That the Atlanta Braves were desperate to escape Turner Field should not have surprised anyone. The Braves are one of baseball’s stodgiest, stingiest franchises, operating under strict budgets thanks to relatively uninterested corporate ownership. They have one of the three worst local television rights deals in baseball. Financially, they needed a boon like a new park in order to compete on an even field with their competition.
It is, on the other hand, surprising that Cobb County, Ga., despite a substantial and persistent funding shortfall in education, agreed to kick in what looks like $450 million in public funding to help the team make that happen. Empirical and economic studies have proved beyond reasonable doubt that significant public funding for stadia is a bad deal, but once again, a municipality has found room in its stretched and strained budget to subsidize billionaires.
That’s an off-field issue. The Braves should be ashamed, especially given the way Liberty Media (the corporate owner) has pinched pennies and refused to provide fiscal flexibility, but this is where we are. I don’t want to wail about the park at the expense of the team that takes the field, which is good and exciting now, and which should be good for a long time.
The Young Stars
The best reason for which the Braves look like they will be good for years to come is that they’re a very young team. Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward all will be 24 in 2014. Those three players combined for 11.9 Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP, from Baseball Prospectus, measuring the total value of a player relative to a theoretical, easily-acquired minor-league replacement) in 2013, and that was despite two prolonged absences for Heyward. Simmons may have peaked already, since the majority of his value lies in his sparkling defense at shortstop. Heyward and Freeman, though, are hitters, and as good as they have been already, their true peak is likely ahead of them.
That trio got underrated and underappreciated in a hurry, though, when the Braves spent last winter diving into the deep end of the Upton pool. They committed $75.25 million (no small investment for a team so reticent to spend big bucks) in order to lock up B.J. Upton for five years, then (at the other end of the offseason) dealt five players to Arizona for Justin Upton and Chris Johnson.
The elder, more expensive Upton was an immediate disaster. Whether or not he can be reclaimed will be one of the crucial questions facing the 2014 Braves. He batted .184/.268/.289 in 2013, striking out in roughly a third of his plate appearances. Worse, as he moves into his late 20s, he seems to be losing his defensive viability in center field.
He did walk roughly 10 percent of the time, but no power materialized to complement his patience. He ceased to be an efficient or high-volume base stealer. Everything that could look terrible did look terrible.
Justin, on the other hand, thrived in Atlanta. He changed as a hitter, fairly drastically. After three straight seasons of very neutral platoon splits, he posted a .994 OPS against suthpaws, and a .762 figure against righties. He struck out at a much higher rate than he had the two previous seasons, but he also bumped up his walk rate.
What ensured that he improved, overall, was that he successfully traded some contact for power. He launched 27 home runs, and his isolated power (ISO, or slugging average minus batting average) climbed by 30 percent from 2012. Unlike B.J., the coaching Justin got on waiting for his pitch and looking to kill it hit home, and he responded. It wasn’t the Hall of Fame breakout some expected, but Justin is just 26, and will be for most of 2014, and so he has time to finish developing his awesome power.
Chris Johnson was little more than a throw-in in the Upton deal, a third baseman to replace the one (Martin Prado) the Braves traded away. He began the year in a platoon with Juan Francisco. That didn’t last long.
Johnson took the job by force, and Francisco was gone before June 1. While he continues to strike out four times as often as he walks, and while he lacks elite power, Johnson had a great season thanks to a lot of hits on balls in play: .321/.358/.457 was his final line.
Though he’s just 29 and not due to decline for aging reasons, Johnson probably isn’t that good, and so the Braves will get less out of third base in 2014. Still, he went from a questionable regular to a solid one, which is all a team with so many younger, better players really needs.
The interesting spots in the lineup for Atlanta will be catcher and second base, where the stories are basically one contract the Braves wish had not expired, and one they desperately wish would do so sooner. Brian McCann is a free agent, and although he became a hero to good ol’ boys everywhere with his obnoxious Fun Police act at the end of the regular season, he seems poised to trade his drawl for a twang, or else a non-rhotic nasal short-a system. McCann is an elite offensive catcher, and replacing his production is going to be impossible.
That will put pressure on Dan Uggla to figure things out, and fast. Uggla got a five-year contract that was widely panned prior to 2011, and in 2013, his flaws finally caught up to him. Uggla had always struck out and relied on fly balls going a long way, but in 2013, that whiff rate took off on him. He struck out in 31.8 percent of his plate appearances. It’s nearly impossible to sustain solid offense at that contact level, and Uggla was not the exception one might have hoped he could be. His power failed him, albeit in a strange way, as he clubbed 22 home runs, but had just 13 other extra-base hits in 537 plate appearances.
He continued to draw walks, such that he didn’t fall far short of the league-average on-base percentage (he was at .309, with position players averaging .320), but he slugged just .362. That’s not a number that plays for Dan Uggla. At 33, he saw the expected decline in his speed, and his defense—which most of the modern defensive evaluation systems had pegged as an unlikely positive in 2012—reverted to its usual, miserable state. Given what we know about the aging curve for second basemen, there’s not much chance he’s about to bounce back. Every player is different, but if Uggla is anything like a typical second baseman (and he is, to me), 2013 was the cliff, and 2014 will just be the canyon floor.
How the Puzzle Pieces Fit
Last year’s Braves were an Earl Weaver dream team. They scored a larger percentage of their runs on homers than any other team in baseball, but they weren’t truly reliant on homers; that was just how guys tended to cross the plate. They got on base well, by walking a ton, and although they paid the price for that approach with tons of strikeouts, they still finished with an above-average offense.
The shape of that offense will not change much next season. For now, it looks like Evan Gattis (WARNING: not an actual catcher) will replace McCann if and when the latter departs. That’s fine. It dampens the offense, but it doesn’t destroy it. Gattis is another guy with plus power, though he doesn’t offer the patience that makes that power really shine. Uggla can’t be a whole lot worse, and B.J. Upton is almost sure to be better. With Justin Upton and the three 24-year-old studs likely to be at least marginally better, too, it doesn’t seem that the Braves should struggle to score runs, nor that their defense should be a major problem. This isn’t a juggernaut that can count on running away from the Nationals again, but it’s a contending team’s position-player roster.
So, About the Pitching.
In a strange twist, the Braves’ biggest challenge for 2014 could be finding and fielding a solid pitching staff, one that will survive the season. Despite wild amounts of apparent depth entering last season, Atlanta lost so many pitchers to injury and fatigue that Freddy Garcia made a playoff start, and David Carpenter was the primary set-up man.
I like Julio Teheran, Mike Minor and Kris Medlen more than most people do. None looks like they’ll emerge as one of the National League’s 10 best starters, but each is really solid. Give me the flat, deep rotation over praying for rain, any day.
Whether Brandon Beachy can regain his health long enough to be counted upon remains to be seen. It wouldn’t be wise for the Braves to bet on it. With Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm shopping their services around the league, there’s at least one spot the team will have to fill from outside the organization. Their minor-league pitching also had an injury-plagued 2013, so they would do well to find an established player who, at least on Opening Day, will be healthy and reliable.
They’re not going to lose three solid relievers to Tommy John surgery again. The bullpen should be fine. If the Braves can strengthen their bench, ideally adding some Uggla or Johnson insurance in the form of a playable utility infielder, and if they get aggressive about fleshing out their rotation, they should be right back in the mix for the NL East title they just won. They beat the Nationals 13 times in 19 contests in 2013, which accounted for over half of the Braves’ margin of victory in the East. Next season will be interesting, and by no means are the Braves assured of a repeat.Next post: Miguel Cabrera Wins Another MVP at Mike Trout’s Expense
Previous post: Juicy: The Orioles Could Trade Matt Wieters