Playing Pepper 2015: Atlanta Braves

It’s one of the annual traditions here at C70 At The Bat, our trip around the majors in blog form.  Since 2009, I’ve been asking bloggers from other teams about what’s going to happen with their squad in the coming season.  It’s always fun to see what the opposition is thinking and how optimistic some of their most devoted and intelligent fans are.  This year, the Pepper series is brought to you by Out of the Park Baseball 16, coming soon for PC.  Preorder this outstanding baseball simulation today!

Atlanta Braves
79-83, tied for second in the NL East

It’s not often a team can finish in second place in their division and it can be a pretty yucky year, but that’s pretty much what the Braves accomplished last year.  Of course, the Nationals romped through the NL East, so even a second place finish meant the Braves were 17 games out and under .500.  Even though that campaign wasn’t up to the standards the Braves have set over the years, there wasn’t much of a reaction, with only GM Frank Wren being pushed out the door.

The Braves have had an interesting offseason in the mind of many observers, but determining their plan isn’t always easy to see.  That’s why we have two bloggers for you today to make sense of it all.  Alex Remington writes over at Braves Journal, one of the oldest and most respected blogs on the Internet.  If you aren’t reading him there, you can find him on Twitter @AlexRemington.  Carlos Collazo has written numerous places on the FanSided network but right now you’ll catch him doing the baseball beat at ATL All Day.  He’s also going to be covering the Braves this summer as an associate reporter for MLB.com, which sounds extremely cool.  Follow him on Twitter @CarlosACollazo.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

BJ: I think it’s hard for any fan to be happy with the team’s offseason: after the firing of general manager Frank Wren, the new ruling triumvirate of Johns (Schuerholz, Hart, and Coppolella) engaged in a near-complete teardown and rebuild of the team.

Personally, I believe that IF they felt that a full rebuild of the roster was necessary — and I am not certain that I agree — then they ought to have engaged in a much more thorough rebuild of the front office, rather than swapping out the GM for his assistant GM and leaving much of the rest of the brain trust in place. But the guy in charge is rarely willing to fire himself.

Purely on the merits of the player moves, I think it was a successful offseason. For virtually every move they made, it seems likely that the expected value of the talent entering the organization exceeded the value of the talent exiting the organization, particularly with the Heyward and Upton trades, where the team managed to extract major prospect value from the Cardinals and Padres in return for one-year rentals of their outfielders.

It seems clear that they pursued a strategy of trading hitting for pitching. With the exception of the David Hale trade, almost all of the outgoing players have been hitters (Heyward, Upton, Gattis, La Stella, Kubitza) and most of the notable incoming players have been pitchers (Miller, Fried, Foltynewicz, Jenkins, Vizcaino, Sanchez). Many of the incoming pitchers have seen their stock dip due to arm injuries. The Braves appear to be buying low on pitching at a moment when pitching appears to be cheapest and hitting appears to be most expensive. If the market value of pitching rebounds, and if these pitchers are able to come back strong from their arm injuries, then it will have been a very savvy strategy. But there’s a high risk with any pitching prospect, so there’s a good chance that the strategy could blow up in their faces. And as a fan, it’s disheartening to be told to write off the season. If the farm system has another bad year in 2015, a lot of fans will be calling for the heads of the men who fired Frank Wren.

AAD: Given all of the players who were on their last year with the team, and the state of the farm system after that horrible end to the season, yes. John Hart and John Coppolella did an excellent job buying low on a ton of former top prospects, and if a handful of them are able to pan out, the trades of Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis will certainly be worth it. The farm system went from one of the worst in the game to one of the best in the game in a matter of months. That’s extremely impressive in my book, and should give the team some talent to work with when the move into their new stadium in Cobb County in 2017–when they’ll look to actually compete.

C70: What are your expectations for former Cardinal Shelby Miller this year?

BJ: I’m high on Miller. His velocity has stayed up, which I take as a good sign. He’s extremely similar to our Julio Teheran, right down to their up-and-down seasons in 2012 and their terrific rookie years in 2013. I’m looking forward to seeing him in the rotation. I just hope that if he shows any sign of shoulder trouble they’ll let him take the time he needs to rest. It’s not like they’re going for it this year.

AAD: Shelby Miller will be one of the many new arms to watch for the Braves this year, and I’m excited to see him. After an up-and-down 2014, Miller seemed to figure it out near the end of the season by adding in a few different fastballs and working out the curve. His first half ERA was 4.29 and his second half was 2.92 after tinkering with the pitches, so I’m confident that he’ll look like a No. 2/3 starter this year with Atlanta.

C70: Will Nick Markakis be enough to make teams pitch to Freddie Freeman?

BJ: Nick Markakis is a multiyear stopgap — the kind of mediocre veteran for whom the term “professional hitter” was invented. We’re hoping that he’ll manage to be league-average for the first couple years of the deal, but even if I believed that hitter protection wasn’t a myth, I wouldn’t expect him to be able to protect anybody in the lineup. I’m not apoplectic that they signed him, because it’s nice that they’re spending money on something and because it’s hard to find even league-average outfielders these days (though I wish they’d signed Nori Aoki, who was significantly cheaper).

It annoys me, though, that it appears that part of the marketing strategy around the Markakis signing concerned the fact that he’s from Atlanta. I wouldn’t mind being proved wrong, but I have a hard time believing that there are Braves fans outside of his family who will make their decision to see the Braves on the basis of whether Nick Markakis is on the field.

AAD: Nick Markakis is a good baseball player. But he’s certainly not great. He’s not as good as any of the hitters that the Braves traded away this offseason and he’s a far cry from what Jason Heyward is. But he’s a veteran guy who’s always hit for contact, and that fits the mold of what this new Braves front office is going for. He’s a .290 career hitter, which will really fire up some of those old school baseball fans out there, but he doesn’t bring much pop or speed or really anything else. And that’s OK. But Freddie Freeman is the ONLY bat pitchers should be worried about with this lineup.

C7o: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

BJ: 2015 will be an important year for Andrelton Simmons. He looked very promising at the plate in 2012 and 2013, but 2014 was a disaster for him offensively. He has an interesting problem: he has poor plate discipline but rarely strikes out. He swings at far too many pitches, and as a result he makes a lot of weak contact and rarely walks. If he can learn to spit on some of the pitches that he’s currently popping up to short, he’ll significantly improve his plate approach. Of course, even if he fails to improve on his 2014 hitting performance, he could still be the Ozzie Smith of his generation, but considering how few hitters are on the team or even in the farm system, we need all the offense we can get.

AAD: Hmmm…. this one’s an interesting question, just because there are going to be so many new players stepping into bigger roles. I’m excited to see Jose Peraza, but he should start at Triple-A. Christian Bethancourt seems to already have the starting catching job taken, which is a bit scary given his offensive track record, but he’s got a cannon behind the plate.

But, getting around to answering your question, I guess I’d look to Andrelton Simmons and hope that he can have an offensive season closer to 2013 than 2014. It would be great to see him shorten up his swing, but if that’s not the case a return to more than just seven home runs would help. I’m still not confident he’ll make “the greatest strides”, but he’s got the potential to be a better hitter than he was last season with some tweaks to the swing.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

BJ: On a podcast the other day, I said 72-90, 4th place. That may be overly pessimistic: depending on how good the other teams in the division are and depending on how good our pitching is, the Braves could probably win anywhere from 70-78 games. But I don’t really see how the Braves finish any higher than 3rd place: the Braves will be better than the Phillies and *may* be better than the Mets or Marlins, but almost certainly not both.

AAD: Even though the offense is going to be a poor sight this season, I’m not as down on the team as some might be. Their starting rotation should be really good and the bullpen has the potential to be better than last season. Last year, the Padres had the worst offense in baseball and still managed 77 wins.

I wouldn’t be too surprised to see the Braves end the season around the 75-80 win mark–so pushing .500 the entire year, and third or fourth in the division edging out the Phillies for sure and possibly the Marlins.

C70: What do you like best about being a Braves fan?

BJ: The Braves have had a lot of continuity in the recent past. John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox have effectively run the team for the past 30 years, and they’ve captured 15 division titles and notched two wild-card appearances in that time, along with the 1995 World Championship, and have been one of the most consistently successful sports franchises in any league in the world. Braves fans are well-known for complaining about the Braves’ record of postseason failure, but it seems rather churlish to moan about a team that makes it to the first round of the playoffs almost every year. I’m lucky, and extremely spoiled, to root for a team that has been so consistently good for so long.

But I’m not certain that continuity is still a strength. The frenetic offseason is a bold roll of the dice, but it seemed to have been at least partially motivated by spite towards Frank Wren, who assembled the team behind the 2014 debacle and whom the Braves wasted no time in badmouthing both off and on the record as soon as he was out the door.

For example, to quote Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Mark Bradley: “It has been clear from the day of Frank Wren’s “termination” that two of the three Johns — team presidents Hart and Schuerholz — hate every single thing the former general manager ever did. (It’s less clear whether assistant GM John Coppollela does. He did, after all, work for Wren.)”

But all of Wren’s old bosses are still in place, and they were his bosses while he was the GM and making all of the decisions that they apparently decided to have retroactively opposed. Like I said before, I think the front office may need a much more thorough rebuild, and that means that the guys who have run the team for the past 30 years might want to step aside and let someone else hold the reins.

AAD: Watching Andrelton Simmons play shortstop. And it’s not even close. The plays this kid makes on a regular basis are ridiculous, I don’t need to tell anyone who keeps up with baseball that. I’m a sucker for good defense (and infield defense is clearly the most fun), so Simmons is the natural choice here.

My thanks to Alex and Carlos for their insight.  It’s difficult not to think of the Braves not as the class of that division and we’ll have to wait and see how long it is until they regain the top spot, but it apparently won’t be this year.

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