The Atlanta Braves figure to be the most intriguing study of the offseason for many reasons; for one, they seem to have shifted the entire direction of the organization, hiring a new General Manager, plus giving the rest of the organization down the line a general shake up. Also (more importantly) the Braves were downright awful in 2014. They finished the season 79-83, tied for 2nd in the NL East with the New York Mets, a full 17(!) games behind the Washington Nationals, failing to advance to the NLCS since 2001. As bad as that might seem, history suggests that the 2014 Braves were even worse: the Braves scored a total of 573 runs, fewest in their history since the 1988 season, when they lost a grand total of 106 games. Not counting strike-shortened seasons, the Braves have only scored 573 runs or fewer twice since moving to Atlanta in 1966. In 2014 specifically, the Braves finished 26th in batting average, 24th in on base percentage, 4th (most) in strikeouts, 27th in OPS (on base + slugging percentage), 29th in total hits, and 29th in runs/game. They were also very inefficient with the few batters that did manage to reach base: the Braves left a total of 1128 men on base, 11th most in baseball. They were dead last in sacrifice flies. Here are some more numbers that will blow your mind:
.199 The Braves batting average with 2 outs and runners in scoring position, last in the majors
2 The number of sacrifice flies hit with 1 out and a runner at 3rd, a situation that occurred 40 times in 2014. This was 2nd fewest in baseball.
.229/.297/.639 The Braves’ team batting average in high leverage situations. Leverage essentially means pressure situations, reached by combing outs, base runners, and inning.
.314 and .296 The on-base percentages of the 1st and 2nd place batters for the Braves. Jason Heyward accounted for a majority of the at bats from the leadoff spot, while BJ Upton and Andrelton Simmons primarily shared the two hole. I’m sorry, but any lineup with BJ Upton batting 2nd is going to be awful.
.282 BJ Upton’s on-base percentage in 2014.
So, clearly, the Braves weren’t exactly championship material in 2014. Still, so far I’ve only looked at one side of the equation, the offense, but by and large the Braves’ pitching staff was very effective. They were dealt a bad hand right off the bat, with elbow surgeries to Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen, both of whom are impact starters when healthy. Mike Minor was ineffective most of the year while trying to recover from injury early in the year. While Medlen and Beachy ideally still have several months of recovery time, Minor figures to be at full strength in 2015, joining new ace Julio Teheran, Aaron Harang, and breakout starter Alex Wood. Ervin Santana, a huge contributor last year, was tendered a qualifying offer from the Braves, though chances are 50-50 that he returns. In the bullpen, the Braves still have Craig Kimbrel, David Carpenter, Jordan Walden, Anthony Varvaro, and rookie Shae Simmons. The team ERA was a very impressive 3.38.
Although the pitching staff isn’t a problem, new GM John Hart still has a lot on his plate this offseason. 1) He must improve the offense, which means acquiring good, quality players to fill the empty spots in the lineup that were almost automatic outs. All the above stats suggest that the Braves were a very unbalanced, impatient, and raw team, that didn’t do the little things that add up to wins. Part of the reason for that is that the Braves were extremely young: the average age is only 27, and people often forget that Simmons, Heyward, and Freeman, supposedly the team leaders, are still extremely young. Hart would do well to add a seasoned veteran to that mix. Fortunately, he has me and hundreds of other writers, analysts, and fans to point him in the right direction!
Order of business number 1,
Trade Evan Gattis
This might seem very counter-intuitive, but it will make sense eventually. Gattis only played in 108 games last year, and his OBP was only .317, not much better than the team average. He did provide power (22 home runs), but I doubt the Braves would miss his bat as much as people imagine. Defensively, Gattis was very average. He posted a -4 Defensive runs saved (DRS), and he only threw out 13 of 66 basestealers. Currently, Gattis is under a 1 year deal, and is arbitration eligible in 2016. He should have relatively high trade value, perhaps netting a starter or an infielder in return, but I’m not too interested in what the Braves could get for him.
Order of business number 2,
Sign Russell Martin
In all the free agent speculation that I’ve heard, I haven’t yet heard Martin’s name paired with the Braves. Still, Martin would be a fantastic fit with the Braves. He is known around baseball for his veteran leadership, something the Braves severely lacked, and he can get on base at a very high clip: Martin posted a .402 OBP in 460 at bats in 2014. In a world without Yadier Molina, Martin would likely have five or six gold gloves as well: he threw out 37 of 96 basestealers, and posted a +12 DRS. Martin is also unparalleled (save Molina) in his ability to handle a pitching staff, particularly a young staff like he caught with the Pirates.
Because of his ability to get on base, I see Martin as a must-have for the Braves, who struggled so mightily in that department last year. Instead of hitting Chris Johnson (.292 OBP) 5th in the order, the Braves could slide in Martin, which would increase the total run output exponentially.
This all sounds good in theory, but getting Martin to Atlanta would be a difficult task for GM John Hart. Martin is likely to be wooed by the deep-pocketed Dodgers, Cubs, and perhaps also the Pirates. Martin would require at least a 4 year contract, for upwards of 60 million overall. The Braves may or may not have that kind of money to dish out. Still, we do know that, as things stand now, they figure to have a payroll of only 79 million, down from 112 million last season. We also know that over a third of that money is going to the Upton Brothers fund; if the Braves could find a way to move BJ’s contract, that would free up major cash to spend elsewhere. Regardless, I’m sure that trading BJ Upton is near the top of Hart’s offseason list right now.
3rd order of business,
Find Another Hitter
The free-agent market is full of proven major league hitters: Pablo Sandoval, Victor Martinez, Billy Butler, Melky Cabrera, Alex Rios, or maybe even Torii Hunter are all guys with ideal profiles for Atlanta. Personally, I’m a big fan of Nick Markakis; he has a career OBP of .358, has some pop, and is an outstanding defender. He has been helped a lot by the hitter-friendly dimensions of Camden Yards, but OBP is one thing that tends to transfer well to different ballparks. Given the depth of the right field position in the market (with Hunter, Nelson Cruz, Rios, and Corey Hart all available), the Braves could conceivably get Markakis for relatively little. The Orioles have expressed a desire to resign him, but they have said the same with Cruz.
Nori Aoki is another rightfielder who makes sense for Atlanta. He can hit at the top of the lineup, with good speed and on base percentage. Imagine a defense with Martin catching, Simmons at shortstop, Heyward in center, and Markakis in right. Wow.
Those are my ideas, now Hart has to do his job. Yet things are never as simple as we make them seem, so I would be surprised if everything works out this way. Still, there are a lot of things working for Atlanta; they’ve got a good foundation with their pitching staff, they’ve got some money to spend, and they’ve got lots of options. They’ve also got some time. Time to forget about a nightmarish 2014 and begin improving.
It should be fun.
*Note: all the stats cited can be found at baseballreference.com, fangraphs.com, and mlb.com