Atlanta Braves Preview

The Atlanta Braves won the NL East a year ago, but still have question marks looming over their ability to win in the postseason—over the last four years, the Braves are 2-7 in playoff baseball, including two Division Series losses (2010 and 2013) and a wild-card game loss (2012). Whether it’s the Braves, the Falcons or the Hawks, the poor sports fans of Atlanta can’t get past this whole winning in the playoffs thing. Is 2014 going to be different, at least on the diamond? Here’s our Notebook Nine points to remember about the Atlanta Braves…

*Atlanta is an 18-1 shot to win their first World Series title since 1995. The smart money places them on the same betting line as Texas, San Francisco, the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland. In other words, the Braves are grouped with three teams that didn’t make the postseason and one that works with significantly less in payroll. This has to be a reflection of the market’s skepticism about Atlanta’s postseason savvy, because their regular season Over/Under win prop is a healthy 88.

*The biggest problem the Braves have to deal with is low on-base percentages throughout the lineup. If we use .350 as the benchmark for quality, which I think is reasonable, only two players exceeded that that last year. Justin Upton posted a .354 OBP in his first year as a Brave, while fellow newcomer Chris Johnson put up a .358. Even if we give Atlanta credit for Jason Heyward’s .349, that leaves a lot of holes.

*Potential for improvement comes from Fredi Freeman, who’s OBP was .336, but is developing into one of the game’s better offensive first basemen. Andrelton Simmons was a great defender at shortstop last year, and can hopefully improve a woeful .296 OBP. And let’s keep an eye on Dan Uggla. The second baseman’s wild inconsistencies are a matter of record, but he had LASIK surgery to help his eyes and is hungry to prove himself again, after being left off the postseason roster.

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*Freeman has hit 23 home runs each of the past two seasons and has become more consistent with his power to the alleys. That was reflected in his slugging percentage clearing .500 last year. Johnson and Justin Upton also provided quality power. Evan Gattis, a young catcher, was a pleasant surprise, with a .480 slugging percentage and for the sake of Atlanta’s offense, he needs to keep it up now that the plan is to have him start at least 100 games.

*Nothing—not even Uggla’s non-performance at the plate—was a bigger disappointment than B.J. Upton seeing his power tank in the first year since coming over from Tampa Bay. Upton had been good for 20-plus home runs and respectable slugging percentages. The latter figure went to an awful .289. If Upton can even lift his power back to mediocrity, it will give Atlanta something they didn’t have a year ago.

*There’s terrific youth all over the pitching staff and it starts with 26-year-old Mike Minor. He saw his ERA drop nearly a full run to 3.21 last season. Kris Medlen wasn’t insanely dominant like the latter half of 2012, but in its own way, Medlen’s 31-start/3.11 ERA season was almost reassuring—we know this is sustainable. Medlen and Minor are the M&M boys and will anchor the rotation in Atlanta.

*The back of the rotation has potential for either excellence or problems. Brandon Beachy was pitching like an ace the last time he was seen taking the ball regularly for extended stretches. Problem is, that last time was in 2011. Beachy has pitched on an off for the last two years. Julio Teheran and Alex Wood are much safer bets—they’re still just 23-years-old, but each was excellent in 2013, albeit Wood in limited work.

*Doesn’t it seem like Craig Kimbrel should be lot older than 25-years-old? He’s already got three full years as the Atlanta closer and has saved 153 games in that timeframe. Whether he is literally the best closer in baseball is up for debate, but certainly no other closer puts in the hours the way Kimbrel does. He’s cashed it in to a four-year contract extension worth $42 million, which I have my doubts about. This position sees arms blaze and fade rapidly and when you work as often as Kimbrel, an arm blowout doesn’t seem unlikely.

*Furthermore, there’s plenty of live arms in the bullpen. David Carpenter and Luis Avilan were nothing short of spectacular in last year’s NL East title run, each posting sub-2.00 ERAs. Jordan Walden and Anthony Varvaro were solid. Manager Fredi Gonzalez can pretty much start rolling out the relievers by the sixth inning and get through the game with ease.

I spent most of last season doubting Atlanta and paid the price for it. I haven’t learned my lesson, and I’m going to come out firing by picking the Braves to go Under 88 for their wins. We’ll do final division and playoff predictions once all of these team previews are completed by Opening Day (March 31), but right now I just don’t like the lack of depth in the Atlanta offense.

I don’t see the upside much higher than 90 wins, and can see them going as low as 84. The Over/Under is probably about right where it should be, but if I have to pick—and according to the rules I set for myself on this website I do—then I take the Under.