MLB 30/30: 10/30 Atlanta Braves, NL East
Article Written By: Manny Alcala
2013 Record: 96-66 (1st place in NL East)
Key additions: Ryan Doumit, Gavin Floyd.
Key losses: Brian McCann, Tim Hudson, Eric O’Flaherty.
Most important players for 2014: Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, Kris Medlen, Craig Kimbrel.
In 2013 the Atlanta Braves made it to the top of the NL East division and ran away with it as it became their first division title since 2005. With great contributions from their young players, Atlanta cruised with ease being in first place for practically the whole season. Manager Fredi Gonzalez did an impressive job of using all of his players while the team suffered a numerous amount of injuries and while B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla struggled mightily and had career worst seasons. Having accomplished their first division title in quite a while was great for the Braves, but their fans and the organization now want to take the next step by making a deep playoff run in this upcoming season.
The Braves have had two major losses this off-season, as Tim Hudson and Brian McCann have moved on and left some holes not only in the lineup, but also in the leadership role. Otherwise, Atlanta has pretty much left their team intact. They have made two acquisitions, starting pitcher Gavin Floyd, and catcher Ryan Doumit. Gavin Floyd will give the starting rotation depth as he is coming back from Tommy John surgery and won’t be back until around May. Doumit is an interesting case, as we saw last season Fredi Gonzalez likes to carry three catchers on the team. Doumit’s original position is catcher, but can also play in the outfield as well as at first base. Doumit will give the Braves flexibility as it will give them the option of pinch hitting Evan Gattis when he’s not starting for Gerald Laird. Ryan can also serve as a backup plan just in case B.J. Upton doesn’t return to form.
With the departure of Hudson and McCann, a big question being asked is “who will be the leader of the team?” Surprisingly, the longest tenured Brave is now starting pitcher Kris Medlen. It appears that the team is comfortable with the players they have right now being the leadership for the team. Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Kris Medlen and even Craig Kimbrel are on the list of the leaders of the ball club. Recently resigned pitcher Freddy Garcia will also be a factor as he will add a lot of experience to the Braves if he makes the roster at any point in the season.
The Braves surely can’t afford another season like the ones B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla put up last year. Uggla finished the season with a .179 batting average and Upton ended with a .184 batting average, career lows for both players. Both of them will strike out a lot, but if each can hit anywhere around .240 with 20+ home runs, the Braves will take it. Expect to see much improvement from Upton as he is just too talented to struggle again like he did last season. As for Uggla, hopefully he gets accustomed to the LASIK surgery he had to deal with and can start hitting like the Dan Uggla of old. Both Dan and B.J. are crucial for the success of the team especially if they make it to the playoffs. If Uggla’s struggles continue expect to see prospect Tommy La Stella, Ramiro Pena, and Tyler Pastornicky split some playing time at second base.
All signs lead us to the conclusion that the Braves will go to arbitration hearings with three of their best players in Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, and Craig Kimbrel. The Braves have to find a way to start locking up their young stars to long term deals before it’s too late as they are the heart and soul of this team. Freeman has been arguably the most consistent hitter lately and he is only getting better, he’s coming off a career year in which he hit .319 with 23 HRs and 109 RBIs (let’s not forget he also led the league in hugs). Heyward had a very unfortunate injury in which he got hit by a pitch in the face that sat him for quite some time, but when healthy we have seen what he’s capable of doing, and will now hit in the lead-off spot for the Braves as he was a spark plug last season when he was plugged in there towards the end of the season. Craig Kimbrel is the best closer in baseball. His numbers back it up as he saved 50 games and had a 1.21 ERA in 2013. In a bullpen that’s already great with pitchers like Luis Avilan, Jordan Walden, and Jonny Venters, Kimbrel will have plenty of chances to earning saves this season once again.
With the young rotation the Braves have and the down year that the Nationals had last season, a close race for the NL east division might be due for 2014, and not like many said it would be in the 2013 season. Even though the Braves rotation might still be rough around the edges, they have a lot of talent. Atlanta will be looking to get their second consecutive division title and in the very least should be able to clinch a playoff spot as they should go on to win 90+ games once again.