Turning The Page: An Early Look at the 2015 Braves

With the 2014 season wrapping up without a postseason appearance and with the dismissal of General Manager Frank Wren, the Braves are left in a very precarious position heading into the offseason. There is a lot of money currently tied up into a team that finished below .500 and well out of both the National League East race and the NL Wildcard chase. We do not currently know what direction the organization will head in regards to the GM search–as of right now the interim label has been placed on John Hart for the foreseeable future–so even the man in charge of piecing together the 2015 roster is currently in question.

threeamigosAs stated, there is already a lot of money locked in place heading into next season. Based just on guaranteed money, including that of the released Dan Uggla, there is $77.5M tied into the Upton brothers, Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Chris Johnson, Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran. Adding in the arbitration estimates from Baseball-Reference, an upwards of $25M is expected to be added to the payroll once contracts are settled for next year, putting a roster that is riddled with numerous question marks well over the $100M mark. Because of this, the certainty of some players future with the Braves is definitely in question, and with a payroll that high, little to no movement is to be expected via the free agency market

So, what we’re going to do now is take a position-by-position look at where the Braves stand.

Catcher

When Frank Wren was still manning the controls for the Braves this past spring, he rather adamantly stated Christian Bethancourt would be the team’s catcher going forward as soon as he was deemed available. Considering his increased playing time down the stretch, thanks in large part to Evan Gattis’s ongoing health concerns, this mindset doesn’t seem to have changed with the team’s management shuffling. Considering he spent thirty-plus games with the big club in 2014, it seems the Braves may be ready to finally christen the 23 year-old the backstop as the starter for 2015. The concern with Bethancourt has always been the development of his bat, which is a problem that has persisted during his professional career. His time in the Majors hasn’t been much different, but keep in mind, he just turned 23 under a month ago, and during his progression has always fared much better during his second season at a level. Another reason to not be as concerned about the youngster is that he has been considerably younger than the competition at every level in the Minors. Starting with his first season in the Gulf Coast League and Appalachian League in 2009, he’s been between three and four years younger than the weighted average age of talent. One thing that isn’t to be concerning his is defensive capabilities. His arm rates out as one of the best in the game already, and he will benefit greatly from instructional time over the winter and through getting Major League reps all spring with the big club.

The wildcard behind the plate is Evan Gattis. Few players have come through the Braves system in recent years with as much raw power as the 28 year-old has displayed. Despite his struggles during the second half of 2013–which could be thanks to a strained oblique that sent him to the disabled list in the middle of the season–his peripherals have remained very consistent from 2013 to 2014. While his walks remained low and strikeouts remained up, his isolated power was almost identical to last year’s and his ability to use more of the field increased, even if not to the best results. However, the problem with Gattis is he’s a vastly inferior backstop to Bethancourt and ran into numerous problems working with the pitching staff mid-game in 2014. His longevity behind the plate also remains in question, as he fell well below the 1,000 innings caught plateau that most premier catchers hit on a yearly basis. As a player whose value rests solely in his ability to remain in the lineup and hit, if he can’t reach that level of endurance behind the plate, he becomes a liability.

So, where does this leave the team with Gattis? Well, as early as late August, the team’s beat writers had already begun floating the idea of dealing El Oso Blanco this offseason. Conventional wisdom says that he could and should thrive if given the opportunity to be a designated hitter for an American League club, while taking on limited catching duties. The question is both the expected return and whether it would outweigh keeping Gattis and using him to help replace a bench that horribly underperformed in 2014. The problem that arises from that scenario is how to properly use him as said piece. He’s a liability in the field, so using him off the bench would be limited to PH duties, and also likely require a third catcher occupying a roster spot, much in the same way the team used Ryan Doumit this season.

The backup catcher position is one that will likely have to be addressed regardless of what happens with Gattis in 2015. Gerald Laird, the team’s current backup, is a free agent this off-season. He performed very well bridging the gap between Brian McCann and Gattis in 2012, but reverted back to being a offensive, and at times defensive, liability in 2014. Laird could return next season, but only time will tell what direction the team will take, and a lot may hinge on how the team decides to handle Gattis.

First Base

Honestly, not much to discuss here.

Freddie Freeman just turned 25, is locked up through 2021, and has been a model of consistency his first four seasons in the Majors.

Second Base

Second base is a different story.

Heading into 2014, the position was a total crapshoot. It remained that way all season, and could very likely continue to be so. Dan Uggla was the unmitigated disaster he was expected to be. Ramiro Pena and Tyler Pastornicky failed to produce offensively. Fan favorite Tommy La Stella caught lightning in a bottle out of the gate, but cooled almost as quickly. And by the time September rolled around, Phil Gosselin, who had always been known only for his defensive capabilities and hadn’t even been on the radar until having a strong season at Gwinnett, was getting the majority of the reps. All told, the six players who started at 2B for the Braves (the aforementioned five, plus Emilio Bonifacio) would accumulate an 87 wRC+, bad enough for fifth worst in the Majors.

The likeliest scenario for 2015 is for another open competition, with 20 year old top prospect Jose Peraza likely getting an extended look. The kid has hit at every level he has been at, and has succeeded a great bit based solely on the ability to put the ball in play and let his speed do the rest. His walk rate has always been a concern, but he has paired that with a relatively low strikeout rate. The problem is experience at this point, as he only got the bump up to Double-A Mississippi mid-season and has played less than fifty games above High-A ball. With the addition of Bethancourt’s bat to the lineup and his youth, it’s unknown how the team will handle Peraza, especially since he won’t turn 21 until late April. Many were already calling for him to join the roster with September call-ups, but at this point he has yet to crack the 40-man roster. If he is added this winter, it’s safe to say the organization may just be going in hard on another of their few legitimate position player prospects.

As for the rest of the characters, it’s wide-open. Gosselin, Pastornicky and Pena remain under team control, but only one will likely make the Opening Day roster. All three offer a similar skillset, so it could down to the trio competing for one or two spots on the bench. La Stella makes for a good left-handed bat off the bench, but he’s limited to 2B defensively, which could make him a trade piece to sweeten a potential salary dump.

If Peraza isn’t able to win the job outright, it’s likely right back to where we were as the team headed to camp in 2014: open competition. If the Opening Day 2B isn’t established as Peraza or La Stella hasn’t made the necessary adjustments, the team could be in for another long season from their second sackers.

Third Base

Despite struggles across the board in 2014, Chris Johnson drew the majority of ire from a large portion of Braves faithful. A lot of this would likely have been lessened had Wren not extended him through at least the 2017 season. Much of the ire seems to be directed at the uncertainty of Johnson’s performance going forward than it was his struggles in 2015. Many expected Johnson top drop-off from his incredible 2013 season, but few expected it to be this far of a drop. The question with the Braves 3B for 2015 is whether we’ll get the Chris Johnson of 2011 and 2014 or the Chris Johnson of 2012 and 2013. The good news is, Johnson is only on the clip for $6M in 2015, which should be a team-friendly deal, barring any huge jumps in the $/WAR department this off-season. If he can bounce back to even a league average hitter, despite his defensive shortcomings and baserunning woes, a 1-2 win season should be easily obtainable. The regression monster ate comfortably off of CJ all season and 2015 is going to be key in determining whether or not the Braves have another albatross of a contract on their hands.

One of the key issues with Johnson is also the lack of depth at the 3B position – it’s also one of the reasons Wren saw fit to lock up a questionable player. As of right now, the only internal option to make a push at Johnson would be Kyle Kubitza, who spent 2014 at Mississippi and performed very well. But he will likely end up rather inconsequential as far as 2015 goes. An Uggla/BJ Upton level disaster from Johnson aside, Kubitza should spend some time at Gwinnett before the team starts to spend any amount of time considering him.

Shortstop

Like first base, shortstop is on lock-down for the foreseeable future. Andrelton Simmons was another in Wren’s heavy push to lock up as much young talent as possible this past winter. One of the things few have focused on in 2014, however, were the struggles Simmons faced at the plate. While there is certainly a huge difference in overall value and cost, Simmons put up a worse offensive season than BJ Upton. His isolated power plunged and his strikeout rate bumped up to a higher rate than in 2013 despite a mere three strikeouts in April. While his defense dropped off just a bit, he lost an entire win in offensive production, seeing his overall value drop from nearly five wins in 2013 to barely two this season.

Simmons isn’t going anywhere. The Braves just have to hope that he can find the happy medium between all the infield flyballs in 2013 and all the times he rolled over the ball in 2014.

Outfield

This is where things start to go off the rails.

We may very well have seen BJ and Justin Upton’s final games in a Braves uniform and Jason Heyward could be on his way to doing the same. Whoever assumes the GM position is going to have some serious questions about the Braves outfield.

We all know the disaster BJ has been during the past two seasons. It’s almost too safe to say he will either be shown the door via outright release like Uggla was this past season, or he’ll be part of some contract-for-contract dump. The former is the likelier of the two scenarios. The Braves are dealing with sunk cost they must eat in some fashion, it all boils down to how they handle it.

Justin Upton is another story. The younger of the two has been exactly as anticipated. He’s hit 56 homers the past two years, put up a 131 wRC+ and been a seven win player. But 2015 will be his final season under contract and with the money the Braves have invested going forward, they are unlikely to resign the talented LF. So what happens? The most likely outcome is a trade at some point this winter. The Braves got Justin Upton for change on the dollar, one has to think they aren’t just going to let him walk without getting something in return. The organization certainly has to expect a much greater return for Upton than they paid if they are to pursue the trade route, however. With numerous holes looming in the near-future, a serious haul may be sought. The alternatives are to play out 2015 and see where the team stands at the trade deadline, or take the draft pick when he hits the free agent market. There are at least positive outcomes from Justin, much more than one can say for his brother.

The other wildcard in the Braves outfield of impending doom is the man, the myth, the legend: Jason Heyward. Like Justin Upton, this is his final season under contract with the Braves. Frank Wren was able to lock-up Heyward for a very cost-effective two-year, $12.5M deal, so one less concern this off-season will be how much is owed to the beast coming off a five win season. The focus now must turn to trying to lock-up Heyward long-term, or settle into possibly losing an entire outfield over the course of two off-seasons. After Wren was dismissed, Heyward seemed to be very pessimistic about the direction the organization was taking, however he did not openly criticize any one thing. We don’t know how much this will play into any possible negotiations this winter, but if Wren couldn’t lock Heyward up for longer than buying out his last two years of arbitration, then we’re left with two possible takeaways: (1) There was a possible distance between Wren and Heyward, which could bode well for the Braves with a new GM in place, or (2) with the dismissal of Wren, Heyward is good as gone. At this point, we simply do not know. And that is terrifying, because there’s also a third option — dealing Heyward this winter and riding out 2015 with Justin Upton instead.

Without knowing what return any or all of these three could net, it’s even more depressing to think about the options to replace them: Todd Cunningham, Joey Terdoslavich, and Jose Constanza. Terdoslavich seems like a lock for the bench next season, likely assuming the switch-hitting power bat role currently manned by Doumit, but that all could also change depending on how Gattis is handled. Constanza is the flea infestation you simply can’t get rid of. You can use every treatment under the sun, spray your yard, bomb the house, and they still linger. Really no reason to assume 2015 will be any different. Cunningham, meanwhile, seems to have pissed in someone’s Cheerios. For the second straight season, with an offensive blackhole in CF, he’s been left off the list of September call-ups. Does he ever stand a chance out outlasting Constanza on the depth chart? Considering Hart’s proclamation the team needs more speed and veteran presence? Probably not.

Bench

As I’ve touched on in previous articles, probably the biggest issue the Braves had in 2014 was the construction of the bench. Or, rather, how the production of the bench turned out. No one was the least bit productive: Laird, Doumit, Jordan Schafer, the revolving door at 2B, Bonifacio, Bethancourt. The bench was the biggest dumpster fire it likely ever has been. Schafer is already gone, Doumit will be, likewise for Bonifacio, and as I discussed before, Laird is still an option, but it’s unknown if the Braves will try and re-sign the veteran. Rebuilding the bench is going to be just as key to any other individual piece for 2015 success. Right now, you’re looking at the legion of failed 2Bs and the 2014 Gwinnett Braves outfield. Not exactly a lot to get excited about there.

Starting Rotation

The Braves contingent of starting pitchers was what made 2014 even less of a disaster. But gone will be Santana and Harang, two last minute acquisitions that combined for over five wins of value. Returning is Julio Teheran, who did everything to cement himself as the Braves staff ace of the future. Right behind him will be lefty Alex Wood. Hopefully. One of the biggest developments of the final week of the season was the revelation that Wood was dealing with a forearm strain, an ailment that lead to the Braves holding him out of his final start of the season. As with any injury of that nature, one has to be slightly concerned. Either we’re gonna be thankful it happened in September because he’ll have all winter to heal, or we’re gonna be kicking ourselves at some point between now and March because he’s getting reconstructive surgery.

The other two names in the rotation, Mike Minor and David Hale, are two that have been tossed around a lot. Hale came back down to earth once he moved to the bullpen earlier in the season and his stock value may have dropped, and Minor had as up-and-down a season as possible. With the uncertainty of the rotation, it isn’t likely either will be moved at this point, however. Minor has been a player at odds with some in the organization, depending on who you choose to listen to. At this point, it’s uncertain where he fits in The Braves Way, but if anyone from the top-down feels he’s lacking in makeup, you have to feel he would be one of the first guys out the door.

And that’s where the rotation stands right now. Of the pitching prospects, the only one who could make a possible run in 2015 would be Jason Hursh, who spent this season at Mississippi. Unless someone like Gus Schlosser, Cody Martin, Aaron Northcraft, or J.R. Graham can turn the corner, the finishing touches on the rotation are going to be pieced together with outside sources. Right now, it all depends on how many pieces are going to need to be filled.

Bullpen

The bullpen is currently not lacking in depth. The question is to what quality the depth is. The backend is set, as it was in 2013 and 2014: Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Walden, and David Carpenter. Anthony Varvaro and Shae Simmons will work into the mix, as well, while James Russell and Luis Avilan will probably fight it out to determine who will be awarded the right for Fredi Gonzalez to misuse against left-handers in crucial situations. There are plenty of names out there to fill the void if someone skips a beat: Ian Thomas, Chasen Shreve, Juan Jaime, any of the Minor League starting pitchers mentioned above. While the bullpen may have still be longing for the days of Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters, there are a lot of talented arms that can fit into any number of spots.

Possible Non-Tenders

So, there are some names I didn’t mention.

Those are the three-headed Tommy John trio of Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, and Jonny Venters.

Venters is an easy one. He’s about to undergo his third TJ surgery, so he’s as much of a guarantee to be gone as anything.

Medlen and Beachy are interesting. Either could add depth to a starting rotation that could be very questionable in 2015. But if either is offered arbitration, the Braves have to know going in they can’t expect anything at all from them. Not even the nine starts that Gavin Floyd made this season. Both are coming off of their second Tommy John and likely wouldn’t return until late May or June, as it is. Under any other situation, offering two pitchers who hadn’t pitched the season before arbitration wouldn’t be an issue, but on a team that is already cash-strapped, the money invested into huge question marks could be crucial.

***

So, there we are.

As bad as 2014 was, 2015 stands to potentially be even worse.

In all honesty, I think the ceiling for this team, at least with the pieces in place right now, could be the .500 mark. Of course, there are still a ton of questions left to be answered, holes left to fill, trade left to be made, and contracts left to be dealt with. One positive is, lacking money to sink into free agents means in the long run the likeliness of sunk costs is lessened. However, the downside is whatever moves that are going to be made to shore up the roster are going to take tons of creativity and maximizing of the available assets.

Can John Hart, or his potential replacement, do that in enough time to make the 2015 Braves competitive? We’ve got six month to find out.

Brandon (@_bg37) is that dude K hates because of his love affair with Little Caesars. As a result of this, the two have been entangled in a years long debate over the sabermetric value of $5 pizza. Brandon‘s path to the Store has been a twisted one, involving studies in statistics and sports marketing and having been a member of the Braves online community since most were wee lads. He’s back in the writing game despite spending his free time chasing around a toddler and telling people not to buy hamsters.

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