There is plenty of optimism surrounding the 2013 Braves. There was actually a lot of preseason optimism around the 2010, 2011 and 2012 Braves as well. Preseason of 2013 seems different. The Braves added the Upton brothers to an already talented, young core. Justin Upton, in particular, has MVP-caliber talent. But the Braves lost Michael Bourn, Chipper Jones and Martin Prado from last year’s team. There’s little doubt this year’s team, barring injuries and other weirdness, will be a good one. But are they better than the 2012 team that won 94 games, the most wins by a Braves team since 2004 (96)?
2012: Mike Minor, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Randall Delgado, Brandon Beachy, Kris Medlen, Paul Maholm, Jair Jurrjens, Ben Sheets
2013: Hudson, Medlen, Maholm, Minor, Julio Teheran, Brandon Beachy
Brandon Beachy was a beast in his 13 starts before getting hurt. Kris Medlen was great when he moved to the rotation. Maholm and Hudson were very good. Minor had his ups and downs but was outstanding at the end of the season. Delgado and Hanson pitched like decent fifth starters, nothing more. Those pitchers got the bulk of the Braves’ starts in 2012.
In 2013, Teheran joins a solid roation. Hudson is older but he is a groundball machine. We should expect him to be no worse than a better-than-league average pitcher that will give the Braves 170-200 innings. It’s hard to imagine Medlen being any better than he was last year but he’ll probably be the best pitcher on the staff. I don’t know if Cy Young contention is realistic, though I wouldn’t count it out, but I expect him to pitch at an all-star level. I see no reason to expect Minor to take a step back from his strong comeback in the second half of 2012. He’s probably a number three, in scouting terms. Maholm is a notch behind Hudson and Minor but he’ll give the Braves decent innings. Beachy is expected to come back around mid-season and who knows if he’ll be the same pitcher he was. I suspect he’ll provide at least something similar to Hudson and Maholm. The wild card is Teheran. He has the upside of a legit number two but hasn’t shown much in his first 26 major league innings. However, he’s still only 22 and this is his first Spring with a pretty much guaranteed rotation spot. The Braves are just looking for him to hold down the 5th spot but could get more than they bargain for.
Overall the rotation last year was solid but not great. I can see it being better in 2013 but I’m not sure by how much. Minor should be better this season and the Braves won’t have disappointments Hanson and Jurrjens making starts. I give a slight edge to the 2013 rotation.
2012: Craig Kimbrel, Cristhian Martinez, Chad Durbin, Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty
2013: Kimbrel, Martinez, Venters, O’Flaherty, Jordan Walden, Luis Avilan
Obviously this has been the Braves’ strength over the last few seasons, since they’ve bounced back from their ’06-’09 lull. There’s little doubt Kimbrel is the most dominating reliever and per-inning pitcher in baseball. Venters has his struggles in 2012 but his overall numbers were good. O’Flaherty is coming off of back-to-back dominant seasons. The Braves essentially trade Durbin for Walden. As long as Walden is healthy, this will be a big upgrade. Walden is another high-strikeout reliever. When the Braves need a strikeout late in a game, they have four options. Martinez comes back as the long reliever. Luis Avilan could play a bigger role as a lefty specialist.
If Walden is healthy the Braves’ bullpen could be even a little better than it has been. I definitely don’t see a downgrade here.
2012: Brian McCann, David Ross
2013: McCann, Gerald Laird, Evan Gattis, Matt Pagnozzi
McCann had an injury-plagued 2012, his worst season in the majors. He got his shoulder fixed and we should expect a strong bounce-back season. But he will be out the first couple of weeks or so. They’ll miss Ross. Laird is a definite downgrade. He’s your typical veteran back-up catcher. If Gattis can handle catching, defensively, he’s an intriguing possibility. He has the bat and it looks like he may start the season as Laird’s back-up. If he can play the position well enough to be the number one back-up option, the Braves won’t miss Ross too much.
With McCann expected to be all better, even considering him missing a couple of weeks or so, it’s hard to go against the 2013 Braves in the catching category. And watch out for Gattis as a back-up option.
2012 and 2013: Freddie Freeman
If anything, Freeman, given his age, will be a little better. Not much else to say here.
2012 and 2013: Dan Uggla
It’s hard to imagine Uggla being much worse than he was in 2012 but it’s quite possible that he could be about the same or a little worse. He’s been trending downward in every meaningful way since his trade to the Braves. He drew a ton of walks last year which kept him from being a dreadful hitter but his power disappeared and he’s never been a great hitter for average. The good news is he’s not that old, so his power could return to some degree. The bad news is that, again, he never had a ton of skills in terms of hitting for average so it could be another season of a respectable on-base without much power. He’s not quite as awful as his reputation among fans who expected 30-plus homers for Uggla every season but he hasn’t been good either. It’s possible the Braves could look to upgrade by the All-Star break or the deadline if Uggla starts slow.
2012: Chipper Jones, Juan Francisco
2013: Juan Francisco, Chris Johnson
Chipper was the team’s best hitter on a per-PA basis. There is a significant downgrade to Francisco and Johnson. However, Francisco offers plenty of power. Johnson is somewhat similar in that he offers power, though not many players can match Francisco’s raw power. Still, Chipper’s overall offensive game was so good, the Braves will take a hit here.
2012: Paul Janish, Tyler Pastornicky, Andrelton Simmons
2013: Andrelton Simmons
Pastornicky was given the job to open 2012 but fell on his face. Simmons was about as good as anyone could have imagined until he got hurt. Simmons’ defense is already elite or close to it. The question has always been the bat. But it appears that his bat is good enough to at least make him a quality shortstop, and may be good enough to make him an all-star caliber player. Having Simmons for a full season is a noticeable upgrade over last season.
2012: Martin Prado
2013: Justin Upton
Prado had probably his best season in 2012. It wouldn’t be shocking, as talented as Upton is, if 2012 Prado was a little better than 2013 Upton. But it’s also very possible for Upton to be an MVP caliber player. The safe assumption is probably somewhere in the middle: noticeably better than Prado but not to an extreme degree.
2012: Michael Bourn
2013: B.J. Upton
Bourn started off the season hot but cooled quite a bit in the second half, and his overall numbers ended up being about where we would have expected them to be. Bourn provided great defense and baserunning but was around league-average at the plate. Upton is similar in terms of the overall value he might provide but he’s obviously a different type of player. Upton should provide more at the plate. He’s not as good defensively as Bourn (not many are) and his defensive metrics look awful. But scouts seem to think he’s a fine centerfielder. You wonder if spacious Tropicana Field, where he played his home games his whole career, did something tonot only his offensive but also his defensive numbers. Upton has more power than Bourn and has the same type of hit and on-base skills, and it’s not as if he’s an awful baserunner or defender. If Upton is a downgrade, it’s not much of one.
2012 and 2013: Jason Heyward
Heyward bounced back from an injury-plagued 2011 and seemed to move towards establishing himself as one of the better all-around players in the game. He didn’t put up monster offensive numbers but you combine his solid offense with great defense and baserunning and you get a very good all-around baseball player. Health has always been the only question mark for Heyward. If healthy, there’s no reason to expect anything but improvement, at his young age.
Other Bench Players
2012: Ross, Francisco, Janish, Eric Hinske, Matt Diaz, Reed Johnson
2013: Gattis, Jordan Schafer, Johnson, Johnson/Francisco, Ramiro Pena, Janish
The Braves didn’t get much out of their bench in 2012. Ross, Janish and Francisco played well when they filled in for regulars, but most of the value someone like Ross gave them was essentially in a starting role. Gattis hasn’t played above Double-A but at 26 is at an age when players start to peak and he’s displayed plenty of offensive skill. If he can catch and play leftfield, he’ll provide plenty of value as a backup player/pinch-hitter. Aside from Francisco or Johnson coming off the bench, I’m not sure they’ll get a whole lot from their bench this season. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Schafer develop as a solid backup outfielder. He’s shown some pop at certain points in his pro career, he has speed and he can play centerfield. Reed Johnson is probably nothing more than a fill-in at this point in his career. Ramiro Pena is the backup infielder until Janish returns. Both are essentially insurance policies that can play shortstop, so don’t expect either one of them to provide much.
Summary: The only obvious downgrade is at thirdbase and, admittedly, it probably will be quite noticeable. There’s tremendous potential for significant upgrades at catcher and shortstop, and rightfield could be a slight upgrade, if not a significant one. Overall I don’t see that the 2013 team is likely to be dramatically better than the 2012 team but, barring major injuries or other surprises, it shouldn’t be worse. If Justin Upton has another MVP-caliber season, McCann returns to form, and Heyward and Freeman take big leaps forward, the 2013 team could be a lot better than the 2012 Braves. The 2013 team clearly has more upside. But a lot probably has to go right for it to be drastically better than last year’s team. Still, if 2012 is a starting point for our expectations, there’s a lot to look forward to.