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Pressing Questions: Atlanta Braves

Brandon Funston
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Atlanta could really use another year of Chipper Jones at the hot corner (Getty)

This week, we continue our series of MLB fantasy previews, wherein we consider 5-6 key questions surrounding each team. Baseball is coming, gamers. Pitchers and catchers report soon. Fantasy owners report immediately...

Last week, Atlanta landed, arguably, the top fantasy commodity among all the offseason trades, sending Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and prospects to Arizona for Justin Upton, filling a left field role for the Braves next to his brother B.J. Upton, who Atlanta signed to the largest free agent contract in team history back in late November. With the Uptons and Jason Heyward, it's pretty tough to find a more exciting and potential-filled outfield than Atlanta's. Add to that a 23-year-old first baseman who hit 23 home runs and drove in 93 runs last season and a mostly-intact pitching staff that finished fifth in MLB in ERA last season and you have the makings of a team that can make a serious run this postseason after losing the Wild Card game last season. If that's to happen, however, they'll have to answer for some injury question marks and for the hole left by one of the greatest players to ever don an Atlanta uniform.

Since Andy Behrens already covered Justin Upton's move to Atlanta, life after Chipper at the hot corner seems like the obvious place to start the Braves Pressing Questions for '13 …


Q: I know who's on first and what's on second, but I don't know is on third
A: Replacing Chipper Jones, and Martin Prado, appears to be the Braves' biggest obstacle heading into the '13 campaign. As it stands, a platoon of Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson is in the works which, of course, is a buzz kill for fantasy purposes – this one especially so. Against righties, the lefty Francisco owns a career .806 OPS mark with a healthy 14 home runs in 298 at bats. That's all well and good. But he's completely worthless against southpaws, and therein lies the rub. Because Johnson, a righty, actually has hit righties much better in his career than lefties (.775 OPS vs. .667 OPS). In fact, Johnson is at a Forrest Gump level of competency against southpaws.

Basically, Atlanta has two third base options that strike out often and can't hit lefties. Francisco is at least intriguing because of his power upside, but Johnson's experience probably lands him the platoon lead out of the gate. Either way, this a problem spot that doesn't have a good internal answer. You'll want to ignore the situation all together in mixed league drafts. If Atlanta is in the postseason hunt come the trade deadline, don't be surprised if they are shopping hard for an upgrade down on the corner.


Q: About those injury question marks. What's the latest on Brian McCann and Brandon Beachy?

A: McCann had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder just after the '12 season ended. From all reports, his recovery seems to be progressing well. The initial expectations were that McCann would likely miss a few weeks in April, but McCann is hoping to be ready by opening day. Said McCann:

"If all goes well, it's going to be hard for me to sit there and watch the team on opening day, if I'm feeling good ... I can tell a huge difference with my range of motion and flexibility. This is as free as my shoulder has been for a few years."

Last season, McCann managed to reach the 20-HR mark for the fifth consecutive season despite the ailing shoulder. But he hit a career-low .230 in the process. He also produced his lowest RBI (67) and Runs (44) totals since becoming a regular. The numbers suggest his shoulder problems were really taking a toll down the stretch as he hit just .201 from August 1 on.

If McCann does, in fact, return near the start of the season, that's a very good sign that he truly is feeling better than in years, as he suggests. And another 20-HR campaign should be expected. That said, the catching class this season is deeper than it has been in a while. There were 12 backstops that hit at least 18 home runs last season, and that doesn't include top 10-worthy options like Joe Mauer, Miguel Montero and emerging star Salvador Perez. If you want to roll the dice on McCann at the latter end of the catcher top 12 crop, that's probably defensible. But it'd be reckless to just automatically return him to a top 5 draft value at the position.

As for Beachy, he underwent Tommy John surgery last June and, given a typical year's recovery timeframe, he's tentatively expected back sometime on or around the All-Star break this season. As it stands, he's throwing long toss with an eye towards doing work off the mound early on in spring training.

Before he was derailed, Beachy was enjoying an excellent '12 campaign, owning a 2.00 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. But it's hard to argue that luck didn't have a big part in those outstanding ratios as his BABIP allowed (.200) was the lowest of any pitcher with at least 80 innings pitched last season, and his Stand Rate (77.9%) was among the 25 highest. There's no question Beachy is a quality fantasy starter, a slam-dunk player to own if healthy. So, if you play in a standard Yahoo! set-up that allows you to stash a player in a DL spot, be thinking about Beachy come late May or early June as his return nears. But just don't assume the kind of ratios you saw last year. Set expectations for a mid-3 ERA and something around 8.0 K/9, and you shouldn't be disappointed

Q: Dan Uggla failed to hit 20 home runs for the first time in his career last season. Can he be trusted to rebound, and where does he fit among fantasy second sackers now?

A: Uggla has most definitely left the circle of trust. Not only did he fail to hit 20 home runs last season for the first time in his seven-year career, he also set a career low in batting average (.220). Uggla's K rate (26.7%) was the second-highest of his career and, always a fly-ball heavy hitter, his infield fly-ball percentage skyrocketed in '12 (16.9%). In '11, his first season in Atlanta, Uggla's slugging percentage dipped to a career-low .453, which at least was still darn good, especially for a second baseman. But last season, the SLG% dove all the way down to .384, good for 119th in the league among qualified hitters.

There's enough questions regarding Uggla's batted ball profile from last season to make him a risky bet as a starting 2B in standard mixers. I certainly wouldn't take him among the top 10 2B-eligible players. If you can land him in that 11-15 range at second base, the upside starts to line up with the downside dangers.

Q: Kris Medlen was ridiculous in '12. Any chance he can keep it up?

A: After his '11 season was wiped out by Tommy John surgery, Medlen returned better than ever in '12, going 10-1 with a 1.57 ERA. But like Beachy, Medlen owed Lady Luck plenty of thanks for his stellar performance. Medlen's 85% Strand Rate was highest in MLB, and his BABIP (.261) was also 27 points below his career average. That said, I'm not looking to disparage Medlen's ability at all. He's got an excellent repertoire and, according to Fangraphs, he had three pitches (fastball, curveball, changeup) that ranked among the top three in terms of effectiveness per 100 pitches, with his fastball ranking behind only Jered Weaver and Clayton Kershaw, his curve second to only Kershaw and his change second to none.

Even if he sees a correction in the Luck Factor, I'm buying Medlen, assuming he can stay healthy. A reliever for most of his career, he's never pitched more than the 138 innings he logged last season. And at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, he doesn't exactly have the prototypical workhorse build. Medlen's durability will be on mind in drafts, but I'm much less concerned about his ability to post above average ratios and K numbers – he's a strike throwing machine and typically keeps the ball in the yard (and mostly on the ground). When push comes to shove, I'll be considering Medlen as high as the top 15 among starters.

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Finally, are there any Braves prospects expected to make their mark in Atlanta in '13?

A Expected starting shortstop Andrelton Simmons no longer qualifies as a rookie, but he has just 182 plate appearances under his major league belt. Simmons more than held his own in his Braves' '12 debut, hitting .289, though with little power (3 HR) and speed (1 SB) to speak of for his 48 games played. And while the power isn't expected to be a part of his game going forward, his minor league track record suggests that he can add speed to his solid batting average profile. Simmons recorded 54 steals in 237 games at the minor league level and, with an expected leadoff role for the Braves this season, there's no reason he can't steal 20-plus bases. A conservative projection of .280 with 80 runs and 20 steals is the kind of roto impact that plays in standard mixers, as a MI option or bench insurance.

Among rookie-eligible prospects, Julio Teheran, who will likely get the first shot at filling the rotation hole left by the recovering Brandon Beachy, is the clear-cut favorite to make the biggest impact at the major league level for Atlanta. For the past few years, Teheran has resided at the top of Atlanta's pitching prospects list, often ranked among the best prospect arms in the game. His 3.50 ERA and 8.08 K/9 rate at the minor league level don't exactly guarantee future MLB dominance, but he's only 22 and he's always been more about projectability, thanks to a live fastball, a top notch changeup and an ability to control those pitches.

Teheran is still very much a work in progress, as he has plenty to do in terms of ironing out his motion and developing a useable breaking ball. He's been knocked around in his cups of coffee in Atlanta (26 IP spread over the past two seasons), and there's no reason to think he'll suddenly put it all together this season. For that reason, he's someone for the Watch List as opposed to being a draftable mixed league commodity.

BRAVE BITS

Jason Heyward won't turn 24 until August and he's coming off a .269/27/82/93/21 fantasy campaign. With three years of MLB seasoning under his belt, I see no reason to play it conservative with Heyward on draft day. If he falls out of the top two rounds of your draft, pounce.

Mike Minor registered a K/9 rate north of 7 last season, and closed the year out with a 2.16 ERA in the second half. Make sure you tuck that factoid away for draft day.

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