From 1991-2005, the Atlanta Braves were arguably the marquee franchise in baseball as they won their division every year -- not counting the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. It's been well-documented that Atlanta won only a single World Series in that stretch, but the Braves were stacked with young players, spent money and were a model franchise. Things changed in 2006 when Atlanta slipped under .500, and it began a four-year run of the team missing the postseason.
The Braves' NL East foes better have taken advantage when they could have, because it's sure looking like Atlanta is starting to re-emerge into an annual force in the National League again. Last season was Atlanta's fourth straight winning season, and it won the NL East for the first time since 2005. It was the Braves' third season in the past four in which they have made the playoffs, although the results there have been disappointing.
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Atlanta again is loaded with young talent, and the Braves already have started locking them up thanks to new revenue streams that will be coming when the club moves into a new stadium in 2016 in Cobb County, northwest of Atlanta. You look at what additions the Braves made this offseason and there's nothing there. But they've chosen to sign first baseman Freddie Freeman, outfielder Jason Heyward, starting pitcher Julio Teheran and closer Craig Kimbrel to long-term deals. Rising superstar shortstop Andrelton Simmons could be next. Even GM Frank Wren and Manager Fredi Gonzalez got extensions.
Atlanta did suffer two big offseason losses in catcher Brian McCann and starting pitcher Tim Hudson and didn't add anyone to replace them, instead going with players from within. That the team won 96 games in 2013 despite utterly terrible offensive seasons from B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla is shocking, and the Braves are counting on bounce-back season from them. Ditto Jason Heyward, who wasn't as bad as Upton and Uggla but struggled and was limited to 104 games.
Braves 2014 Projected Lineup
It really is amazing the Braves ranked fourth in the National League in runs and led the NL with 181 homers despite such lousy seasons from three expected cornerstones in Heyward, Upton and Uggla. That this is an even-numbered season should be good for Heyward, who likely leads off. He was very good as a rookie in 2010 and great in 2012. Heyward struggled and was injury-prone in 2011 & '13. Upton, the team's big free-agent acquisition in 2013, was supposed to thrive alongside brother Justin, but B.J. hit only .184 with nine homers. B.J. was so bad he was barely used in the NLDS, and Uggla was so historically terrible (.179 average, 171 strikeouts in 448 at-bats) that he wasn't even on the playoff roster. Those latter two can't be as bad in 2014.
Justin Upton was probably the NL MVP through April last season, and he cooled off, but he still hit a solid .263 with 27 home runs. He tends to be very streaky like his brother. Freeman has become the team's best hitter and an NL MVP candidate, hitting .319 with 23 homers and 109 knocked in. He's the new Chipper Jones as the face of the franchise. Catcher could be a concern with Evan Gattis likely given a shot to replace McCann. Gattis was a great story early last season but tailed off considerably. I'm also not sold on third base. Chris Johnson was a monster surprise there last year in hitting .321. Johnson had been a journeyman, so that was likely a fluke. Simmons is a flat-out Ozzie Smith defensively and hit 17 home runs in his rookie season. If you held a draft of every big-league player right now, I bet he'd go in the Top 5 because his ceiling is off the charts.
Braves 2014 Projected Rotation & Closer
The rotation looks very solid 1-5 but may not have that No. 1-type ace who can carry a team in a short playoff series like a Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander can. The Braves did lead the NL in ERA last season. Kris Medlen is the No. 1 guy, and he won 15 games and had a 3.11 ERA in 2013 -- remember, he was literally unbeatable the second half of 2012. Mike Minor (13-9, 3.21) and Teheran (14-8, 3.20) are solid behind Medlen, but the key likely will be Brandon Beachy. He has shown signs of being of one the NL's best pitchers. But is Beachy's surgically-repaired elbow ready to make 30 starts? Beachy has been limited to 111.0 innings the past two seasons. He was leading the majors in ERA in June 2012 when he learned he had to have surgery.
Kimbrel is the majors' best closer, hands down. He's off to a better start in his career than Mariano Rivera was. Kimbrel leads the majors with 138 saves, a 0.87 WHIP, 1.48 ERA and .158 opponents' batting average over the past three seasons. Atlanta had one of the best lefty set-up men in the majors from 2010-12 in Jonny Venters, but he's coming off a second Tommy John surgery last June. Anything he might provide has to be considered gravy at this point. Jordan Walden and Luis Avilan will set up Kimbrel for now.
Atlanta Braves Futures Odds & 2013 Trends
At Sportsbook.ag, Atlanta is even money to win the NL East (tied with Washington), +1000 to win the NL pennant and +1800 to win the World Series. The Braves have a wins total of 87.5 (both -115). They were 73-81-8 "over/under" last year and 81-81 on the runline. Justin Upton is given a total of 23.5 home runs and Heyward at 20.5. Teheran is set at 11.5 wins.
Free MLB Picks: 204 Atlanta Braves Predictions
Anything from 85-100 wins wouldn't surprise with the Braves. If Heyward stays healthy and B.J. Upton and Uggla simply have career-average seasons then Atlanta should be fine offensively. I still believe third base and catcher will have to be addressed. Atlanta has one of the top catching prospects in the minors in Christian Bethancourt, but he's not ready yet. If Beachy is all the way back, the rotation should be very good. Still, I don't think this club is quite as good as Washington, so I wouldn't take the division or pennant odds. I would go over the 87.5 wins as well as on Upton's home runs, Heyward's home runs (both guys should hit at least 25) and Teheran's wins (hitting 12 shouldn't be a problem). The Braves will win a wild-card spot, and then anything can happen.
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