Today, with one day left until the Washington Nationals begin their 2015 season, we take a look at the final team in our State Of The NL East previews. The focus for this piece is on the Atlanta Braves. The team that was once the perennial power in the NL East is now in a state of transition after new President of Baseball Operations, John Hart made some interesting trades during the offseason.
After winning the NL East with 96 wins in 2013, the Braves finished 79-83 in 2014, which was tied for second place in the division with the Mets. The team decided to keep Fredi Gonzalez as manager, but general manager Frank Wren was fired in September of last year and replaced by Hart.
Part of the reason for Atlanta’s struggles was because of their offense, which had a tendency to rack up the strikeouts. Their lineup had the third most K’s in the National League behind the Miami Marlins and Chicago Cubs. They were 11th in the NL in home runs (123) and had the second fewest RBI’s in the league, only ahead of the San Diego Padres.
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Heading into this season, the Braves made wholesale changes to their offense. They signed former Orioles’ right fielder Nick Markakis to a four-year, $44 million deal. Even with the Markakis signing, the club traded Justin Upton to the San Diego Padres and Jason Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals. With Melvin Upton Jr. on the disabled list to begin the year, Atlanta will have a completely different outfield. Plus, the Braves have a new starting catcher in Christian Bethancourt due to Evan Gattis being traded to Houston.
As far as the pitching goes, the Braves rotation will not have Mike Minor to start the season due to an injury to his rotator cuff, Atlanta acquired Shelby Miller in the Heyward trade to go with Opening Day starter, Julio Teheran. The Braves also added another veteran to the rotation when they dealt for Diamondbacks starter Trevor Cahill a few days ago.
To answer more questions about what to expect from Atlanta this season, I spoke with Jeff Schafer, the co-editor of Tomahawk Take about some of the Braves offseason moves and the new faces of the bullpen behind Craig Kimbrel:
Ricky: Out of all the trades John Hart made this winter, which one was the move that was your favorite and which one was your least favorite?
Jeff: My favorite trade that John Hart, President of Baseball Operations for the Atlanta Braves, made this year was probably the Justin Upton trade. Knowing he only had one year left on his contract and that the Braves probably wouldn’t be able to afford him, the Braves played it smart and got the best value they could for him. And value is what I think they got. The Braves received four players back from the San Diego Padres. Jace Peterson will be our everyday second basemen after a great spring training. Other prospects we received are pitcher Max Fried, third baseman Dustin Peterson and outfielder Mallex Smith.
Least favorite? Probably the trade with the Yankees that sent relief pitchers David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve to New York for pitcher Manny Banuelos. Banuelos was once a top prospect for the Yankees but after Tommy John surgery, he hasn’t bounced back. He had an awful .2015 Spring Training after some thought he could win a starting rotation spot. With the Braves now scrambling for bullpen help, these two guys would have fit in nicely.
R: What did you make of the Nick Markakis signing and what are your expectations for him in an outfield where he is arguably the best player?
J: This was a strange one for me. The Braves went into this offseason looking to “reform” their roster…not rebuild. But they shipped away fan favorite and still developing, Jason Heyward to the Cardinals, the Justin Upton trade and then later the Evan Gattis trade to Houston. But in the meantime they gave a 4-year $44 million contract to a guy that needed to have neck surgery and on the opposite side of 30-years-old. I think Markakis will fit in nicely with the Braves after he gets fully healthy but the signing was definitely a head-scratcher. He’ll hit probably around .300 and play great defense, which is what the Braves are looking for.
R: Is this the year where Andrelton Simmons takes the next step as an offensive player to go with his gold glove defense?
J: I’d say absolutely. With new hitting coach Kevin Stelzer improving his outlook at the plate, he’ll definitely improve in 2015. Spring Training stats don’t matter much but he had a slash line of .340/.353/.500.
R: Even though Mike Minor is out to start the season, how do you assess this Braves rotation?
J: Well, in the past few days you can call it a mess. The Braves slotted Wandy Rodriguez into their starting rotation a few weeks ago but then on Saturday released him. The Braves didn’t want both Rodriguez and Eric Slults at the backend of their rotation. So they went out and traded for Trevor Cahill and told Slutls he’s won the starting job. If Cahill can regain his form from early in his career, I think the Braves just got a steal. The rotation will win the Braves games this year, Julio Teheran and Alex Wood are extremely young pitchers that both could turn into “aces”. Shelby Miller was acquired from the Cardinals in the Heyward trade. I’m looking forward to having him in our rotation.
J: The bullpen will be fine once it gets sorted out. Former closers Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson will be our setup guys pitching the 7th or 8th innings. Hopefully these guys can rejuvenate their careers to maybe getting a little value at the trade deadline or if somehow the Braves are in contention at the end of the year, help the Braves in September/October.
R: Who is the X-Factor on this Atlanta squad for 2015?
J: I think Freddie Freeman. Freeman is now the leader of this ball club. Where he goes, the Braves will go.
R: How many wins will the Braves have this year and how far away are they from getting back to the top of the NL East?
J: any are projecting the Braves to win 70-75 games in 2015 but I think that’s a little low. Games aren’t played on paper, they are played on the field and this team will play with heart this season and maybe surprise folks. Maybe because I’m a Braves fan, maybe because I think they are better than what people are saying about them, but I think the Braves will win about 85 games and be in contention for a Wild Card slot.