This year's team is the most exciting Atlanta Braves team in a long time.
I get asked to preview the Braves season in podcasts and written previews a lot. For the most part I find it a useless exercise to ask a partisan fan like me or any other team-specific blogger to accurately predict what will happen with their team. I know all the ins and outs of the Braves, but I only have a vague outline of other teams. How can I accurately judge each team's performance when I'm so biased?
But I can judge this 2013 Atlanta squad in how it stacks up against previous Braves teams. The rose-colored-glasses effect is prevalent at this time of year before the start of every season. The Braves have historically been a hard team to get down on before opening day because they do such a good job of putting a competitive team on the field year after year.
But this year's team... this is a special team. Even though the rose-colored glasses are most powerful in this season than I probably remember them from years past, this team brings together more super-talented players at the apex of their talent than any other Braves team I can remember.
It seems clear after this off-season that Frank Wren and the rest of the Braves staff, all the way down to the draft and development folks, have had a vision of the type of player they want to put on the field -- players who have big abilities, multiple tools, players that can change a game every time they step on the field.
Jason Heyward leads this Wren Wrevolution -- a revolution that was started by his predecessor the year Wren came to the General Manager's job. In 2007 the Braves drafted Heyward in the first round. Later that year, Frank Wren was named GM, replacing John Schuerholtz. In the years since, Wren has brought many of his own people into the organization, and made the Braves a model of his vision.
The organization seems to have developed a pattern for each of the three main parts of the team -- the lineup, the rotation, and the bullpen.
With the everyday players in the lineup Wren has targeted players who can do everything well or one thing really well. Heyward is the quintessential five-tool player, and so are B.J. Upton and Justin Upton. Andrelton Simmons does just about everything well, and plays defense really well. Freddie Freeman does just about everything well. Brian McCann hits really well and hits really well for power, especially for a catcher. Dan Uggla hits for power really well (or at least he did when the Braves acquired him). Even the new third basemen Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco (or Juan Johnson as I will now call them) hit for power really well.
In all those players there's ample talent, and every one of them can change the game every time they step on the field.
In the rotation the Braves have gone after second-tier starting pitchers, as they can no longer afford the top-tier starters. But the new Braves starting pitchers are guys who can throw strikes and challenge hitters. All of the guys in the rotation do this, though none of them have what most consider ace stuff. Kris Medlen made a mockery of the league last year when he moved into the rotation, but he was simply pitching to contact and locating his pitches with maximum efficiency. Once Mike Minor started doing this, he also became more effective. Julio Teheran is learning this. Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm have been doing this for years.
The Braves bullpen philosophy is simple -- throw strikes at maximum velocity. The Braves are ahead of the game in the bullpen arms race to assemble as many pitchers coming out of the pen who can approach 100mph. Their strategy on how to make this happen has been apparent for the past few years -- draft and develop a good bullpen, cherry pick relievers other teams don't want, and when you sign relievers, don't overpay. On many teams there are mediocre setup men getting paid millions to pitch the sixth and seventh innings; not on the Braves.
The Braves have been drafting relievers with regularity in draft after draft, and have for the last two drafts, drastically increased the number of potential relievers they are taking. They have also used their network of scouts to cherry pick relievers off the waiver wire from other teams. Among this year's opening day bullpen, three are home grown, three are cherry picked off the waiver wire, and one was acquired in a trade. And if the buzz we heard in spring training is to be believed, the pipeline of young hard throwers in the Braves system is endless.
The exciting part about all three of these strategies is that they may be paying off at the same time -- this year. The culmination of talent in the everyday lineup is hard to match for any other Braves team, especially when you consider the youth of this group of players. The bullpen is equally young and talented, considered one of the best in baseball and the envy of many teams. The rotation seems solid and potentially amazing, and more young talent is waiting in the wings or coming back from injury.
All of these parts make the whole of this year's team more robust and solid than at any point in the past decade. In so many of those other years there was always a Scott Thorman being counted on to do more than they could, or a prayer being said for a Jorge Sosa to have another lucky season, or a Chris Reitsma to be more than he could be.
This year the talent at the top is strong and deep, and the players at each position have a chance to be the best at that position in the Division, or the League, or even all of Major League Baseball. Yes, these words are written wearing rose colored glasses. I'm a fan of the Braves. I'm a fan of this team. And I'm excited as hell for this season to start.
But these rose colored glasses writing this 'preview' never wrote of previous teams with such aplomb. This team feels more talented. This team feels stronger with no weak links. This team feels like it will be a really good team; even a great team. We'll find out on Monday. Go Braves!