Playing Pepper 2014: Atlanta Braves

Since 2009, one of the traditions of the spring has been the Playing Pepper series.  I ask a number of questions of blogs–some in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, some not–that cover the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball.  This year, not only is my son involved–he and I came up with the last question together–but the series is also brought to you by Purpose, Perseverance and Power Arms, the United Cardinal Bloggers annual publication.  Only $2.99 at the Kindle store, so get yours today!  But first, get out the bats and gloves and let’s play some pepper.

Atlanta Braves
96-66, first in the NL East, lost in the NLDS

It wasn’t supposed to be the Braves’ year in 2013.  The Nationals were picked by just about everyone to lay waste to the division on their way to great postseason glory.  While nobody expected a losing season for the Braves, they were a bit of an afterthought when talking about the East.

Instead, their strong pitching and solid, if not dominating, offense led them to a divisional title, 10 games ahead of those vaunted Nats.  Now, it helped that the rest of the NL East was so weak (and Washington stumbled for so long) but 96 wins is nothing to denigrate.  They won that division legitimately, even if they ran into trouble against the Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs.

The Braves lost a little this offseason with team leader and offensive force Brian McCann taking the Yankees’ money and Tim Hudson, their long-time ace, heading back to California to wear the orange and black.  Expecting another weak season from Washington is probably a bridge too far, so can the Braves retain their title and, if so, how?

To discuss this, I cast a wide net to find Atlanta bloggers and, while many were out there, only one answered the call.  That’s OK, though, because we landed a big fish in that net.  Joe Lucia can be found talking Braves at The Outside Corner, part of the Bloguin network, but also contributes to Awful Announcing.  You’ll find him on Twitter @Joe_TOC.

C70: How would you grade the offseason?

TOC: I’d give it a solid B – the Braves have an incredibly young team and didn’t need to do much of anything to upgrade their roster. Losing Brian McCann and Tim Hudson hurts, but Evan Gattis and one of a number of starters should be able to step in just fine. The contract extensions given to Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran are just an extra cherry on top.

C70: What kind of hope is there among Braves fans that B.J. Upton can at least make a stab at earning his contract?

TOC: The thing about Upton’s 2014 is that it was…well, it was just weird. Aside from a groin strain, he didn’t have any injury issues all year. He didn’t suddenly get old. It was a mixture of terrible luck and crappy mechanics, both of which will hopefully turn around before year two in Atlanta begins.

C70: Which roster battle will be the most intriguing during spring training?

TOC: There aren’t any roster battles of significance this spring, unless you’re really enthralled by duels for the fifth outfielder spot or the couple of bullpen spots that aren’t set in stone. The most interesting thing to watch this spring will probably end up being whether or not Dan Uggla shows a pulse at second base, and if an incredible hot streak from Tommy La Stella or Tyler Pastornicky can force either into the starting role. That situation doesn’t seem like it has much of a chance at happening, so spring will really just end up being an exercise of keeping everyone healthy.

C70: What rookie, if any, will make the most impact on the team in 2014?

TOC: The aforementioned La Stella could end up in the majors at some point this year at second base or on the bench. Aside from him, you’re really just looking at bullpen arms – David Hale, J.R. Graham, Shae Simmons, Ian Thomas, and Cody Martin got a lot of early love this offseason, and might end up cracking the big leagues sometime this year, perhaps even on Opening Day. The other dark horse is catcher Christian Bethancourt, the third catcher on the Braves’ 40-man roster. If Gerald Laird or Evan Gattis gets injured, Bethancourt will have to get the call unless the Braves play around with their roster and roll with a journeyman like Steve Lerud or Jose Yepez for a brief period.

C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

TOC: I’ll go ahead pencil Atlanta in at 94-68, just edging out the Nationals for the NL East crown. I think something like 85 or 86 wins is the floor, and it’ll be a surprise if the Braves aren’t at least in the playoff hunt in the National League this season.

C70: Which player from your team do you most enjoy watching?

TOC: Jason Heyward, because he’s skilled in all facets of the game. Watching him work the count at the plate is a pleasure, and once he gets on base, he’s the team’s best baserunner and has incredible instincts on when to take on extra bag. He also can get a hold of balls and drive them 15 rows deep or beat out a slow-rolling infield grounder. Then in the field, he makes difficult plays look routine and makes incredibly hard plays look gorgeous – when you’re at a game live, you need to keep your eye on him at all times.

My thanks to Joe for the insight and the knowledge.  Cards and Braves don’t meet up much during the regular season, but October just might be a different story.

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