It might seem like forever ago to Braves fans, but Atlanta was tied for first in the NL East at last year's All-Star Break. However, the team was purposefully gutted this offseason and is given a wins total of just 73.5 at Bovada for this season.
Indeed, Atlanta was a pretty good team for a large majority of 2014. It led the division for most of the first half of the season. By the end of August, Washington had pulled away with a six-game lead, but the Braves were still squarely in the wild card chase. But September was a disaster as the team had just seven wins in the month, with two of those meaningless victories at the end of the year against a terrible Phillies team, to finish 79-83. It was Atlanta's first losing record since 2008 and first time missing the playoffs since 2011.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez was able to keep his job but GM Frank Wren wasn't. The team brought in former Indians and Rangers GM John Hart as the team president and he basically took a hacksaw to the roster. While Hart has said he fully expects to contend this season, he's lying. The moves he made were 100 percent geared toward the Braves being a contender in 2017 when they leave Turner Field in downtown Atlanta for a new stadium in the suburbs.
In a way, what Hart did was smart because there was no way the Braves were going to beat out the Nationals for the NL East title this season. Plus he had to rebuild a farm system that had largely dried up. The biggest move was trading outfielder Justin Upton to San Diego for prospects. Upton led Atlanta with 29 homers and 102 RBIs last season. He also will become an unrestricted free agent this winter.
Another guy who will become a free agent is outfielder Jason Heyward, so Hart dealt him as well (along with reliever Jordan Walden), getting very good young pitcher Shelby Miller in return from St. Louis. In 2014, Heyward batted .271 with 11 homers, 58 RBIs and 20 stolen bases, winning a second Gold Glove. Heyward is just 25 and really hasn't lived up to his potential yet. Still, like Upton he figures to get a monster contract as a free agent that the Braves didn't want to pay.
Finally, Hart sent out catcher/outfielder Evan Gattis to Houston for young players. Gattis hit .263 with 22 homers and 52 RBIs for the Braves last season. That move made sense because one of Atlanta's best prospects is catcher Christian Bethancourt, and Hart was able to sell high on Gattis.
Hart had a great quote when some criticized all these moves: “Let’s be honest: This team finished 29th in offense,” Hart said. “It’s not like I’m breaking up the ’27 Yankees.”
Indeed, only San Diego scored fewer runs than the Braves in 2014. Atlanta also struck out a ton. Hart also would have loved to trade outfielder B.J. Upton and/or third baseman Chris Johnson but both are on lousy contracts (Upton's is perhaps the worst in the majors) and Hart couldn't find takers. Upton is going by his given name, Melvin, this season. It didn't help his fortunes any as Upton is going to miss at least the first month of the season with a foot problem. Upton has become the worst every-day player in baseball, batting .184 with 151 strikeouts in 2013 and .208 with 173 Ks last year while making $15 million a season.
The Atlanta outfield looks very weak this season with all those losses, although the team did oddly sign Orioles free agent Nick Markakis to a four-year, $44 million deal that doesn't seem to jibe with the semi-rebuilding mode. The only every-day spots where I'd rank Atlanta as better than average are with Freddie Freeman at first base and Andrelton Simmons at shortstop. Those are two guys who will be around for the future.
The good news for Atlanta is that the pitching staff should be pretty good, led by a trio of guys age 25 or younger: Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and Miller. Teheran, 24, would be a Cy Young candidate if on a better team. He was 14-13 with a 2.89 ERA last year, while Wood was 11-11 with a 2.78 ERA and Miller 10-9 with a 3.74 ERA in St. Louis. Atlanta is going to win just about every game it takes into the ninth inning with a lead because closer Craig Kimbrel (47 saves, 1.61 ERA) is the best in the business.
Atlanta Braves Season Win Total: Forget a division title or playoff berth, don't waste your money on those futures. I lean 'over' the wins because three days of every five the Braves have a good chance of winning with those three good starting pitchers, plus there won't be many, if any, blown saves, so keep that in mind when making your MLB Picks. The Braves should get at least 10 wins alone against the putrid Phillies this season. Look for somewhere around 77 victories.