The Atlanta Braves came into the 2013 season with a chip on their shoulder but with much of the national media against them. While the signing of BJ and Justin Upton created some buzz around the Braves, you would be far fetched to find too many reporters outside of Turner Field that felt the Braves could beat out the “feared” Washington Nationals in the NL East.
Yet with 5 games left in the regular season, not only do the Braves already have the East wrapped up, but they currently are tied with the Cardinals for the best record in the National League.
The Braves have dominated the East all season, holding the top spot in the division for every day but one. Led by a pitching staff with the best ERA in the Majors (3.19), a bullpen with the best ERA in the majors (2.45), and an offense that is finally finding some timely hitting with the resurgence of Jason Heyward in the leadoff spot and Justin Upton (not to mention the consistency of players like Chris Johnson and Freddie Freeman), the Braves have put themselves in a position to make a deep postseason run.
While many national analysts fear the Braves are not built for the playoffs, pointing to the number of strikeouts and unproductive outs, Atlanta has posted a winning record against every team that will be playing in the National League playoffs (4-3 against Cincinnati, 4-3 against Pittsburgh, 4-3 against St. Louis, 5-2 against Los Angeles).
And the scary part for the rest of the National League is one that should put joy in all Braves fan’s hearts: the Braves are going to be good for a long time. The average age of the Braves’ roster is only 28.1 years, and eight out of nine position players have multiple years left on their contracts. Here’s a look at each position for the Braves and how they will be filled for the next few years.
It will be very difficult for the Braves to resign All-Star catcher Brain McCann at the end of this season. As a free agent, McCann will most likely take more money from an American League team that will offer him the chance to play everyday as a catcher and a DH. The catching role will most likely be filled by Evan Gattis, the 26 year old rookie who has burst onto the scene this year batting .237 with 20 homeruns, and minor leaguer Christian Bethancourt. Bethancourt has been praised for his defense and athleticism, but his bat has hindered his progress through the minors. Gattis is under contract until the 2018 season and will most likely see a raise from his minimum salary of $490,000. Also under contract for the 2014 season is veteran catcher Gerald Laird, who will see some playing time and continue to act as a mentor for the two younger catchers.
Freddie Freeman has burst onto the scene in 2013 as one of the premier first baseman in the National League. His .315 average and 106 RBI have Freeman in the discussion for MVP. At only 24 years old, Freeman looks to be the face of the Atlanta Braves for the foreseeable future along with Jason Heyward. Signed through the 2016 season, the Braves will enjoy at least 3 more seasons with their productive first baseman.
If there was a hole in the Braves infield, it would be at second base. For all of the great defense, Dan Uggla has failed to live up to the 5-year, $62 million contract he signed in January of 2011. His current .182 average is the worst of his three seasons in Atlanta and his 22 homeruns are the second worst total of his career. He has shown signs of promise this season, and he remains under contract with the Braves through the 2015 season. Before having season ending surgery, infielder Ramiro Pena was hitting .278 and looked to be a viable option for the Braves during Uggla’s struggles. Not a free agent until 2017, look for Pena to vie for more playing time if Uggla continues to struggle.
Andrelton Simmons has become one of the best defensive shortstops in all of baseball in 2013, and his bat has also been a pleasant surprise for the Braves. Simmons has hit 17 homeruns in his first full season in the Majors while compiling an average of .247. Signed through the 2018 season, the Braves will continue to lean on Simmons as a key piece to their infield.
When the Braves traded for Justin Upton this past offseason, the addition of Chris Johnson in the deal was merely an afterthought for many Atlanta fans. Yet Johnson has proved to be almost if not more valuable than Upton, battling for the National Batting title with a .327 average. Johnson, at 28 years old, is signed through the 2016 season.
It can be argued that the Braves may have the most dynamic outfield in all of baseball. The struggles of center fielder BJ Upton at the plate have been well documented, but his defense has never been in question. Assuming that Upton can turn his offensive struggles around in the coming seasons, Jason Heyward can remain healthy, and Justin Upton can remain consistent, it stands to reason that Atlanta will continue to have one of the best outfields in baseball. BJ is signed through the 2017 season, Justin through 2015, and Heyward through 2015. Add into the mix the resurgence of Jordan Schafer (signed through 2016) and the possibility of Evan Gattis continuing to get playing time in the left field, and you have a Braves outfield that will be very dangerous for at least the next two years.
When the Braves won 14 straight division titles, they mainly relied on pitching to get them to the postseason. This 2013 club is no different, leading the Majors in both overall and bullpen ERA. Kris Medlen (14-12, 3.24 ERA), Mike Minor (13-8, 3.22 ERA), and Julio Teheran (13-8. 3.09 ERA) have all had very impressive seasons and will all be in Atlanta for at least the next few years (Medlen signed through 2015, Minor through 2017, Teheran through 2018)
And the Braves’ bullpen has continued to dominate opposing hitters, led by closer Craig Kimbrel (49 saves) who is signed through the 2016 season. Pitchers Luis Avilan, Luis Ayala, David Carpenter, and Jordan Walden have all stepped up to fill the shoes of the injured Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty.