A week ago, this preview was going to be very different. Then Kris Medlen injured his arm last Sunday, and Atlanta Braves fans everywhere held their collective breath.
After losing Tim Hudson and Brian McCann, Atlanta Braves brought back most of their team from 2013, invested in their future by extending the contracts of Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran. All in all, they were in a good position to pick up where they left of last season and defending their NL East title.
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Then Medlen happened. Damn. Now Ervin Santana happened. Okay then. So, while the last few days may have changed the shape of this team a bit, expect the Braves to bring a lot of firepower back to their division and compete at the top all year.
Atlanta will be running an almost identical offense to last season, with a few minor changes. Unlike at the end of 2013, Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton will be back in the usual spots. With B.J. back in center field and McCann in pinstripes, Evan Gattis will be behind the plate and in the lineup for most of the season. Jason Heyward will likely reprise his role in the leadoff spot, and having him healthy can only mean good things for this offense.
Freeman will try to build off his .319/.396/.501 season and continue to anchor this lineup, while Chris Johnson will likely see some regression from competing for the NL batting title.
There are some caveats this year, among them: the new swings of B.J. and Uggla, Heyward’s health keeping him in the lineup all year and more months that resemble Justin Upton’s April.
Here’s where things went sideways earlier this week. Sure, they were basing the strength of the rotation on young arms, but in the hands of Teheran, Medlen, Mike Minor and Alex Wood, it seemed like a pretty good bet.
But bad luck has hit hard all at once, starting with Minor’s delay in returning to form. Medlen, after walking directly off the mound after a pitch in his start against the Mets, is waiting on a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews. But the consensus is that he’ll undergo a second Tommy John surgery and be lost to the Braves for at least all of 2014. Brandon Beachy, trying to make a full recovery from his Tommy John surgery in 2012, is still suffering from inflammation and fatigue. Recently acquired Gavin Floyd is also recovering from Tommy John, and won’t be available at least until May, although recent news suggests he may be ready earlier.
In light of all of this, general manager Frank Wren decided to make a move. He had his eyes on righty Santana when looking for an ace to shore up the rotation and finally found a chance to make that move happen. The Braves cut a one-year, $14 million deal and scooped him out from under the Baltimore Orioles, Minnesota Twins and Toronto Blue Jays. After a decent 2013 in Kansas City, Santana is looking for a bigger contract and a way to further distance himself from his dreadful 2012 season. The Braves are hoping to be his proving ground, which will benefit both parties.
As of now, Atlanta will probably start the year with a four-man rotation; two off days early on will allow them to do that before moving back to a five-man around the second week of April. Teheran, who’s been a stud so far in spring training, will likely get the opening day nod.
Speaking of recoveries, add setup man Jonny Venters to that list; he is returning from his second UCL surgery. He’ll rejoin a bullpen that will look very much like last year, with Anthony Varvaro, David Carpenter and closer Kimbrel.
Opening day lineup
1. Jason Heyward, RF
2. Justin Upton, LF
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
4. Evan Gattis, C
5. Chris Johnson, 3B
6. Dan Uggla, 2B
7. Andrelton Simmons, SS
8. B.J. Upton, CF
It shouldn’t be any surprise that many of the Braves’ young prospects are pitchers, although there are some other positions to be excited about. Christian Bethancourt moves ever closer to taking McCann’s spot behind the plate, although he’s still working out the kinks in his offensive game. David Hale may actually see some more major league time this year, depending on how things turn out. His two games last year yielded exciting results: 14 strikeouts over 11 innnings and an 0.82 ERA, although his spring isn’t going so hot right now. One of the bigger stories out of spring training is Tommy La Stella, a second baseman who’s been swinging a very hot bat and is the pick to replace Uggla for many fans in Atlanta.
Being an Atlanta Braves fan hasn’t been easy over the last week or two. It’s been a downright roller coaster, if you ask me. But once again, Wren is proving that the brass are as committed to making 2014 a banner year. The addition of Santana completes their biggest offseason priority, even if they hadn’t planned on it happening this way. Losing Medlen is a big blow, but adversity is the Braves’ middle name.
The first two weeks of the season are likely going to be the hardest, working off the smaller rotation and relying heavily on young hurlers. Once Minor and maybe Floyd and Beachy are in shape and ready to go, expect a strong rotation with plenty of options.
On another high note, the offense has the potential to be highly productive if they can get into a rhythm and stay healthy. Hopefully Heyward can once again thrive in the leadoff spot, which has proven to light up the entire offense. B.J. is seeing immediate results this spring, as well as Uggla, who has smashed a few bombs over the past few days. Overall, when highly functioning, this lineup is going to be extremely scary for opposing pitchers.
There are certainly reasons to be concerned, but this is still a strong team that will be a top contender in the NL East, and I certainly wouldn’t give up on Atlanta defending its title just yet.