The Atlanta Braves open the season tonight at home against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Braves won one of the National League Wild Card spots, but lost in the Wild Card Game to the St. Louis Cardinals.
This season stands to be not much different, as the Braves will once again be in a close fight with the Washington Nationals in the National League East.
So let’s look at how the Atlanta Braves shape up as they open the 2013 season.
This is one of the deepest lineups in Major League Baseball, if everyone plays to their potential.
SS Andrelton Simmons will be asked to hit lead-off, a position he has thrived in so far in Spring Training and for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic.
The Braves did acquire both Upton brothers in the offseason. They signed CF B.J. Upton to a five-year deal, and traded for LF Justin Upton from the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Uptons, paired with RF Jason Heyward, stands to be one of the best outfields, offensively and defensively, in baseball.
2B Dan Uggla had a tough year in 2012, including briefly losing his starting job near the end of the season. However, Uggla went to training camp in great shape, and is poised for a comeback season. Uggla is a streaky hitter, but it would be surprising to see him duplicate 2012.
There are two main questions, catcher and third base. C Brian McCann will miss the start of the season as he recovers from shoulder surgery. C Gerald Laird and C/LF Evan Gattis will share time behind the plate until McCann returns.
However, even when McCann returns, which one will? Will it be the former All-Star who is one of the best hitting catchers in the game? Or will it be the injury-plagued catcher who has his moments, but it’s an overall struggle? McCann is in the last year of his contract, so there is some incentive to have a great season.
Chipper Jones retired after the 2012 season, meaning there is a bit of a question as to who will man the hot corner. The Braves first option, Martin Prado, was traded to get Justin Upton. Atlanta also acquired veteran 1B/3B Chris Johnson in the Justin Upton deal. He figures to get a lot of playing time, including starting at third base.
The Braves also have 3B Juan Francisco, who filled in at times for Jones in 2012, but seemed to go in and out of manager Fredi Gonzalez’s doghouse during the year. At least to start the season, the Braves will likely platoon Chris Johnson and Francisco.
The good news for the Braves: there is enough offensive potential, that if a spot or two struggles in the lineup, other guys can fill the void.
Some of the key bench players from the last few years are gone. 1B/OF Eric Hinske is off to Arizona and C David Ross is now playing in Boston.
The 2013 bench will feature either Chris Johnson or Francisco, depending on the starting pitcher, and OF Reed Johnson, acquired from the Cubs in 2012, as the top pinch-hitters.
C Gerald Laird will replace Ross as McCann’s backup, but as previously mentioned, will be starting a lot during the first few weeks.
OF Jordan Schafer returns to the team, and figures to offer speed off the bench in late game situations. IF Ramiro Pena will serve as a backup for the infield positions.
The Braves’ rotation features a mix of young and veteran pitchers. RHP Tim Hudson is the leader of the staff, and will lean on LHP Paul Maholm to be another veteran innings-eater for the rotation.
RHP Kris Medlen and LHP Mike Minor will look to capitalize on stellar ends to 2012. Medlen could not be hit as soon as he entered the starting rotation. Minor stepped up after he was given a vote of confidence by not being sent to AAA mid-season.
Top-prospect RHP Julio Teheran will be the fifth starter, at least until RHP Brandon Beachy returns from Tommy John Surgery around the All-Star Break.
One of the best bullpens in baseball in 2012 actually got stronger, but not without some concerns.
The team maximized it’s trade of RHP Tommy Hanson to the Angels by getting in return RHP Jordan Walden, a hard-throwing right-handed reliever.
Walden’s acquisition will prove to be even bigger if LHP Jonny Venters is out for a long period of time with an elbow injury. However, with Walden, LHP Eric O’Flaherty, and RHP Craig Kimbrel helps shorten the game for the rotation.
If the rotation does struggle, that is where a weakness may be exposed. RHP Cristhian Martinez is a proven swing-man, and RHP Cory Gearrin, LHP Luis Avilan, and RHP Anthony Varvaro will need to prove early on to Gonzalez that they can be trusted like the back-end of the bullpen.
This is the other concern for the Braves. If many injuries or needs arise, there is not a whole lot of proven depth in the organization.
IFs Tyler Pastornicky and Paul Janish, and OF Jose Constanza stand to wear out the path between Atlanta and Gwinnett as needs arise in 2013. Janish will miss the first few weeks as he recovers from shoulder surgery.
1B/OF Joe Terdoslavich, OF Jordan Parraz, IF Blake DeWitt, 1B Ernesto Mejia, and C/LF Evan Gattis (although he is on the Opening Day Roster) will also get looks if any player is out for an extended period of time.
Proven pitching below the major league level is a little more concerning. RHP David Carpenter is the only one who pitched in the majors in 2012. However, it would not be surprising if the team found a veteran reliever or two to stash at AAA.
RHPs David Hale and J.R. Graham, and LHPs Sean Gilmartin, Yohan Flande, and Alex Wood will help if some more starters (or relievers) are injured or struggle. Carpenter, RHP Wirfin Obispo (who impressed in Spring Training), and LHP Dusty Hughes provide depth for the bullpen.
The Braves are improved from 2012, but so is the division rival Washington Nationals. However, there is little doubt that the Braves can return to the playoffs in 2013. The Braves should make it into the divisional round, but the National League is overall pretty strong. If the Braves win a Wild Card spot, they would likely have to face the Nationals in the first round.