- By Dave Doggett
Two years ago, the Atlanta Braves had one of the worst collapses in the history of Major League Baseball. They lost 13 of their last 18 games, including a sweep at the hands of their arch rival Philadelphia Phillies to end the season. They missed the playoffs by one game. Instead, the Wild Card slot was taken by the St. Louis Cardinals. They won the World Series.
Last season, The Braves turned in an excellent regular season campaign winning 94 games and securing a Wild Card. But there was a problem. Last year each league had two Wild Card teams who faced off in a one game, winner take all matchup to decide who goes to the next round. The Braves, with the help of a very questionable infield fly call, lost the game. Again, the Cardinals took the Wild Card from the Braves.
To summarize the first two paragraphs: the Braves are choke artists. In fact, they haven’t won a playoff series since 2001, despite making the postseason six times since then. Since 1996, when they fell to the Yankees in the Fall Classic, the Braves have only won 5 of the 16 postseason series they’ve played in. Will this year be any different? I doubt it.
On paper, the Braves are arguably the most well-rounded teams in all of baseball. Then again, championships aren’t won on paper, are they? But since we haven’t played any games yet, that’s all we have to go by. So let’s take a look at the 2013 Braves.
The Tomahawk Choppers have certainly made some huge moves this offseason. We’ll start there. They started things off by exercising 2013 contract options on veteran pitchers Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm and All-Star catcher Brian McCann. This move solidified the rotation while showing loyalty to their incumbent backstop, who is coming off of the worst year of his career. These moves still left the Braves plenty of money to try and land a top tier free agent.
During the Winter Meetings, Atlanta made a hard push at BJ Upton, to replace free agent center fielder Michael Bourn. It took some time, but they eventually signed the talented righty to a five year deal worth about 75 million bucks. A risky move for sure, but I don’t think they overpaid. Upton is only 28 years old, and has the potential to be the right handed power bat that the Braves have been so desperately longing for. He is also a great defender with speed to burn. He’s definitely an upgrade over an aging Bourn who fell apart in the second half of last season.
The very next day, the Braves shipped starter Tommy Hanson out to the Angels and got back reliever Jordan Walden in return. The Braves already had an overcrowded starting rotation, and were in need of a solid right-handed middle reliever. Hanson, once one of the league’s top prospects, hasn’t lived up to the billing, so I see this as a pretty good mood. Like in all deals, only time will tell.
The only hole left on the team was in left field. And that brings us to one of the biggest moves made throughout the league this offseason. After courting Justin Upton for months, the Braves were finally able to pull the trigger on a deal that brought the superstar left fielder to Atlanta to join his brother. This is the most important trade, perhaps, in franchise history. Ok so it might not end up being as favorable as Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz, but it damn sure could be. For my money, it’s the best move they could have possibly made. Justin Upton is coming off of a down year (.280, 17hrs, 67 RBI), so the Braves were able to swipe him from the D-Backs for a fraction of his worth. In case you all have a short memory, I’ll remind you of what Justin did the year before last: .289 avg, 369 obp, 31 hr, 89 RBI. He was a huge reason why the D-Backs made the postseason in 2011 and almost came away with league MVP honors. He has the potential to be one of the best hitters in baseball, and with his brother in center, and Jason Heyward in right, the Braves may have the best outfield in baseball.
Atlanta did lose their all-star third baseman, and fan favorite, Martin Prado in the trade, which is a considerable loss. However Juan Francisco looked capable in split time at third base last year. And the rest of the infield around him will be very solid. Rookie phenom Andrelton Simmons returns at shortstop fully healthy for his sophomore campaign. The powerful, yet disappointing Uggla will be manning second. Freeman looks to continue to improve on his rock solid play on both sides of the ball. I don’t think he’ll ever be a 30 and 100 guy at the plate, but he has great gap power and will continue to put up a near .300 average 25 hrs and 90 RBI. Rounding out the infield is the guy behind the plate, Brian McCann. He’s probably the biggest question mark in this infield. He had a terrible season last year (.230, 20hr, 67 RBI), which reached an all-time low in the Wild Card game when he was benched for longtime backup David Ross. Was this an aberration, or the beginning of the end for 28 year-old slugger? I say he’ll bounce back and become the clubhouse leader he needs to be on this new look squad. He was dealing with a torn labrum in his right shoulder all year, and had major surgery to repair it this offseason. He may miss some games at the start of the season, but expect him to be ready to get back to form when he returns.
The Braves made some big changes to its lineup this year, and their offense should improve over from last season. But offense wasn’t the strong point of this team a year ago, pitching was. I mentioned the Hanson for Walden trade earlier, but that was about the only move the Braves in the pitching department (besides including Randall Delgado and other prospects in the Upton deal). The core of this rotation and bullpen remain the same.
The Opening Day starting rotation looks to be as follows (in order): Kris Medlen, Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm, Mike Minor, and Julio Teheran. Medlen and Minor were absolutely lights out down the stretch and will anchor this rotation for years to come. Veterans Hudson and Maholm still seem to have some gas left in the tank and could win 12-15 games each this year. And then there’s Teheran. Once the highest rated prospect in the Braves organization, but has yet to translate that into Major League Success. It’s partially because he hasn’t gotten much of a chance due to the Braves excellent rotation depth over the past few seasons and partially because he leaves the ball up in the zone way too often. He’s got a great heater and a slew of effective off speed pitches, so if he can control them and keep them down in the zone he could still end up being a top of the rotation guy. He is only 22 years-old after all. Of course, there is one more major piece to this rotation, Brandon Beachy. Beachy posted a stellar 2.00 ERA in 13 starts in 2012 before missing the remainder of the season after needing Tommy John surgery. He is currently on schedule and expected to return around the All Star Break.
I’ll finish this preview by going over the strongest part of this club, the pen. Atlanta boasts the best bullpen in baseball, and as scary as it sounds, might be even better this year. Their top 5 middle relief arms all had sub 4 eras last year. Eric O’Flahrety posted a 1.73 era in 64 appearances as the set up man for the best closer in baseball. Craig Kimbrel shut the door 42 times with 116 strike outs and a 1.01 era in only 62.2 innings pitched. His high 90’s fastball and knee-buckling breaker are virtually unhittable with only 2 years under his belt, this 24 year-old could be one of the best closers to ever hit the mound. If this team can get to the 7th inning with a lead, they’ll be nearly impossible to beat.
There’s your 2013 Atlanta Braves. On paper, I’ll say it again, ON PAPER, the Braves look to be a World Series contender this year. But given their track record of choking and disappointment, I’ll temper my expectations. Don’t get your hopes up to high, Atlanta.
Standing: 2nd in East behind the Nationals
Finish: Beat the Giants in the Wild Card game before falling to the Dodgers in the divisional round.
Dave Doggett is a guest contributor to Whiztix.com. Dave graduated Penn State University in 2012. Whiztix.com is a ticket search engine, which aggregates results from all the best websites on the secondary market in one place. This is a useful tool for finding the best seats at great deals, or just the cheapest seats on the net.