2012 in review
Record: 94-68 (92-70 Pythagorean)
700 runs scored (7th in NL)
600 runs allowed (4th in NL)
Big Offseason Moves
Acquired Justin Upton and Chris Johnson from Arizona for Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and three minor leaguers. Signed free agents B.J. Upton and Gerald Laird. Traded Tommy Hanson to the Angels for Jordan Walden. Re-signed Reed Johnson. Lost Michael Bourn, David Ross and Jair Jurrjens. Chipper Jones retired. Introduced a potentially racist spring training cap and then scrapped it.
The brothers Upton are in tow, giving the Braves a dynamic outfield trio of Upton, Upton and Jason Heyward. But the big question: Will Justin and B.J. be any better than what the Braves got from Prado and Bourn?
There are two ways to evaluate those moves. Long term, the Braves got younger and added much more power. But what about in the short term? Based off 2012 WAR, the Braves may not have improved much, especially given the superb defensive ratings attributed to Prado and Bourn:
B.J. Upton: 2.6
Justin Upton: 2.1
However, if we look back to 2011, we get a different story:
B.J Upton: 2.8
Justin Upton: 5.7
And moving forward, Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections for 2013:
B.J. Upton: 3.0
Justin Upton: 3.5
Anyway, that's a long way of saying I like the trades but I don't think they transform a 94-win club into anything better than a 94-win club. But maintaining excellence can be just as difficult as building it. Acquiring B.J. Upton is certainly better than losing Bourn and not replacing him, and trading Hanson freed up some payroll to go after Justin Upton. The Braves got younger, more exciting, added power and didn't spike their payroll. Works for me.
The Braves were seventh in the NL in runs -- 76 runs behind league-leading Milwaukee but only 31 runs behind NL East rival Washington. The Braves led the league in walks but they weren't strong in any other category: home runs (ninth), batting average (11th), isolated power (ninth) and so on. They were seventh in OBP but are losing Chipper Jones (first on the team in OBP), Prado (second) and Bourn (tied with Dan Uggla for third at .348).
B.J. Upton may not help here, coming off a .298 OBP with Tampa Bay, although he averaged .322 over the previous three seasons. Justin Upton was at .355 last year and .369 in his 2011. The big issue isn't so much the change in the outfield but the loss of Chipper, the guy who always worked the count and gave quality at-bats. Chris Johnson had 132 K's and just 31 walks last season; Juan Francisco was just as bad at 70/11.
In fact, Braves fans have raised questions about the potential strikeout concerns in the lineup. Yes, between Johnson/Francisco, Uggla (168 K's), B.J. Upton (169 K's) and Heyward (152 K's), that's a lot of strikeouts. But everyone strikes out a lot these days. The A's set the all-time record last year and made the playoffs. It is something to watch since things can snowball if all the strikeout guys are slumping at the same time, but overall it's not a big concern if the Braves are drawing their walks and hitting home runs.
Defensively, the Braves should still be very good, even without Bourn running down everything in center. Andrelton Simmons may already be the best defensive shortstop in the majors and Heyward was a deserving Gold Glove winner in right. The interesting guy is B.J. Upton; scouts have always liked his D but he has never rated that well in defensive runs saved, averaging minus-10 runs over the past three seasons.
To wrap, this could be an A lineup if (A) Heyward has the monster breakout season; (B) Justin Upton hits like he did in 2011 and B.J. Upton adds some OBP; (C) Freddie Freeman -- like Heyward, just 23 -- improves over his first two seasons (OPS marks of .795 and .796) and Simmons proves his rookie batting line wasn't a fluke (.289/.335/.416); (D) Brian McCann, who will probably miss the first couple weeks of the season while recovering from shoulder surgery, bounces back after a bad 2012.
OK, I think enough of those things do happen (how about Heyward as a sleeper MVP choice?) that I give this group a B+ rating. And that may be conservative.
1. Kris Medlen is for real. Not crazy, best-pitcher-on-the-planet real like he was the final two months, but I agree with the projections that see his ERA around the 2.80-3.00 range.
2. Respect Tim Hudson. I know he'll lose it one of these years and his strikeout percentage dipped a bit last year, but he still gets ground balls, chews up innings and does the job.
4. Brandon Beachy was leading the NL in ERA when he went down with Tommy John. If he returns in the second half, he could provide a huge lift.
5. Craig Kimbrel & Co. The Braves had a 2.76 bullpen ERA last year, second in the NL to the Reds' 2.76 (and a half-run better than the No. 3 team). Good luck rallying in the ninth.
Heat Map to Watch
Pitchers dream of perfecting a pitch like Medlen did a year ago with his changeup. Just look at the location against left-handed batters and you can see why they hit .091 in 82 plate appearances ending in a changeup.
I think the Nationals and Braves are the two best teams in the NL. The Nationals are more of a sure thing in my book, but the thing to love about the Braves is their youth: Heyward, Freeman, Simmons and both Uptons are all in their primes or still improving. They have the best closer in the game, a deep bullpen and a good rotation with a potential ace in Medlen.
Look, there are potential flaws here: The strikeouts could cascade and lead to OBP issues; maybe Medlen isn't an ace or can't pitch 200-plus innings; maybe Julio Teheran is terrible and Beachy doesn't return at midseason and the back of the rotation is a problem. If you believe in leadership, maybe the Braves will miss Chipper in the clubhouse.
But I clearly like this team. I think the Braves win 90-plus games ... although that will be only good enough for the wild card.