The Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals are no strangers to each other, but a lot has changed since last October. I had the chance to get acquainted with the new Braves who sit atop the NL East with Talking Chop's Tony Almeyda.
Expectations are high for the Braves as they are for the Nationals this year. What will the Braves have to do to meet expectations and make sure this season is not a disappointment? NL East title? NLDS appearance? World Series?
They have to stay healthy. The Braves have suitable replacements in the event of an injury, but in order to win the ultimate prize, the best team possible has to be on the field. They need to be able to hit, pitch and play defense just like every other team if they want to win. Last year’s Braves team was the best in the league defensively and had one of the best pitching staffs in all of MLB. They upgraded their offense with the addition of the Uptons, but B.J. is off to a slow start as is Jason Heyward. When everyone in the lineup is hitting like they should, the rest of the league should watch out. This is a well-rounded team and I’d be surprised if they’re not in the playoff hunt come September.
Justin Upton has been on fire to start the season. Even in a perfect world, did you think he was able to have this good of a start?
I certainly didn’t expect Justin to start off so hot, and I can only speculate as to how he’s doing it, but we’re certainly enjoying watching him hit the long ball with regularity. As much as we enjoy it, we know the pace he’s on isn’t sustainable and he’ll cool off a bit (maybe) at some point during the season. Still, he’s a force to be reckoned with in a lineup already full of mashers.
Gattis has nothing left to prove in the minors and has been better than expected defensively as catcher. Until McCann comes back, Gattis will be the primary backstop, but the team can always carry three catchers and make a roster move elsewhere. He can also play left field, but Justin Upton is out there and I don’t think he’ll be sitting very often with the way he's hitting right now. If Gattis can maintain his production through the season, he may make McCann, who is to be a free agent at season’s end, expendable.
Everyone expected the Braves to score runs and knew the bullpen would be good. The rotation probably had the most question marks but has been very good so far. How do Braves fans feel about their start to the season?
All of us Braves fans are stoked with their 8-1 record, but we all know the old adage "It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish." Before the series in Miami, Talking Chop posted an article on Braves teams that start 5-1 (link here). As it turns out, the last two years it happened didn’t end on a high note after a hot start, so starting 8-1 doesn’t mean all that much over the course of a 162-game season.
Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco both raked during Spring Training in their battle to be the starting third baseman. Now that Freeman’s been sidelined, that’s opened a spot for both Johnson and Francisco to be in the lineup with Johnson playing first base. The early returns on Johnson have been good thus far (7-23, .360 OBP) and he has yet to make an error (knock on wood). The Braves need him to keep up the good work until Freeman comes back.
The injury to Venters puts more responsibility, I think, on Jordan Walden. We’re used to seeing Venters in between Eric O’Flaherty and Craig Kimbrel late in the ballgame, but with Venters out, Walden is a good guy to have in the late innings with the lead because he was that guy in Anaheim, but wasn't expected to be that guy, at least not full-time, with Atlanta. He could also share that responsibility with Luis Ayala, whom the Braves picked up just yesterday and a pitcher I’m sure you’re familiar with; Ayala is that same kind of guy. He’s been good the last couple of years and we’re hoping he provides some benefit in Jonny’s absence.
Losing Beachy last year certainly hurt the team, but Kris Medlen’s good performance after the All-Star Break put the fans’ hearts at ease. Now it’s Julio Teheran’s turn to step up in Beachy's absence. Teheran dominated Spring Training and proved his struggles in the minors last year were behind him. He’s been Atlanta’s number one pitching prospect for a few years now and he seems ready to prove it. His first start this year wasn’t ideal, but we’re confident that he’ll have a stellar rookie season.