When you return a nearly identical roster from your division champion team the year before, what questions can there really be? Well, when it comes to the 96-win, NL East champion Atlanta Braves, you would be very surprised.
Can Craig Kimbrel have yet another dominant year?
The Braves closer is the best stopper in baseball. In 2013, he pitched to a 1.21 ERA in 67 innings, striking out 98 batters and saving 50 games. The crazy thing about that season is that his 2012 may have been better – that season, Kimbrel had a 1.01 ERA, 42 saves, and 116 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings. In 2011, the year Kimbrel won the NL Rookie of the Year award, he pitched 77 innings, notched 46 saves, dominated with a 2.10 ERA, and struck out 127 hitters.
So obviously, when a player puts together three seasons like that, there will be a question as to whether or not he can keep up that pace. There's really nothing indicating that Kimbrel can't – he turns 26 in May, his velocity has been increasing year after year, and all of his peripheral stats have consistently remained strong. But then again, he's a reliever that has an average fastball velocity of 97 mph – he could blow out at any minute and send his career off the rails. Batters could also start seeing his pitches better as he reaches his fourth full season in the league, and maybe some hitters can have more success against him (although they still haven't yet – Kimbrel has allowed just a .453 OPS for his career).
Kimbrel's continued success is both a blessing and a curse for the Braves. It's a blessing because, obviously, he's their closer and they're the ones reaping the benefits of his success. It's a curse because the more success he has, the more money he's going to make. Kimbrel is going to earn either $6.5 or $9 million in 2014, a stunning number for his first year of arbitration. With two more years left in his arbitration proceedings, Kimbrel could completely break the system and price himself out of Atlanta's price range, potentially forcing a trade. The Braves aren't in a great spot with Kimbrel – his production either gets worse, and the team loses that production, or he plays well and the team has to pay him more. Decisions, decisions…
Can Justin Upton make The Leap?
Justin Upton is quite possibly, the most talented all-around player that the Braves have had since Andruw Jones was in his prime. He's also a guy that has only tapped into that immense potential over two seasons of his career – 2009 and 2011 with the Diamondbacks. In Upton's other three full seasons in the majors, he's been good, but not otherworldly.
Upton came out of the gate strong in 2013, smashing 12 home runs in the month of April. He hit just four over the next three months, then bashed another eight in August before falling off to three in September. He obviously wasn't going to keep up that ungodly pace all year, but the level to which he fell off after that April was shocking. He also stole a career low eight bases in 2013, likely because he spent nearly all of the season hitting in front of a molten-hot Freddie Freeman.
He's clearly a great player, but the inconsistency is maddening. With the Braves looking to lock up their young talent for the foreseeable future, Upton's performance after one year hasn't exactly set him up as one of Atlanta's priorities. If he can put together an MVP caliber 2014, maybe the Braves will give him another look and try to keep their dual-Upton lineup intact past 2015.
Is Alex Wood a starter or a reliever?
The future of Alex Wood is murky. Atlanta's second-round pick in 2012 is an incredibly gifted pitcher, yet it's still a question as to whether or not he'll end up in the Braves' rotation or bullpen long-term. Wood made his major league debut in 2013 and started 11 games while coming out of the bullpen 20 times. His overall performance was solid, totaling a 3.13 ERA in 77 2/3 innings, but that doesn't tell you much about his future.
In those 11 starts, Wood was solid – a 3.54 ERA, 54 strikeouts, and 22 walks in 56 innings. But coming out of the pen, Wood was much better, throwing 21 2/3 innings of 2.08 ERA ball, striking out 23 and walking only five. But I'm not sure how much you can take away from those numbers either – there was uncertainty with Wood's role even last year. He started in the bullpen at the end of May, making one spot start before getting moved to the rotation full-time at the end of July. He spent a month and a half in the rotation before struggling in his last three starts and getting moved back to the bullpen for the end of the season.
Where do we go from here? Well…I don't think anyone really knows. Wood is currently penciled in as Atlanta's fifth starter behind Mike Minor, Kris Medlen, Julio Teheran, and Brandon Beachy. But Gavin Floyd, who the Braves gave a guaranteed $4 million to this winter, is due to be back from Tommy John surgery sometime in May, and the Braves also signed Freddy Garcia to a minor league deal with a late-March opt-out in case he's not in the rotation to start the year. Would the Braves be better off using Wood as their fifth starter instead of Garcia in April, and instead of Floyd for the rest of the year? Or would he be better served in Atlanta's bullpen, which has just one healthy in Luis Avilan? Jonny Venters isn't expected back until June at the earliest following his second Tommy John surgery, and adding Wood to the pen could make it that much better with Venters injured and Eric O'Flaherty signing with the A's this winter.
Whatever ends up happening, I think Wood will be great in the role. It's a pretty unique situation for him and the Braves, and I'm wondering how everyone will end up handling it.