Braves: No big moves, but plenty reason to believe

We’re down to single digits now in measuring the days until pitchers and catchers report to spring training Feb 13. I’ll pause while you celebrate.

So after three-plus months of analyzing, venting and lamenting (certainly not by all fans, but many), you might think we’d be to the point of this exercise where folks look back at the 2013 season and think first about the 96 wins – tied for third-most in the majors -- and NL East title.

But no, I can assure you that’s not the case with a good many passionate fans who post on my blog and Twitter feed, and the vocal (i.e. loud) minority who pepper the call-in shows with doom-and-gloom projections for the Braves with their middle-of-the-pack (or now slightly below) payroll that’s barely risen since last season, and a roster that no longer includes team leaders Brian McCann, a seven-time All-Star, or Tim Hudson, whose fire-in-the-belly pervaded the pitching staff.

Not to mention Eric O’Flaherty, who didn’t pitch past early May last season, but was arguably the best non-closing reliever in baseball over the past three-plus seasons and whose presence and shared wisdom played a big part in the development of Luis Avilan and other young Braves relievers. Another one gone.

B-Mac, Huddy and "O" all left via free agency, each getting a contract that was either at or well beyond the high end of what most had projected that trio would command on the open market, particularly since both Hudson and O'Flaherty were coming off season-ending surgeries and the latter won't be ready to pitch when the season begins.

But anyway, the Braves had those three subtractions and made no additions as significant as any of them, unless you want to argue that free-agent signee Gavin Floyd, a 17-game winner several years ago, might possibly be as important as Hudson or O’Flaherty, if Floyd were to return to near-peak form and give the Braves a back-end starter that solidifies their rotation as one of the elite units in the NL. I haven't heard many make that argument.

Neither would I suggest that’s going to happen with Floyd. However, he could end up being a very good pickup at a relatively low cost, as could other free-agent signees including Freddy Garcia, who could contribute as a starter or reliever, and  corner infielder Mat Gamel, and trade aquisition Ryan Doumit, a third catcher, right fielder, and first baseman if absolutely needed.

And the pitcher that’s easy to overlook is Brandon Beachy, who had a setback from recovery from Tommy John surgery last summer, inflammation that is not uncommon in some patients recovering from what’s become a common surgery for pitchers. He had some debris cleaned out via arthroscopic surgery in September, and now said his arm feels normal. Beachy isn’t expected to have any restrictions when he gets to spring training.

“I want to contribute to a staff that’s already positioned itself to be one of the best in the National League,” Beachy said last week during the team’s early pitching camp. “We’re obviously going to miss Huddy, his presence. I’ve lockered next to Huddy my whole career. That’s something that’s going to be tough to replace. But Kris is the elder statesman; he’s the guy.

“Mike and Julio are building off incredible campaigns, and hopefully I can help with that. And Alex Wood has shown what he can do. So I think we’re a pretty good unit together.”

Atlanta led the majors with a 3.18 ERA overall, and Braves starters (3.51) ranked sixth among 30 teams. Among Braves who made 10 or more starts, the team's top four starters ERAs belonged to Medlen (3.11), Teheran (3.20), Minor (3.21) and Wood (3.54), ahead of Hudson (3.97 in 21 starts).

Between the addition of Floyd, the return of Beachy and Garcia, and the experience gained by rookies Wood and David Hale, it’s easy to see why this Braves rotation, paced by incumbents Kris Medlen, Julio Teheran and Mike Minor, could be as good or better than last year.

“Any time you lose a guy like Tim Hudson from your pitching staff, with the knowledge he has and as many years as he’s played, it’s obviously going to hurt,” All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel said. “But we saw at the end of the year, when he went down, we had a lot of guys step up and fill those shoes and grow a lot. And I think that’s only going to help for the season coming up.”

But what about the team not making any big moves, unlike others including the division-rival Nats?

“We were pretty good last year,” Kimbrel said. “A lot of the core guys who were all together and played a lot of innings and pitched a lot of innings, are back this year. We went out and got Floyd. That’s a good guy to put in our rotation. When he’s on, he’s really good. I think that is a big move. It’s not a big money move, but strategy-wise, it’s a big move for our ballclub.”

Potenially, so were Doumit and Gamel, who could provide enough line-drive hits and homers to give the Braves a better bench than they had for most of last season (they had a great bench early, before Ramiro Pena had season-ending shoulder surgery at midseason, and Jordan Schafer broke a bone near his foot and was never the same after returning, and Reed Johnson missed most of the last two months for an Achilles injury).

The lineup should be as good or better than last year, despite the loss of McCann. I really believe that, and my reasoning is that Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton had historically awful seasons last year, statistically two of the worst 10-20 seasons of the modern era by many measures (and Uggla might well have been one of the worst two or three in that dubious class). That’s one-fourth of the eight position players in the regular lineup, awful. And I believe there’s no way either is as bad as last year, and that B.J., at least, should be much better (not saying he’ll be what he once was in Tampa Bay, but at least closer to what he was a couple of years ago with the Rays, when he hit .246 with a .298 OBP (yes, still bad) but had 28 homers, 29 doubles and 31 steals.

From Uggla, I really don't know what can be expected. While B.J. is 29 and could point to the change in teams and leagues and pressing to live up to the big contract last season as reasons for his career-worst performance, Uggla is 34 and has seen his average and OPS in free-fall for three straight years now. Does anyone really expect him to bounce back and be a .260 hitter with 25-30 homers and a .340 OBP -- the type of guy the Braves expected him to be when they got him – after he's slipped from .233 in 2011, to .220 in 2012, to .179 last season, with OPS plunging to .764, .732 and .671 in that period?

If he does show signs of real progress at spring training, after getting accustomed to his LASIK-corrected vision and working on whatever it is he’s worked on with his swing in the offseason, then the Braves might possibly be able to trade him to a team that either has an injury at second base during spring training or just decides it’s not comfortable with the options it has at that position and is willing to pay at least a meaningful portion – maybe $8-10 million? – of the $26 million Uggla is still owed over the final two years of his contract.

If that were to happen, the Braves could go with Tyler Pastornicky at second base. They like Ramiro Pena more in as a utility player and believe he has greater value to the team in that role, but Pena could also be an option if Pastornicky didn’t perform and the Braves didn’t feel comfortable yet bringing up Tommy La Stella, a line-drive hitting prospect whose stock has risen in the past two years.

Between Pastornicky, Pena and La Stella, the Braves are comfortable with their 2B options if they do end up trading Uggla. But again, that’s a big “if,” surely requiring some progress from Uggla before another team is ready to take on any part of his contract, even if such a team does have a glaring need in camp. He has to provide reason for other teams to believe he can fill it and not produce another clunker of a season like he’s had the past two. Spring training, ideally, would be the time for Uggla to show another team that he can help them.

The rest of the lineup is set, and there’s no reason for the Braves to think they can’t get as much or more out of the group as a whole. Think about this: Among the position players, only Chris Johnson had a career-best season last year, batting .321 with a .358 OBP, 46 extra-base hits (12 homers) and 68 RBIs in a career-high 547 plate appearances.

And there’s not much reason to think it was a fluke season for Johnson, who had more extra-base hits (48), homers (15) and RBIs (76) in 2012 than last season. And as an Astros rookie in 2010, he hit .308 with a higher OPS (.818) than last season (.816). The point being, the man can hit.

Justin Upton was baseball’s best power hitter in April, with a team-record 12 homers, but he fell off sharply over the next three months. Jason Heyward was terrific for long stretches, but started out poorly in April and missed more than two months recovering from two surgeries during the season – an appendectomy and a broken jaw.

Andrelton Simmons is the best defensive player in baseball, and the shortstop had 17 homers last year in his first full season and showed flashes of becoming a far better hitter than his .248 average and .296 OBP for 2013.

Catcher Evan Gattis showed early and late in the season that he has the potential to be a 25-30 homer hitter, and pitchers say they liked throwing to him and that he’s a sound defensive catcher who’ll get better and more comfortable now when he’s handling the position on a regular basis, instead of shifting to the outfield like he did more often than not last season.

“Mac is somebody most of us had pitched to our entire careers,” Beachy said. “But Evan showed something last year, in his willingness to work. He’s in here every day. When he sees his name on the lineup card catching, he’s in the video room, he’s sitting down at his locker talking to me. And that’s going to be the biggest thing, is just communication. We’re going to have to communicate a little more than we have in the past, but that’s only going to make us better.”

And Freddie Freeman? The All-Star first baseman continued to show why he’s the Braves’ best overall run producer, their best "clutch" hitter, and one of the finest young hitters in the NL. No one I’ve talked to who watched him play on a regular basis expects Freeman to take a step back in 2014 after hitting .319/.396/.501 with 23 homers and a career-best 109 RBIs last year in his third season. That is who he is. Already.

One more note about the bullpen: Don’t forget Jonny Venters, who missed all of last season after having his second Tommy John surgery and could be back by May. If he’s anywhere near where he was a couple years ago, Venters can give the Braves a second potent lefty and ease the burden on young standout Luis Avilan. I also expect the Braves’ bullpen -- the best in the league last season despite the Venters and O’Flaherty injuries – to benefit from at least one or two newcomers from a group that includes rookie lefty Ryan Buchter, and minor-league free-agent signees Lay Batista and Luis Vasquez. Especially Vasquez.

A much buzzed-about former Dodgers prospect who throws in the high-90s, Vasquez became far more effective when he dropped his arm slot a couple of years ago. The 27-year-old righty, who was once a minor league infielder – he conveted to pitcher in 2003 -- signed with Atlanta while in the Dominican dominating hitters this winter. He drew attention from scouts from many major league teams, but the Braves had already signed him when other teams were ready to make offers.

With the game’s most dominant reliever, Kimbrel, returning along with power-armed setup men Jordan Walden and David Carpenter and already-established young lefty Avilan, and with other options including Anthony Varvaro and Cory Gearrin, the Braves’ bullpen should again be among the team’s greatest strengths.

If only they can use their depth and avoid injuries to allow the key guys at the back of the ‘pen to get to September and October at the top of their games, instead of running on fumes at the most important time of the year, as has been the case with a few Braves relievers during recent late-season and/or postseason disappointments.

So there is plenty of reason to believe this Braves team can defend its NL East title, even if it might be a bit difficult for Fredi Gonzalez to continue his streak of more wins in each season as Braves manager. After all, they won 96 last year and no team in baseball won more than 97.

The Nationals made some significant additions this winter and many believe they’ll be a lot better. But at this time last year, the Nats were a consensus pick not just to win the NL East, but to go to the World Series. And it didn’t take the Braves long to show them early last season that the preseason prognostications meant nothing once the actual playing of games began.

I think it’ll be a two-horse race this season, and that it’ll be a lot closer than last year come September. But for those who believe the Braves, because of payroll and free-agent losses and whatever else, aren’t going to be able to stay with the bigger-spending Nats and the big-name starting rotation? Well, as the Braves used to say when the Phillies ruled the NL East for several years, and as other teams used to say about the Braves for so long before that: Until someone takes it from them, the division title belongs to the team that won it last year.

And that Atlanta team, to me, looks like it could be just as good or better than a year ago.

• OK, here's one by the lovely and talented Neko Case, which you can hear by clicking here. By the way, she's on Conan O'Brien's show tonight (Monday) along with a few of the fellas from Calexico.


I hear the tiniest sparks and the tenderest sounds

Diving music, drowning the sound

Waltzing with the hairs upon my arms

And your fight-or-flight alarm

And you tremble and you stumble

And you scrape up your palms

I can't stay here to hold your hand

I've been away for so long

I've lost my taste for home

And that's a dirty, fallow feeling

To be the dangling ceiling

From when the roof came crashing down

Peeling in the heat

Vanish in the rain

The next time you say forever

I will punch you in your face

Just because you don't believe it

Doesn't mean I didn't mean it

You never knew when I'll show you the never

You never know when I'll show you the never