Spring training is finally here, and not a moment too soon. This time of year brings a new sense of hope to every Braves fan about the team’s expected success for the upcoming season.
The spring also allows us to forget recent bad memories of how last season ended (insert angry “infield fly rule” rant here), and think about how all of the off-season moves by our teams’ front offices will help us get over that hump and to the promised land that is the World Series.
The 2013 season will be a season unlike any in recent memory (19 years of recent memory to be exact) as for the first time since most of us can remember, Chipper Jones will not be at the hot corner. His leadership will not be there in the clubhouse. His Hall of Fame bat will not be penciled in the line up card in the 3-hole. And, most importantly, Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” will never be played again through the speakers at Turner Field.
Frank Wren tried to fill the void left by Chipper by acquiring both of the Upton brothers, signing BJ Upton in free agency and trading for his brother, Justin. He also dropped some of the dead weight from last year in Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens.
Regardless of the drastic changes made this season, one thing is for certain: high expectations, and this is what we can expect from the 2013 Atlanta Braves.
While the acquisition of the Uptons brought plenty of media attention, was it the right move? Maybe. The projected line up (Simmons SS, Heyward RF, Justin LF, Freeman 1B, BJ CF, McCann C, Uggla 2B, Francisco/Johnson 3B) Wren has put together is a high-risk, high-reward type of gamble.
The main advantage of this line up is the rare (but sexy) combination of speed and power. Both the Uptons and Heyward are all capable of being at least 20/20 players with a solid chance of at least one of them being a 30/30 guy.
Andrelton Simmons hitting lead-off. Most of the skepticism around this line up from outside sources is whether or not Andrelton can lead off. The main criticism comes from the fact that he “has never hit lead off in the majors.” True, but he did win a batting title as a lead-off hitter in the minor leagues. He will be fine. Also, who is going to pitch around him and risk giving him a free pass with the guys we have hitting behind him?
Continuity. This year, the middle of the line-up will not be changing on a daily basis like it was last year. Obviously Chipper could not play every day last year (4 major knee surgeries can take its toll on anyone). This year the line-up will pretty much be the same every day. While this is constantly overlooked, line-up consistency is crucial to team chemistry and keeping the players comfortable.
Strikeouts. Strikeouts. Strikeouts. This team is full of guys who strike out A TON. Most sabermatricians will give the argument that a strike out is no different from any other out. While I am beginning to come around to all of these advanced metrics (I am an old school baseball man who believes in righty/righty and lefty/lefty matchups, bunting, and the hit-and-run), the belief that a strike out is “just another out” is not true. Strikeouts are demoralizing to the opposing team. They can silence a crowd, make a crowd go crazy, and get into the head of hitters. Baseball fans love the strike out.
That is why guys like Craig Kimbrel are so popular. Fans love to see hitters get gassed by a couple 99 mph fastballs, then look dumb as their knees buckle on an 88 mph slider. Why else would Mariano Rivera be such a good closer? He throws one pitch. It is because every time “Enter Sandman” starts playing in Yankee Stadium, hitters are immediately intimidated because “the cuttah” is “unhittable.”
This line-up could have up to 1,400 or more strikeouts this season, which is an insanely high total.
The rotation is shaping up to be very successful this season. They are slightly under the radar (shocker that yet another Atlanta team is underrated), but are very deep and should be more consistent this season.
Kris Medlen – RHP - 10-1, 1.57 ERA, 50 G (12 as starter)
Meds will be the staff ace (obviously). Fredi Gonzalez has put together his spring training rotation so that Medlen gets the ball on opening day. Meds has “it.” He is not intimidating in stature, but when on the mound, hitters are scared. He can throw all three of his pitches for strikes in any count or situation. The change-up is devastating and his fastball has been compared to that of Greg Maddux (that nasty two-seamer that snaps back over the first base side of the plate or can sink down and in on a right-handed hitter). I am excited to see what Medlen can do with a full season in the rotation.
Mike Minor – LHP – 2012: 11-10, 4.12 ERA, 30 G
Minor looks to be slated as the number two guy in Fredi’s rotation. This is mostly because Fredi wants the two lefties separated in the rotation and not throwing on back to back days, but Minor has earned the right to be towards the top of the rotation. He has battled through his struggles and has emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the Braves rotation. I still have my doubts, though. I do not like the height of his fastball. It sits in the mid-thigh level where it would be much better at the knees, which is leading to a high fly-ball/home run rate that has hurt Minor in the past. His change-up is very good and his breaking ball improved significantly over the second half of last season.
Tim Hudson – RHP – 2012: 16-7, 3.62 ERA, 28 G
This season Huddy will pass the “Ace baton” to Kris Medlen and take his new role in the middle of the rotation, which I love. He is the veteran who has seen everything in his major league career. Also, he has never had a losing season and a career ERA of 3.42. Huddy pitches best in big games which will be key for this rotation as not many of the other pitchers have that “big game” experience. While Medlen is the staff ace, Huddy is still the leader.
Paul Maholm – LHP – 2012: 4-5, 3.54 ERA, 11 G
Maholm is the big under the radar guy in this rotation. To have him as the fourth pitcher in the rotation is huge. You know what you are going to get with Maholm. There is rarely a surprise. He is a solid veteran that can dominate (usually will not), but will be out there every fifth day and pump out solid innings for this team.
Julio Teheran – RHP – 2012: 0-0, 5.68 ERA, 2 G (1 as starter)
With Randall Delgado out the door, the fifth rotation spot is Julio’s to lose. The Braves are hoping he returns to his 2011 form and proves to be the dominant, future ace he was projected to be. He will make the opening day roster as the fifth starter because his main competition, Sean Gilmartin, is not quite ready to take on big league hitters on a consistent basis yet.
The pen is nasty. End of story. Even if Johnny Venters is more human this year and doesn’t post a sub-2.oo ERA, he will still be effective. Jordan Walden should provide some much-needed right-handed help in the later inning situations. Luis Avilan and Cory Gearrin are here to stay and will be much improved from what they did last year (which is kind of scary actually). Eric O’Flaherty is in his first free agent contract year and we all know what that means: big time performance. I am not sure how much more “big time” you can be to follow-up three seasons with an ERA of 2.45, 0.98, and 1.73 respectively, but I can’t wait to see it. Oh yea, and we have this guy named Craig Kimbrel… I hear he is pretty good…
Overall this Braves team is ready to take the next step. The competition in the NL East is fairly weak with the exception of the Nationals. The Phillies will probably hang around with their great starting pitching, but age will get the best of them down the stretch. The Mets are the Mets and don’t even get me started on the Marlins.
Expect the Braves to go 96-66 and win the NL East over the Nats, barely. Jason Heyward gets serious MVP consideration (maybe even wins it), and Craig Kimbrel is again the best closer in baseball.