The 2013 Atlanta Braves were almost universally picked as a wild card team. Some pundits (hello, Jon Morosi) went even further, pushing the Braves out of the playoff race and behind the Phillies in the NL East standings. Well, neither of those situations happened – Atlanta spent all but one day of the 2013 season in first place, and that one day was April 4th. Their lead in the division was never really in doubt during the second half, as the closest Washington got to them was six games back right after the All-Star Break.
This offseason, the same format is playing out – everyone picking Washington, with Atlanta as the Wild Card. Is that apparent disrespect justified? Only time will tell.
Depth Chart (as of 2/14)
C: Evan Gattis
1B: Freddie Freeman
2B: Dan Uggla
SS: Andrelton Simmons
3B: Chris Johnson
LF: Justin Upton
CF: B.J. Upton
RF: Jason Heyward
SP: Mike Minor
SP: Kris Medlen
SP: Julio Teheran
SP: Brandon Beachy
SP: Alex Wood
CL: Craig Kimbrel
Not a lot, really. Ryan Doumit was acquired from the Twins to serve as a switch-hitter off the bench. Former White Sox starting pitcher Gavin Floyd was signed as insurance for the starting rotation, but probably won't be ready for Opening Day following Tommy John surgery last May. A number of minor league free agents were signed to jockey for bench and relief roles, including Mat Gamel, Luis Vasquez, Mark Hamilton, Yunesky Maya, and Tyler Greene. And that is that for the Braves – they didn't make a splash like they did last season, bringing in both Justin and B.J. Upton as well as Chris Johnson.
Long-time franchise cornerstones Tim Hudson and Brian McCann each left the team, for the Giants and Yankees respectively. But in addition to those two, Atlanta lost some depth – relievers Eric O'Flaherty, Luis Ayala, Scott Downs, and Kameron Loe all found new homes (though only O'Flaherty, who missed nearly all of 2013, will be missed), along with starter Paul Maholm and bench bats Paul Janish, Reed Johnson, and Elliot Johnson. But really, aside from Hudson and McCann (who are admittedly huge losses), the Braves won't desperately miss any of the players who left town this offseason.
Here's the thing about the Braves – their farm system isn't strong right now, but it's not an indictment of the team. So much of Atlanta's young talent has graduated to the majors and is contributing to the team, and it's not a major concern that there's not a flood of young talent like in other farm systems. Only one member of Atlanta's starting lineup and rotation is 30 or older, and that's Dan Uggla, who may have his job at second challenged by Tommy La Stella or Tyler Pastornicky. Other young talent that could break through in 2014 are catcher Christian Bethancourt (who is an ace with the glove, but can't hit very well), bench bats Todd Cunningham and Joey Terdoslavich (who both saw time in the majors last season), and relievers David Hale, Ryan Buchter, Juan Jaime, and Wirfin Obispo, among many other interesting relief projects.
There really isn't much going on here. Uggla would need to be brutal in the spring to lose his job to Pastornicky or La Stella. Jose Constanza and Jordan Schafer could have their bench spots threatened by the aforementioned Cunningham or Terdoslavich, and Ramiro Pena's bench spot could be threatened by La Stella or Pastornicky. Any number of those previously mentioned relievers could break through a win a bullpen role from Anthony Varvaro or Cory Gearrin, and the final spot (currently earmarked for Luis Vasquez) is absolutely not set in stone.
Jason Heyward has been labeled as injury-prone, but the two injuries he suffered last year were pretty much the opposite of recurring – a broken jaw after getting hit by a pitch, and appendicitis. It's not as if better conditioning or an improved work ethic or genetics could have prevented any of those two injuries.
Past Heyward, Atlanta has a trio of pitchers with concerns following Tommy John surgery. Brandon Beachy had his surgery in 2012, but struggled in his 2013 return before eventually being shut down once again. Another starter, the newly-signed Gavin Floyd, had his Tommy John surgery in May and won't be ready for Opening Day. Then there's Jonny Venters, who had his *second* Tommy John surgery in May as well, and may not be ready until June or July. The Braves have enough depth to survive if all three man have complications, but I'm sure they'd feel a lot better with Beachy or Floyd in the rotation than Freddy Garcia.
Aside from all that though, the Braves are a pretty healthy team – they return five players who logged at least 500 plate appearances in 2013 and three 180 inning starters.
The Braves have enough talent to win the NL East again, and once you get to the Playoffs, it's a crap shoot. If everything breaks right for Atlanta, another 96 win season and an NL East title is more than reasonable
I don't see any way that the Braves finish under .500 unless an asteroid smashes into Turner Field. But the Braves could still finish above .500 and miss the playoffs – it happened to the Nationals last year. The National League is seven or eight teams deep, and Atlanta finishing with a solid record and missing the playoffs would be crushing for them – just like it was in 2011, when the Braves won 89 games but collapsed down the stretch and handed the NL Wild Card spot to the Cardinals.
The Braves are going to be in the playoff hunt all year, and I'd be shocked if the NL East wasn't a dog fight between them and the Nationals. Atlanta's floor and ceiling are pretty close to one another, and if the Braves are closer to the ceiling than the floor, a return to the playoffs seems likely.