Five questions: Atlanta Braves

After the end-of-season heartbreak in 2011, the Braves bounced backed well in 2012 by comfortably winning the Wild Card spot before exiting to the St Louis Cardinals in a one-off game to get into the NL. How will they fare in 2013?

There is only way to find out—and that is by taking a journey of prognostication and speculation with The Hardball Times’ five questions.

Chipper retiring—is it a big deal?

Although the Braves’ dynasty officially ended in 2007, when their famous run of consecutive playoff appearances came to an end, it is only now that Chipper Jones has retired that Braves’ fans can call time on what has been an extraordinary 20 years of baseball in Atlanta.

With the bat and glove, Chipper has been a 2-3 fWAR player for the last three years (despite playing in only 100 games a season), so his production is not to be sniffed at. With the acquisition of Chris Johnson from the D-backs, it looks like the Braves’ plan is to platoon him with Juan Francisco.

In Phoenix, Johnson added some punch to the lineup batting .281 with 15 long-ballers—and was good for 1.5 fWAR. Francisco didn’t do too badly last year, hitting nine homers and clearing 0.8fWAR while filling in for Chipper.

In total the Braves were 3.5 fWAR at third base last year and looking at the 2013 projections a Johnson/Francisco platoon will get you to 2-2.5 WAR, so the Braves will still be some short. However, taking cost per WAR into account, it isn’t a bad trade-off given that the Tomahawks have added the Upton Bros. into the lineup.

Perhaps the bigger issue is whether losing a clubhouse leader will have any effect on the Braves’ psyche. The quantum of this is impossible to say, other than to say that role models (of which Chipper clearly was one) help. No doubt if the Braves have a bad season or a run of losses the media may point to Chipper’s absence. Reality is that it probably won’t matter.

Super Upton Bros.—will it work?

Before the offseason not many would have picked Frank Wren to add one, let along both of the Upton brothers to the lineup.

The Braves’ offense in 2012 was anemic, so something had to be to done. As a team the Braves hit a pedestrian .247/.311/.389 versus a league average of .255/.319/.405 … and remember that Atlanta won 94 games!

Dan Uggla misfired again (relative to his mega-contract) and Brian McCann battled injury most of the season and toiled to a disappointing .698 OPS.

B.J. Upton has averaged between 3-5 fWAR over the last three years and the projections for his age 28 season are unsurprisingly the same. Justin, on the other hand, is expected to garner between 4-5 fWAR, but that assumes he bounces back strongly from a disappointing 2012, when he was partly distracted by a tiff with the D-backs’ front office about his future.

In total then we should expect the Upton brothers to add 8-10 wins to the lineup. Taking into account the loss of Michael Bourn (3-4 fWAR expected in 2013) and Martin Prado (another 3-4 fWAR) and throwing in the 2.5 fWAR deficit identified in the first question, then best case is that the Braves offense is equal to its 2012 production.

In addition to production, having the Upton brothers around the clubhouse is likely to be good from a marketing standpoint. However, suggestions that the brothers will “feed off each other” are likely wide of the mark.

Craig Kimbrel—better than Mariano Rivera?

I for one am all for the Braves offering to lock up Kimbrel’s early free agent years, but that very much goes against the ball club’s ethos, which is that relief pitchers are commodities that are easily replaced. Not so Kimbrel.

This will be his third season in the bigs and already he has established himself as an elite closer. To wit: his FIP last year was an unearthly 0.78—2011 was 1.52. Let’s put that in a bit of context: Mariano Rivera’s lowest FIP season is 1.88 in his second season as a pro (1996). His next lowest was 2.15 in 2005. Jonathan Papelbon? He recorded 1.53 with the Red Sox in 2011.

Although it is too early to call him that, Kimbrel is on a trajectory that could see him being lauded as one of the greatest closers of all time. Oliver projects an FIP of 1.59, Bill James forecasts 1.38. Who knows where he’ll end up, but the prognosticators are suggesting that Kimbrel’s 2013 will be better than any Mariano Rivera season in history (okay, as far as FIP is concerned). Superlatives will never do justice to how good this kid is.

Braves rotation—will it be better than 2012?

Last season was a hallowed year for Braves starting pitching. Brandon Beachy was hurling like he was a future Cy Young winner until he got arm ache and ended up with season-ending Tommy John surgery. As Beachy was under the scalpel, Kris Medlen came back from Tommy John surgery to win all 10 games he started as a Brave in the regular season, finishing the year with a 1.57 ERA after 138 innings pitched.

Tim Hudson did his typical job of eating innings and posting a respectable 3.78 FIP, confirming his status as the workhorse of the rotation. Approaching the trade deadline the Braves picked up Paul Maholm from the Cubs. He delivered a ~4 FIP, which is very consistent with his past performance. Mike Minor struggled initially but bounced back well to be a key member of the starting clan—his ERA was above 6 at the All-Star break but ended at 4.1.

And all that is before you get into the young turks—specifically Julio Teheran, who is still projected as a No. 1 or No. 2 starter when he establishes himself in the bigs.

Based on history, Maholm and Hudson should eat around 180-200 innings apiece for a decent return. How well the 2013 rotation will pitch depends on three factors: how well Medlen picks up from his 2012 performance, whether Minor can continue on the trajectory he was following in the second half of 2012, and Beachy’s ability to pick up where he left off before TJ surgery.

Looking at the big picture, as long as two of these three conditions turn out true, the Braves should be able to replicate their 2012 level. Medlen is likely to regress some and Minor shouldn’t be as bad as he was in the first half of last year. With luck Beachy should add a little oomph to the rotation when he returns in the middle of the year. Then as for Teheran? Count him as downside protection. Putting it together it will likely mean that the 2013 Braves will pitch similarly to their 2012 brethen.

Net net—can the Bravos win the NL East?

In short, yes. Taking a quick look at various projection systems, the consensus view is that Atlanta should win around 88-90 games, right in the playoff sweet spot. That is a couple of games behind the Nationals but well ahead of the rest of the NL East.

There is little doubt that the Nationals are the pick of the East. The rotation is probably the best in baseball, and certainly the best in the NL. And they aren’t too shy with the bats. However, that’s not to say the Braves can’t win the division. One standard deviation in performance is about seven wins, so by the laws of statistics don’t count out the Atlanta.

When the Upton brothers were signed, there was some speculation that the NL East could have two 100-win teams. That is unlikely given how often the Braves and Nationals will play each other. But I’m willing to wager that whoever has the better head-to-head record will take the division. The other team is a shoo-in for a Wild Card.

Two years ago, that would have guaranteed postseason ball, but these days it gives you the right to play a one-off game against the other Wild Card winner. Given the Braves’ atrocious history in playoff games this millennium, I’ll shoot for Wild Card and then exit in the one-off game. Anything less will be a disappointing, anything more very welcome. Sit back and enjoy!

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  1. poffenberger's boots said...

    two things:

    1.  jupton’s disappointing 2012 was affected by the uncertainty about his future with the organization?  maybe…but i’m thinking his actual, you know, injury…may have actually had a bigger impact than his apparently delicate feelings about whether they loved him as much as he loved them.  doncha think?

    2.  the idea of the upton’s feeding off each other actually sounds like a sensible thing to project for a simple reason…BJ is bossman jr…the younger brother has been seen as having more talent by evaluators.  they’re competetive guys in the twenties.  hmmmmmmmm.

  2. Chris R said...

    Surprising you get through the fifth question without considering the Phillies, who will field better players at three or four of eight positions (depending on how McCann recovers), a clearly superior rotation, and a bullpen that rivals the Braves (though not the Nats) top to bottom.

  3. Anon21 said...

    Chris R: For starters, I think you have the ‘pens backwards. The Braves have the best bullpen in the NL, if not the Majors, clearly ahead of both Philadelphia and Washington.

    Second, I don’t know how you figure that the Phillies have better players at three or four positions. I count one clear advantage (second base) a couple debatable pushes (catcher, shortstop) and five positions where the Braves have an advantage in expected production, ranging from modest (center field) to enormous (right field).

    I think the consensus counting the Phillies out of contention for the division title is basically correct. They’re an old, fragile team with some enormous holes (Mr. M. Young and Mr. D. Young).

  4. Chris R said...

    One: Ruiz and Kratz are better than McCann and Laird – so says Fangraphs power rankings for the position, out today.
    Two: Utley is better than Uggla, agreed.
    Three: Rollins is better than Simmons by every measure except range, and BA in Simmons’ 1/3 of a season.
    Four: Young is better than whoever the Braves run out there at 3B. This requires a look at his body of recent work rather than his miserable 2012.

    You don’t dispute the superiority of the Phils starters—though if Halladay is impaired, the comparison is closer.

    And the bullpen. I believe Kimbrel and Papelbon are the best two closers in the league.  I would prefer Kimbrel, but it’s not as if there’s a chasm between the two. Both Adams and Venters had physical problems last year, though Adams’s was not an arm problem and Venters’s was.  O’Flaherty is better than Bastardo.  Aumont and Walden are very simliar in profile, though Walden isn’t pitching in games this spring, and Aumont is. If all the Braves guys are healthy, their pen is better.  If Walden or Venters goes on the DL, not so much.

    Enjoy watching the Braves play the Nats this year. Don’t forget the rest of the league.

  5. Anon21 said...

    Fangraphs is assuming that McCann doesn’t bounce all the way back. Before 2012, McCann was very clearly superior to Ruiz. I call it a push because I see it as about equally likely (1) that McCann puts the injury behind him and puts up another 4.5-5 WAR season (in which case I think the Braves will end the year with considerably more production from the position) or (2) that McCann has a year in between his 2012 and his 2010.

    Rollins certainly has the edge on offense, unless Simmons shows some on-base or power abilities that he didn’t in the minor leagues. Rollins also has a big advantage in baserunning But Simmons is going to be far and away the best defender in baseball, so I put them about even. (Just by the way, it’s not Simmons’ range that makes him an incredible defender, although his range is quite good. It’s the arm. The velocity and accuracy from every conceivable throwing position is a game changer.)

    As to third base, I’m basically buying into Young’s 2012 and declaring him finished, a replacement-level wonder from here on out. If that turns out to be wrong, the Braves’ third-base options are very uninspiring, so I agree this swings the Phillies’ way.

    I agree that the Phillies’ rotation is better; I don’t think anyone would dispute that. How much better will depend, as you say, on what’s going on with Halladay.

    Re: the pen. Sorry, I think there is a chasm between Papelbon and Kimbrel. Papelbon is very good, and Kimbrel is historically good. As with all bullpens, this only means so much when it comes to team wins, but between these two players it isn’t close. And while I agree with most of the rest of what you write, you’re leaving out Luis Avilan, who was very impressive in limited action last year. I’d still be interested to hear why you think the Nationals’ bullpen matches up well against the Braves’ pen; not that Washington has a bad pen or anything, but I just don’t see how it grades out as equal or better.

  6. Chris R said...

    No doubt, Kimbrel is a statistical freak.  The K-rate is historically high; you’re right about that. I was expecting to make the argument that the huge proportion of strikeouts Kimbrel gets leads to a higher pitch count and attendant fatigue over the season, but he actually threw fewer pitches per inning than any other NL closer. Very impressive.

    However, there are less gaudy but equally effective ways to get guys out and thus save games. Saves and Blown Saves are not great measures of skill, but they are the measures of success and the stats we are considering in closers.  Kimbrel had 42 and 3; R. Soriano, 42 and 4; Papelbon 38 and 4.  I don’t see much bottom line difference there.

    I see Clippard, Storen and Soriano comprising at least as formidable a late inning arsenal as O’Flaherty, Venters and the mighty Kimbrel. The big advantage they have is in depth of experience: if Soriano goes down, they have Storen, who saved 40-some 2 years ago.  And if he goes down, Clippard saved 30-some last year.

    The Nats have only one lefty in the pen; that’s a deficit; and the Braves may have more upside in Avilan and their other relievers.  I don’t know their work as well as you do. 

    Finally, apart from the composition of the pen, the Nationals have a manager who has proven himself adept at putting the right pitchers in the right situations. Not sure that’s one of Fredi’s strengths, is it?

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