One of the new features that you'll be seeing at Federal Baseball this season will be series previews, so we're not going to go too crazy with a look at the other teams in the division. I imagine that dc Roach will have plenty more to add about the Washington Nationals upcoming opponents throughout the year, and I'm looking forward to some pretty neat infographics from B. Sheridan this season as well! I'm just going to take a broad look at each of the other four teams in the NL East as opening day approaches. Yesterday, we took a quick look at the Phillies. Today, we'll continue our look at the rest of the division by looking at the Atlanta Braves.
SB Nation Site: Talking Chop
2014 Record: 79-83, tied for 2nd in NL East
Key Offseason Acquisitions: Shelby Miller, Nick Markakis, Eric Young, Jace Peterson, Jonny Gomes, Trevor Cahill, Mike Foltynewicz, Jason Grilli
Key Offseason Losses: Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, Ervin Santana, Emilio Bonifacio, Aaron Harang, Brandon Beachy, Tommy LaStella, Jordan Walden
2014 was a disappointing year for the Braves. Coming off of a division title in 2013, they looked like one of the top two teams in the division and were expected to at least contend for a wildcard spot. Atlanta got out of the gate well, going 17-8 in April. From that point on, they were pretty much a .500 team...... until September. Atlanta entered the season's final month just six games behind the Nats in the standings and in the thick of the wildcard race, but went 7-18 down the stretch to finish 79-83 on the year. They did finish tied for second in the most lopsided division in baseball.
Rather than focusing on trying to add a half dozen wins to their 2015 squad, the Braves took a look at the rest of the division and decided to move in the opposite direction. With one of the deepest rotations in the history of the game and an above average offense, Atlanta decided they'd be hard pressed to challenge for the division title. The Mets and Marlins both look like teams that will be expected to show dramatic improvement as some of their young stars mature as well, so the Braves took the long view and tried to load up their farm system.
In order to kickstart the rebuild, the Braves traded away their entire projected starting outfield for 2015 (Heyward, Justin Upton, Gattis), the player that was expected to be their future at second base (LaStella), and a key late inning reliever (Walden), acquiring mainly prospects or young major league talent in return. They added Foltynewicz and a couple of prospects in the Gattis deal. They gave up Justin Upton's last year of club control for Jace Peterson and three other prospects (most notably Max Fried) from San Diego. They also shed Heyward (with Walden) with just one year of club control remaining in order to acquire four years of club control on Shelby Miller and a once highly touted prospect in Tyrell Jenkins. They added even more pitching in the LaStella deal, re-acquiring Arodys Vizcaino from the Cubs... of course, Vizcaino was tagged with a PED suspension last week.
The moves that the Braves made certainly figure to make them less imposing in 2015. Their offense is now built around Freddie Freeman and a bunch of other players that they hope will overachieve. Their pitching still figures to be strong, both in 2015 and in future seasons, so they should win about 70 games even if their offense is pretty much a one man show. Barring a miracle, they're not a threat to make the playoffs.
Best Pitcher: Julio Teheran
OK... I should probably change that to best starting pitcher, but I'm categorizing relievers separately. Teheran emerged as one of the best young starters in baseball in 2013, going 14-8 with a 3.20 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. He showed he could sustain that success in his sophomore season, cutting the ERA to 2.89 and the WHIP to 1.08. The 24-year-old right hander figures to be a workhorse (221 IP last season) once again in 2015. He has big strikeout potential (7.72 K/9 so far in his career), terrific control (2.18 BB/9), and commands four pitches well. There is one thing about Teheran that bugs me, though. The Nats will likely face him four or five times this season, and I recommend you have a fridge full of beverages (adult or otherwise) ready for those games.... Going off of the memory of his starts against the Nats last season, he can turn a 1-2-3 inning into a twenty minute affair. Although he works at a snail's pace, he's a fun pitcher to watch.
Best Reliever: Craig Kimbrel
Yes.... This is annoying......
Once you get past Kimbrel's obnoxious between pitch routine, though, he's one of the very best relievers in baseball. He sits in the high 90s with his fastball and has a devastating breaking ball (sometimes categorized as a slider, sometimes as a curve) to go along with it. While Kimbrel did have more bouts with his control in 2014 than he had in the previous two years, he's so unhittable that it didn't really matter that much. In five big league seasons, Kimbrel has an otherworldly 14.82 K/9, a 1.43 ERA, and a 1.52 FIP. He's converted 186 of his 205 big league save opportunities and leads all big league relievers (by 2.5!) with 11.6 fWAR since he reached the majors in the middle of 2010. He's an absolute beast. Kimbrel is under contract through 2017 (with a reasonable team option for 2018 unless he falls apart), but it would be less than surprising if the Braves found a taker who would pay handsomely for him and further aid their rebuilding plan that began over the winter.
Sleeper Pitcher: Mike Foltynewicz
Foltynewicz lost the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation to journeyman Eric Stults, but the fact of the matter is that Stults and recent acquisition Trevor Cahill don't exactly provide major obstacles for him to overcome in the long term. Foltynewicz was the key cog Atlanta got in the Evan Gattis trade with Houston. A former 19th overall pick, Folty throws flat gas. His fastball routinely touches the high 90s, though he probably needs some more work on his secondary pitches (changeup/curveball) and his command.
2014 was an odd season for Foltynewicz in Houston. He didn't have a particularly strong year in AAA, but did end up getting the call to the majors in August and gained some experience pitching out of the big league bullpen. Atlanta would prefer if he works out as a starter in the long run, so he'll probably head down to Gwinnett to begin the 2015 season. Since the Braves don't figure to contend, a good start could get him to the big club quickly to replace Stults or Cahill (or an injured starter). He's not a finished product, but there's a lot of potential here... and there isn't much blocking him.
Best Position Player: Freddie Freeman
Freeman's success against the Nats (.323/.376/.500) is pretty well known at Federal Baseball. In truth, he doesn't only hit well against the Nats. The 25-year-old first baseman has a career .286/.366/.465 line with 86 homers in four (plus) seasons. Freeman doesn't look like he's ever going to be an elite power hitter, but he's already become a pretty stable source of 30-35 doubles, 20-25 homers, and above average on base skills. It wouldn't be surprising to see Freeman have a couple of 30+ home run seasons over the course of his career. As he nears his physical peak, the likelihood is that we're about to see him have his best years from 2015-2019 or so. He's a dangerous hitter in the middle of the order who can be one of the better players on a first division club. Unfortunately for the Braves, he doesn't have much of a supporting cast.
Sleeper Position Player: Jace Peterson
Peterson wasn't the big get in the Justin Upton trade. That would be pitching prospect Max Fried. In fact, there's a pretty good argument that Peterson may have been the third best player that the Braves acquired in that deal, as 21-year-old Mallex Smith looks like he could become an elite defensive center fielder with an adequate bat and to go along with his best tool... his speed. Still, Peterson has one thing that neither of those other two prospects have going for them: a shot at a regular job in the big leagues in 2015.
Peterson's tools don't really blow you away. He hit well in the high minors last season, but most of his time was spent in the hitter friendly PCL. He's versatile, and can play any position on the infield fairly well. His speed grades out as above average (55-60) rather than elite according to most scouting reports, but he has been a threat on the basepaths as he's ascended through the minors. He's even shown plus plate patience to go along with an average hit tool. I wouldn't expect to see much power out of Peterson, but it looks like he's got a good chance to be their opening day second baseman. It wouldn't be shocking if he turned into a table-setter near the top of the order who can swipe 20 bags or so.
Summing it up
The Braves faced a choice entering the 2014-15 offseason. They could have either tried to load up for one more shot at glory with two of their best three position players (Heyward, Justin Upton) entering their final years of club control or they could have accepted that they faced an uphill battle and tried to better set themselves up for 2017 and beyond. They chose the latter option. What may be scary for the NL East (in a few years) is that in just one month, the Braves had a fair amount of success doing what the Phillies should have done about three years ago... and they still figure to be better than the Phillies in 2015. Atlanta's offense is extremely limited, but their pitching will help them get to about 70 wins as they'll finish fourth in the division.