The Atlanta Braves come into the 2014 season with a young and talented group that won the National League Eastern Division last year. During the 2013 season, Atlanta had a very strong year by finishing with a 96-66 record. Two weeks ago, the Braves looked as if they were to be penciled in for another NL East title, but things quickly changed and became complicated in just a matter of days.
Kris Medlen is out for the year after he required a second Tommy John surgery following an injury to his arm in Spring Training. Then Brandon Beachy, who led the NL in ERA until he was hurt in 2012, experienced some arm pain as well, which could require another Tommy John surgery and will likely sideline him for some time. All is not lost in Atlanta, however, because the Braves still feature a very good offense paired with a strong pitching staff that has made some necessary additions and is regaining their health.
Roster Subtractions – The Braves watched Brian McCann and Tim Hudson, two of their top players on and off the field, sign in free agency with the Yankees and Giants, respectively. Other key roster subtractions include Freddy Garcia, Reed Johnson, Paul Maholm, Eric O’Flaherty, and Luis Ayala.
Roster Additions – Ervin Santana is a key addition to the pitching rotation, because Atlanta desperately needed a proven starter to replace star pitcher, Kris Medlen. Other key additions include Gavin Floyd, Ryan Doumit, and Aaron Harang.
Frank Wren, GM of the Atlanta Braves, and the front office really liked what the ball club possessed with a very solid core group of players moving forward in the National League in 2014. The Braves then decided to go on a re-signing spree to lock up their key talent before they moved to their new stadium in Cobb County in 2017. During a three week span the Braves spent upwards of $280 million in signing Freddie Freeman (8 years), Jason Heyward (2 years), Craig Kimbrel (4 years), Julio Tehran (6 years) and Andrelton Simmons (7 years).
1. Jason Heyward – RF
2. B.J. Upton – CF
3. Freddie Freeman – 1B
4. Chris Johnson – 3B
5. Justin Upton – LF
6. Evan Gattis – C
7. Dan Uggla – 2B
8. Andrelton Simmons – SS
Julio Tehran – RHP
Ervin Santana – RHP
Aaron Harang – RHP
Alex Wood – LHP
David Hale – RHP
* Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd are expected to be ready in the early parts of the season.
The Braves have a lot of power, and they will likely hit the heck out of the ball this year. Freddie Freeman led the Braves’ offense last year by batting .319 with 23 homers and 109 RBI. Freeman should once again lead the Braves in batting, and he is the primary candidate to be the face of the franchise. Jason Heyward looks to have a healthy and productive season in 2014, and he has a chance to blossom into one of the MLB’s top stars this year.
Justin Upton, who also has enormous potential, brings a strong and game-changing bat to the plate for the Braves. However, the most important piece to the Braves is Andrelton Simmons. He is hands down the best defensive shortstop in the game, plus he will likely improve his offensive numbers over the next years. Julio Teheran had a breakout 2013 season with the Braves, and he will heavily be relied upon to become the star the Braves think he will become. Craig Kimbrel, the most dominant closer in the MLB the past few years, gives Atlanta the best chance to close out wins with his dominant stuff.
Strikeouts were one of the biggest areas of concern for Atlanta last year. In 2013, the Braves struck out 1,384 times, which ranked as the most in the National League. They have many strikeout-prone players on the team, but limiting their strikeouts may improve an already impressive offense. Something as simple as putting the ball into play can create opportunities to score more runs. Also, the Braves cannot completely rely on the home run to score runs, and the team needs to focus more on playing small ball to improve.
After extremely disappointing seasons last year, B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla spent the off-season working on their batting mechanics. Upton hit a career worst .184 with only 9 HR and 26 RBI, after he signed the largest free agent deal in Braves’ history. He worked with Braves’ hitting coach Greg Walker to focus on developing a more simplistic swing and pushing the ball the other way. Uggla, who was benched in the postseason after he batted .171 with 171 strikeouts during the season, also worked with Walker to focus mainly on bringing back some much needed “balance” to his swing. Their Spring Training statistics so far have shown that the hard work may have payed off: Upton batted .278 with 3 RBI in 18 games. Uggla batted .255 with 4 HR and 12 RBI in 20 games.
The Atlanta Braves still look to be viable contenders in 2014, despite the recent injuries to key starting pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. The pitching staff will become healthy and productive after the early parts of the season. Attaining Ervin Santana was a smart and necessary move that may have very well saved the Braves’ season. Expect Santana to pitch over 200 innings in a very solid year with the Braves — anything comparable to Javier Vazquez’s terrific 2009 season would be a blessing to Atlanta.
B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla will make improvements over their disastrous 2013 seasons, although they will struggle mightily at times. Craig Kimbrel will be his dominant self, but the bullpen will not be nearly as elite as it has been. The Braves and Nationals will battle it out in a fight to the finish throughout the year. But it will be the Atlanta Braves who will narrowly win the NL East title in 2014 for the second consecutive year.
Final record: 92-70
Commentary by Glen Parris