Happy less than a week to real baseball, Braves fans! In anticipation of this centuries long spring training finally coming to an end, we at ATL All Day are here to bring you a preview of what you can expect from your handsome and distinguished Atlanta Braves in 2014. I continue this look with an examination of how each member of the Braves infield will compete for the NL MVP and immediate enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Freddie Freeman returns to Atlanta for his fourth season sporting the richest non-inflation adjusted contract in team history. Freeman is coming off a Chipper Jones-lite season in which he hit .319/.396/.501, and via his clutch hitting and scoops, managed to finish 5th in NL MVP voting. While Freeman’s breakout year was thrilling and justified the hefty contract he signed in the offseason, most projection systems expect a step back from Freeman this year.
In 2013, Freeman’s massive offensive improvement was entirely driven by an uptick in batting average that was driven by what is widely considered an unsustainable batting average on balls in play. In 2013, Freeman managed a scorching .371 BABIP well above his career average of .334. A return to his career norms would cause a decrease in overall offensive output if not balanced out by a higher walk rate or improvement in isolated power. To this point in his young career, Freeman hasn’t shown the high level of power you want from a top tier first baseman, and analysts like Keith Law have described Freeman’s swing as not conducive to ever being a 30-plus home run guy. There is reason to be skeptical that Freeman can be an elite first baseman without an unsustainably high BABIP. Therefore, I would expect a good season from Freeman in 2014, but not the kind of the “in the MVP discussion” season he had in 2013.
764. 732. 671.
These numbers are Dan Uggla’s OPS by season since he became a member of the Atlanta Braves. He posted a career high of .877 during his last season in Florida with the Marlins. Another important number is 34 which happens to be Dan Uggla’s current age. In short, Dan Uggla’s career has been in steady decline since he peaked as a 30-year-old. Uggla is the worst defensive second baseman in MLB, and even if you rate him as a useful baserunner as I do, Uggla just doesn’t provide enough value to send out there on a daily basis.
While unlikely things do happen, there is no rational reason to expect any sort of improvement from Uggla in 2014. Uggla was benched at the end of the 2013 season and left off the playoff roster. I would expect the Braves to make a similar move in 2014 after giving him around two months to show he still has one last run in him. Once Uggla’s role as every day second baseman comes to a merciful end, his spot will likely be filled by some combination of Ramiro Pena, Tyler Pastornicky, & AAA savior Tommy La Stella. While none of those players figure to set the world on fire, they all have legitimate strengths as players that should give the Braves some improvement over Uggla. For the season as a whole, I would expect some production from the second base spot, but it is likely to be a weak link for the Braves all season.
At shortstop, the Atlanta Braves possess a player who is essentially the opposite of Uggla in every way. Andrelton Simmons is spry, lanky, free-swinging, young, reasonably paid, unable to take a walk and the best defensive player in all of baseball. Simmons plays the most important position on the diamond and he plays it at a level that has earned deserved comparison to the likes of Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel. In 2013, Simmons had a defensive season that could reasonably be argued to have been the greatest defensive season of all time. Defensive WAR is an imperfect metric, and defensive runs saved is relatively new, but by these measures, Simmons had the best defensive season in the history of baseball.
Last season, the Atlanta Braves allowed the fewest runs any team had allowed in over 20 years (lower than any Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz team ever allowed) and the Braves did this while fans complained the team lacked an ace. It is difficult to quantify Simmons impact on that insane runs allowed total exactly but considering how poor the Braves defense was at second and third base it’s reasonable to argue Simmons defensive impact was massive. Simmons provided the Braves with an embarrassment of riches by not just being a defensive juggernaut all to himself, but also by holding his own at the plate by hitting 17 home runs. Simmons was Atlanta’s most valuable player in 2013, and if improvement continues to come at the plate while maintaining his defensive brilliance, he figures to be the Braves star once again in 2014. The Braves are set for years to come at the most difficult position on the diamond to fill and life is wonderful.
For me, the biggest question mark on the Braves infield is Chris Johnson. Who is Chris Johnson? For the optimistic, Johnson is the absurdly valuable throw in to the Justin Upton deal, whose high batting average and clutch hitting will hold down the third base job for years to come. For the pessimistic, Johnson is the comically inept defender who luck boxed his way to an absurd BABIP in 2013, and will soon find his offense crashing to Earth and will present the Braves with another major hole to fill. I lean towards the more pessimistic view with Johnson.
Johnson has a poor plate approach, cannot walk, hits for decent but not great power, and his batting average was driven by a BABIP that Ty Cobb couldn’t hope to sustain, much less Chris Johnson. Johnson hit for less power in 2013 than Andrelton Simmons while having a career best defensive season that allowed him to be merely bad in the field not historically terrible. I expect Johnson to be a below average third baseman in 2013 and one of the major uncertainties all season will be what the Braves need to do to fix third base. In the worst case scenario, Johnson’s luck turns, his batting average collapses, his defense is abysmal, and he is strangled to death in the dugout by Terry Pendelton. While I don’t expect him to be that poor in 2014, that scenario is sadly in play. Hopefully, Johnson can tread water so the Braves can use any trades to address other holes on the team and wait for next offseason to deal with third base.
Stay tuned for the rest of our Atlanta Braves preview coverage still to come!