The Atlanta Braves are one of the most well-assembled teams in baseball. They're quite a young squad coming off of a successful season, and while they lost two key players this winter, they had enough depth at those positions for a seamless transition – Brian McCann and Tim Hudson will be missed, but Evan Gattis and Alex Wood (or Freddy Garcia, or Gavin Floyd) should be able to replace them just fine. However, this Braves team isn't without flaws. Atlanta's two biggest weaknesses are their inflexible payroll and their lack of outfield depth.
The payroll thing is something that has been getting beaten to death this offseason. The Braves made just one major league free agent signing, Gavin Floyd, because of the rapidly increasing salaries of their young players in arbitration. They're all worth the raises, but when Jason Heyward, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen, and Freddie Freeman get raises from a combined total of $7.3 million to just over $20 million, you're not going to be able to make a huge splash on the free agent market without substantially increasing your club's payroll – even with the combined $21 million paid to Hudson and McCann leaving town.
Atlanta's payroll constraints are further hampered by a pair of contracts that have been tabbed, perhaps unfairly, as albatrosses. Last winter, the Braves' big move was a five year, $75.25 million contract for B.J. Upton. Upton was terrible in his debut season in Atlanta, hitting just .184/.268/.289 with career-lows of nine home runs and 12 stolen bases. Yes, it was just one year, but it was a disastrous year for a player that took up 14% of the Braves' payroll.
Then, there's the Dan Uggla situation. Uggla's contract also took up 14% of the Braves 2013 payroll, but he was arguably better than Upton last year. Uggla's line of .179/.309/.362 with 22 homers crushed Upton's line, but his propensity for playing awful defense killed any goodwill that Braves fans had built up for him.
The pair is combining for roughly 30% of the Braves' payroll in 2014, and unless the team gets ownership's permission to increase their payroll, they're going to be hamstrung later on this season if they need to improve their club – unless they start trading other talent that's a little pricey, like Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, or Justin Upton. But getting rid of young, talented players isn't really the best way to make your team better in the short and long-term – especially when you're a contender like the Braves are.
The second biggest weakness that the Braves have is a bit of a stretch – their lack of outfield depth. Past their three starting outfielders (the law firm of Upton, Upton, and Heyward), the Braves outfielder that logged the most innings in the outfield in 2013 was Jordan Schafer, a former top prospect that had fallen from grace. Schafer had an awesome first half for the Braves last season, hitting .312/.399/.464, thanks in large part to a .414 BABIP. In the second half, he was a disaster, hitting only .170/.248/.208 as his BABIP fell to .265 and his strikeout and walk rates both drifted in the wrong direction. His major league career to date has been more like the second half than the first half, and if that holds true in 2014, he'll really only be of use as a pinch runner for the Braves.
Past Schafer, what else is there? Atlanta's second bench outfielder last year was Gattis, who will be starting behind the plate this year. Third up was Reed Johnson, who's in Marlins camp. The Braves acquired former Twins…player Ryan Doumit, who is a pitiful fielder wherever you put him. If either of the three starters get hurt, and two of the three spent time on the DL last season, Atlanta's best replacements are all severely flawed players. In reality, the best option might be playing Gattis in the outfield and starting Gerald Laird behind the plate – a horrifying prospect to think about.
But really, calling that a weakness is a minor quibble. Many teams in the league don't have an acceptable fourth outfielder, and teams like the Red Sox (who have two in Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp) are the exception rather than the rule. But Atlanta doesn't exactly have a lot of outfield talent down the pipeline either – that's not an issue now, but it could be a substantial problem after the 2015 season, when Heyward and Justin Upton are both free agents. The Braves can roll with mediocrity on the bench over the next two years, but if either of those two players walk, the Braves will be staring the possibility of starting one of those mediocre young guys every day, hoping one of their less-heralded prospects takes a pair of gigantic steps forward, or possibly falling into another free agent abyss to fill a hole.