Wednesday, January 21, 2015

2015: Overlooked Optimism and Future Potential

When Frank Wren was fired as GM for the Atlanta Braves and his duties were filled by John Hart, there was certainly reason to believe change was coming across the Braves organization. That change has translated to a complete overhaul of the team, rebuilding a depleted  farm system in the process. John Hart traded away three out of four of the most prominent power threats in the lineup in Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis. In return, for this mass amount of talent, the Braves  received one major league ready player in Shelby Miller.  The initial reaction from Braves fans when they see this is probably: what is this guy thinking? How are we going to score runs with an offense that was 29th in the league during 2014 and now has no power threat? The second question is reasonable and something I often ponder on.  I believe every decision John Hart has made since coming on has been for the best of this organization. With the moves that have been made in the off season by the Braves front office, I believe the Braves are still going to be able to remain competitive in 2015 and are built soundly for a strong long term future.


When the Braves take the Braves take the field on Monday April 6, 2015 for their opener against the Marlins, the team dynamic will have a different feel. It's first important to understand why the Braves made the significant trades they did over the last few months:

View 1, The Average Fan:

 Gone is your two time gold glove awarded right fielder, maybe the best outfielder in the game who has raw power, speed and ability to hit for average. Gone is your left fielder who hit 29 home runs and drove in 102 runs and is still in his mid 20's and could be considered easily one of the top young outfielders in the game. Gone is one of the best stories in baseball. The man known as the white bear with raw power and no batting gloves. Heyward and Gattis were certainly the hardest to see go from the Braves. Both were brought up from in the Braves minor league system and fan favorites; they will be missed.

The 'White  Bear' became a well known story across baseball and one of the biggest sales for the Braves over the past two years has been Gattis shirts and white bear hats. I would imagine these are discounted on price right now in the Braves store.

View 2, The Educated Fan:

With Jason Heyward's and Justin Upton's contract expiring at the end of 2015, there was little reason to believe John Hart would be able to structure a long term deal with either player at the end of the season.  Heyward will probably command a deal in the upwards of ~$50M and Upton's deal will in all likelihood gross the $100M mark. Both players are still in their 20's and have large upside potential. Unfortunately the Braves are not the same organization they were under the ownership of Ted Turner where they had the ability to spend as they wanted. They are now under a middle of the market salary cap through the ownership of the Liberty Media.

Jason Heyward burst onto the scene in dramatic fashion his rookie year, There after he was plagued by on and off injuries and never seemed to reach his ultimate potential. Will the change of scenery in St. Louis enable Heyward to become the player we all thought he could be?

By dealing Upton and Heyward, this freed up a large chunk of 2015 payroll. It brought in a front line young starting pitcher in Shelby Miller (Miller is under control for four more years before becoming a free agent), and most importantly provided an influx of much needed talent into the minor league system.

With most of the major off-season deals completed for the Braves (at least one would think) Let's take a look at the current breakdown of the Braves roster on a position by position basis:

Second Base

In 2014, the Braves were among the worst in baseball in all major statistical categories at second base. The season began with Dan Uggla, some apparently in the Braves organization thought Ugglas would turn it around. This of course was not the case. About a month into the season Uggla's average had dipped to around .150 and the Braves finally pulled the position out of his hands. Ramiro Pena played the position some but proved he is not a full time player. Rookie Tommy La Stella then burst onto the scene and provided some much needed consistency, hitting for average and playing solid defense. Once LaStella cooled off into the summer months, Phil Gosellin came up from AAA and the two pretty much platooned for the rest of the season.

One of the first offseason moves Hart made was trading La Stella to the Cubs. Additionally, he brought in free agent Alberto Callaspo. The 31 year old hit a career low .223 last year and has battled weight issues in the past. He will compete with Gossellin in Spring Training for the starting second base position. If anything, Callaspo carriers a lower strikeout rate than Gossellin, which the strikeout pron Braves desperately need. Ultimately, this was a inexpensive sign for the Braves and whoever ends up winning the starting job will be filling the spot until highly touted prospect Jose Peraza is ready to take over.

 I believe Jose Peraza is a key center piece for the future of this organization. Peraza, the Braves Minor League Organization Player of the year in 2014, is a 20 year old Venezuelan speedster who has so far shown the ability to hit at all levels he has played. He started 2014 in class A ball where he hit .342 with 22 extra base hits. A June call up to AA saw him continue to thrive hitting .335. Between A and AA, He stole 60 bases, including home base twice. Upon arrival, there is no doubt that he will be the leadoff hitter for many years to come. He will be Atlanta's first true leadoff hitter since Furcal's final season in Atlanta in 2005.

Jose Peraza will bring a speed dynamic to the Braves offense that they have not had in many years.
He will receive a lot of playing time in spring training and will have the chance to show his make up to the Braves coaching staff, front office and fans.   I am really excited about this kid and can't wait to he gets the call, which will no doubt be at some point in 2015. When he is called up, you should see a similar buzz around town that you saw when Heyward was called up. He is the real deal; mark my words.

Summary: If Callapso/Gosselin combination does not prove effective, watch for Mr. Peraza to take the baseball world by storm before the all star break.

Pre Season Position Grade: C-

Short Stop

If Andrelton Simmons defensive skill set was a match to his offensive skill set, he would be the best player in baseball. In his first two years in the league, Simmons has become the best defensive player at his position and one of the best overall in the game. He put in another highlight real season in 2014 winning his second consecutive gold glove. The real question for Simmons comes at the plate.

One of Simmons finer plays of 2014. I am not sure if anyone else in baseball makes this play.

Simmons first full year in the majors in 2013, he put up a respectable slash line .248/17/59. However those numbers overshadow the offensive flaws in his game. Simmons has a big, wide open swing and is probably one of the more aggressive hitters in baseball. He rarely walks or strikes out. Simmons big upper cut swing leads to a lot of ground balls and pop ups. These flaws saw his stat line fall to .244/7/46 during 2014.  Simmons is at his best when he cuts down on his swing and take the ball up the middle and other way. Simmons is a big piece for Atlanta in 2015. If he could get his swing right and hit for a higher average and get on base more consistency, he will be a big boost towards the offense.

Summary: Simmons glove work is as good as it gets; offensive consistency could go along way for an offense that needs all the support it can get.

Position Grade: B-

First Base

Freedie Freeman came into 2014 season having just signed the largest contract in franchise history. Freeman had a huge 2013 putting up a .319/23/109 slash line and finishing fifth in the MVP voting. Those numbers dropped drastically in 2014 .288/18/78. With the departures of Heyward, Upton, and Gattis, Freeman remains the lone power source in the Braves lineup. There is reason to believe he won't receive much to hit and will receive a high number of intentional walks as there is really no protection with all of last years power sources departed. 

Freeman has been, and will remain the Braves most consistent hitter. He plays every day and he hits for power for average. It will be interesting to see if pitchers give him anything to hit at all in 2015 as he is by far the best bat in the Braves lineup.

Summary: Look for Freeman's numbers to build off a down 2014 season; assuming he doesn't break Chipper Jones's franchise record for most intentional walks in a season.

Position Grade: A-

Third Base

Similar to Andrelton Simmons, Chris Johnson had a very disappointing offensive season in 2014.  After finishing second in the batting title race in 2013, Frank Wren inked Johnson to a fairly lucrative two year $23.5M deal. There after, Johnson's numbers declined drastically. His batting average dropped nearly .60 points and his strikeout numbers increased by over 40. Additionally Johnson posses no speed and he grounded into 25 double plays last year.

There's little doubt that Chris Johnson wears his emotions on his sleave. He had several irrate blowups during games in 2014 on and off the field.
Johnson at times wears his emotions too much. There was one game in 2014 where he was pulled for an explosion in the tunnel following an at bat. I would imagine that that some of those Gatorade barrels will never be the same. There was reports that the Braves tried to package Johnson in their trade packages this offseason, but apparently found no takers. This will no doubt be Johnson's last year in Atlanta. I think the position  will be filled long term by Rio Ruiz, the 20 year old who the Braves got in the Evan Gattis Deal.

Summary: An average defender and offensive player is all that you get in Chris Johnson. A good goal for Johnson would be to cut down on his strikeouts and hit for a better average in 2015.

Position Grade: C-


With the departure of Evan Gattis, the catching job in Atlanta has no undoubtedly been handed over to Christian Bethancourt.Bethancourt has for some time been pronounced the catcher of the future. Bethancourt got a little more than a cup of  coffee in 2014 appearing in 31 games and batting .248 He proved he could handle major league pitching and his offensive game will continue to develop with time. He doesn't contain a great deal of power, but he handles the bat well and has above average speed for a catcher.  Bethancourt has long been known for his defensive skill set behind the plate. He calls a good game and his a rocket for a throwing arm. The one knack on Bethancourt is he has been called lazy at times.

AJ Pierzynski was once voted the most hated man in baseball by his colleagues.

The Braves made a great sign in bringing in veteran AJ Pierzynski to backup Bethancourt. Pierzynski is known to have a fiery attitude on the field and to be a fierce competitor. He will be a great mentor for Bethancourt and should be a great fit for helping his development in 2015, Should Bethancourt struggle this year, you know you have a proven veteran player in Pierzynski who could step in and play every day if needed.

Summary: It will be exciting  to watch a full season of Bethancourt as he continues to develop. I wouldn't expect huge numbers, but he will be fun to watch improve offensively and should be a great battery mate for a young rotation.

Position Grade: C+

Right Field

With the Braves trading away Jason Heyward, there was an obvious void to fill in right field. Hart made the decision to sign free agent outfielder Nick Markakis to a 4 year deal. At 31 Markakis is going to be a solid veteran player. While he is no Heyward defensively, he is an above average defender in right and is a career .290 hitter. He's been bothered by a herniated disc in his neck over the last several years which has no doubt been a direct contributor to his declining power and average numbers. Markakis and the Braves made the decision for their newly acquired right fielder to undergo neck surgery several weeks ago; Markakis is supposed to be ready for the start of spring training. Hopefully the surgery proves beneficial and allows Markakis to provide steady offensive output for the 2015 season

Summary:  You know what you are getting in a veteran player like Markakis and he could prove to be a clubhouse leader on a young team.

Position Grade: B-

Center Field

The worst free agent signing in Atlanta Braves history and probably one of the worst in baseball history stands as the Braves starting center fielder in 2015, BJ Upton. I won't even get into the numbers of Upton over his first two years, but they have been historically bad. Because of the money he is being paid, he will start the season as the Braves center fielder. How much the organization can take of his terrible play remains to be seen. Some speculate that new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer will help turn BJ's swing around, but I'd put more probability on me winning the lottery on with a ticket that  I am never going to buy than BJ's swing coming around.

Braves fans are all too familiar with BJ Upton strikeouts and his look of disgust.
Upton posses above average speed, but he lacks the ability to get on base. His defense his been sub par at best. He takes bad routes to balls and often times there is a noticeable lack of effort defensively. Offensively there is no coming back for Upton it would seem. The Braves are stuck with Upton contractually for three more years and I don't believe there is anyway they will be able to trade him. I can just see other GM's laughing on the other end of the line at an attempt to package Upton in a trade deal.

Summary: We count down the days until BJ Upton is no longer the center fielder for the Atlanta Braves.

Position Grade: F

Left Field

After the Heyward and Upton trades, Evan Gattis was presumed to be the starting left fielder for the Atlanta Braves. With Gattis now on his way to Houston the question remains what the Braves will do in left field. The Braves signed 25 year old cuban outfielder Zolio Almonte. Almonte is young with potential, but not a proven every day major league player. The Braves are currently looking to the free agent market to fill this void.  There are not a lot of great options currently on the free agent market and are rumored to be pursuing veteran Johnny Gomes. The position will be battled out in spring training.

Summary: Left field is in all likelihood going to be a platoon situation that could change throughout the course of the season. I think a Gomes/Alominte platoon could be the starting point come opening day

Position Grade: Not Available, but it's not going to be passing with flying colors.


The Braves are looking to build this team around a strong young rotation. Returning starters from last year include Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and Mike Minor. Teheran had a great year in 2014 but like most of Atlanta's rotation received little run support. He finished 14-13 with a strong 2.89 and was selected to his first all star team. Tehran will continue to develop and improve and goes into the season as the Braves number 1 starter and more than likely will start opening day. Alex Wood was shifted around to where ever the Braves needed him for the first half of 2014. He spent time in the rotation, the bullpen and even time in AAA getting stretched out to re-join the rotation. Once he was finally stabilized in the rotation, he became one of the Braves best pitchers. He was electric for periods of time during the last third of the season. Mike Minor looks to rebuild of a down 2014 season in which he had a career high in losses and ERA. He showed promise toward the end of 2014 and will hopefully be able to build off that confidence coming into 2015.

The fourth spot in the rotation will be filled by Shelby Miller.  Miller was acquired earlier this offseason in the Jason Heyward trade and is a very nice addition to the rotation. Miller finished third in the rookie of the year  voting in 2013 and put up a solid sophomore season in 2014. The fifth spot in the rotation is still up in the air. A few days ago the Braves signed veteran lefty Wandy Rodridguez who will battle for the spot in spring training. Another interesting potential fifth starter is Michael Foltynewicz (say that ten times). Foltynewicz came over in the Gattis trade and certainly has the makeup to be a big league starter.  His fastball tops out around 98, his downside is that he struggles with control at time. Having a fifth starter with that kind of velocity is certainly intriguing and could be an interesting story line for 2015.

Summary: The Braves support a young rotation with four very quality arms. If they can stay healthy, I believe they could surprise some people and turn into a top tier rotation in 2015.

Position Grade: B+


Assuming he's not traded, Craig Kimbrel will again anchor the back end of the Braves bullpen. Many wonder why the Braves would keep Kimbrell when they have a team that could have a difficult time scoring runs this season which could prove to give heir elite closer sparse opportunities to close out games. The rest of the Braves bullpen will have a different look and feel in 2015. The Braves traded away Kimbrel's setup support from last year; Jordan Walden and David Carpenter. With their departures, Hart signed former All Star closer Jason Grilli to a two year deal. Grilli struggled with the Pirates in 2014 and was shipped off to the Angles where he pitched better in the second half of the season. Hart also brought in another power arm in former Orioles closer Jim Johnson. Johnson saved 50 games in 2013 but similar to Grilli struggled in 2014. Rebound success for these two pitchers will be crucial to the late inning bullpen success in 2015.

Additionally the Braves got back talented young flame thrower Arodys Vizcaino from the Cubs. Vizcaino could find himself in a crucial role in the bullpen. The Braves biggest offseason signing, not for skill, but from a name standpoint was Josh Outman. Outman is a solid lefty but he carries one of the great last names in baseball; so we got that going for us.

Maybe the best last name in baseball?
Returning starters from last years pen include lefty James Russell, Shae Simmons, Ian Thomas and David Hale. Hales is a valuable asset who will compete for the fifth starters spot or could find himself as the Braves long inning relief man again in 2015.

Summary: The Braves sport a revamped bullpen that has the makeup to be very solid.

Grade: B +

Season Outlook: A lot of experts have already ridden off the 2015 Atlanta Braves. General Manager John Hart best described the makeup of this team best a few days ago  ' We may not be the prettiest girl at the dance, but we are going to be a lot of fun to dance with'. On paper, the Braves are not a great team, but the good news is we get to see how paper translates to the field.  2015 will not be the team of household names; gone are fan favorites Gattis, Upton and Heyward.   Enter a new generation of Braves. The Peraza's and Bethancourt's of the world now stand in place to try to make their mark on this storied franchise. Do I expect them to be able to compete for a 162 game slate with a Nationals starting rotation that looks like something out of a video game? In all likelihood, no. I don't expect them to roll over and give up either. This team is probably not built to win a World Series, let alone an NL East Title. What they are built for is future, long term success, and as a fan that's the direction you want your team to be trending in. If your a fair-weather fan, you might want to stay at home and wait for 2017, like so many seemed inclined to do; but in doing so you will be missing out on what could be a very exciting 2015 campaign.

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