If you’re the kind of Atlanta Braves fan who tunes out in September to focus on other Atlanta teams, like the Falcons and Hawks, before returning in late March to see what the upcoming season may hold, you’re probably pretty confused.
Sure, there are some familiar faces down in Florida, playing the positions you expect them to be playing, but with about 60 invitees in camp, there are far more unfamiliar faces than the ones you’ve grown to love. It’s been one of the busiest offseasons for this Braves team in the past couple decades, and who will actually break camp on the 25-man roster is still anyone’s guess. If we’re being honest, Frank Wren left a meteor-sized hole in this organization, and current GM John Hart has made no bones about making the transition an easy one. The best way to describe the whole situation is Hart wanted to make this team competitive for the future again, and if this year doesn’t add up to much, he is, shall we say, unconcerned. It’s a bold strategy and it has created some division between Braves fans, but, no matter what, it’s been an interesting winter.
Let’s start at the top. Former GM Wren was ushered out the door, and Hart took his place, although no one really knows how long that will last. Hitting coach Greg Walker stepped down at the end of the season, although he remains in the front office. In his place is Kevin Seitzer, who came from Kansas City and may have more than a small part in their 2014 success. Some familiar faces who have gone include Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Jonny Venters, Tommy La Stella, David Hale, Chason Shreve, David Carpenter, Gavin Floyd, Aaron Harang, Ervin Santana, Gerald Laird, Evan Gattis and Emilio Bonifacio. Wow. That’s a lot.
Here are some of the new faces we’ll be getting used to: Shelby Miller, Nick Markakis, Jonny Gomes, Jason Grilli, Alberto Callaspo, Pedro Ciriaco, Eric Young Jr., Jim Johnson, A.J. Pierzynski, Arodys Viscaino and James Russell.
Obviously, in this shake up, there are a number of open positions that will hopefully be filled by opening day. Freddie Freeman will still man first, and Andrelton Simmons will play shortstop. That’s where the certainty ends. Second base is wide open, with prospect Jose Peraza battling against Callaspo and Ciriaco. There’s also the rumor that the Braves will sign Cuban Hector Olivera, who is game-ready. Third base is Chris Johnson’s job to lose, and there is a decent probability he will platoon there with a couple other guys, including the young Phil Gosselin and Jace Peterson. Christian Bethancourt seems to be the man for the job at catcher, but Pierzynski will get some days in addition to mentoring the young prospect, and there were a couple offseason moves for two other catchers. In the outfield, we will likely see Markakis, as long as his recovery from winter neck surgery goes the right way. Past that, there’s a lot of competition for the other two spots, and will probably end up as a platoon with Melvin Upton Jr. (formerly B.J.), Gomes, Eric Young Jr., Joey Terdoslavich, Zoilo Almonte and Todd Cunningham. The upside: There are many players to choose from. The downside: Many of them are young and maybe not totally game-ready. There is a decent amount of speed, but it may take some time for these new players to develop a chemistry. One of the biggest concerns is Callaspo’s showing up to spring training overweight, which, with a $3 million price tag, hasn’t been a good start for him. But let’s not forget that having Freeman and Simmons manning the infield is a good start to any defense.
This seems like it should be easy, but once again, nothing is set in stone yet. Julio Teheran will look to follow up a strong 2014, as will Alex Wood. The newly acquired Miller will likely be in this rotation for the next few years, and he is looking pretty strong so far this spring. Lefty Mike Minor is looking for a bounce-back year after an injury-plagued 2014, but he already is sidelined with shoulder soreness. He may be back sometime in April, but that remains to be seen. In the meantime, competition for the fourth and fifth rotation spots is heating up, with Eric Stults, Mike Foltynewicz (Fol-te-ne-vich), Wandy Rodriguez, Chien Min-Wang and Manuel Banuelos. Obviously, the Braves aren’t thrilled about starting the season without Minor, but the one through three spots are solid. Filling the last two, even if it’s by platoon, shouldn’t be too difficult. I anticipate some very bright spots emerging from this rotation this year.
Let’s not forget that, even in a down 2014 season, the pitching for the Braves was exceptional. The bullpen has lost some arms, but the front office hasn’t skimped on replacing them. Craig Kimbrel still lurks at the back end, which is always going to be an ace up the sleeve. Ahead of him, Johnson and Grilli are looking to return to form. Both are former closers who lost a little oomph last year, which means they have something to prove. They’ve both been studs before and have some serious MLB experience between the two of them, and should be good to great setup men for Kimbrel. Shae Simmons, who you may remember suffered an injury late last season and will be missing the entire 2015 campaign due to Tommy John surgery. But Luis Avilan is fighting for a bullpen spot, as is Josh Outman, Vizcaino, former Cub James Russell, and Jose Veras. With so many arms to choose from, the bullpen should be more than solid for the entirety of the season.
Opening day lineup
Eric Young Jr. CF
Pedro Ciriaco 2B
Freddie Freeman 1B
Nick Markakis RF
Christian Bethancourt C
Andrelton Simmons SS
Joey Terdoslavich LF
Chris Johnson 3B
Julio Teheran P
I just have to say, this is a total shot in the dark. There are a lot of guesses here, and most of this could be completely different by opening day.
Hart’s biggest concern this offseason was refilling the farm system that Wren had depleted over the past few seasons. The Braves farm was rated in the low 20s at the end of last season, but with the flurry of activity, it has jumped into the top 10, and some would argue the top five. There’s a depth of talent now, with many names we are likely to see in the coming years. Bethancourt will finally jump from prospect to everyday starter this year, so we can cross him off the list. Other bright spots are Jose Peraza, whose bat and speed have made him among the Braves’ top prospects. Currently, he’s battling for a spot on the roster, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him start the season in Gwinnett, with the triple-A squad for some more seasoning. Peterson is another interesting infield candidate, although his natural position is SS, so there may not be room for him there for a least a few years. Pitching wise, there’s Tyrell Jenkins, a fireballer who came over in the Heyward deal from the Cardinals. Foltynewicz is trying to make a splash, but is ranked pretty highly. There’s a good chance he’ll see some major league time this year. Max Fried, who came over from the Padres in the Justin Upton deal is recovering from Tommy John, but if he can regain his form, he’ll be a formidable pitcher. I already mentioned Banuelos, who’s vying for a rotation spot, and there’s also Lucas Sims, who’s been on the farm for a while now, but is a pitcher to watch. All in all, the Braves have a lot to look forward to in the coming years from their young talent.
This is a tough one. There are a hundred reasons to think the Braves are going to drag the bottom of the NL East this season, and if you think that’s the case, I find it hard to argue. But I also think that this team could really surprise people, especially because of what became a priority for the team this year – young talent, experienced leadership, and a departure from the long-ball-or-bust offense. Hitting coach Seitzer is known for his emphasis on contact and hitting the ball back through the box, and if this team can put together the power and speed with good contact, they could very well be an impressive offense. No matter what, I think the low expectation means they can only impress this season, and I expect them to do just that. Here’s a conservative prediction, but don’t think for a second that I’m not pulling for them to do much more: 86 – 76, third place in the NL East.