Detroit Tigers v Atlanta Braves

2012 Record: 94-68, 2nd NL East
2012 Pythagorean Record: 92-70
Impact Player: RF Jason Heyward
Impact Pitcher: RHP Tim Hudson
Top Prospect: RHP Julio Teheran 

Significant Acquisitions: LF Justin Upton, CF B.J. Upton, 3B Chris Johnson, RHP Jordan Walden, C Gerald Laird, IF Ramiro Pena, OF Jordan Schafer, RHP David Carpenter

Significant Departures: 3B Chipper Jones, LF Martin Prado, CF Michael Bourn, RHP Tommy Hanson, RHP Randall Delgado, C David Ross, RHP Chad Durbin, RHP Jair Jurrjens, CP Eric Hinske, OF Matt Diaz

In 1990, the Atlanta Braves recorded their sixth-straight losing season and had become known as one of the most futile franchises in baseball. Since then, in 21 seasons (1994 omitted because of the strike), Atlanta has posted fewer than 86 wins only thrice and has made the playoffs an astounding 16 times. In 2012, they recorded 94 wins—their highest total since 2004—but due to the awesomeness of the Washington Nationals, were forced to play in—and lose—the first ever National League wildcard play-in game to the St. Louis Cardinals.

With the retirement of third baseman Chipper Jones and the loss of centerfielder Michael Bourn to free agency, the Braves sought to make significant changes to their offense and did so by bringing in the brothers Upton—B.J. from Tampa via a five-year, $75-million contract and Justin via a trade with the Diamondbacks that saw leftfielder Martin Prado and others go the other way. With the current roster, Atlanta is poised to make another run at the playoffs, but how likely is it that they avoid the wildcard game this time around?

Pitching
Atlanta gave up the fourth-fewest runs in the NL last year and although a lot of that had to do with some stellar defense, they also ran out a deep and excellent pitching staff including one of the best bullpens in baseball—which could be even better in 2013. The rotation lacks high-impact names, but could field five or six legitimate mid- to top-end starters. The pitcher with probably the most upside of the group is Brandon Beachy who posted a 2.00 ERA in 13 starts before succumbing to an elbow injury which required Tommy John surgery. He’s not expected back until at least early June, but could be a huge boost to the team in the second half.

For now, the Braves will rely on 37-year-old veteran Tim Hudson to carry the rotation as he has for several years now. Hudson is one of the best examples of a pitcher who can routinely outpitch his peripherals with excellent groundball rates and command. He’ll be joined at the top of the rotation by Kris Medlen who had a ridiculous 1.57 ERA in 138 innings last season. He started out the year in the bullpen and was moved into the rotation for the final two months. Once in the rotation, Medlen went on an inspired 12-start run in which he gave up zero earned runs in six of them and one earned run in an additional four. It’s unlikely that he’ll repeat that performance over a full season, but his peripherals suggest he could still be an excellent pitcher.

Left-handers Mike Minor and Paul Maholm will occupy the middle of the rotation. Minor’s once-lofty potential as a prospect has been tempered a bit, but at just 25, he still has a lot of upside and is coming off a year in which he pitched much better in the second half and could take a big step forward in 2013. Maholm, meanwhile, has settled in nicely as a dependable mid-rotation pitcher with excellent groundball rates and no glaring weaknesses despite his lack of ceiling.

With an excellent spring, top prospect Julio Teheran looks poised to take the fifth spot in the rotation. Some of his prospect shine has worn off after a down season at Triple-A Gwinnett and a poor showing on his one Major League start. Still, Teheran is just 22 and most pitchers his age are still trying to work on a changeup in A-ball and the ceiling is still bananas. If he can find his pre-2012 form, he could be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher very soon.

Should injuries strike, the Braves don’t have a ton of depth, but left-handers Yohan Flande and prospect Sean Gilmartin are expected to be the first called up.

Right-handers Craig Kimbrel and Jordan Walden and lefties Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty make up the best foursome at the back of any bullpen in baseball. If you thought Kimbrel’s 2011 season was a fluke, all those concerns should be put to rest after a 2012 that was somehow even better. I don’t want to inundate the reader with too many stats, but bear with me for a moment: Kimbrel led NL relievers in ERA (1.01!!), strikeouts-per-nine (16.66!!!), expected fielding-independent pitching (0.88!!!), and wins above replacement according to FanGraphs with a nearly incomprehensible 3.6. For a reliever to be worth nearly four wins not only boggles the mind, but forces one to adjust their concept of how valuable a reliever can be in the small sample size of 70 or so innings.

O’Flaherty also posted an ERA under two and both Venters and Walden (who was acquired from the Angels for Tommy Hanson this winter) posted excellent strikeout numbers. Cory Gearrin could be another elite reliever if his 20-inning sample in 2012 is any indication of how good he can be. The final two spots are expected to go to left-hander Luis Avilan and right-handed long-man Cristhian Martinez.

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Lineup
The Braves scored exactly 700 runs last season which placed them seventh in the NL, but with a young core of extremely talented players, that total could go up drastically in 2013. Rightfielder Jason Heyward rebounded after a sub-par sophomore season in 2011 and posted excellent numbers last year. At just 23, he’s poised to make another jump this season and could be a darkhorse MVP candidate. Last season, he had a 6.6 WAR according to FanGraphs, but that was buoyed by his 21.5 UZR, which ranked as the highest among any rightfielder in baseball.

The Braves swapped out Prado and Bourn in the other two outfield spots and replaced them with the Uptons who will play on the same team for the first time since the two were high school teammates in Chesapeake, Virginia. Justin will move from his traditional spot of rightfield over to left. He had a down year in 2011 but now that he’s out of Arizona, where he clearly fell out of favour with the Kevin Towers-led the front office, he could be poised for a big-time bounce back. He’s entering just his age-25 and was a legitimate MVP-candidate in 2011. B.J., meanwhile, signed for $75-million after a middling year by his standards in Tampa, but is still just 28 and has the tool-profile to suggest that he could still put it all together and be well-worth his pay cheque.

In the infield, first baseman Freddie Freeman and shortstop Andrelton Simmons are each entering their age-23 season and each has an All-Star-level ceiling. Freeman has a 117 wRC+ over his first two seasons in the league, which isn’t great for a first baseman, but that should get better as he approaches his physical peak. Simmons, meanwhile, might be the best defensive shortstop in baseball and his bat was a lot more impactful than expected in his 49-game debut last season. He continued to hit well for the Netherlands at the World Baseball Classic and could be primed for a monster season.

Dan Uggla is back at second base after his worst big-league season in 2012. He hit a career-low 19 home runs and has seen his wOBA drop almost 60 points since joining Atlanta ahead of the 2011 campaign. At 32, he might not get any better. At third, the Braves are expected to replace Jones with a platoon of Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson.

Catcher Brian McCann struggled through shoulder problems last year and will start the year on the DL. When healthy, he’s one of the best catchers in the league, but as he approaches 30, those days may be behind him as the tools of ignorance appear to be taking their toll. He’s expected to miss much time in 2013, but until he returns, the Braves will go with veteran Gerald Laird and 26-year-old prospect Evan Gattis. Gattis has had a good spring, but has only 207 plate appearances above A-ball. He took a four-year hiatus from baseball in his early 20s which is why he’s getting such a late start. He’ll probably head back to the minors once McCann returns.

Defense
Atlanta finished third in the NL in defensive efficiency in 2012 and could be in even better shape for this season. Simmons’ defense could be generational at short and an outfield that consists of three excellent athletes in the Uptons and Heyward could be something special to watch. Those four should more than make up for weaknesses at second and third base. McCann is generally well-regarded behind the plate, but with a bum throwing shoulder, he may start to become a liability. Laird is solid as the backup, but if Gattis ends up getting a lot of playing time this year, that won’t help the defense. Overall, the Braves will be among the best defensive clubs in the NL.

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2013 Outlook
Atlanta has a long track record of excellence that rivals anyone in baseball, yet they always seem to fly under the radar. A lack of impact names in the rotation is more than made up for by the best and deepest bullpen in the game. Combined with a stellar defense, the Braves will be among the best in the NL at preventing runs. With a young and improving core of position players on the rise, Atlanta is poised to contend and should battle with Washington for the division all year.
2013 Prediction: 91-71, 2nd NL East 

For a detailed depth chart with statistics, click here. Stats obtained from FanGraphs (Atlanta’s team page here) and Baseball Prospectus. Depth chart info provided by MLB Depth Charts.