Football is over and Phillies pitchers and catchers report as early as next Monday, so the time is here to break down the Phils’ main competition.
Over the next four days, we’ll break down each of the Phillies’ four foes in the NL East, a division that has improved at the top and gotten significantly worse at the bottom.
Last offseason, the Braves spent $1.75 million on major-league free agents. This offseason, they gave B.J. Upton more than 40 times that, and that wasn’t even their biggest splash.
No, that came two months later when GM Frank Wren pulled the trigger on a deal sending Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and others to Arizona for Justin Upton and Chris Johnson.
By adding two Uptons, the Braves made their outfield unfathomably athletic and power-packed, considering Jason Heyward is in right field and could end up being better than either of them.
But one must also remember that Atlanta has lost a lot of talent this offseason. Chipper Jones retired after 19 seasons, 2,726 hits, 468 home runs and a .303 lifetime batting average.
Michael Bourn hit free agency and remains unsigned.
Martin Prado, a leader in the clubhouse and on the field but more importantly a consistent and versatile performer, left for the desert in the Justin Upton trade.
Tommy Hanson, who had a 3.61 ERA in 108 starts for the Braves from 2009-12 will pitch for the Angels in 2013.
It is difficult to call the Braves better than they were last season. They still look like a 90-win team, but don’t buy into the hype of the Upton Bros. without looking at the rest of the roster.
It will be dynamic and it will strike out … a lot. The Uptons, Heyward, Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman struck out a combined 739 times last season.
But the three-run homer makes up for strikeouts with a runner on third and less than two outs. And the Braves will have their fare share of longballs, too. If two-year averages mean anything, those five players should combine for 143 homers this season. The Phillies had only 15 more than that last season.
The Braves will do a lot of bashing, and they’ll do a lot of whiffing. What makes them dynamic is the speed. B.J. Upton is a 40-steals threat. Justin Upton swipes about 20 per season, and Heyward is also a budding base-stealer. Shorstop Andrelton Simmons, who we haven’t mentioned yet but who baseball people think will be the next great defensive shortstop, is also a threat to run.
The Braves are going to have a lot of seven-plus run games, and some games here or there where Cliff Lee strikes out 13 over seven shutout innings.
Uggla is a big key to this offense. If he hits .219 again and fails to reach 20 homers, the Braves’ 6-7-8 will be ugly, especially to start the year. The platoon of Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson will claim one of those spots, as will Uggla and Laird, the early-season replacement to McCann. McCann had major surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder this offseason and, while he is targeting a return by Opening Day, it isn’t likely.
This is about the eighth-best starting rotation in the National League.
Atlanta is set to enter the season with a starting five of Kris Medlen, Tim Hudson, Mike Minor, Paul Maholm and Julio Teheran.
Taking the three-year averages of those pitchers, it’s a rotation with an ERA near 3.75 and less than six strikeouts per nine innings, an ugly mark.
A lot rests on Medlen’s right arm. He returned from Tommy John surgery in 2012 and went 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts. He can’t possibly be that filthy this season. And he’ll be fronting a rotation despite never pitching more than 138 innings.
Hudson is now 37 and his numbers have trended the wrong way for three straight years. He’s still an effective No. 3, but his ace days are a thing of the past.
Minor’s brilliant second half was an underreported component of the Braves’ playoff push in 2012. The 25-year-old lefty had a 2.16 ERA and microscopic 0.87 WHIP in 14 starts after the All-Star break. Keeping the ball in the park turned his year around.
Maholm is a good No. 4 starter (3.66 ERA, 1.26 WHIP the last two seasons), and Teheran is the type of high-upside starter teams love to ease in at the back of the rotation.
As a whole, though, Atlanta’s rotation isn’t on the level of the Phillies, Nationals, Giants, Cardinals, Reds or Dodgers.
The bullpen is where the Braves make up for it. Craig Kimbrel struck out 116 of the 231 batters he faced last season, beating the previous major-league strikeout rate record by nearly six percentage points.
Equally astonishing are these two Kimbrel facts: He struck out every batter he faced in eight different games in 2012, and he didn’t allow multiple hits in any of his 63 appearances.
Atlanta boosted the back-end of its bullpen by dealing Hanson for Jordan Walden, the former Angels closer who reaches 100 mph with his fastball. The righty duo of Kimbrel and Walden is backed by a lefty tandem of Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty, two of the top-10 left-handed relievers in the game.
This Braves team is going to win with power bats in the middle of the order and power arms at the end of the game. Pretty much the opposite of the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz Braves, who were carried by starting pitching the way the Phillies hope to be in 2013.