It is a little too easy to focus too intently on each off-season as if they occur in a vacuum. Sure, the Red Sox haven’t had a very active signing period. But they did just win the World Series and many of their keys pieces are already in place.
The Atlanta Braves won 96 games in 2013, claiming another NL East title. This success came on the heels of a very busy off-season, in which they engineered the Justin Upton trade and spent a king’s ransom on free agent center fielder B.J. Upton. There wasn’t a lot of question that the Braves built their 2013 team to win.
But, because they’re the Braves, Atlanta came up short in the postseason, bowing out to the Dodgers in the NLDS. Since the final game of the year, the Braves watched catcher Brian McCann sign with the New York Yankees as a free agent and long-time starter Tim Hudson, who missed the end of the season with a gruesome ankle injury, agree to join the Giants on a two-year free agent contract.
To counteract these losses the Braves have done…well they’ve done very little. Bringing in Ryan Doumit as a third-string catcher and signed a rehabbing starter in Gavin Floyd. Atlanta has a lot of talent and their front office believes the pieces are all but in place for another postseason run.
Confident as they might be, Atlanta surely wants to improve their 2014 chances. As such, what is the Braves next move? Are they ready to compete with their roster as is?
In a perfect world? Yes. In the real world, where underperformance and injury lurk around every corner, maybe not.
The Braves still have a very good team, one that benefits from a healthier, more mature starting rotation and glomming onto the reality that B.J. Upton couldn’t possibly be this bad again (could he?). It is tough to fault a 96 win team for not getting better but one look at their division rivals in Washington shows that even when you do try improving an already good team, rarely does everything go to plan.
The Nationals rode incredible health in the rotation in 2012 and some breakout performances to the 2012 division title. After a playoff disappointment, the Nats stood pat in their rotation, taking a risk on Dan Haren and improving their center field position. The rotation couldn’t stay healthy long enough for Washington to overcome injuries around the rest of the diamond and players like Adam Laroche returning to their career norms and slipped 12 games in the standings.
Very real needs remain on the Atlanta roster, needs the “win now” Braves haven’t come close to addressing yet this winter. The catching position remains a significant question mark, as the dropoff from Brian McCann to Evan Gattis will not be insignificant. Adding catcher Ryan Doumit might provide some cover behind Gattis and Gerald Laird but even at his best, Doumit is no starting catcher. The same might well be said about both Laird and Gattis – yet the Braves go into the season with Gattis as their number one.
Third baseman Chris Johnson was seen as a throw-in piece of the Justin Upton trade, but he ended up providing the nearly the same offense as Upton, posting a 125 wRC+ to Upton’s 127. His production outpaced the man he replaced, Martin Prado, by about half a win. Some might point to his sky high in-play average as a marker of unsustainable production but Johnson does own one of the three highest BABIPs among active players.
Even if Upton gets a little better and Johnson gets a little worse, the Braves aren’t taking steps forward in the field. Many Braves fans desperately want to see the team add a starting pitching. The club itself believes their rotation is good enough heading into the 2013 season, and Talking Chop editor Ben Duronio is inclined to agree.
Braves are placing a lot of faith in Medlen/Teheran/Minor by not going out and getting that big ace. Their confidence in them is telling.
— Ben Duronio (@Ben_Duronio) December 18, 2013
And why shouldn't he have faith in them? All three had ERA's at 3.21 or less. Teheran and Minor are still improving too. Next step 200 IP+
— Ben Duronio (@Ben_Duronio) December 18, 2013
While everybody loves an ace and Braves fans were long spoiled by unbelievable pitching performances, the issue of health and innings is of much greater concern to the Braves. Behind them on the depth chart sits Alex Wood, another good pitcher with workload question marks and Brandon Beachy, working his way back from Tommy John surgery. Guaranteeing Gavin Floyd, who won’t be ready until midseason, $4.5 million is another health and performance lottery ticket for team needing stability and reliability from their future rotation.
Going out and acquiring a pitcher like Jeff Samardzija provides a more battle-tested arm to the Braves rotation, though his upside isn’t too much higher than any of the arms in their current rotation. Samardzija just completed his first 200 inning season, so even he isn’t the 32 start rock this rotation calls out for.
Atlanta still needs to address their second base position as well as make some depth considerations. The team is good enough that a slight push in the right direction could help solidifying their place at the top of the NL East. It is odd that a team staring at big pay increases for Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, and Craig Kimbrel would not attempt to make more of a splash before all those players hit their big arb pay days.
For all their success, Atlanta is still a team that operates within clear budget restrictions. Which makes their choice to sign Floyd and Doumit approx $10 million between them interesting when their rotation still features exactly one pitcher with a 200 inning season under his belt in the last five years.
Trading Dan Uggla just to get out from under his contract or, perish the thought, trading Craig Kimbrel are all options for Atlanta as they attempt to hold off the hard-charging Nats in the NL East while keeping their bottom line in order. They’re good but on paper appear worse than last year. Their core is only getting more costly, making that juggling act even tougher.
There is so little margin for error for teams of Atlanta’s quality and any and all opportunities for improvement must be investigated. According to ZiPS projections, the Braves current roster appears to be close to 10 WAR short of last year’s club. “True talent” isn’t everything but the Braves are risking a lot in terms of real-life consequences by not risking a little bit of capital (be it cash or prospects) to make their team better right now.
Nobody knows better than the Atlanta Braves how tough it can be to make that final push to the top of the mountain. Thanks to the extra playoff rounds and the wild card uncertainty, there are more reasons than ever now for big league teams to insulate themselves from chance and having one or two injuries undo an entire five-year plan. The Braves have a lot of talent and a lot of regular season success under their belt, it seems a shame they would sit out while opportunities to improve were there for the taking.