30 Clubs in 30 Days: Atlanta Braves

Posted: March 6, 2013 in Uncategorized

AtlantaBraves_UNS1a_2012_SCC_SRGB

The sour taste must still reside in the mouths of Atlanta Braves fans after their umpire-aided defeat at the hands of St. Louis in the National League Wild Card playoff, last October. For the third consecutive season, Atlanta had won 89+ games and for the second time in three years, the “team of the 90’s” was playoff bound. So, how did Atlanta get to that point?

The Braves, managed by former Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez, were able to overcome holes at the middle-infield positions, as well a career-worst season by All-Star C Brian McCann (.230-20-67) to capture one of the Wild Cards thanks to a stellar bullpen and the emergence of young impact performers 1B Freddie Freeman (.259-23-94)RF Jason Heyward (.269-27-82), and RHP Kris Medlen (10-1, 1.57). Without these three, it is unlikely the Braves would have even been a .500 ballclub, let alone a playoff participant.

On offense, Atlanta saw their retiring future Hall-of-Famer 3B Chipper Jones (.287-14-62) lead the team in sabermetric statistics with a .377 OBP and .832 OPS. Outside of Freeman and Jones, however, the infield was a bane to their success. 2B Dan Uggla (.220-19-78) reverted back to his free-swinging ways. Meanwhile, a revolving door of mediocrity at shortstop ultimately culminated in 22-year old Andrelton Simmons (.289-3-19) winning the job following the failures of Paul Janish (.186-0-9) and Tyler Pastornicky (.243-2-13).

The rotation relief heavily on the growth of youngsters LHP Mike Minor (11-10, 4.12), RHP Randall Delgado (4-9, 4.37), and RHP Brandon Beachy (5-5, 2.00). The latter as brilliant until Tommy John surgery ended his season prematurely. This allowed Medlen to step into the rotation and not look back. Delgado, once among the trio of top pitching prospects in Atlanta’s organization, along with Julio Teheran and Arodys Vizcaino, was traded to Arizona this offseason in the Justin Upton mega-deal. Minor, is the biggest key of all, as he will have to step up and serve as a #2 type starter with the departure of RHP Tommy Hanson (13-10, 4.48) to Anaheim.

The strength of Atlanta remains its bullpen. RHP Craig Kimbrel (3-1, 1.01, 42 SV) has grown into one of the finest closers in recent memory at just 24-years old. His supporting cast, LHP Jonny Venters (5-4, 3.22), LHP Erik O’Flaherty (3-0, 1.73), and RHP Cristhian Martinez (5-4, 3.91), saw help on the way this winter, as former Angel’s closer RHP Jordan Walden (3-2, 3.46), a 2011 All-Star, joins the cast after coming over in the Hanson deal.

The Braves, who added both Upton brothers to replace CF Michael Bourn (.274-9-57) and LF Martin Prado (.301-10-70), have the offensive talent to succeed. But, will their starting rotation, many of whom rode career years in 2012, continue to grow? Or will they be drowned out by the impressive pitching staffs in Washington and Philadelphia?

Five Year Review:
2012: 94-68
Lost WC playoff to Cardinals, 6-3
2011: 89-73
2010: 91-71
Lost NLDS to Giants, 3-1
2009: 86-76
2008: 72-90

2012 Team MVP: RHP Kris Medlen: No Brave came out of nowhere quite like Medlen. The 26-year old had started 18 games from 2009-10, going 9-7, 3.90 in 68 games over that span. Severe injuries cut 2010 short and cost Medlen almost the entire 2011 season. Upon returning, the Santa Ana College alum played just three games at AAA-Gwinnett prior to his promotion to Atlanta. From the very start, Medlen proved he was a force to be reckoned with. Beginning the season in the bullpen, Medlen pitched 38 games before even getting his first start of the season upon news of Beachy’s season ending injury. His numbers from April to July 25th, the last appearance before his move into the rotation: 1-1, 2.48 (54.1 IP, 46 H, 15 R, 15 ER, 13 BB, 36 K). On July 31st, Medlen made his first start of the season, a 7-1 victory over the lowly Marlins. From that point on, Medlen was unblemished, finishing the season 9-0, 0.97 as a starter with 84 K in 83.2 innings. Talk about picking up your team when they needed it.

2012 Team LVP: RHP Jair Jurrjens: Injuries may have had something to do with his woes. But, Jair Jurrjens narrowly beat out Brian McCann and Dan Uggla to earn this award. The 2011 All-Star was penciled in as one of Atlanta’s strengths heading into the season. His record the previous four seasons with the Braves: 47-32, 3.34 included a third place finish in 2008 Rookie of the Year voting. But, all good things must come to an end, and 2012 was Jurrjens’ swan-song season in Atlanta. It started out poorly for the right-hander, who made it past the fourth inning just once in his first four starts. With an 0-2, 9.37 mark in April, Jurrjens was sent down to Gwinnett for some added seasoning. After a rather mediocre stint in AAA, the 27-year old was recalled for another shot at the big leagues. His June 22nd victory over Boston (7 IP, ER) was by far his best start of the season. He had a few more strong performances before the wheels fell off in July vs. San Francisco (3.1, 8 ER) and at Washington (2.1, 6 ER). Jurrjens landed on the DL not long after and was DFA’d this offseason, eventually signing as a free agent with the Baltimore Orioles. 

Key Acquisitions:

C Gerald Laird (Detroit Tigers)
3B Chris Johnson (Arizona Diamondbacks)
OF BJ Upton (Tampa Bay Rays)
OF Justin Upton (Arizona Diamondbacks)
OF Jordan Schafer (Houston Astros)
RHP Jordan Walden (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim)

Key Departures:

C David Ross (Boston Red Sox)
1B Lyle Overbay (Boston Red Sox)
2B Jeff Baker (Texas Rangers)
3B Chipper Jones (retirement)
OF Michael Bourn (Cleveland Indians)
OF/2B Martin Prado (Arizona Diamondbacks)
OF Eric Hinske (Arizona Diamondbacks)
OF Matt Diaz (New York Yankees)
RHP Randall Delgado (Arizona Diamondbacks)
RHP Tommy Hanson (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim)
RHP Chad Durbin (Philadelphia Phillies)
RHP Jair Jurrjens (Baltimore Orioles)
RHP Ben Sheets (retirement)

Projected Lineup/Rotation (w/composite 2013 projections):

SS Andrelton Simmons – .275-7-53-14 SB
OF Jason Heyward – .266-25-78-16 SB
OF Justin Upton – .274-23-83-17 SB
1B Freddie Freeman – .274-24-90
OF BJ Upton – .250-22-76-32 SB
2B Dan Uggla – .240-22-72
C Brian McCann – .258-17-56
3B Juan Francisco – .252-14-47

RHP Tim Hudson – 12-9, 3.64
RHP Kris Medlen – 13-7, 3.24
LHP Mike Minor – 10-10, 3.98
LHP Paul Maholm – 11-10, 4.04
RHP Julio Teheran – 8-9, 4.53

RHP Craig Kimbrel – 4-2, 1.77, 36 SV
LHP Jonny Venters – 4-2, 3.09, 3 SV

2013 Outlook:

The Braves’ key departures list looks a lot like a who’s who of once highly touted prospects gone awry. Gone is Tommy Hanson, a hurler who was supposed to be Atlanta’s new John Smoltz. Of the trio of Vizcaino, Delgado, and Teheran, only the latter remains. Atlanta, who was left without a CF or a 3B following the departures of Bourn and Chipper Jones, decided to solve all their needs through the Upton brothers. By acquiring former Astros 3B Chris Johnson in the Upton deal, they gave themselves a MLB average platoon at the hot corner with former Red Juan Francisco. Unfortunately for Atlanta, it is unlikely that C Brian McCann will begin the season on the active roster after undergoing shoulder surgery this offseason. It is a huge campaign for the former All-Star, who will be a free agent at season’s end.

The pitching staff will be the key. Can Medlen reproduce the spectacular numbers from a year ago? Will age begin to catch up to Tim Hudson? The Braves’ depth at the position has been severely weakened over the past 24 months, as trades have seen their formerly strong farm system left weakened at the upper levels. The bullpen will be fantastic. But, will a rotation devoid of Hanson, Beachy (out until at least June), Jurrjens, Vizcaino, and Delgado prove too inconsistent to succeed?

Atlanta will once again be a strong contender for a playoff spot. Their offense and bullpen almost guarantees that. But, third place seems a lot more likely than first place for the Braves, who sacrificed their starting pitching depth to further augment their lineup and bullpen this winter. I have the Braves winning between 84-90 games and contending for one of the two Wild Card spots in the National League.

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