The Atlanta Braves have made a decision.
In the aftermath of a collapse at the end of the 2014 campaign, the Braves made several changes organizationally, including the installation of a new general manager in John Hart. His new braintrust collectively decided, in a hurry, that the current roster was unfit for a legitimate run at the 2015 World Series, and that choice signaled a significant shift toward the future.
From there, the organization made several moves with an eye toward the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and in the meantime, Atlanta virtually owned the fact that would be punting the 2015 campaign. Regardless, the 2015 campaign will still take place, and the Braves scrambled a bit in the latter stages of the player movement season to add some rebuilding projects and platoon assets to form what they hope will be a respectable club.
The results of that scrapheap dive are still to be determined, but in this space, we will take a look at what the 2015 season should bring for the Braves as a whole. Before we do that, however, let’s take a glance at what happened in 2014.
Record: 79-83; T-2nd in NL East (New York Mets)
WAR leader (Position Players): Jason Heyward – 5.1
WAR leader (Pitchers): Julio Teheran – 3.2
Key moment: The Braves put together an 8-game losing streak from July 29 through August 6. They began that stretch at 10 games above the .500 mark, but the team would never fully recover.
Next: Key Additions/Subtractions
Key Additions: SP Shelby Miller, RP Jason Grilli, RP Jim Johnson, C A.J. Pierzynski, OF Jonny Gomes
Atlanta’s biggest acquisition in the offseason came in the form of a total restocking of their farm system. That must be noted in any discussion surrounding the Braves, but in the spirit of previewing the 2015 season, those notable names do not appear.
Right-hander Shelby Miller was the biggest name to arrive in Atlanta from a Major League perspective, and the 24-year-old has already submitted 370 quality innings at the Major League level as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. Miller struggled in 2014 (3.74 ERA, 4.54 FIP) but Atlanta is blessed with one of the best pitching coaches in the business in Roger McDowell, and that should undoubtedly strengthen his chances of a bounce back.
Elsewhere, the Braves basically stocked up on veteran cast-offs and renewal projects. Both Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson have extensive closer experience, but Grilli has battled big-time injury issues and Johnson simply couldn’t get anyone out (7.09 ERA) during the 2014 campaign. It would be huge for Fredi Gonzalez and company to get something out of one of those two options at the backend of the bullpen. Pierzynski and Gomes are both platoon-level pieces at this stage, but each will play a significant role when coupled with other options at both catcher and corner outfield spots.
Key Subtractions: OF Jason Heyward, OF Justin Upton, C/OF Evan Gattis, SP Ervin Santana, SP Aaron Harang
If you didn’t notice in examining the lists of players both coming and going, the catalog of players who left town is much more impressive. To that point, the Braves parted with three of their best power sources via trade this off-season, while also losing two solid veterans in the starting rotation.
In particular, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis leave behind a massive hole in the power department from the right side of the plate. Atlanta did not move swiftly to grab an impact bat on that side, unless you can count Jonny Gomes, and the Braves are simply taking the long-term view by acquiring high-end prospects as a part of the three separate trades.
The loss of Santana and Harang could be felt, especially if the fifth starter battle falls flat, but neither represented a cost that made sense for a non-competing club in 2015.
Next: 3 Players to Watch
3 Players to Watch
- Mike Minor, SP – Which Mike Minor are the Braves getting? The young left-hander was very impressive during the 2013 season, racking up a 3.21 ERA across 204.2 innings to fortify his status as a former first-round selection. However, Minor battled injury issues at the start of the 2014 campaign, and he never recovered on the way to a ghastly 4.77 ERA in just 25 starts. The departure of Ervin Santana does leave a hole in the mid-tier of the rotation, but Minor will have to be the 2013 version of himself in order to fill that gap.
- Andrelton Simmons, SS – Simmons is the best defensive player in baseball. That, quite obviously, makes him an extremely valuable piece of the puzzle for the Atlanta Braves, but the organization would undoubtedly like to see a bounce back from their prized shortstop offensively. Simmons had the reputation as an all-glove, no-bat player in the minor leagues, but he exploded for 17 home runs and a respectable .396 slugging percentage in his first full season (2013). That production came to a crashing halt with a .244/.286/.331 slash line in 2014, and while he is certainly a good option at the position with ugly batting peripherals, Simmons would be an uber-elite option if he can post an OBP over .300 with a slugging percentage near .400 this season.
- Nick Markakis, OF – The 31-year-old Markakis was Atlanta’s lone “big ticket” acquisition this off-season, as the Braves provided a 4-year, $44 million contract to guarantee his arrival. However, Markakis has seen some of the luster evaporate from his persona in recent seasons, and before ever playing in a game for Atlanta, he underwent neck surgery that could hamper his Spring Training development. Provided that he is healthy for Opening Day, the Braves will seek consistency with the bat from Markakis, and he must be a solid source of on-base ability and power for a lineup that is in desperate need of both.
Next: 3 Keys to Success
3 Keys to Success
- What can the Braves get out of Melvin (B.J.) Upton? – If you are late to the party, the artist formerly known as B.J. Upton has announced that he will be going by his given name (Melvin) in the future. While he insists that the name change is not made in an effort to shy away from his recent struggles, Upton has already suffered a foot injury that will likely cost him regular season playing time. That is bad news for the Braves, who are set to pay Melvin Upton $15 million in the third year of a 5-year, $75 million deal, and with his on-base percentage soundly below .300 (!) in two seasons with Atlanta, there is nowhere to go but up… at least they hope.
- Bullpen – Craig Kimbrel is a monster. Atlanta’s closer has a career ERA of 1.43 in 289 big league innings, and with a strikeout rate of nearly 15 batters per 9 innings, dominance is the most accurate way to describe his efforts. However, the Braves have decided to shake up the rest of their bullpen considerably, adding names like Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson, and with youngster Shae Simmons gone for the year, Fredi Gonzalez and company will be leaning heavily on veterans with question marks. For the Braves to have any chance at success, they will need to consistently win in close games, and the bullpen is the surest chance to make that happen.
- The Young Guns – The Braves are set to deploy at least one rookie, catcher Christian Bethancourt, in the Opening Day lineup, but Atlanta could be heavily reliant on young players down the line. Bethancourt has arguably the best catcher arm in baseball, but he has struggled mightily to get on base in the minors, and that could cost him at-bats as the season progresses. Atlanta’s best hitting prospect is 2B Jose Peraza, but the club has been non-committal on his usage. Still, he is probably the best option from day one, and with young pitcher Mike Foltynewicz in a similar position with the starting rotation, the Braves will have some decisions to make in short order.
Next: 2015 Season Predictions
2015 Season Predictions
The Atlanta Braves aren’t going to be very good in 2015.
That is certainly a blunt characterization of their immediate future, but when a 79-win team takes a visible step back in talent virtually across the board, it should not be controversial to project an ugly campaign. There is, of course, a path to reasonable success for Atlanta if the starting pitching dominates (much like in 2014) with a reasonable bounce back from players like Andrelton Simmons and Chris Johnson, but taking the baseline projections for this roster would almost certainly give the Braves less than 75 victories.
Because they can’t simply say that they are punting until 2016 or 2017, Atlanta’s braintrust seems insistent on referencing them as a competing team and that is admirable. However, the Washington Nationals are in the NL East, and there appears to be a 20-win gap (to be kind) between the two clubs, with the Miami Marlins and New York Mets arguably possessing better 25-man rosters at this point in time.
It could be a long year in “Braves Country”.
Projection: 72-90 (4th in NL East)