It’s still early January, which means that there’s plenty of time left in the offseason for a few more major deals — Michael Bourn will sign somewhere, Arizona will probably trade an outfielder, and Washington will either sign Adam LaRoche and trade Michael Morse, or LaRoche will sign somewhere else and free up another potential corner trade target. Doubtless there will be one or two other things that come out of the blue.
Still, enough has happened that I thought I would write a long, rambling piece about what I think will happen this year.
I think that we’ll see a lot of familiar faces in the playoffs next year. I’ll predict the following 10 playoff teams:
In the AL, the Blue Jays, Rays, Yankees, White Sox, and Rangers.
In the NL, the Nationals, Braves, Reds, Cardinals, and Dodgers.
I think that the Indians and Cubs (and maybe the Royals and Pirates) will look like they’re in reasonably good shape in June, and maybe even by the All-Star break, but I think they’ll fade after that; they’re iffy organizations that lately have been unreliable at restocking the major leagues from the farm system in midseason. Among last year’s teams, in my opinion, the Tigers and Giants are too old to make it back to the playoffs, and the Athletics and Orioles are too fluky.
I think the Braves are basically an 86-88 win team, as per usual. They’ve averaged 86 wins a year over the past eight years. (That’s also the average over the past five years. And over the past six years. They’re consistent.) They replaced Chipper, Bourn, and David Ross with B.J. Upton, Gerald Laird, and increased playing time for Reed Johnson and Juan Francisco.
That’s a downgrade, at least a couple of wins’ worth; they’re basically counting across-the-board improvements from every young player in the offense, which is damn near most of them. But the Braves won 94 games last year (outperforming their 92 Pythagorean Wins); they probably have a few wins to spare, even accounting for regression to the mean, because it probably will only take about 88 wins to secure a wild card spot.
It stands to reason that Heyward and Freeman will probably improve in the aggregate; even if one of them takes a step back the other is likely to take a slightly larger step forward, but they’re 23, and aging curves are not linear. Andrelton Simmons is also 23, and he’s unlikely to hit better than he did last year. If he’s healthy all year, of course, he’s likely to exceed the production of last year’s Pastornicky/Janish/Prado/Simmons platoon, but most of that improvement will come on defense.
Juan Francisco is a platoon player, pure and simple. He only has 319 career PA against righties and just 67 against lefties, but even still, the story is pretty clear: .806 OPS against righties, .446 against lefties. Reed Johnson has a much longer track record, but fortunately his split is in the opposite direction: .703 against righties, .828 against lefties. Then again, he’s 37, and the end cannot be far off; the Braves will have to hope that Gattis can fill in if he falters.
Even combined, Gatciscohnson won’t be able to make up for the loss of Zombie Chipper Jones, but that combined production is at least probably a reasonable major leaguer, by which I mean, “better than Garret Anderson.”
Martin Prado’s 29, so he’s probably done improving as a hitter. Still, he’s had four full seasons in the major leagues, and despite his injury-plagued 2011, his average numbers in those four seasons are astonishing: .294/.342/.436 with 36 doubles and 12 homers over an average of 138 games a year.
He’s basically the National League Ben Zobrist: considering his positional flexibility, that makes him an All-Star level player, and if he has a fluky power spike and hits 20 homers some year, he could be a dark horse MVP candidate. Barring that sort of fluke, Prado won’t get any better than he is now.
Nor will Brian McCann. There are two problems: one, it’s unclear how much injuries have sapped his offense, and two, it’s almost certain that he’s gone after 2013.
McCann is still valuable; even during his worst offensive year in the majors, he was still worth two wins, because it’s so hard to find catchers who can hit their weight. He may still be the cleanup hitter, but he’s a lion in winter, and unless the Braves find $50-$60 million under a mattress, he’s gone after October. (But the Braves may be able to get an extra draft pick if they offer him a qualifying offer and he turns them down.)
Of the two free agent veterans, I think Dan Uggla will likely continue his decline, though I think he will remain at least a serviceable major leaguer for another year or two. But Upton has more potential, obviously.
I think that it’s very possible that the reason that Upton’s walks have declined in recent years is that he was pressing to live up to expectations, and so he sold out for power. If that is the case, then he may have less pressure in Atlanta to do the same. Obviously, an Upton who walks and hits 15 homers is more valuable than an Upton who hits 25 homers but doesn’t walk. Either way, he will be a good player, perhaps not as good as 2012 Michael Bourn but likely better than 2013 Michael Bourn.
The rotation, at least in the rosy glow of the offseason, looks like it could be pretty good. Medlen looks like a real frontline starter, and Minor looks like he could be a real #2. Despite outperforming their components in 2012, Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm form a reasonable #3/#4 tandem, until injuries intervene, and Brandon Beachy will likely return in the second half.
Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado will begin 2013 in the same place as they were a year ago: they’ll fight for the final spot in the rotation in spring training, and then the loser of that battle will stay ready to drive from Gwinnett to make injury-necessitated spot starts. There will undoubtedly be more than enough opportunities for that, and if both of them can prove that they can reliably throw strikes in the major leagues, then Maholm could easily be Wally Pipped.
Here’s the thing: someone will blow out their arm this year. Beachy, Medlen, and Hudson have all had Tommy John surgery within the last five years. And unfortunately, I have a guess as to who may be next. The Braves will need to be very careful with Minor. His first-half struggles last year smacked of an injury, and even if he was perfectly healthy, the fact remains that very few young left-handed pitchers avoid the knife altogether.
Injuries will be a bit tough to manage, especially to position players, because there just isn’t much in the upper minors. That’s why the Braves had to swing an emergency trade for Paul Janish last year, and that’s why they re-signed him this year. The Braves don’t really have any impact talent left on the farm, but they have a bunch of guys who could fill the last few spots on a roster.
The best prospects on the farm are all pitchers, like Sean Gilmartin and J.R. Graham. Both of them will probably manage to do something in the majors. Among the hitters, they’ve got a bunch of guys who could probably make it to a major league bench. Between Ahmed/Terdoslavich/Salcedo/Bethancourt/La Stella/ Cunningham/Beckwith/Peraza, they’ve got a reasonable mixture of medium-floor and medium-ceiling guys. Depending on whether Bethancourt or Salcedo ever figures out how to hit, they could get at least one starting player and two or three utility players out of that mix, but none of them are likely to help in 2013.
Moreover, Gattis is by no means a sure thing, but I think he could be a Garrett Jones, and have a couple decent years in his late 20s. The lack of farm depth means that it will be harder to find injury replacements if any of the major players go down, especially if Teheran and Delgado still struggle with their command.
This team is not built to win 95 games, and the Braves will probably finish behind the Nationals for the next few years. Of course, after Philadelphia got Lee, Halladay, and Oswalt to go with Hamels, I thought we’d finish behind the Phillies in 2012 and 2013. That shows what I know — but still, this is not a dominant team. Just a very good one.
Now that there are two Wild Cards, the Braves are a strong contender for a playoff spot every year, but the team hasn’t gotten past the first round of the playoffs in over a decade (the last time was 2001). I’m not quite sure why that is, but there’s no doubt that Fredi shares some of Bobby’s in-game management flaws.
I think that the Braves will make it to the playoffs, though. And the Nats could always stumble. This is not a go-big-or-go-home team like the Blue Jays or Dodgers. This is a second-place Wild Card team. We used to be good at winning first place. But I think we’ll be just as good at winning second. It’s not as fun to watch, but every ticket to October is golden.