Now that the Braves have begun exhibition games in the Grapefruit League, fans are getting their first look at the 2014 Braves. Asking what happened to so-and-so or who the new young reliever is comes naturally for any fan. It seems a good time to review what happened over the offseason including who left the team and who joined the Braves.
Of the departures, the three that will certainly sting the most for the Braves as the 2014 season gets underway are Hudson, McCann and O’Flaherty. Hudson and McCann have offered leadership on and off the field for the Braves. O’Flaherty, with the exception of last season’s Tommy John surgery ending his year, has been a force in the bullpen for the Braves. Since joining the Braves in 2009, O’Flaherty pitched in 295 games (an average of 69 per 162 games) and a total of 249 1/3 innings (average of 58 per 162 games). He notched a stunning 1.99 ERA from 2009-2013 with a 13-7 win/loss record. His strikeout/per 9 innings rate was 7.2. With Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, the Braves boasted the best bullpen in baseball. While both O’Flaherty and Venters recovered from Tommy John surgeries last season, the Braves got an idea of what the ‘pen would look like when one or both moved on. Luis Avilan stepped up in a big way and the addition of Jordan Walden proved crucial.
In addition to the contract extensions of the young core, both GM Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez saw their contracts extended. The specifics of those contracts have not been made public, but both will be with the team through at least the 2015 season.
The Bench Battle:
Perhaps the biggest news of the winter for the Braves was not a signing, not a departure and certainly not an injury. The Braves announced that they will leave Turner Field in 2017 for a new stadium in Cobb County. This announcement has opened doors for the Braves that wouldn’t have been possible had they stayed in Atlanta at the Ted. Projected revenue from the new stadium meant that Frank Wren was able to go out and sign the extensions with Freeman, Heyward, Kimbrel, Teheran and Simmons. After 17 years at Turner Field, a stadium that was built for the 1996 summer Olympics and then retrofittef for the Braves, the Braves will part with an average stadium that came with obvious problems. The new stadium not only made the winter contract extensions possible, it will give the Braves payroll flexibility in the coming years as they approach arbitration and free agency with Brandon Beachy, Alex Wood, Mike Minor, Evan Gattis and others.
Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.
Frank Wren continues a torrid spring of signings with today’s news that Atlanta has signed shortstop Andrelton Simmons to a 7-year extension. Simmons joins Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel as part of the young core the Braves have locked in for many years to come.
The deal signed today with the defensive wizard is worth $58 million. Simmons’ deal includes a progressive salary beginning with $1 million for 2014, $3 million in 2015, $6 million in ’16, $8 million in ’17, $11 million in ’18, $13 million in ’19 and $15 million in 2020. In addition to his annual salary, Andrelton was given a $1 million signing bonus. Simmons will be 31 when his contract expires.
Andrelton Simmons, the last regular man to arrive at camp due to visa issues, was quick to sign the extension with the Braves. Andrelton said he couldn’t be happier with the extension, noting that the Braves are a team he grew up following. Part of the reason for that is his fellow Curaçao countryman Andruw Jones who patrolled Atlanta’s outfield for 12 seasons, winning 10 consecutive Gold Glove awards. Simmons won his first Gold Glove award in 2013. His first of many, certainly.
Andrelton Simmons is best known for his defense, notching a defensive WAR (wins above replacement) of 5.4 in 2013, the highest WAR for his position. Also in 2013, Andrelton recorded 499 assists, another best among those at his position. That same year he finished 14th in MVP balloting and won the Gold Glove. Simmons has a career .256 batting average in 206 games (840 plate appearances). While the small sample size doesn’t necessarily foretell Simmons’ offensive strengths in the years to come, his defense thus far is a good indication that he has the potential to be one of the best if not the best defensive players in the history of the game.
Simmons’ signing is one of several in recent days and speaks to the payroll flexibility the Braves gain with the announced move to a new stadium in Cobb County.
Atlanta’s front office has committed approximately $280 million to 5 players in extensions in just over 2 weeks Jason Heyward was signed for 2 years, Freddie Freeman for 8 years, Julio Teheran for 6 years, Craig Kimbrel for 5 years and now Simmons for 7. In addition to these signings, both Fredi Gonzalez and Frank Wren had their contracts extended through at least the 2015 seasons.
Speaking to the recent extensions of himself and his teammates, Simmons said, “it’s really nice to see the Braves want to keep this team together. We have great talent.”
Mike Minor, the only missing piece of the puzzle, is likely the next domino to fall. Minor is under Atlanta’s control for 4 seasons including the 2014 season.
Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.
In a continued spending spree, the Braves announced Sunday that they had signed closer Craig Kimbrel to a 4-year, $42 million contract. Kimbrel’s deal includes a 5th year option for $13 million. Kimbrel and the Braves avoid an arbitration hearing that was scheduled for Monday.
Kimbrel’s deal is the largest contract in Major League Baseball for a closer who has not yet reached free agent status. The deal with Atlanta will lock Kimbrel up for what would have been his first 2 years of free agency, if not 3 depending on if his option is exercised.
Kimbrel’s contract comes on the heels of the signing of young pitcher Julio Teheran to a 6-year $32.4 million extension with an option for a 7th year (a total of $44.4 million). At 25, this contract will lock Kimbrel in until at least his 29th birthday. At 23, the Teheran deal will lock him in until his 29th birthday as well.
The early winter announcement that the Braves have purchased land in Cobb County to build a new stadium has given general manager Frank Wren room to negotiate new salaries with a young core of players (Freeman, Heyward, Kimbrel and Teheran). All three players who were headed for arbitration hearings–Freeman, Heyward and Kimbrel–were signed to extensions before their hearing dates. The next domino to fall for the Braves is likely to be defensive genius Andrelton Simmons.
Kimbrel has been the most dominant closer in baseball since his Rookie of the Year season when he set the mark for most saves by a rookie closer, surpassing another RoY winner Neftali Feliz. In his 3 years as the Braves closer, including his RoY campaign, he has recorded 138 saves. His best season in saves came in 2013 when he recorded 50 saves, the most in the National League.
Since making his MLB debut in 2009, he has recorded a career 1.39 ERA in 227 1/3 innings. He has an amazing SO/9 rate of 15.1 with 381 strikeouts to his career and has never given up more than 20 walks and 4 homers in a season. He was selected as an All Star in each of his 3 full seasons in the big leagues, has finished no worst than 9th in Cy Young voting each season and finished as high as 8th in MVP balloting in 2012. His career best season in ERA came in 2012 when he finished the season with a 1.01 ERA.
Young Julio Teheran has been a gem since his prospect years with the club. Though he got off to a rough start when first called up, his trip down to Gwinnett righted the ship and he has become one of the most consistent pitchers on Atlanta’s staff. In 2013, Teheran finished 5th in Rookie of the Year voting following a 14-8 season with a 3.20 ERA.
In Teheran’s 3 years of service in the big leagues, he has a more than respectable SO/9 rate of 7.1 with 185 strikeouts to his young career (170 of them in his rookie of the year season). Teheran is a solid middle-to-back of the rotation option for the Braves with Minor and Medlen leading the way. He also has the reputation of having one of the best pick-off moves to first base in the league.
As the Braves begin camp, the present and future are looking very bright for the club.
Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.
While Braves Country was expecting 3 arbitration hearings to determine contracts for Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Craig Kimbrel, Frank Wren was at work trying to make extensions happen with Freeman and Heyward. Wren was successful and deals were made official locking up Freeman for 8 years and Heyward for 2.
Locking up Freddie Freeman to an 8-year, $135 million contract may be the smartest move Frank Wren and the front office of the Braves have made in years. Freeman has played in 471 career games with Atlanta, recording a .285 batting average, scoring 250 runs, knocking 68 home runs and driving in 280 RBIs. Freeman’s franchise-record contract, surpassing Chipper Jones’ 6-year, $90 million extension in 2001 (for the 2001-06 seasons), will lock Freddie in with the Braves through the 2021 season. Freddie’s contract will expire when he is only 32-years-old.
A huge upside to signing Freddie Freeman is his durability. Over the past 3 seasons, Freeman has averaged of 150 games per season. In those seasons, he has averaged 82 runs scored, 31 doubles, 22 homers and 93 RBIs.
What appears to be the Braves choosing Freeman over Heyward may actually be an attempt to spur on the talented Heyward who many believe has never played up to his own potential. In any case, the Braves are in a good position with Heyward who will be under contract until he hits the free agent market after the 2015 season. Heyward’s contract is worth $13.3 million over that 2-year span.
In Heyward’s 532 games over 4 seasons he has recorded a .259 batting average, averaged 149 hits per season, 3o doubles and 22 homers. In additions to those numbers, he came in 2nd in Rookie of the Year balloting in 2010, was an All Star in 2010 and earned a Gold Glove in 2012.
Frank Wren has said, as many believe, that revenue increases from the move from Turner Field to the new stadium in Cobb County will allow the Braves to compete when players hit the open market through free agency and will allow the team to hang onto homegrown guys like Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward. In the coming years, a sleu of talent will be arbitration eligible or hit free agency including Andrelton Simmons, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Alex Wood, Evan Gattis, Brandon Beachy and others. It would appear that with the Heyward and Freeman signings as well as the coming arbitration hearing for Kimbrel, the high-profile priority for the Braves will be shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
Craig Kimbrel is still headed for arbitration. The hearing is slated for February 17th.
In yet another under the radar trade by Braves general manager Frank Wren, Atlanta announced today a trade for right-handed pitcher Gavin Floyd. Floyd, 30, has spent the last 7 seasons with the Chicago White Sox after being drafted by and spending 3 seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Floyd’s best year came in 2008 for the White Sox when he had a 17-8 record with a career-best 3.84 ERA (in 206 1/3 innings pitched). Over his 10-year career he has a 70-70 record (in 199 games) with a 4.48 ERA. Floyd had 5 starts in 2013 before having to undergo Tommy John surgery to repair both a torn ulnar collateral ligament and torn flexor tendon. He is likely to be ready to pitch by mid-May.
The Braves offered Floyd a $4 million contract with performance incentives. A fairly low-risk contract with the potential for high reward.
The trade for Gavin Floyd is not the trade for a veteran ace many Braves fans were hoping to see by the club, but with the return of Brandon Beachy, the growing dominance of Mike Minor and the veteran presence of Floyd, the Braves have a solid rotation as it stands now. The trade certainly doesn’t close the door on any potential trades for pitching.
In addition to the free agent signing of Gavin Floyd, the Braves have picked up two other minor pieces over the last few weeks that may prove to be as important as the previous low-risk signings of players like Ben Sheets and Elliot Johnson. The two players that were picked up by the Braves’ front office are INF Mat Gamel, previously a top prospect for the Milwaukee Brewers, and RHP Luis Vasquez, a reliever from the Dodger system.Gamel was a touted prospect for the Brewers and heir-apparent to Prince Fielder at 1B until he required two knee surgeries. Gamel’s likely option is on the bench. In 290 games at Triple A, Gamel hit for a .301 average with 53 homers and an .886 OPS. Vasquez, the more interesting of the two pickups, is a reliever with a great deal of potential despite underwhelming numbers in both Double A and Triple A. Playing in the Dominican Republic Winter League, Vasquez has posted an 1.15 ERA in 20 appearances for Licey. He has 19 strikeouts to 3 walks in 15 2/3 innings while allowing only 4 hits. His dropped arm slot has been a huge success, something he did while with the Dodgers in 2013. He routinely throws between 94-96 MPH.
It hasn’t been a blockbuster winter this year as it was over the past offseason when the Braves traded for Justin Upton and Chris Johnson and signed free agent B.J. Upton. However, as Frank Wren has shown in the past, it doesn’t take signing the top name on the free agent list or trading for the most coveted piece to make a winning ball club.
With the exciting, though not altogether surprising, announcement that Andrelton Simmons has been awarded a Rawlings Gold Glove as well as named by ESPN 2013′s best defender, we wondered how Simmons stacks up against a former Braves shortstop to which he’s often been compared: Rafael Furcal.
Simmons became the first Braves infielder to win a Gold Glove since Terry Pendleton did it in 1992 and immediately surpassed Furcal who shockingly never won the award with Atlanta, Los Angeles or St. Louis.
Let’s start by taking a look at the defensive numbers for Simmons and Furcal in their first full seasons. For Furcal, the numbers listed are an average of his time at shortstop and second base (where he played 31 games during his rookie season):
Take a minute to consider where Simmon’s fielding percentage in 2013 ranks against some of the best shortstops to play the game. Troy Tulowitzki has the highest career fielding percentage at shortstop at .985%. He is followed by the gifted Omar Vizquel who, with 24 seasons to his big league career, finished with a .984%. You get to sixth on the list, Rey Sanchez, where you’ll find the .981% that Simmons put up this season. Sure, he has only put in a season and a half in the big leagues, but even with minimal playing time in his young career this is rarefied air that Simmons shares. You have to scroll clear down to 185 on the list to find where Rafael Furcal’s 13 seasons rank for shortstops (at .965).
Furcal’s first full season was not rewarded with a gold glove, but due to it being his first season of substantial play and his impressive offensive numbers, Furcal was rewarded for his effort with the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Of course, Simmons was not eligible for the RoY due to the injury-shortened 49-game 2012 season that qualified as his rookie year. Otherwise, there’s no question that he would be int he RoY conversation.
Offensively, there are clear differences between Furcal and Simmons.
While Simmons has been superior defensively, Furcal put together better numbers at the plate. While Simmons hit more home runs, drove in more runs and had more total hits than Furcal, there is no disputing the brilliance Furcal displayed his rookie year on the base paths. Before we discuss the latter point, let’s take a look at how Simmons and Furcal’s first full seasons in Major League Baseball compare offensively:
Simmons’ strikeout total stands out immediately, given Atlanta’s strikeout-happy lineup. The runs are less, the hits more for Simmons. Furcal displayed less pop in his rookie season, but hit for a high average. The clearest contrast, however, is Furcal’s sizable edge on the base paths. Furcal reached base safely far more often than Simmons and once there, he made opposing pitchers pay for putting him there.
With clearly better-than-average speed, it’s peculiar that Simmons isn’t more of a base stealing threat. He played his first full season for a team far better equipped to wait for the 3-run homer than to run opposing pitchers ragged. Certainly, that’s a factor. And while he doesn’t have Furcal’s blinding speed, he has proven himself to be a smart, heads-up base runner.
Furcal was always a lead-off hitter. It was quite apparently the role he was born to play. That’s just not Andrelton Simmons. He will never be the quintessential lead-off guy. However, if Simmons can develop better plate discipline and find his way on base more consistently, it would seem a waste not to put his speed to better use.
When Simmons appeared on Atlanta’s radar, some speculated that he might be the next Rafael Furcal. It now appears that “Simba” is even more impressive with the leather than Furcal, which is saying something. Whether Andrelton can become the offensive force that Furcal was when at his best remains to be seen. He’ll never steal 40 bases, but he may eventually provide a similar spark to the lineup in other ways. Simmons’ potential appears to be as a run-producer, rather than a table-setter.
We can only hope the young shortstop proves to be more durable than Furcal, about whom every conversation begins with the words “if he’s healthy”. Because if Andrelton Simmons is able to remain on the field, largely unencumbered by the ailments that have derailed far too many promising careers, we could be watching a shortstop for the ages.
Update (11.8.13): Andrelton Simmons was voted by the fans, with the help of pre-established input from the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), the winner of the 2013 National League Rawlings’ Platinum Glove Award. Simmons edged out Cardinals’ catcher Yadier Molina by 1% of the total vote.
The story of the 2013 Atlanta Braves season was one of resilience. With a core of young, talented guys, big off season acquisitions and a few veterans, the Braves won the National League East and entered the playoffs despite a season riddled with adversity. That the Braves even made it to the postseason is, in itself, quite surprising. That they couldn’t rise to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers stung, but their postseason performance aside, it was a successful season for Atlanta.
Take a moment to consider what the Braves overcame this season:
Any other team would have crumbled and ended their season at the bottom of their division. But the Braves, to their credit, forged on and made it to the playoffs knowing that they might lack consistent offense, would be without their starting second baseman due to his offensive woes and may or may not get much out of the veteran starter Freddy Garcia.
The Braves may have headed back home to Atlanta to begin the long offseason with the bitter taste of defeat in their mouths, but they do have a few performances to remind themselves of from their playoff experience.
Following the loss to the Dodgers, there were two story lines that dominated Braves’ coverage.
The first being that game 4 would be Brian McCann’s final game in an Atlanta uniform. In the business that is baseball, there is no way the Braves can cobble together the money to sign free agent McCann. Unfortunately, the Braves will watch one of their young leaders walk away to a bigger contract, likely with an American League team. McCann was terrible offensively in the playoffs. He went hitless in 13 at-bats, striking out 6 times. However, McCann’s career in Atlanta will be remembered for his offensive prowess and his leadership. Since being called up in 2005, McCann has a .277 average with 1070 hits, 176 homers, 227 doubles and 661 RBIs in 1105 games. He was a 7-time all-star with 5 silver slugger awards. At the age of 29, he may be leaving Atlanta with his best years behind him.
The other story line that followed the Braves’ loss was whether or not manager Fredi Gonzalez bungled game 4 when he brought David Carpenter out of the ‘pen rather than go to Craig Kimbrel for a 6-out save. Kimbrel had never been called in to get a 6-out save and though he said he was ready to do so, Fredi was prepared to bring Kimbrel in once there were only 4 outs remaining. Of course, Juan Uribe didn’t allow the Braves to get to within 4 outs with the lead. Was it the right call by Fredi Gonzalez? Whether or not it was, this is not a firing offense. Consider what Fredi had to lead the team through to get 96 wins and the NL East championship banner. If it weren’t for the Pirates’ incredible season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Fredi Gonzalez get consideration for manager of the year.
While the 2013 team had a special chemistry and overcame great odds to reach the postseason, the experience for the young core of starters will be beneficial in 2014 forward.
While the Braves were unable to secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Braves 96-66 record secured the NL East and second seed going into the postseason. The Braves will have home field advantage against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, the first game of which begins Thursday in Atlanta.
Before the posteason gets underway, let’s look back at the 2013 season and just how the Braves were able to take back the NL East.
The Surprises (Good and Bad)
Justin fared considerably better, finishing the season with a .263 average with 27 homers, 70 RBIs and 8 SBs. His average was the lowest since his 2008 season and dropped from the .280 of the 2012 season. There wasn’t just room for improvement in Upton’s offense, either. He had some strange lapses defensively that made fans cringe. However, there is a high ceiling for this young man and nobody believes he has hit it yet.
The Consistent Core
BRAVES OPEN NLDS AGAINST L.A. AT HOME…
Despite a decisive win in the NL East and a successful season, the Braves are not without problems that must be addressed or worked with going into the NLDS. The biggest problem for the Braves over the past 7 games, not unlike the rest of their season, is that they’ve had 3 or fewer hits 3 times in that span and 10 or more hits 4 times. The discrepancy in hits has certainly led to far too many shutouts and close games. How the Braves can assure scored runs can be addressed on a player-by-player basis.
First, the biggest question facing manager Fredi Gonzalez about his offense is whether or not he start B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla in the NLDS. Though Fredi has said that he’s had more fun the past few days than the last few months, the issue of his two struggling fielders has got to be on his mind. The two highest paid players on the roster are also the team’s two biggest liabilities. Uggla has gone 4-for-28 with 15 strikeouts in his past 10 games, nothing to be excited about. Upton, who hasn’t started back-to-back games since the 15th of September, has gone 0-for-16 with 9 strikeouts in his past 10 games. Both players have suitable replacements at their positions in Elliot Johnson and Jason Heyward (with an assist from Evan Gattis in left field). It would seem that starting either of them in the NLDS would be risky and starting them both in the same lineup would be catastrophic.
It would seem that the questions in the bullpen can be helped by Alex Wood and Paul Maholm joining the ‘pen for the playoffs. After breaking his finger, Scott Downs has been terrible in relief, leaving the need for reinforcements. Jordan Walden, mired throughout the season by various injuries, is not a lock for the playoff roster. The Braves plan to have Walden throw an inning or more in the instructional league or a simulation game before deciding if he will be on the postseason roster. It would seem that we’ve seen the last of both Kameron Loe and David Hale for the season. How Fredi will juggle the arms that are available remains to be seen, however this has been the story of the season for the ‘pen and they have weathered much more adversity than this.
A few injuries to keep an eye on, both for fans and Fredi: Chris Johnson has been dealing with a jammed right shoulder since a diving play Thursday. He missed the final game of the season with this issue, but has said he will be fine for the first game of the NLDS on Thursday. Also, Brian McCann left Thursday’s game with a right adductor strain, a slight hip injury, and was listed as day-to-day. He was available to pinch hit–the injury simply makes squatting problematic. He has been resting since the initial injury and will hopefully we able to play in the NLDS.
Kris Medlen is slated to start game 1 of the NLDS. Medlen has a record of 5-0 with an 1.05 ERA in his past 5 home starts. In those 5 starts, he has 29 K’s, 4 BB and 1 HR allowed (34 1/3 innings). Over his past 9 starts, Medlen is 6-2 with a 1.37 ERA. In addition to turning his season around entirely in the second half of the season and catching fire the last 9 starts, Kris Medlen is now in uncharted territory in terms of innings pitched at 197. His previous season high was 138 last season after his return from Tommy John surgery. Medlen finished the season with a 15-12 record and a 3.11 ERA. The rest of the rotation should line up behind Medlen with Minor, Teheran and Garcia.
A key player to watch is Jason Heyward. On Thursday, Heyward went 4-for-4 with a homer and 3 doubles. Those 4 hits matched a career high (5th time) and his 4 extra-base hits were also a career high. His 10 total bases matched the team season high recorded by Justin Upton in April. Since returning from the jaw injury suffered in New York, Heyward has hit .308 going 8-for-26 with 3 double, 1 homer, 3 walks and an RBI. When playing center, Heyward has hit .290 with 4 doubles, 3 homers and 10 RBI (versus .250 as a right fielder). In the lead off spot this season, Heyward has hit .333, going 38-for-114 with 9 doubles, 6 homers and 16 RBIs. It wouldn’t be surprising to see J-Hey in the lead off spot every game of the NLDS and in center field to start with B.J. Upton as a defensive replacement possibly.
As it is currently scheduled, the Braves will begin NLDS play on TBS on Thursday in Atlanta with game 2 Friday night before the teams travel to L.A. for a Sunday game. Currently no times have been posted for these games.
It may have taken a few extra games and a little help from the Miami Marlins, but as Craig Kimbrel struck out his third batter to close out Sunday’s game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, the Atlanta Braves became the champions of the National League East for the first time since 2005. According the Major League Baseball, the Braves since joining the NL East for the 1994 season, have the second best winning percentage (.576) in baseball.
Much has changed since that 2005 team clinched the NL East. The only remaining players on the roster from that team are veteran Tim Hudson and soon-to-be free agent Brian McCann (then a rookie). In 2005, current manager Fredi Gonzalez was the bench coach for the great Bobby Cox. Also on that roster, as a player, was current bullpen coach Eddie Perez. John Smoltz, Brian Jordan and Chipper Jones played on that 2005 team, as did Andruw Jones and Adam LaRoche. But that team would lose the NLDS in a heartbreaking 4th game that lasted 18 innings, nearly 6 hours at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
The 2013 team has similarities to the last team to win the NL East. It is stacked with impressive young rookies including Alex Wood, Julio Teheran, David Hale, David Carpenter, Evan Gattis, Joey Terdoslavich and Jose Constanza. Only time will tell if they have successful careers ahead of them like the rookies of 2005, guys like McCann, Jeff Francouer, Kelly Johnson, Brayan Pena and Kyle Davies. The 2013 team has a dynamic young shortstop in Andrelton Simmons, not unlike the shortstop on that 2005 team–Rafael Furcal. The 2005 Atlanta Braves had an MVP candidate in Andruw Jones and the 2013 Braves could presumably be given multiple MVP votes with Freeman, Chris Johnson and Simmons all contending. In 2005, Andruw Jones won a Gold Glove in the outfield. In 2013, it’s plausible that Heyward, Freeman and Simmons all win hardware. It will be a travesty if the latter does not. There is also the possibility that either Kris Medlen or Julio Teheran win the Gold Glove for their incredible defense while on the mound. In 2005, only Andruw Jones won a Silver Slugger award. In 2013, Freeman and Johnson certainly stand a chance of winning the award.
Though the 2005 and 2013 clubs have their similarities, there are differences between the teams that bode well for the postseason chances of the current club.
The 2013 Atlanta Braves have weathered more than their share of adversity. When you consider that at season’s start, the Braves had a healthy Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, Tim Hudson and anticipated getting back young ace Brandon Beachy, it is stunning that their postseason hopes were able to survive those losses alone. Then consider the talent that has spent quality time on the disabled list this season. Brian McCann began the season on the disabled list. Outfielders Reed Johnson, Jason Heyward, Jordan Schafer, Evan Gattis, B.J. Upton and Justin Upton all had stints, some of them multiple stints, on the DL. The Braves lost Ramiro Pena, Tyler Pastornicky and Cristhian Martinez during the year to season-ending surgeries. Dan Uggla and Paul Maholm were the most recent DL-destined players. And the bullpen was mired with injuries this season. Luis Ayala, Jordan Walden and Scott Downs all suffered injuries. Any other team would have crumbled with this luck, but not the 2013 Braves. In fact, they seemed to thrive amidst the adversity.
Injuries were not the only battle the Braves waged throughout the season. The huge signings of the Upton brothers didn’t bring the results everyone expected, but in the place of big numbers from Justin and B.J., other players (like “throw-in” Chris Johnson) stepped up in big ways. Two starters for the Braves will finish the season below .200, B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. Even rookie pitcher Julio Teheran has a higher batting average than Upton and Uggla. Perinneal all-star and silver slugger Brian McCann will finish the season lower than expectations around .261. Despite his hot start to the season, Evan Gattis will finish the regular season around the .233 mark. And Jason Heyward, who has always been touted as a player who should be able to hit for average, will end up around the .250 mark. But in the face of these unusual numbers and below average seasons, Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson, MVP contenders, will finish above .300 at around .314 and .330, respectively.
Going into the postseason there will be much talk about the youth of Braves’ pitching. Perhaps this, more than anything, will be where pundits and analysts say the Braves are not built for the playoffs. However, don’t count the pitching staff out. Go back up and read about the major blows to Braves’ pitching this season and then consider just how strong Atlanta’s pitching was despite huge losses to the staff. Alex Wood stepped up in a huge way when Paul Maholm went on the disabled list and Tim Hudson had his season ended on the first base bag in New York. Mike Minor has taken on a role not unlike that of most veterans with this young staff. And Kris Medlen, despite an upside down first half, has returned to the dominant pitcher we saw when he joined the starting rotation last season and set the baseball world aflame.
Let’s not discount one other thing that bodes well for the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs: The 2012 Wild Card debacle and loss at Turner Field. Some may scoff at this, but for a team with little playoff experience collectively, that experience may turn out to be the thing that gets this team deep into the postseason. Their stunning loss to the Cardinals last year provided a group of young guys with all the experience that is necessary going into a postseason. When you suffer a loss like that one, it’s hard not to internalize what it felt like, how it went wrong and how it could have been avoided.
With 7 games to play in the regular season, the Braves have one goal in mind: Home-field advantage via the best record in the National League. The Braves currently hold a 92-63 record going into a 3-game set against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cardinals currently have a 92-65 record in the NL Central and the Dodgers hold a 90-66 record in the NL West. The next 7 games are crucial to giving the Braves every possible advantage in a postseason that looks to be a dog fight.
The pitching match-ups for the next 3 games: Monday will feature Estrada (6-4, 4.26) vs. Minor (13-7, 3.19); Tuesday will pit Thornburg (3-1, 1.96) vs. Garcia (1-2, 1.31.); and, the series finale and final regular season game at the Ted will feature Lohse (10-10, 3.51) vs. Maholm (10-10, 4.44).
The Braves were plowing toward the postseason with teams in their rear view mirror and then September hit. The injury to Jason Heyward was just the beginning of a series of bad luck for Atlanta. Their young pitching, which had been phenomenal, wore down. Their flawless closer has had a few rough games. Their supposedly dynamic outfield never clicked. The bench bats that had been strong for Fredi Gonzalez seemed to all go cold at once. And the bullpen that has survived injuries that would have put any other club in the bottom of the heap from then on, finally showed signs of turmoil.
Two weeks ago, it looked like Atlanta would easily secure the National League record, however now that the Dodgers have clinched the NL West, it now seems likely that the best record (therefore home field advantage in the playoffs) will be held by the NL Central or West winner. The Braves had lost 5 games straight before getting the win Wednesday against the Nats. They have lost 10 of their past 14 games. Unfortunately, the Braves had twin shutout losses over a period of 3 days.
The Braves were slated to begin a 3-game series Monday at Nationals Park when news of the shooting at the Navy Yard broke. Monday afternoon when the Braves and Nats would have been heading to the park, the Navy Yard was still an active scene just blocks from the ballpark. The Nats were asked to stay home until told otherwise and eventually Monday’s game was postponed. The Braves and Nationals scheduled the game to be made up Tuesday as a doubleheader. Prior to the first game of that doubleheader, the Nationals observed an extended moment of silence for those who lost their lives and those whose lives were forever changed by Monday’s tragedy. Nationals’ players all held hats with the Navy emblem over their hearts during the national anthem, hats they wore during team warmups.
The final game of the series, the Braves were able to secure the win, thus dropping their magic number for clinching the NL East to 2. Wednesday’s win also prevented them from being swept while in D.C.
It wouldn’t be a Braves/Nats game without some fireworks. In the final game, Fredi Gonzalez got tossed after he went out to make sure Wood wasn’t tossed for arguing with home plate umpire CB Bucknor. Wood was irritated with a bad call on a 3-2 pitch and voiced his objection loudly. Once Werth, the batter during the scuffle, walked, Alex Wood was removed from the game. While leaving the field, he barked at Bucknor, earning his first career ejection. It wasn’t the best moment for the young rookie, but, in his defense, the call was terrible. As the game carried on, Bucknor warned both benches for no apparent reason after Varvaro hit Rendon. We have seen Bucknor make terrible calls before, but this was an all-time low for the ump.
Homers by Dan Uggla and Justin Upton in the 3-run 6th inning got the Braves in the lead, a lead they held on to. Solid outings from injured Scott Downs and the impressive David Carpenter held the Braves’ lead and Kimbrel entered and ended the game with the 3-run lead in tact.
Kimbrel had a rough outing in the second game of the doubleheader where he did something he had never done in his previous 224 career appearances. He allowed 3 runs. Kimbrel was scored upon in consecutive appearances for the 1st time since the 3 in-a-row catastrophe April 29th through May 4th of last year.
Kimbrel had been given every opportunity to get the Braves the win. Evan Gattis stepped into the box in the 8th inning of that game, securing the lead. Gattis homered off of reliever Tyler Clippard who, in 6 appearances against the Braves in 2013, gave up 9 hits, 7 earned runs, 3 homers, 6 walks (for a 11.12 ERA) in 5 2/3 innings pitched.
A final note on the Nats’ series: Freddy Garcia, despite a brilliant effort, could not secure a win in the doubleheader. Freddy pitched 7 brilliant innings giving up only 7 hits and allowing only 1 run. The veteran surrendered 2 walks and struck out 6 in 84 pitches. Since joining the Braves from the Orioles Triple-A team, Freddy Garcia has pitched 20 2/3 innings, allowed a mere 3 runs, walked 4 and struck out 13. He has a stunning 1.31 ERA with Atlanta.
BRAVES HEAD TO WRIGLEY FIELD…
With their magic number down to 2, it would seem likely that the Braves will clinch the NL East while on the northside of Chicago. That said, it looked like they’d clinch the division while in D.C. and clearly that did not happen. The Braves arrive in Chicago with a 90-62 record. The lovable Cubbies sit in the bottom of their division with a record of 64-89.
One point that the Braves desperately need to improve on in their final games before the playoffs is production off the bench.
Jordan Schafer is 15-for-92 (.163 average) in the 27 games he has played since returning from the disabled list. Over that span, he has a disappointing .238 on-base percentage. Schafer is 1-for-24 with 4 walks and 10 (10!) strikeouts in his past 9 games. The Braves need Schafer to offer production off the bench going forward, especially with the lack of production from B.J. Upton. Also without Heyward and a lack of production from B.J. Upton and Jordan Schafer, the Braves need Reed Johnson to step up in a big way. Reed Johnson has only 2 plate appearances in 2 games since returning from the disabled list on the 17th, but the veteran will need to be the bat he built his reputation on. With Gattis getting more playing time, split between the outfield and catching, there hasn’t been a concern about his offense. However, it would be great to see Gattis out in left field before the next few games taking some pointers from veteran Reed Johnson on positioning and how to best approach various situations. Remembering that he is a catcher, it’s understandable that Gattis has showed some inconsistency on defense while in the outfield.
Jason Heyward has continued to take batting practice while on the road with the team. It is possible that he could return next week, though he’ll need to face live pitching consecutively first.
The Braves/Cubs series gets underway Friday with the former Cubbie Maholm (10-10, 4.35) vs. Baker (0-0, 0.82). Saturday’s game will feature Medlen (14-12, 3.32) vs. Wood (9-11, 3.05). And in their final game before returning to Atlanta, Sunday’s game will pit rookie Teheran (12-8, 3.14) vs. Jackson (8-16, 4.75).