Here in Georgia, the weather is getting warmer, the grass is getting greener, and Spring is finally upon us, meaning one thing: the Braves are back. Starting Monday, April 6, the Atlanta Braves will begin their newest 162 game trek, but this season has a different feeling to it than those past. This off-season, they traded away some of their best players, including fan favorites Craig Kimbrel and Jason Heyward, along with other stars Justin Upton and Evan Gattis, combining for three of their top five home run leaders last year. To make matters worse, BJ (or Melvin?) Upton was in that top five list as well, so the Braves only have Freddie Freeman left from last season’s top five home run list, although most will be pleased Melvin left town. However, they stacked up pitchers in additions such as Shelby Miller and Trevor Cahill and bolstered their farm system with touted or at least decent prospects, batters and pitchers alike. As the new season approaches, here are the top storylines to look out for in 2015.
Freddie Freeman: With Upton, Heyward, and Gattis missing from the lineup, who will star First Baseman Freddie Freeman drive in? He had 78 RBI last season, already down 31 from 2013, but now he will lose more men on base. Combine that with the fact he hit five less home runs and hit in 56 more at-bats from 2013 to 2014, and he seems due to declining numbers even more than last year. The Nick Markakis addition helps, but he cannot replace everyone else who departed. How will he react when the team doesn’t prepare to contend for a couple years? Will he become frustrated with the team and himself? Or will he join the rebuilding bandwagon and see the light at the end of the tunnel? From everything we’ve seen throughout his career, he seems to have a good enough head on his shoulders to stay positive and wait things out, but the situation may prove too frustrating to handle for a player who played on a competitive team (sans last season’s meltdown) for the majority of his career.
The Prospects: The Braves loaded up their farm system and hold multiple players in Baseball Prospectus’s Top Prospect rankings, creating intrigue in stadiums other than Turner Field for their organization. While Braves fans are accustomed to the Major League team being the main focus, some of the most exciting players are in the works. I understand the frustration, I’m a Cubs fan. The past three years have been all about waiting for Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, and Anthony Rizzo to progress in the Minors. Watching spotty videos of home runs from Minor League videos with no sound were the highlights of each day as I took note of Bryant’s successes and that absurd moment where Soler charged into the opposing team’s dugout with a bat because a player commented on Soler’s matter. Seriously, Google it if you haven’t heard about it. Regardless, Infielder Jose Peraza and Pitcher Mike Foltynewicz headline the top prospects in the Braves Organization. The latter should join The Show in 2015, while the former will continue to advance through the Minors, and if his .339 batting average holds up in the higher leagues, he should fly through the system. A bad hiccup in the organization occurred earlier in the week when flame-throwing pitching prospect Arodys Viscaino received an 80-game suspension for steroid use. The Braves traded for him, sending Tommy LaStella to the Cubs earlier in the off-season. Him being suspended and still recovering from a 2013 Tommy John surgery surely halts his development and Major League aspirations.
The New Additions: Nick Markakis, Shelby Miller, Trevor Cahill, Jason Grilli, Jace Peterson, Dian Toscano, and Eric Young Jr. all highlight the key additions to the Major League roster this off-season. Miller and Cahill will join a loaded rotation to take the pressure off Julio Tehran, Alex Wood, and Mike Minor. Their starting five should keep them in most games. The bullpen, now missing the best closer in the game, Craig Kimbrel, should leave something to desire. While Kimbrel will be missed by all Georgians, a bad team, simply does not need a good closer. That said, their return was porous at best in receiving two mediocre and aging outfielders and a AAA pitcher that had a 5.03 ERA last season. I however have a sneaky suspicion that Grilli will return to All-Star form, something that would greatly help the Braves this season. Despite missing Kimbrel pitching as a whole should keep the Braves in games and bail out a presumably disappointing offense. Markakis will help the offensive woes, although his signing comes as a surprise since a $44 million contract for a 31-year old doesn’t exactly scream “rebuilding.” However, his presence in the lineup will help make up for at least some of Justin Upton’s absence. Veterans such as Jonny Gomes and A.J. Pierzynski will also help mentor younger players, such as Toscano and touted catcher Christian Bethancourt.
The 2015 Braves will most likely not contend for the playoffs, but fans still have plenty to be excited for in the future. And at the very least, we can all be happy that baseball is back.