After winning 94 games and 96 games in 2012 and 2013, respectively, the Atlanta Braves won just 79 games in 2014. Despite having a bad season, Atlanta still possessed an impressive base of young talent, but management seemingly overreacted to one bad season and traded away nearly all of its top players to rebuild. Outfielders Jason Heyward and Justin Upton were traded for a bundle of prospects, while catcher Evan Gattis was traded to the Houston Astros. Atlanta also failed to bring back pitchers Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang, who combined for over 60 starts last season. Atlanta is not in a position to compete and will ultimately hope that its prospects will be ready to compete within the next two seasons. Atlanta’s infield will be manned by catcher Christian Bethancourt, first baseman Freddie Freeman, second baseman Alberto Callaspo, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, and third baseman Chris Johnson. Atlanta’s outfield will be comprised of Jonny Gomes, BJ Upton, and Nick Markakis. Atlanta’s starting rotation will be anchored by Julio Teheran. Here are five storylines to watch during Spring Training.
Storyline #1: Keeping Kimbrel
Many fans are wondering whether Atlanta will keep its closer, Craig Kimbrel through this rebuilding process. Atlanta signed Kimbrel to a four-year, $42 million deal in February 2014, but his trade value may never be higher. Over the last four seasons, Kimbrel has saved at least 42 games and recorded at least 95 strikeouts per season. Kimbrel’s career 1.43 ERA and 0.90 WHIP are the best marks among active closers. Kimbrel would command a massive return via trade and it’s something that Atlanta must consider. Keep an eye on Kimbrel’s performances during Spring Training and expect another top flight season from baseball’s best closer.
Storyline #2: Evaluating the Prospects
After trading away Heyward and Upton, fans will need to watch and learn more about players acquired in these trades. The best player acquired was pitcher, Shelby Miller. In 2013, as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, Miller finished third in Rookie of the Year voting by winning 15 games and striking out 169 hitters over 173 innings. Miller struggled during 2014, winning just ten games and striking out just 127 hitters over 183 innings. Atlanta also acquired pitchers, Tyrell Jenkins, Aaron Northcraft, and Max Fried, who was a former first round pick. All of the players acquired are under team control for at least three more seasons, which provide flexibility for ownership. Expect all of the newly acquired players to make an impression during Spring Training.
Storyline #3: Power Reduction
By trading away Heyward, Upton, and Gattis, Atlanta removed 62 home runs for its lineup. The power-hitting trio was replaced by the light-hitting trio of Gomes, Markakis, and Bethancourt. This new trio is a clear downgrade and Atlanta may have trouble scoring runs this season. Freeman, who signed a $135 million contract last season, will be thrust into the spotlight and will need to carry Atlanta’s offense.
Storyline #4: Focus on 2017
While it may not be what fans want to hear, ownership is clearly focusing on 2017 season. Due to a below average television contract and new stadium costs, Atlanta was unable to spend on its own players and was forced find cheaper alternatives. Upton and Heyward were slotted to earn a combined $23 million in 2015, a figure that Atlanta simply couldn’t afford. Therefore, both players were traded for prospects. Ownership is hoping that the new stadium will provide additional revenue. Until then, fans will need watch cheaper alternatives and hope for similar results.
Storyline #5: Firing Freddie?
Atlanta enters this season in Year 1 of its three-year rebuilding plan, so it may not be fair to judge the 2015 roster and subsequent results. Over the last four years, Gonzalez is just 1-4 in the playoffs and has been the architect of two major September collapses. Entering September 2014, Atlanta was in playoff contention, but a disastrous September ended any playoff hopes. Gonzalez has been unable to get two 94+ teams over the playoff hump, so he may not have the opportunity to lead the team into its new stadium. Expect Gonzalez to manage with a sense of urgency during Spring Training.