We’re bringing back Ben Weinrib of The Knuckleblog to help us preview the new Braves season. Ben put out his annual 70-page MLB preview last week, which you absolutely should check out. Just like last year, the questions I sent to Ben are in Bold, his responses are in regular text, and my added snark is in italics. If you don’t understand some of the acronyms we use, FanGraphs has a helpful dictionary so you can translate our nerd talk.
This should be fun.
1. In your season preview you have the Braves ranked behind the Nationals. This is obviously wrong, but explain your reasoning anyways.
Earlier in the off-season I still had the Nationals ahead of the Braves, and all the injuries to the Braves’ starting pitchers doesn’t help their case. Losing Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy for the season is big; they’ve combined to have a 2.52 ERA over 446 innings the past two seasons, and Aaron Harang and David Hale are not all that adequate of replacements.
Let me stop you right there, Ben. David Hale has a 0.82 ERA, so if anything he’s an improvement. Sure, that’s only in two career starts, but he was incredible in those two starts. Aaron Harang sucks, but he’s only around for a month.
The main reason I picked the Nationals to win the World Series is because they have so much pitching. Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez are all aces, and Doug Fister isn’t all that far behind. With four starters of that caliber, plus Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, and Drew Storen out of the pen, it’s going to be hard for them not to compete. Add in a promising, young offense, and the Nationals are going to be really good.
Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann are aces? That’s like calling Joe Flacco “elite” except that Flacco has won a Super Bowl. Fangraphs (and most reasonable baseball nerds) calls aces the best 30 pitchers in the league. Gonzalez and Zimmermann are very good pitchers, but only Zimermann is in the “Ace” discussion.
I think Bryce Harper takes the leap to become a top-10 NL player, and the eternally underrated Ian Desmond is already a top-5 shortstop.
Desmond is underrated by everyone except Major League managers who somehow think he’s both a better defender and has a better arm than Andrelton
Much like the Braves, so much of the Nationals’ lineup is young that it’s easy to see it improving without any acquisitions this winter.
For what it’s worth, the Nationals have just two positions players on the 25-man roster under the age of 26.
The difference to me, though, is that I have much fewer questions about the Nationals’ lineup than I have about Chris Johnson and Evan Gattis repeating their big years and B.J. Upton, Dan Uggla, and Andrelton Simmons improving.
This was not a satisfactory answer.
2. What needs to happen for the Braves to win the division?
It would be really nice if the Nationals had the same bad luck they had last year with injuries to Harper and Jayson Werth, but that’s something they can’t control. In terms of what the Braves need to do, they need four key players to live up to their ceiling.
Bryce Harper still played in 118 games last season. Jason Werth played in 129. Jason Heyward played in 104. Forgive me if I don’t quite buy that the Nationals would have made up a 10-game difference in the standings last year without injuries.
Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton have shown they can be really good players; outside of last year, they each averaged 3.3 and 3.7 WAR per season. If they can return to even 80% of their old forms, this could be a scary batting order. How likely that is, we’ll get to in a second.
On the other hand, Ervin Santana and Alex Wood may be more important considering how thin Atlanta’s pitching staff is now. Santana has had an ERA under 4.00 in four of the past six seasons, but the other two seasons were disastrous with ERAs over 5.00.
Gio “Ace” Gonzalez has also had two seasons with an ERA over 5.00 in his six years in the majors.
Wood has been excellent throughout pro ball, but his arm action suggest his future my lie in the bullpen. It’ll be interesting to see if he can hold up for 200 innings this season. If these two are as good as they can be, Atlanta’s rotation could be just fine. But if Santana reverts back to his 2012 form and Wood blows out his arm, this team may not sniff the playoffs.
An understandable concern with Wood, though he did throw 140 innings between the minors and Atlanta last season.
3. Is Julio Teheran an ace? Can the Braves count on him to carry a depleted pitching staff?
I have very little doubts about Julio Teheran eventually being an ace, but I’m not entirely sure if he’ll get there this year. We’ve even seen pitchers take a step back in their second year before (Ivan Nova). Then again, I didn’t think fellow phenom Jose Fernandez would be quite ready last year, and he’s turned into one of the best 10 pitchers in the NL.
Once he’s fully recovered from his… male surgery… Mike Minor becomes the best pitcher on the staff to me, which makes Teheran a very strong number two pitcher. I think the key to Teheran improving this season is to use his changeup more effectively. That pitch has been graded well above-average before, but he only threw it five percent of the time last year. Additionally, a more effective changeup will help his platoon split issues—lefties hit .284 off him and righties hit .201 off him in 2013.
According to WAR, Mike Minor was an “Ace” last season.
4. How good is Craig Kimbrel?
In a few words, Craig Kimbrel is ridiculous. He has by far the highest career strikeout rate for any pitcher with at least 200 innings; Kimbrel has struck out 43.2% of batters he faced, and no one else whiffed more than 40% of their batters. Not only that, but he posts an above-average ground ball rate, and his velocity has ticked up each year he’s been in the majors.
The only thing holding him back is how much Fredi Gonzalez uses him. The Braves could get a lot more value out of him if they used him for more than an inning at a time. He recorded four outs just two times last year, including once in the playoffs, and he was only put in 14 non-save situations all year. Come on, Fredi, you’re wasting your best pitcher.
This is a discussion for another day, probably. Yes, I agree that Kimbrel should be used in more non-save situations, because those aren’t always the highest-leverage parts of a game, but I’m not so sure about using him for more than an inning at a time.
5. Dan Uggla and BJ Upton had historically bad seasons last year. Are there any signs of hope that the two will be better this year?
Well you look at how well Uggla and Upton played for the first seven and six years of their career, and it’s easy to see 2013 as outlier seasons. For Uggla, his vision was so bad that he needed LASIK surgery mid-way through the season, although he didn’t improve post-surgery. The hope here is that improved vision will translate to a better eye at the plate.
Can he get surgery on the part of him that strikes out in 31% of all at bats?
As a B.J. Upton fantasy owner for the past four years, I can tell you the guy is equal parts talented and frustrating. He’ll never hit for a high average—he sat between .237 and .246 his last four years in Tampa—but he got incredibly unlucky last year on balls in play. His BABIP was just .266 in 2013, which should stabilize closer to his career .317 BABIP next year.
He also posted the highest strikeout rate of his career at 33.9%, so it wasn’t just the balls in play that hurt his average. That said, he did hit a lot of line drives right at fielders last season, so your point is taken.
I don’t think we see either player return to their previous norm, but you won’t see two hitters below the Mendoza Line again.
6. Grade the Braves’ offseason. Which was your favorite move?
Considering their budget and contract situations, the Braves had as good of a winter as they could have. It wasn’t a perfect off-season, though, since they make any great trades like the Justin Upton one last year, so I’m settling on a very strong A- grade.
This grade deflation at Vanderbilt is really doing a number on you, Ben.
Signing Santana was very underrated because although they lost their first-round draft pick to sign him, they’ll be able to recoup it next winter should they extend him a qualifying offer and he signs with a new team. However, my favorite move of the winter—which really means my favorite extension of the winter—is Julio Teheran’s extension. Should they pick up his two team options, he’ll make just $23 million in his free agency years, which could easily be half his market value.
Great price for an Ace.
7. What prospect should Atlanta fans look for in the majors this year?
Most of Atlanta’s prospects are in the lower minors, but two names stick out to me. Christian Bethancourt is pretty much the opposite of starting catcher Evan Gattis—an elite defender with a questionable bat—and should see time in the majors if either Gattis or Gerald Laird gets hurt. If he can learn to take a walk every now and then, he could be a lite version of Andrelton Simmons behind the plate.
Just to address your implication that Gattis is a poor defender, advanced catching stats have him above league-average in pitch framing and blocking. He definitely sucks in the outfield, though.
Tommy La Stella is the next guy in line if Dan Uggla continues to hit like he did last season. He has a fairly low upside with no significant tools besides a plus bat, but as an older prospect, he’ll immediately be able to hit for a respectable average and be a solid defender should the Braves need him this year.
8. Is Andrelton Simmons the best defender in the league? Is this just an excuse for me to show 25 minutes of Simba highlights?
According to UZR, Simmons was the fourth best defender in the league last year after Manny Machado, Gerardo Parra, and Shane Victorino. Of course, UZR can vary a lot year-to-year, so take that stat with a grain of salt, but I think it’s fair to say he’s the best defender in the league considering the bazooka attached to his right shoulder (he can reach 98 mph off the mound) and his impressive range.
Shane Victorino? UZR needs to watch some baseball games if it thinks Shane Victorino is a better defender than Andrelton Simmons.
The one other player I could see as a better defender than Simmons is Yadier Molina. Baseball Prospectus found that framing pitches alone can save about 20 runs per season (the equivalent of 2 WAR), and Molina does wonders for the Cardinals’ young pitching staff. Whether you consider pitch calling defense is another issue, but Molina and Simmons are both pretty incredible defenders.
One last note on Simmons is that he’s a just awful hitter. He rarely strikes out, but he could be so much more valuable if he didn’t have a .246/.296/.396 hitting line. If he can ever get that OBP up in the .320 or .330 range, he could be a 6 WAR player.
FanGraphs had him at a 2.2 offensive WAR last season, which can’t really be described as awful. League-average is closer to a fitting-description, which is acceptable given his defense.
As promised, here are 25 minutes of Simba highlights:
9. What is Jason Heyward’s ceiling now? Could he win an MVP Award?
Back in 2010, when most scouting services had Heyward as baseball’s top prospect ahead of Stephen Strasburg, he was thought to have 30 plus home run power. While it doesn’t look like he’ll totally reach his peak, I think he still has a ways to improve, considering he doesn’t turn 25 until August.
I doubt he ever wins an MVP award, but I think he’ll be able to hit .280/.360/.500 during his peak seasons with 32 home runs and 10 steals. That’s still a really good player with his athleticism in the outfield, but I do worry about his durability at times. He’s going to be very similar to Justin Upton, part of the reason I hope both stay in Atlanta for a long time.
In 2012 he put up a 5.8 WAR at age 24, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs says that 6+ WAR is MVP-caliber, so it seems like he’s got as good a shot as anyone at an MVP to me. Not that I was asking a leading question or anything.
10. Let’s try this again. Are the Braves going to win the NL East?
I spent $29 on Bryce Harper in our fantasy baseball auction, so there’s no turning back now.