With a limited budget and unable to equal the spending power in free agency of the likes of the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees, signing their core young players up early makes a lot of sense for the Atlanta Braves.
Firstly for anybody who may have missed it, the Braves extended Freddie Freeman (eight years and $135million) and then shortstop Andrelton Simmons (seven years and $58million). Baseball’s best closer Craig Kimbrel would also receive a lucrative extension (four years and $42million).
There is one key flaw to the Atlanta Braves offense; a lack of “grinders”. Grinders aren’t generally the standout players of any lineup. They generally don’t amass 20+ home runs of 80+ RBIs but they do score lots of runs.
Grinders generally hit in spots one or two in the lineup. Their job is to primarily get on base (while not striking out much) and score the runs generated by a team’s big hitters who fill the number three-five spots. After all the key to a successful offense is getting on base.
In 2013, the Atlanta Braves offense was ranked 13th in all of Baseball with a .321 OBP just slightly above average. This statistic may not sound bad on its own but when combined with the fact this same Atlanta lineup were third in MLB with 1384 strikeouts in 2013 as well as having five hitters strikeout at least 116 times, it raises the following question. Will the Braves get on base enough in 2014 to convert run scoring opportunities despite those high strikeout numbers?
It must also be noted that the National League East was just down right bad last season. The highly fancied Washington Nationals fell off a cliff thanks to their inconsistent offense that did not click into gear until mid-August. All three of the other teams finished with 74 wins or less.
This meant that Atlanta could capitalise on their young but talented pitching rotation as well as their very good team defense. As the saying goes “pitching wins championships”.
The Braves rotation were 6th in the majors in ERA (3.51) as well as being 5th in least runs allowed (417). In contrast the Atlanta lineup was just above average finishing 13th (688) in MLB in runs scored. Although RBIs are arbitrary because of their dependence on the strength of the lineup, another worrying sign is that other than Freddie Freeman’s 109 RBIs, nobody else drove in more than 70 – surprising in an offense featuring MVP potential hitters such as Jason Heyward and Justin Upton.
Moving on to 2014 Atlanta also lost two key players to free agency in Tim Hudson and Brian McCann. Although Hudson was lost for half the 2013 season due to a freak ankle injury he provided veteran experience and leadership for an otherwise very young starting corps.
McCann was the most experienced Braves player around having been originally drafted by the team. More importantly he is known to be a really patient hitter as evidenced by his career average .350 OBP. He was also a positive influence on a very young rotation.
The Braves traded for Ryan Doumit who could possibly start at Catcher or in the outfield as insurance for the slumping BJ Upton. However Doumit is not as good a hitter as McCann. Evan Gattis was the backup catcher in 2013 and played the outfield. Despite 21 home runs and 65 RBIs in just 105 games a 106 OPS+ rates him as barely an above average offensive player mainly thanks to a sub-par .291 OBP.
Hudson has not been replaced. Atlanta’s main three starting pitchers of Kris Medlen (124 ERA+ in 2013) , Mike Minor (120 ERA+) and Julio Teheran (121 ERA+) do all look formidable. Brandon Beachy is also highly thought of and posted an astounding 200 ERA+ in 13 starts in 2012 but was limited to just five starts in 2013 and has been hampered by injuries. Alex Wood also started 11 games in 2013 accruing a 124 ERA+ although he did also have a 1.326 WHIP which does ring some alarm bells.
Unfortunately in the last few days Kris Medlen was removed from a spring training with a right forearm strain which is expected to keep him out for one-three weeks (MRI results are pending).
The aforementioned injury ridden Brandon Beachy was also recently taken out of a spring training game with right elbow tightness.
The loss of Beachy and Medlen for the Braves for any extended amount of time could be huge as if the offense can’t increase their run total from 2013 and continue to be struckout at a similar pace then their best chance of having a good run differential is run prevention. Losing two out of their top four starting pitchers will no doubt be a blow to the Braves hopes of limiting runs.
It should also be noted that the Atlanta bullpen in 2013 was lights out anchored by the best closer in Baseball Craig Kimbrel. They put together a cumulative 2.46 ERA which led all of Baseball.
A big problem for the Braves is that the NL East is likely to be a lot better in 2013 than 2014. Each other team should be able to boast at least two aces with the Nationals having arguably the best pitching rotation in all of Baseball. Also the Marlins young starting rotation may well surprise some analysts too. The general improvement of pitching in the NL East means the Braves offense could find it very difficult to even equal their offensive output from 2013.
I believe the Braves are currently in the category of being an 87-90 win team due to their limited offensive potential. More and more teams are taking the “sabermetric” approach to offensive strategy partly because of the pitching renaissance. The Braves continue to be one of the few teams who believe a primarily slugging offense can win it all. With just the addition of one – two high .obp low strikeout players the Braves could be at least 5 wins better with all the big bats they already have. That could make all the difference both in the regular season and especially in the post season.