To say a lot has happened to our Braves in the offseason is a massive understatement. I know many Braves fans are wondering–what is management thinking? Most people want to blame Frank Wren and all of his terrible signings (Uggla, Lowe, Kawakami, B.J. Upton, etc). While that is true, it goes deeper than that. Under his watch, the farm system became completely depleted. So when the Braves finally let Wren go and hired interim GM John Hart, Hart was tasked with rebuilding our farm system. He was to do this with the end goal of having a good organization by the time the Braves open their new stadium in 2017. He has been making moves to stockpile prospects at all levels while trying to eliminate bad contracts and trade players that he didn’t feel we would be able to re-sign (most notably Heyward and J. Upton). However, understanding what the Braves are doing really isn’t going to make watching the 2015 Braves any easier. Unfortunately, the same can probably be said for the 2016 Braves as well. But watch we will–so who exactly will we be watching?
Starting Pitching–Our starting pitching is fair. Julio Teheran is going to have to take the next step and become our ace. He has shown flashes of that in the past and hopefully he is ready to take on that role. Lefty Alex Wood is also going to have a lot more expected of him now that fellow lefty Mike Minor is once again on the DL with shoulder problems. Wood will need to work deeper in games to really help the Braves now that their bullpen is questionable. Newly acquired RHP Shelby Miller (from Cardinals) should ably fill the 3rd slot. This is where it gets scary–4th and 5th starters. We need a healthy, productive Mike Minor but unfortunately he is starting the season on the 15 day DL with shoulder pain. He seems to be having recurring issues so I am not sure how much the Braves can count on him. This leaves us with LHP Eric Stults and RHP Trevor Cahill (both new acquisitions). Stults pitched well in spring training but has never pitched that well in the majors. Cahill was once very promising but has struggled the past two years. If they falter too much, the Braves have promising rookie RHP Mike Foltynewicz or veteran RHP Chien-Ming Wong that they could call up from AAA.
Outfield–Outfield is again just fair. The Braves acquired Nick Markakis to play right. I think we will like him. He is just a good solid fielder and hitter, nothing flashy, not much power, but a pretty dependable everyday player. Now having said that, he did just have offseason neck surgery but the Braves seem to feel he has fully recovered. Center is probably going to Cameron Maybin. He is a good fielder but never seemed to reach his potential in San Diego as far as hitting goes. It is also possible that the Braves go with Eric Young,Jr to play center and have him lead off to give our line up some speed. Either player is a massive upgrade from B.J. Upton! Left field goes to veteran Jonny Gomes. He plays hard but his best days are probably behind him. I think the Braves are just hoping he has 1 or 2 more good years in him.
Infield–Our infield is good! Last I checked we still have proven commodities Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons at first and short. A lot will be asked of Freeman this year and he will have to deal with constantly being pitched around. And I imagine teams will be asking the Braves all year if they will be willing to trade either of these two (hopefully not, but after the Kimbrel trade it feels like no one is safe). It would be nice to see Simmons hit for a higher average this year and really come into his own as a hitter not just an awesome fielder. Chris Johnson returns at third. He needs to have a rebound year and I think he is capable of doing so. At second, we have another new player–Jace Peterson, a prospect acquired from San Diego. I am most excited about him. He beat out the Braves prospect Jose Peraza, who will begin the season at AAA. I think Braves fans are really going to like Peterson’s hustle. And finally, we will have Christian Bethancourt at catcher. Yes, I miss Gattis too. But Bethancourt is definitely an upgrade defensively and he has been hitting the ball well in spring training. It is time for him to no longer be a prospect and become a player. Besides, Gattis and Teheran were never on the same page.
Bullpen–It is time for a moment of silence for all Braves fans. I have been mourning the loss of Craig Kimbrel ever since I heard the news. This one hit us hard! I have to admit that his entrance into the game has been my favorite moment at Braves games for the last 4 years. The first chords of “Welcome to the Jungle” and all the stadium boards full of flames would give me chills. But all the hoopla doesn’t mean anything if you don’t get the job done and he always did! So what does it say to Braves fans that the team traded the game’s best closer? It says that they don’t expect to have enough leads to justify holding on to him. It says that by 2017 when the Braves think they will be decent again, Kimbrel will have 6 years of power pitching behind him and the Braves don’t think he will still be the premiere closer by then. So they decided to move on and it helped that they were able to dump B.J.Upton’s contract in San Diego’s lap. We are still paying Dan Uggla’s contract (to play for rival Nationals) and they didn’t want to be paying B.J.’s too–for more non-performance. So there you go. I hate it but I wish Kimbrel well. He was our team’s one sure thing and we will miss him. Tear.
So now our bullpen is fair to poor. We have two has-been former closers in Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli that will probably close for us. Most likely Grilli will be our closer and Johnson will be eighth inning guy. LHP Luis Avilan is back and we sorely need him to have a rebound year after he pitched so poorly last year. We just picked up LHP Andrew McKirahan from Miami but he hasn’t pitched above AA ball. He was signed to replace the debacle of James Russell who the Braves finally released. Then there are RHPs Brandon Cunniff, Cody Martin, and Juan Jaime. These are unproven guys that are to be our middle relief. Jaime could be good if he finds control. He has a pretty over powering fastball and might be our closer of the future. Or not. If our starters don’t go deep in the game, it could get really ugly.
Bench–Once again the Braves have no depth and a poor bench. Alberto Callaspo may get some time at third. A.J. Pierzynski at catcher has been over the hill for the last 2 seasons–he was basically signed to hold rookie Bethancourt’s hand while he adjusts to being a regular. Kelly Johnson, Phil Gosselin, and Pedro Ciriaco round out the group. Not much there. Now they have signed Cameron Maybin, I guess one of these guys will have to go. Probably Johnson or Ciriaco but I am not sure it matters.
Prediction–It’s going to be a long year! We are in a tough division. I think this is probably the Nationals’ year, their pitching is just going to be too good. They are a lot like the Braves of the 90s, not much offense but great pitching. I think the Marlins will hang in there all year but ultimately finish second. An improved Mets team will finish third. That leaves the Braves and Phillies to battle for last place. If the Phillies’ old veterans have one more good year in them then they will finish fourth, otherwise the Braves will. Hopefully, I am wrong about that and the Braves will compete and finish at .500. But I think it is more likely that the Braves will wind up with between 70 and 75 wins.
Game today: RHP Julio Teheran goes for the Braves today at Miami at 4:10 on SportSouth.