Author’s Note: I’ve come into possession of a flying DeLorean and have used it to make a few trips into October to see what became of the Braves this year. However, as any veteran time traveler knows, the future isn’t written and is in fact subject to events that can throw the timeline onto alternate paths entirely.
The forecasters at Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs see the 2014 Braves as a middle-of-the-pack National League team with a puncher’s chance of stealing the division from the heavily favored Nationals. But unlike the Dodgers, who won a billion games and the NL West all but one of the times I went to October, the Braves are a pretty high-variance outfit, and every time I went back to the future, they had done something totally different. Behold are recaps from versions of the three most common scenarios I encountered on my trips to October:
Scenario #1: The Bottom Falls Out
Settle in for the summer, because those injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy were just the beginning. The pitching staff never got healthy, and that was a must for a team this thin on starting pitching depth. Gavin Floyd’s speedy return from Tommy John surgery pretty much went the way Beachy’s did, and his time as a Brave lasted but a few starts in May. Mike Minor battled nagging injuries all year, and another starter – I won’t say who, it’ll just depress you – bit the dust midway through the season.
That was pretty much that, at that point. The lack of starting pitching depth overtaxed the bullpen, who started hitting the DL hard themselves. Remember 2008, when injuries reduced the staff down the stretch to a lot of Campillo, Reyes, and Morton? Get ready for an August down to a lot of Hale, Harang, and Pickles.
It’s not really possible to mash your way out of this type of problem, but the Braves did themselves no favors. Evan Gattis never saw a fastball to hit, couldn’t adjust to the junk, and put up a line pretty close to his 2013 second half. Dan Uggla played his way out of the second base job by June, but his replacements were… replacement level. Andrelton Simmons remained a five-win player with the glove, but his season at the plate was a series of pop-ups in pursuit of 20 home runs.
Chris Johnson finally had his long-awaited regression, B.J. Upton was better than the depths of 2013 but not enough to offset the loss of Brian McCann in the lineup, and poor Jason Heyward missed two months when a piano fell out of the sky and hit him on the head. (He came back and still posted a four-win season.)
Bright spots included Justin Upton, who stayed consistent enough to mash 40 homers, and Freddie Freeman, who made it back to the All-Star Game. Overall, this team was lucky to win the 70 games it did, though.
Scenario #2: Muddle Into Wild-Card Contention
This wasn’t the greatest Braves season you ever saw, but it was one of the gamest. The 2014 Braves made the wild-card game but there’s no way I’m sticking around the future long enough to see how that turns out.
The top five starters (Minor, Santana, Teheran, Floyd, and Wood) were never all healthy at the same time, but none were catastrophically hurt and the team got strong spot-start performances from Hale, Pickles, and Harang when they needed them. Jonny Venters came back mid-season to give the bullpen a boost, and after some early- season hiccups the Braves found an effective bridge to Craig Kimbrel.
Dan Uggla played his way out of the second base job by June, but Ramiro Pena and Tommy La Stella proved league-average as a two-headed replacement. Chris Johnson didn’t equal his 2013 batting average but came close enough to contribute effectively. Evan Gattis didn’t get on base much but still clubbed 25 homers, including a walk-off in a September series against the Pirates that effectively swung a wild-card spot.
Jason Heyward stayed healthy all year and put up a six-win season from the leadoff spot. Andrelton Simmons was still all glove, but started showing some signs of making more consistent line-drive contact by the end of the season. The Braves won 86 games and the second wild-card spot, and will head to San Francisco for a one-game playoff I will absolutely refuse to watch.
Scenario #3: Everything Coming Up Braves
This one happened about once every five times I went to October, but man is it fun when it does.
The big thing here is Julio Teheran becomes an ace. Like a Kershaw-esque, if-we’re-on-a-losing-streak-it-ends-today, Pedro-on-the-Red-Sox-dealing-filth, ace. Teheran made his first All-Star Game and I’m sure he’s going to be in the discussion for Kershaw’s runner-up in the Cy Young voting soon.
After Teheran, everyone kind of fell into their role in the rotation. Mike Minor came back from his injury to become the National League’s best #2 starter, Ervin Santana had a Good Ervin Santana season and will start Game 3 of the NLDS, and Gavin Floyd did his Gavin Floyd thing and pitched 170 innings of league-average ball in the back of the rotation. Alex Wood started the year as an effective starter and then transitioned into the bullpen, where Wood/Carpenter/Walden/Venters/Kimbrel have basically gone 1996 Yankees on the league and forced opponents to take a lead by the 6th inning, because the Braves are basically unbeatable if they go into the 7th with the lead.
Dan Uggla reinvented himself as a walks-and-doubles hitter and started at second all season. That freed Ramiro Pena up for a super-sub role in the infield, where he was effective spelling the starters during cold streaks and bouts of nagging injury. Jason Heyward put it all together and will be in the MVP conversation, posting a 30/30 season from the leadoff spot and helping push the Braves out to a lot of early leads in games. B.J. Upton recovered enough of his swing to be a two-win player in center field. Everyone had their nagging injuries, but solid bench play from Pena, Jordan Schafer, and Ryan Doumit kept the lineup afloat while the regulars got healthy.
The Braves were a bit slow out of the gate due to pitching injuries, but kept the race with the Nationals close until September, when they pulled away winning five of six games against the Nats in a crucial two-week stretch. They’re headed straight to the NLDS, while Washington has to go play a coin flip to get in.
The future begins today.