Very little will look the same in regards to the 2015 Braves versus previous years. They have unloaded over half of their batting order and need bounce back years from the remainder of it to be considered even remotely competitive. That starts with my ill-advised pick for NL MVP from last season, Freddie Freeman. Now the lefty first baseman didn't have a bad season by any means, but he didn't make the leap from All-Star to All-World that I had thought he would. In his defense, it is hard to knock in runs when there isn't anybody on base in front of you. A lack of a leadoff threat was one of the main culprits in his 31 RBI decrease from 2013. If the one and two holes in the lineup can sort themselves out, I'm sure Freeman will regain his upper echelon form of yesteryear. One of those projected to slot in front of Freeman in the lineup is new second baseman Jace Peterson. Peterson came over from San Diego in the Justin Upton trade and only had a 27 game cup of coffee with the Padres in 2014. He didn't impress in that short stretch hitting just .113 with zero extra base hits. So why is he getting the starting gig in Hotlanta? A) The Braves don't have many other options on the current roster. Alberto Callaspo and a returning Kelly Johnson aren't too enticing. B) His minor league track record shows that he is the perfect type of hitter to put in front of a run producer like Freeman. Peterson is patient, walking nearly as much in the Minors as he struck out. When he got on, he was able to produce four Minor League seasons of 50+ stolen bases. He may not be a sexy name now, but if he can figure out the Major League strike zone, he'll be a very productive table setter. If Peterson slips up, expect to see top prospect Jose Peraza who brings a similar set of skills to the fold. The right side of the infield is looking to redeem themselves in 2015. Andrelton Simmons won his second consecutive Gold Glove at shortstop, but his offense took a substantial step back as he looked disinterested once Atlanta were out of contention. Chris Johnson is just two years removed from NL batting crown contention but his average dropped nearly sixty points. On the plus side, Johnson's defense improved, something that usually doesn't happen when a player enters their thirties. The Braves will also be changing catchers for the third straight year. Christian Bethancourt will have the role for now. New signings AJ Pierzynski and John Buck are looming if the 23 year old Panamanian falters. Whoever it is behind the dish, just know they won't be very good.
The biggest rebuilding step taken by president John Hart involves the outfield. Jason Heyward is now in St. Louis. Justin Upton is now in San Diego. Upton's brother, BJ...I'm sorry, Melvin Upton Jr. has missed the entirety of Spring Training and may start the season on either the bench or the disabled list with a left foot issue. Their replacements aren't exactly the shiniest of toys. Eric Young Jr. enters the fray from the Mets where he showed his speed on the basepaths and in the outfield but nothing else to go along with it. Jonny Gomes is more of an American League player at this stage of his career but until the lesser of two Uptons returns will probably see every day run in the outfield. The last piece of the outfield puzzle is the most puzzling (See what I did there?). Nick Markakis is a quality outfielder but with impending youth movement Atlanta looks to be undertaking, why give the 31 year old ex-Oriole a four year deal? It makes no sense on any front. I take that back. If he reverts back to 2007 Nick Markakis it makes sense. Any other way it doesn't. The contract isn't alluring trade bait at $11 million per and paying someone that much in the corner outfield spots to be a "good glove" just doesn't seem to be a sound business decision. But there isn't much down on the farm in the way of hitting prospects unless you somehow want to count free agent pickup Zoilo Almonte. I wouldn't.
The pitching staff underwent some radical changes as well. Gone are Tommy John casualties Kris Medlen & Brandon Beachy, one year stop gap Ervin Santana, and steady hand Aaron Harang. The ace position now officially belongs to Julio Teheran. He was the Opening Day starter a year ago and is still just 24. He has proven he can handle a large workload (221 innings) and the pressure of being THE man. Slotted behind him are two more 24 year olds, Alex Wood and the newly acquired Shelby Miller. Southpaw Wood finished in the top ten in ERA in the National League in 2014. His 11-11 record is more indicative of his lack of run support than a lack of talent. Shelby Miller comes from St. Louis in the Jason Heyward trade. He fell off a bit from his rookie season, but has still shown the capability to be one of the better young pitchers in the NL. After those three the back end of the rotation is up in the air but still solid. Atlanta has a trio of prospects to slot into the rotation in Mike Foltynewicz (whose name I was looking right at and still spelled wrong), Lucas Sims, and Jason Hursh. Until their arrival a trio of left handers will hold down the fort. Eric Stults, Wandy Rodriguez, and Mike Minor (currently slated to begin 2015 on the DL) have proven throughout their careers to be viable rotation options.
Speaking of holding down the fort (yes I did use this same transition last year), the Braves bullpen is still pretty good. Craig Kimbrel posted his third straight sub 2.00 ERA and fourth straight 40+ save season in 2014. If he isn't a Brave for life in the mold of Chipper Jones, my brain may explode like the aliens in Mars Attacks! Getting to Kimbrel may prove trickier than in the past though. The two main set up men are former closers Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson. Both are in need of new scenery after rough seasons. Johnson was ousted as A's closer early last year and eventually became a mop up guy in Detroit. Grilli struggled to regain his All-Star form of 2013 and was eventually traded to Los Angeles for the Angels' misfiring closer Ernesto Frieri. Though his ERA tripled from 2013 to 2014, Luis Avilan remains the best left handed option out of the Atlanta pen. Bad luck more than bad stuff seemed to be the reason for this dramatic uptick but if he isn't going to get as many innings as he used to, which he probably won't if the Braves are bad, he needs to keep his walks down. If not, James Russell will supplant him in that role.
As you can see, the scales of talent on the Braves roster is significantly titled towards the pitching staff. The divide will only grow this season as I don't believe Fredi Gonzalez will be able to finagle a lineup that will produce more than the 3.5 runs a game they did in 2014. That figure was the second worst in the game to only the San Diego Padres. Go watch the Hawks Atlanta fans, they may actually make it out of the first round this year.
LAST YEAR'S RANKING: #8 (DOWN 19)
PREDICTED RECORD: 70-92
PREDICTED ALL-STAR REPS: Craig Kimbrel (relief pitcher), Freddie Freeman (first baseman)
Trevor Utley will not be picking Freddie Freeman as NL MVP this year.
Image Credit: Braves logo (sportslogos.net)