LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Atlanta Braves won 96 games a year ago and captured the National League East by 10 games. Yet they find themselves in the same place they were going into spring training a year ago — picked to finish behind the Washington Nationals.
The Nationals upgraded this winter and the Braves did not. That does not mean, though, that the Braves feel they are not still the better team.
Atlanta has one of the best overall pitching staffs in the majors, if certainly not the most glamorous, and the Braves feel good about their offense, noting that they won the division handily a year ago despite horrible seasons by outfielder B.J. Upton and second baseman Dan Uggla.
All eyes will be on Upton and Uggla this spring for encouraging signs, with a bounce-back season from Upton — under contract for four more years — the most important.
Catcher Evan Gattis steps in behind the plate for Brian McCann, who signed with the New York Yankees, and the Braves have able backups in Ryan Doumit and Gerald Laird.
The departure of McCann and veteran right-hander Tim Hudson, who signed with San Francisco, leave a potential leadership void, but there is no question that the Braves are counting on first baseman Freddie Freeman to be the face of the franchise going forward.
Freeman, in his first year of arbitration eligibility, got a team-record contract paying him $135 million over eight seasons after hitting .319 with 23 homers and 109 RBIs.
General manager Frank Wren was reluctant to make any expensive additions because his focus is on keeping the team’s young corps intact for years to come. In addition to Freeman, that includes right fielder Jason Heyward, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, starters Julio Teheran and Mike Minor and closer Craig Kimbrel.
Kimbrel, though, may be too pricey down the line, with the Braves feeling his best years are behind him by the time he is eligible for free agency in 2016.
The Braves figure to be limited to a payroll in the vicinity of $100 million until they move into their new suburban stadium. The departure from Turner Field was deemed necessary because the team was limited financially because of an outdated TV contract.
“There is an element of the new situation in Cobb County that allows us to be more competitive and I think it’s evident by this signing,” Wren said when Freeman’s contract was announced. “So over the last two months we put a lot of planning into it, and we’re excited one of the best young players in National League will be a Brave for the next eight years … and hopefully by much longer than that.”
QUOTE TO NOTE: “I want to contribute to a staff that’s already positioned itself to be one of the best in the National League. We’re obviously going to miss (Tim Hudson), his presence. That’s something that’s going to be tough to replace. But Kris (Medlen) is the elder statesman; he’s the guy. Mike (Minor) and Julio (Teheran) are building off incredible campaigns, and hopefully I can help with that. And Alex Wood has shown what he can do. So I think we’re a pretty good unit together.” — RHP Brandon Beachy.
The Braves do not have a true ace and Tim Hudson’s experience will be missed, but the rotation is much more a strength than a weakness. Medlen, Minor and Teheran are all coming off good seasons, with Teheran flashing brilliance at times as a rookie. The rotation had the sixth-best ERA in majors last season despite losing Hudson for the final two months.
The Braves are counting on a return to health by Beachy after two elbow surgeries and hope to get a boost by May or June from Floyd, a free agent signee coming off Tommy John surgery. When Floyd is ready to go, the Braves could move Wood back to the bullpen.
Kimbrel was the best closer in baseball over his first full three seasons, saving 138 games while striking out 381 and allowing just 123 hits in 227 1/3 career innings. The Braves, though, have to be concerned about his contract situation becoming a distraction. Kimbrel is headed to an arbitration hearing shortly after the start of camp and he may become too expensive for the Braves to keep long term.
The rest of the bullpen is also solid, as shown by the best ERA in the major again last season. The Braves, though, would have liked to have added another veteran. Carpenter, claimed off waivers, was a surprise last season and has the power arm that team’s crave. Avilan is the only healthy lefty going into camp, but the Braves hope to Venters available early in the first half.
The Braves, once loaded with left-handed hitters, now have a heavily right-handed lineup with the loss of C Brian McCann to free agency. The big problem, though, is the lack of a true leadoff hitter and the uncertainty of bounce-back years from B.J. Upton and Uggla, who were both dismal in 2013.
Gattis, backed up by Ryan Doumit and Gerald Laird, will take over regular duties for McCann and hopes to build off a strong power season as a rookie. CF Jordan Schafer is available to spell B.J. Upton and gives the Braves another leadoff option. The versatile Pena and 2B Tyler Pastornicky give the Braves options if Uggla struggles again.
The Braves remain solid defensively, with Simmons likely a Gold Glover winner year after year.
TOP ROOKIES: RHP David Hale allowed just one run and struck out 14 over 11 innings in his first two major league games last September and gives the Braves rotation depth. RHP Luis Vasquez, coming of an impressive winter in the Dominican Republic, is a bullpen candidate after signing as a minor league free agent. C Christian Bethancourt is expected to start the season with Triple-A Gwinnett, but is considered the Braves top position prospect. Right behind him is 2B Tommy LaStella, who hit .343 last season with Double-A Mississippi.