The winning continued in Atlanta last year, unabated. This franchise has advanced to the postseason in three of the past four seasons and in 17 of the past 23. It's kind of sickening, really.
The Braves are coming off a 96-win campaign and most of the key pieces are back. This team's rotation returns three young starters who posted ERAs of 3.21 or better in 2013, all of whom appeared in at least 30 games. Atlanta also features a defensive wizard at shortstop and the game's most dominant closer. The opening day lineup will, in all likelihood, only include one player who's seen his 30th birthday. This year's Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be dominated by Braves, too.
Yup, sickening. But despite a rich recent history of success, Atlanta's roster is not entirely without questions. Let's preview...
Q: BJ Upton was notably awful last season. Any chance he's useful this year?
A: Yeah, BJ was a disaster in 2013, somehow hitting just .184/.268/.289 with nine homers in 391 at-bats. He was paid $13 million last season for -0.6 wins above replacement. Not good. Clearly he cannot be trusted for fantasy purposes. He hasn't hit .250 or better in any season since 2008. Even if he can recapture some of his power/speed ability, you basically know he's going to be a severe batting-average liability.
So he's a problem many of you will simply avoid at the draft table, and I really can't blame you. Upton has reportedly remade his swing this offseason, because ... well, because he had to. How could he not? He struck out in 33.9 percent of his plate appearances last year, an obscene rate — second-highest of any player with at least 400 PAs.
Let's all just remember that BJ is still 29 years old, and he's only one season removed from a 28-homer, 31-steal campaign in Tampa. Upton has four years and roughly $60 million remaining on his contract(!), so he's not going anywhere. With an early ADP outside the top-200, there's not much risk attached to Upton, making him a reasonable flier — one I'm likely to take in a draft or two.
Q: Was Chris Johnson a fraud? No way he hits .320-something again, right?
A: Well, you see the .394 batting average on balls-in-play — highest in the bigs last season — and you just sort of assume he can't make another run at a batting crown. But it's worth noting that Johnson's line-drive percentage was among the best in baseball (27.0), which makes him the sort of hitter who should, in fact, deliver a high BABIP. The real problem here, fantasy-wise, is Johnson's relative lack of pop. He gave us 12 homers last year and 15 the season before. Those totals won't pay the fantasy bills, not from a mixed league corner infielder. It's no stretch to imagine this guy hitting .300-.310 again, but you can't expect him to contribute in the counting stats in any meaningful way.
Q: What's the full-season forecast for Evan Gattis?
A: OK, here's a player of interest, a guy who could easily deliver top-12 (10? 8?) numbers at a talent-scarce roster spot. As a part-timer last season (105 games), Gattis managed to belt 21 homers while driving in 65 runs. There's no doubting his power. He actually hit the longest bomb in MLB last season, this blast to the concourse in dead-center in Philly. Gattis is a powerful dude.
Now that Brian McCann is out of the way, Gattis will take over the starting backstop gig in Atlanta. If he gives us, say, 120 games and 500-plus plate appearances, you can reasonably expect 23-28 home runs, 70 or more RBIs, and a batting average in the neighborhood of .245-.255. Those numbers certainly work at his position. He'll likely go outside the top-100 picks in mixed drafts, yet he has a decent shot to lead all catchers in the power categories. Obvious profit potential here. Draft and enjoy.
Q: Who gets the fifth spot in this rotation? Please say "Alex Wood"...
A: Yeah, let's hope. The lefty cruised through the high minors last season, posting a 1.31 ERA in 11 starts and striking out a batter per inning. When he arrived in the majors in late-May, he was immediately useful as a bullpen arm, then eventually as a starter. He finished his first big league season with respectable ratios (3.13 ERA, 1.33 WHIP) and 77 Ks in 77.2 innings — not bad for a 22-year-old.
The Braves signed Gavin Floyd to a one-year, make-good deal back in mid-December, but he's recovering from Tommy John surgery, unlikely to be available until May or June. Thus, in the early weeks, Wood figures to serve as a placeholder in the rotation. He certainly has the stuff to stick.
Q: Any prospects of interest on the horizon?
A: None that you need to target in standard mixers, no. The best prospect in the system, according to most sources, is 19-year-old Lucas Sims, and he's no real threat to visit the big league roster this season. The potential call-up most likely to make a splash this year is second baseman Tommy La Stella (because Dan Uggla has various issues). La Stella is an on-base machine who hit a blistering .343/.422/.473 at Double-A last season over 81 games. He's had some trouble with LHPs, so perhaps he's not quite ready for an everyday role, but the guy controls the strike zone — he's had more walks than Ks in each of the past two seasons. He made plenty of noise in the AFL, too. Just remember the name.