanton.

by Christopher Wenrich

Key Acquisitions:  Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Rafael Furcal, Garrett Jones, Casey McGehee, Carter Capps, Jeff Baker, Reed Johnson

Key Losses:  Logan Morrison, Justin Ruggiano, Placido Polanco, Juan Pierre, Ryan Webb, Chad Qualls

The Miami Marlins are a team in turmoil whose performance on the field, good or bad, is super-ceded by their reputation for hosting fire sales.  Since their inaugural 1993 season, the Marlins have had two post-season berths and won the World Series both times (1997 and 2003).  After each World Series title, the team was dismantled, first by owner Wayne Huizenga, and then by owner Jeffrey Loria.  The Marlins made dubious headlines again prior to the 2013 season when they traded away the likes of pitcher Josh Johnson and shortstop Jose Reyes.  The end result was a disastrous 62-100 record and animosity from fans whose money helped Loria build a new ballpark.

Despite the laughable record, the Marlins were not without their bright spots.  Rookie Jose Fernandez made the leap from Single-A to the majors as a 21-year old and pitched like a true ace (12-6, 2.19 ERA and 187 K in 172.2 IP).  Fans have high expectations for their 2013 Rookie of the Year award winner and the Marlins need him to deliver results.

THE LINEUP
C:  Jarrod Saltalamacchia
1B:  Garret Jones/Jeff Baker
2B:  Rafael Furcal
3B:  Casey McGehee
SS:  Adeiny Hechavarria
LF:  Christian Yelich
CF:  Marcell Ozuna
RF:  Giancarlo Stanton

The Marlins scored an MLB-worst 513 runs in 2013, after being near the bottom of the pack the prior two years. Their offense will go as far as Giancarlo Stanton can carry it.  Stanton showed tremendous potential in 2012 when he produced 37 home runs and a .969 OPS, but injuries have played a significant part in his young career.  After playing 150 games in 2011, Stanton appeared in 123 in 2012 and 116 last year (He still managed to hit 24 home runs and compiled an .845 OPS).

If Stanton stays healthy enough to approach 155 or more games played, a 40-plus home run season would not be out of the question.  Although he does not boast a high batting average (.265 career), his .354 on-base percentage is respectable and will bat in an RBI spot.

Stanton isn’t arbitration-eligible until 2015 and won’t reach free agency until 2017, so the Marlins are paying him a mere $6.5 million this season.  If the front office was to approach Stanton about a long-term deal, they must show him a commitment to winning or else Stanton will likely leave in 2017.  Of course, based on their history, Loria could deal Stanton well before free agency.

Helping to set the table for Stanton this season will be veteran infielder Rafael Furcal.  During his prime years with the Atlanta Braves (2000-2005), Furcal had a spectacular throwing arm, great speed and swung a respectable bat.  If he’s healthy with Miami, Furcal will be the everyday second baseman after years at shortstop.

The 13-year veteran missed the entire 2013 season with an elbow injury, but he was productive with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012 (.264 AVG and .325 OBP in 121 games).  As of this writing, Furcal has been sidelined by a hamstring injury but is expected to be ready for opening day.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia was the Marlins’ big free agent signing this off-season.  The catcher has untapped potential as a home run threat (he’s topped 20 HR just once in his career), and should help the Marlins score more runs.  “Salty” caught 119 games last year for the Boston Red Sox and will see a heavy workload for the Marlins.  Given enough playing time and at-bats, he should approach 30 home runs in 2014.

Manager Mike Redmond hopes that left fielder Christian Yelich can be a breakout star in 2014.  Yelich’s lack of power (four home runs in 240 at-bats) as a rookie in 2013 may have disappointed some fans and scouts, but the 22-year old is still developing that part of his game.  More importantly, he recorded a .370 on-base percentage and stole 10 bases in 10 attempts.  Yelich’s ability to reach base safely is vital to help set up RBI opportunities for Stanton and Saltalamacchia.

The Marlins also picked up veteran infielders Garrett Jones (first base) and Casey McGehee (third base) to add some pop to the lineup.

THE ROTATION
Jose Fernandez
Jacob Turner
Nate Eovaldi
Henderson Alvarez
Tom Koehler

Joining Fernandez in the rotation are Jacob Turner, Nate Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez.  The three are promising youngsters who should keep the Marlins competitive in their games.  Eovaldi is a hard-thrower who induces ground balls, and has the tools to be an All-Star.  He must become more consistent with his performance though, and gain better command of his pitches.

THE BULLPEN
Steve Cishek
Mike Dunn
A.J. Ramos
Carter Capps
Carlos Marmol
Dan Jennings
Arquimedes Caminero

Steve Cishek (34 saves, 2.33 ERA last year) will be the closer for Miami while Mike Dunn sets up.  Through 192.1 career innings, Cishek sports a 2.48 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and limited opposing hitters to a .217 batting average.  Cishek is eligible for arbitration after this season, so the Marlins may trade him at, or before, the deadline.

Carlos Marmol was a smart free agent signing for the Marlins.  While Marmol has struggled with his control the past few years, he does have tremendous upside as a strikeout pitcher (730 career strikeouts in 563.2 innings).  The Marlins were a last-place team before they signed Marmol and will likely be a last-place team again, so they have nothing to lose by giving Marmol a shot.

THE BENCH

Jeff Mathis will likely be the backup catcher.  Jeff Baker will serve as a utility infielder who can also play the corner outfield spots.  Greg Dobbs can play the infield corners and serve as a power bat on the bench.  Solano should have a spot and may be Furcal’s replacement in the event of an injury.  The final bench spot will likely go to outfielder Brian Bogusevic, second baseman Derek Dietrich or third baseman Ed Lucas.

The Marlins have more pop in their lineup this year and should score more runs.  Their pitching rotation shows promise and so does the bullpen, but they will struggle to win games.  Look for the Marlins to make a minor improvement in winning percentage and to again finish last in the NL East.

Christopher Wenrich is a contributor for Designated For Assignment.  Follow him on Twitter (@DuggerSports).

MLB Preview: Phils Full of Questions

Injury concerns surrounding Cole Hamels cast more doubt on the Phillies’ 2014 playoff hopes.

by Christopher Wenrich

Key Acquisitions:  Marlon Byrd, Bobby Abreu, Chad Gaudin, Barry Enright, Reid Brignac, Brad Lincoln, Ronny Cedeno

Key Losses: Roy Halladay, John Lannan

After a string of five consecutive division titles and two World Series appearances (one won and one lost), the Philadelphia Phillies toiled in mediocrity and missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons.  Prized ace – and possible future Hall-of-Famer – Roy Halladay struggled with injuries in back-to-back seasons and announced his retirement not long ago.  Longtime stars Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins have aged and struggled with injuries.  While the Phillies aim to establish themselves among baseball’s elite again, their window of opportunity may have closed.

During the Phillies’ five-year run of division titles, they averaged 799 runs scored and 675 runs against them.  In the past two seasons, the Phillies have averaged 647 runs scored and 714 runs against them.  The core of their once-mighty offense (Rollins-Utley-Howard) are past their prime.  Utley is still a very productive hitter; however, he cannot be counted on to play nearly 162 games.  Utley’s 131 games in 2013 was the first time he appeared in more than 115 games since 2009 (156 games).  Howard is an all-or-nothing hitter who would club 40 home runs and strike out around 200 times.  Howard struggled with injuries and a very sharp decline in productivity the past few seasons.  Rollins has not been hit by the woeful injury bug that Howard and Utley had over the years, but he has declined significantly as a hitter.

The Phillies’ top prospects – Maikel Franco and Jesse Biddle – will most likely start the 2014 season in the minors and possibly not see MLB action this year.  The Phillies made a questionable signing in right fielder Marlon Byrd.  Regardless of whether or not Byrd has a productive season with the Phillies, the signing appears senseless because it takes at-bats away from Darin Ruf.

Ruf is a power-hitting right-handed batter who has shown an ability to get on base at a consistent clip in his short time in the majors.  If Ruf were to get regular at-bats over the course of a full season, he could conceivably hit 30 home runs and have a respectable on-base percentage.  Ruf could be a slightly better version of Mark Trumbo.  With Howard still under contract and starting at first base, and Byrd expected to start in right field, Ruf’s value to the team is greatly hindered.  Ruf may lose even more at-bats if veteran Bobby Abreu receives some starts in right field.  Limiting Ruf to a platoon role with Howard at first base severely dampens the potential of the Phillies’ offense.

Once again, the Phillies are a lefty bat-heavy team.  Right fielder Byrd and catcher Carlos Ruiz may be the only right-handed bats in the starting lineup on a regular basis.  The six left-handed bats will likely be Howard, Utley, Cody Asche, a switch-hitting Jimmy Rollins, Ben Revere and Domonic Brown.  The Phillies will have right-handed bats on the bench in Ruf and John Mayberry Jr.  Kevin Frandsen – another right-handed bat – could conceivably be released this spring.

LINEUP
C:  Carlos Ruiz
1B:  Ryan Howard
2B:  Chase Utley
3B:  Cody Asche
SS:  Jimmy Rollins
LF:  Domonic Brown
CF:  Ben Revere
RF:  Marlon Byrd

The opening day batting order at this point is pure speculation.  Because the Phillies will not want to bat four or five consecutive left-handed batters, Rollins or Revere will likely bat in the bottom third of the order.  The Phillies would be best-served by having Revere lead off the order and Rollins moved down in the order.  Revere has tremendous speed and is a respectable hitter.  Revere got off to a slow start in 2013, but eventually rounded into form and became one of the hottest hitters in baseball before suffering an injury.  Although it would be more prudent to bat Rollins in the bottom third, it would not be surprising to see him leading off the top of the lineup (his longtime role with the club).

ROTATION
SP:  Cliff Lee
SP:  Cole Hamels
SP:  A.J. Burnett
SP:  Kyle Kendrick
SP:  Roberto Hernandez (formerly known as Fausto Carmona)

The Phillies have an excellent front end of the rotation with Lee, Hamels and Burnett; however, the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation leave a lot to be desired.  Hernandez signed a one-year deal worth $4.50 million (another questionable signing).  Due to Hernandez’s salary, the Phillies likely will start Jonathan Pettibone in the minors while assuring Hernandez a roster spot.  Hernandez struggled with command throughout his career and leaves too many hittable pitches up in the zone.

Kendrick is a solid pitcher for the back end of the rotation, but is highly unlikely to show significant improvement.  At his best, Kendrick induces ground balls and puts together a stretch of games where he looks like an ace; however, his overall body of work is never impressive over the course of a season.  Kendrick has improved tremendously against left-handed bats over the years (.298 OBP against in 2013); however, he is more hittable to right-handed bats each year.  Right-handed batters posted the following OBP against Kendrick:  .329 in 2010, .298 in 2011, .312 in 2012, and a whopping .358 in 2013.

Adding to the uncertainty of Kendrick/Hernandez, Hamels may be unavailable at the start of the season.  For now, Hamels is shut down from throwing for at least a week.  It is believed that there is no structural damage in Hamels’ shoulder, but Hamels is reportedly fatigued.  Bad news surrounding the front end of the pitching rotation puts a damper on the club’s playoff hopes.  Should Hamels be unavailable, the Phillies will probably use Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez in his place.  Gonzalez reportedly had elbow issues after signing with the Phillies in 2012 and he has struggled with his command in spring training and failed to impress thus far.

BULLPEN
Jonathan Papelbon
Antonio Bastardo
Jake Diekman
Jeremy Horst
Brad Lincoln
Phillippe Aumont

An inept bullpen has greatly plagued the Phillies over the past few years and cost them many would-be victories, however, the bullpen shows promise for 2014.  Jonathan Papelbon will be back as the closer.  Left-handed pitchers Antonio Bastardo and Jake Diekman will also be assured  roster spots.  Veteran Mike Adams will likely begin the season on the disabled list before joining the pen as a righty set-up man.  The Phillies will likely carry six relief pitchers rather than seven in order to create a bench spot for Abreu.  B.J. Rosenberg, Michael Stutes and Justin De Fratus are also vying for spots in the bullpen.  Stutes once showed plenty of promise, but has been nothing short of unproductive since his injury.  With Ethan Martin now injured, his chances of making the team are also slim.

BENCH

Wil Nieves will serve as the second catcher.  Ruf (1B/OF) will be assured of a bench spot.  Mayberry will mostly likely be on the bench.  If the Phillies carry six relief pitchers, three spots remain.  Those last spots will likely go to Abreu (a disciplined hitter who draws walks), Freddy Galvis (2B/3B/SS/OF) and Cesar Hernandez.  Galvis is perhaps the best defensive player in the organization, and should be the starting shortstop; however, Rollins’ refusal to waive his no-trade clause prevents such a move from happening.  Galvis is not a spectacular hitter, but has the potential to improve and has respectable power to the gaps.  Hernandez is young but has potential and could be the everyday replacement for Utley if he were to suffer an injury.

2014 Outlook

The Phillies could sneak into the playoffs and surprise the world in 2014; however, that would be highly unexpected.  The Phillies are a team full of uncertainty and need a large number of what-ifs to work correctly for them.  The Phillies’ 2014 playoff fate rests on the shoulders of their top three pitchers, Revere, and an aging cast of hitters.  Revere could be a tremendous bright spot in the Phillies’ lineup this season, with the potential to approach 200 hits and steal many bases; unfortunately, the Phillies’ other potential bright spots (Ruf, Galvis and Hernandez) are reduced to backup roles.  The injury scare around Hamels at this time does nothing to ease the concerns of Phillies fans.  The over/under for victories by the Phillies in 2014 should be around 80 games.

Christopher Wenrich is a contributor for Designated For Assignment.  Follow him on Twitter (@DuggerSports).