February 16, 2013; Sarasota, FL, USA; A general view of baseballs playing on the infield as Baltimore Orioles players practice during spring training at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Playing Pepper 2013: Atlanta Braves

**The words of the guys at cardinal70.com from bloggers Leslie Koerdt (SIOYL), William Tasker (FF) and myself (TT)**

For the fifth straight year, Playing Pepper returns to C70 At The Bat.  If you aren’t aware, this series helps get a feel for the other 29 teams in baseball by asking those that follow them the closest–their bloggers.  We’ve got spring training action going, so it’s time to play a little pepper.

Atlanta Braves
94-68, second in the NL East and first NL Wild Card, lost in inaugural Wild Card game
When the dust–and the trash–cleared on Atlanta’s 2012 season, there were a lot of great things to be proud of.  They had been competitive with the team that had the best record in baseball, they had easily won a wild card spot and, were it not for the whims of baseball changing the rules to add a winner-take-all game, they could have made a significant October run.
Now there’s a changing of the guard, as Chipper Jones rides off into the sunset while the Upton brothers come to town.  Even with these shifts, though, there seems to be little doubt that Atlanta will be in the thick of things yet again in the coming season.
To talk Braves baseball, I’ve rounded up Jeff Schafer, who writes for the FanSided blog Tomahawk Take.  Jeff is also the editor of the place as well as a very proficient writer about anything Braves.
I’ve also reenlisted Leslie Koerdt again this year.  Leslie writes for the Aerys Sports network at the site She Is Out Of Your League.  You can find her on Twitter @LK_Comm and I found out last year that she grew up just 25 miles from me, which automatically makes her a really cool person.
As part of my outreach to more general bloggers, I’ve got William Tasker opining on the Atlanta squad as well.  William, of course, writes for The Flagrant Fan and can be found on Twitter @FlagrantFan.  William also was the star of Episode 23 of Conversations With C70, you might remember.
After the jump, we’ll talk about the end of an era and where the Braves might wind up at the end of the season.

C70: How would you grade the offseason?

TT: I would grade this offseason a B+. Obviously with the addition of both Upton brothers, any teams score would go higher but it was the subtractions that will be the eye sore for the Atlanta Braves. Losing Chipper Jones to retirement will hurt the Braves both on the field and in the clubhouse. He has been the face of the organization for two decades and without him, the Braves may not have a leader.Martin Prado and Michael Bourn will both be in different uniforms as well. Atlanta may have added others to replace these guys but Bourn was a natural leadoff hitter and Prado was a terrific two hole hitter. Losing both these guys, the Braves don’t have a traditional leadoff or number two hitter. Other key but smaller pieces will be the lose of Eric Hinske and David Ross, both guys were lead spokesman in the clubhouse. The starting rotation will also look completely different with the departures of Jair JurrjensTommy Hanson and Randall DelgadoJustin Upton and BJ Upton will provide great speed and power to our lineup. Hopefully with the chance to play together will build on their potential. A key offseason move that was easily forgotten was when the Braves received Jordan Walden from LA in the Hanson trade. He should help tremendous in the bullpen to give an extra right handed arm. Gerald Laird will provide as the backup catcher and may get the opportunity early to play if Brian McCann doesn’t recover quick enough for opening day. Chris Johnson will provide a spring training battle for the third base position. Many are saying he won’t win but I believe he is a type of caliber the Braves need in their lineup.
SIOYL: B+ The Uptons are big names that are not typical of a Braves offseason, but they did not address holes left as a result of deals made or not made. Not signing Michael Bourn leaves the Braves without a true leadoff man and takes away the facet of manufacturing runs he brought to the team. The potential is great for the brothers, but Atlanta knew what Bourn and Martin Prado brought to the table. Two team leaders that the Braves would not have made it to the playoffs without. Prado leads us to the other hole at third base. Picking up a solid outfield would have put Prado in the position he played best, but as it is, it will now be platooned. Letting David Ross go with Brian McCann recovering from shoulder surgery leaves the Gerald Laird as your likely opening day starter and your backup either Christian Bethancourt or Evan Gattis. Don’t get me wrong, the surge to the offense will be welcomed, but it looks like the Braves will be looking to live by the home run. If Frank Wren’s bet on potential pays comes through, buckle up for a high powered offense. If not, some youngsters will have to step up and lead like they have never been asked to do before.
FF: Despite obtaining both Upton brothers this offseason, the grade would have to be mixed. The Braves have the potential to have one of the most athletic and dynamic outfields in baseball. I believe both of the Uptons will have good seasons in Atlanta. But as good as those two moves potentially are, the Braves have left themselves exposed at catcher, third base and in the depth of their starting rotation. While it is understood that Brian McCann will miss the start of the season, there is no guarantee that he will be able to recapture what was a great career. Gerald Laird and Matt Pagnozzi seem like two backup catchers that will have to hold up the position. The current depth chart of Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson platooning at third leaves the head scratching a bit. Johnson is not good with the glove and shows little patience at the plate. Francisco is better with the glove, but also has a history of showing no patience at the plate. Julio Teheran is a huge question mark in the rotation. His strikeout rate in the minors has gone down the last two seasons while his walk rate has gone up. That is not a good combination.
C70: How strange is it going into a season and knowing Chipper Jones won’t be on the roster?
TT: This season will be awfully strange not seeing the famous #10 holding down the third base position. The Braves will miss his presence in the middle of the order, on the field and in the clubhouse. Management and fans will miss not having Chipper’s name in the lineup. Though retired, I’ll still wear my Chipper jersey when I head to games this season.
SIOYL: Very, but as stated above, losing Prado, Bourn, David Ross, and even Eric Hinske will make his absence more glaring. It will be a welcomed change not to have to rely on 40 year old knees for most of the offensive power.
FF: I may sound strange here but I think Chipper Jones retiring is a good thing for the Braves. Sure, Jones was a Hall of Fame player and yes, when he could play the last couple of years, he still showed flashes of how great he was. But his injuries and the National League’s lack of having a DH basically led to third base being held hostage by a diminished player who never guaranteed he could play from day to day. With Jones now retired, the Braves can make more solid decisions concerning the position going forward. That said, their current projection for 2013 at the position is not exciting at all. Jones was an institution and the last link to the glory years. It is sad seeing him gone.
C70: Is there any reason to believe Tim Hudson may be starting to feel the effects of time this year?
TT: No, I do not believe Tim Hudson will see any regression in his performance. I still believe he has 2-3 years of great baseball still left in him. He went under the knife with back surgery at the end of 2011 and from there he’s been healthy. I’ll take a healthy Tim Hudson over most and think he’s the teams ace instead of Kris Medlen. I just posted an article today proclaiming he should start opening day of the season.
SIOYL: For Atlanta’s sake, he better not. He is still the ace of the staff, and the entire team will be looking to him to set the tone.
FF: I am less worried at the age factor of Tim Hudson than I am him being an extreme ground ball pitcher throwing grounders to what could be a very porous infield. Andrelton Simmons can be a great shortstop, but I’ve never been high on Dan Uggla‘s defense nor now with the current platoon of Johnson and Francisco at third. Freddie Freeman is okay at first, but his scoop skills do not seem as great as some other first basemen. Since Hudson does not rely on blowing hitters away, I really don’t worry about him regressing because of age. The bigger worry is if he can stay healthy.
C70: What rookie will make the biggest impact in 2013?
TT: I think Julio Teheran will make huge strides this season. The Braves staff made him change his delivery type to help save him arm from problems down the road. This caused him to feel uncomfortable throughout last season and his performance showed. Before Winter ball they were able to correct his delivery back to where it was when he was one of the top prospects in the game and had a terrific season this winter. I look for him to stepping into the rotation during spring training and staying there.
SIOYL: Julio Teheran and Andrelton Simmons have both seen big league action, but both will be called upon like never before. Teheran is the leading candidate for the open spot in the rotation vacated by Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens. Simmons, who played in 49 games last season, but missed a significant amount of time due to injury, will start at short and become the leadoff man by default.
FF: As for which rookie will have the most impact this season, the obvious answer seems to be Julio Teheran if he can take the next step and stick in the rotation. But again, I have serious doubts there. The Braves’ system is not overflowing with Major League ready players. If I was to make a guess, I would say Evan Gattis, a highly rated catcher who might be called upon if the combination of Laird and Pagnozzi stumbles and McCann cannot get back quickly.
C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?
TT: The Atlanta Braves should have a great season, on paper they are one of the best fully rounded teams in the MLB. They have a terrific outfield with tons of speed with Jason Heyward and the Upton brothers. The strikeouts will pile up but hopefully they won’t come in bunches. With speed on the base paths and power 2-8 in the lineup, the Braves should finish 1st or 2nd in the division. The Washington Nationals look extremely good and this division will be a fun one to watch. I see another 90 win season in the making for the Braves and come on I’m a Braves fan, of course they will win the division.
SIOYL: 92-69, 2nd.
FF: I think the Braves will win 90 games simply because they get to play the Mets and the Marlins 18 or 19 times each this season. That said, I still see them a notch behind he Washington Nationals and a second place finish. Because of the ability to clean up on two weak teams in the division, they have a good shot at a wild card spot.
C70: What one thing from your team are you most looking forward to watching?
TT: The one thing heading into the spring that I’m not intrigued to see how it plays out is who wins the third base starting position. Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco will battle through spring training for this spot. If one outperforms the other, it will be his on opening day. If they are at each others level heading out of spring training, they will platoon at third base – Johnson playing versus left handed pitchers and Francisco playing when there is a right handed pitcher. Should be fun to watch during spring training, hopefully one will out do the other.
SIOYL: The Uptons, of course, but how this team responds to the loss of so many leaders is top of my list.
FF: The two things I am dying to watch from the Braves are, first, if Kris Medlen can be as awesome as he was in 2012. I loved watching him pitch and it would be very cool if he came out flying. The second thing that keeps me drooling is that outfield. Watch them fly all over the place and all over the base paths.
Thanks much to Jeff, Leslie and William for their insights.  There’s little doubt this will be another fun year in Georgia!

Tags: Atlanta Braves FanSided

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