Later this summer, the Atlanta Braves and their fans will celebrate the enshrinement of three key members of their 90s juggernaut into the Hall of Fame. Pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine plus former manager Bobby Cox will get their plaques on the wall in the Cooperstown, and there's sure to be a big crowd from Atlanta present for the ceremony.
Whether or not that's the highlight of the 2014 season for the Braves is yet to be determined.
MLB futures odds suggest there could be more to celebrate, and if nothing else, Atlanta should be in the thick of the National League playoff hunt. The Braves are slotted at 8/1 to win the Senior Circuit for their first trip to the World Series since getting skunked by the New York Yankees in 1999. They're 18/1 choices to win it all, an interesting number since both the Giants and Cardinals were 18/1 World Series wagers in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
It was a slow winter for GM Frank Wren and the Braves after winning the NL East in 2013 and being dismissed from the playoffs in an NLDS loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. It's not like there was much to improve upon from a 96-win season and taking the division title by 10 games, but a couple of key veterans did depart, and manager Fredi Gonzalez and his coaching staff will need to convince others to step up if the playoffs are going to be realized again in 2014.
Early Focus on Uggla, BJ Upton
Heading into the 2013 season, Wren pulled off a couple of big deals to acquire the Upton Brothers, Justin and BJ. They were meant to form a potent outfield trio along with Jason Heyward, and Justin certainly paid dividends after his trade from Arizona by hitting a team-high 27 homers and scoring 94 runs.
BJ, however, fell flat on his face after inking a huge free agent contract, batting a paltry .184 and hitting eight homers, only one of those coming after June. He has to produce this year if the Braves are going to play October baseball.
That the Braves won 96 games with the seasons they got from BJ Upton and 2B Dan Uggla is something of a miracle. Uggla couldn't even hit as high as BJ'1 .184 average, and though he did pop 22 homers, his decline the last two years is a concern.
The star of the lineup turned out to be 1B Freddie Freeman, and he'll be counted on to deliver even more in 2014. Atlanta also got a solid campaign from 3B Chris Johnson, part of the same trade with the Diamondbacks that landed Justin Upton. At shortstop is Andrelton Simmons who hit 17 taters in his first full MLB season.
Brian McCann took his services to New York via free agency with the Yankees, and Evan Gattis is expected to take over full-time behind the plate. Gattis belted 21 round-trippers, but ran hot-&-cold all season with 14 of his homers coming in the first three months.
Young Arms Fill Starting Rotation
Another loss via free agency was veteran starter Tim Hudson, whose season came to an abrupt end in late-July with a broken right ankle. Hudson inked a 2-year deal with the Giants, and if current projections for the Braves rotation in 2014 pan out, 28-year-old Kris Medlen will be the oldest arm in the order.
Mike Minor and Julio Teheran should join Medlen in the rotation, and the hopes are that Brandon Beachy will be back to his old self after missing most of last year coming back from Tommy John surgery. Alex Wood is being penciled in for the fifth spot right now, and the Braves also have veteran Freddy Garcia in camp plus Gavin Floyd in the wings. Floyd is rehabbing from elbow surgery himself, and not expected back until late-May.
One part of the game Gonzalez doesn't have to worry about is who his ninth inning arm will be. With all due respect to Mariano Rivera, Craig Kimbrel has established himself as the premier closer in the game the past few seasons, setting a personal best with 50 saves in 2013. In 231 major league innings, Kimbrel has recorded a 1.39 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and struck out 381 batters.
David Carpenter, Luis Avilan and Jordan Walden figure to get most of the 7th-8th inning work in front of Kimbrel. The Braves are also hopeful that Jonny Venters will be fully recovered from his TJ surgery at some point in June.
It helped last season that the favored Washington Nationals got off to a slow start while the Braves bolted from the gate with a 12-1 start and never looked back to win the NL East by 10 games. Atlanta can't count on the Nats giving any cushion this time, and 88 wins is the best I come up with for the Braves.