This has been an eventful off-season for the Braves. After the stand-by offseason following 2011, our failings in 2012 created a buyer mindset in Atlanta. As a result, this year saw FW making some high-profile moves. The fruits of that labor are BJ Upton and Justin Upton. While these notable additions ostensibly bolster the Braves line-up, losing Chipper, Bourn, and Prado makes an old question more dynamic. That question is, of course, are we better this year than last?
There are a myriad of ways to approach this question. Before we delve into deeper issues, progression/regression, line-up dynamics etc., let’s look at what these players actually contributed (all WAR figures from b-r)
Chipper: 112 games 2.7 WAR
Prado: 156 games, 5.4 WAR
Bourn: 155 games, 6.0 WAR
BJ Upton: 146 games, 2.6 WAR (-0.2 dwar)
Justin Upton: 150 games, 2.1 WAR (-0.4 dwar)
I’ll keep the statistical analysis brief here, for many reasons. Not the least of which is that I don’t want to blow your mind by telling you that b-r says that Juan Francisco accrued 0.2 WAR, all on defense.
These numbers provide an interesting framework (though the further we go back, the clearer the picture becomes,) but they might be less than predictive. For one, consider the defensive WAR numbers posted above. In the case of BJ, Tropicana Field is not the most forgiving park, or OF, meanwhile, Turner Field is a relatively clean OF, and is a decidedly pitcher’s park. There is a strong chance that these numbers will improve (this played out with Bourn’s move from Houston to Atlanta and a rise in his defensive numbers causing dWAR surpassed only by his age 27 season and 2012 is 2nd by a clear margin- no other season has him getting half the d-war he e.)
On the other hand, consider Justin Upton. He was a slightly below average defender throughout his career by many metrics. But you don’t even have to buy that he was below average to know that his positive impact will increase. Simply by moving from RF to LF he improves based on the relative skill of the other LFers. In this sense, he is going to be a distinctly above average defender. Those d-war numbers should go up simply as a function of him moving to a less demanding, less elite defensive position.
Another source of encouragement is the fact that both BJ and Justin Upton are coming off of a relatively down offensive season. To be more specific, they both underperformed either their norms or their talent level. There is no guarantee that these numbers will improve. But BJ has the benefit of new offensive influences, hopefully with an eye towards developing the eye, while maintaining judicious aggression. For Justin, the change of scenery, combined with his youth seem to indicate that outperforming 2012 is not only possible but likely.
But that is just the bare-bones of the analysis. The issue of 3rd base remains less clear. And to this I can only speculate. My speculative thought is that Juan Francisco comes into his own and will win the starting spot at 3rd. Platooning Johnson and Francisco would be beyond idiotic, and would add nothing at all in the end. This will likely be a weakness though, one that seems all the weaker by a juxtaposition with Chipper. These factors alone might seem to be a net-loss for the Braves, with an optimistic bend towards perhaps working out favorably. But there are many other factors to consider, because youth and transition are key to this well-farmed, low-budget, yet highly competitive club.
More difficult to project are the progression of our young players, as well as the wash in the line-up. Freeman, McCann, and Heyward specifically could make or break the difference between the 2012 and 2013 teams. With Freeman and Heyward it is more a matter of natural progression, while with McCann it is about health and maintaining his skills under physical strain. If you believe that McCann is going to bounce back then it is going to be worth a difference of about 1.5 to 2.0 WAR. This is based on his paltry showing in 2012 (0.6 WAR) vs. his career average (2.0 WAR-low end with regression considered to 4 WAR.) Even considering injury time, if he bounces back successfully then we could be due a lot more production, if he doesn’t then we have bigger issues than reconciling these two teams.
There is also the issue of the starting rotation. Beachy is gone for at least the All-Star break, Medlen is in and finally getting his dues. Minor seems primed for a bounce back performance. Teheran has a question mark but enough skill to overcome it. These things are difficult to predict because there are so many moving parts, but any absence of 2012 Hanson and Jurrjens will probably be positive. The bullpen is similarly difficult, but the addition of Walden combined with the hopeful improvement of Venters further cements us as THE top tier bullpen. It’s difficult to improve from the heights our bullpen has reached in recent years, but it is possible, and I can’t imagine a really definitive drop.
Perhaps the most important difference, or at least the easiest to define, is a possible full year from Andrelton Simmons. I won’t waste the words expressing how transcendental his defense is. But it isn’t a tough sell that a full-season of Simmons is going to be a net-gain. Even if he produces nothing offensively, he definitely won’t put up the -1.3 war that Pastornicky put up in 76 games.
Again, lots of moving parts, so please pardon the length of this post, but there is a lot of room for discussion, and without the heavy rosterbation this is really the question to consider before the season starts.