Starting to get nervous about the Braves? Does Tommy John got you down? Yeah, me too. Pretty sure I could write a dour 90's pop ballad about the frailty of the human elbow ligament right about now. And right about now I'm imagining Mark and Andrew crooning in N'SYNC and OH GOD KILL IT WITH FIRE.
Err, sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, injuries suck. But that said, we still have plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Braves this season. So let's put on our rose-colored glasses and take a look at what we have to be optimistic about for this season! Spoiler alert: it's more than you might think.
B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla - Wait, Upton and Uggla? I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out before you call for the padded car. B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla were truly, madly, deeply awful last year. There's no two ways around it. They sucked. Uggla posted a whopping 0.5 fWAR, while B.J. posted a comically-awful -0.6. That was the lowest on the team, without qualification. Put another way, every single player who swung a bat for Atlanta last year was more valuable on offense than B.J. was. That includes pitchers. Try and wrap your head around that one without crying. *passes Kleenex*
So, why should we optimistic about them again? Simple! Regression to the mean. When you hear the word "regression" tossed about in sports, it's usually in reference to someone who had one crazy season. People will use regression to argue that the player can't repeat such a good performance (Chris Davis, anyone?). And oftentimes, they're correct. A player can alter his "mean" performance by making adjustments in swings, disciple, etc., but that alone can't explain random variation in numbers from one season to the next.
This isn't to take anything away from great seasons, but it's just a statistical fact. If variation didn't exist, we'd more-or-less expect players to always put up the same numbers. And that's no fun.
But regression also works the other way around. For every out-of-the-blue 53 homer season from the likes of Chris Davis, there's also the "Oh God I can't look away" trainwreck season from the likes of B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. And just like we shouldn't expect Davis to be *that* excellent going forward, we also shouldn't expect Upton and Uggla to be that bad.
We shouldn't throw last season out altogether in determining our expectations, but it should just be looked at as one piece of their larger careers. I expect both Upton and Uggla to be better than they were last year. And last year, the Braves won 96 games with Upton and Uggla combining to do literally nothing for the club (-0.1 fWAR combined). Imagine what the club could do with even marginal improvement on their parts.
Jason Heyward - Now we're talking. Jason Heyward is truly a special talent. Heyward posted a 3.4 win season last year, despite starting slowly (due to impending appendecitis) and missing 58 games due to injury. He's unfairly gotten the "injury-prone" label after last year despite the fact that his two injuries last year were caused by internal infection and a Mets starter not being able to spot his fastball (stop me if you've heard that before). Now that he's finally healthy, the sky's the limit for Jason.
Expect him to be a terror at the top of the order while continuing to play Gold Glove-caliber defense in right field. For my money, a 25/25 season isn't out of the question. I honestly believe Heyward could put up a 7 win season this year. And even if that's a little too rosy, we can still expect substantial improvement.
If you haven't seen it yet, and for some reason need further proof of what an absurd physical specimen Heyward is, just watch this video of his home run from the other day. I half-expected to hear someone yell "PULL!" before he hit it.
Rotation Depth - Few teams can scout pitching quite like the Braves can. For most teams, losing two starters, including your de facto "ace", would be a death knell. Atlanta just keeps on churning. I'm not going to sit here and suggest to you that Gus Schlosser or David Hale can be every bit the pitcher that Kris Medlen was, but don't be surprised if they make several solid turns in Atlanta's rotation.
Atlanta's pitching development has always been top notch, and that culminates at the top with Rodger McDowell. I've never seen any team get more out of less than the Atlanta Braves. I mean, they made Jair Jurrjens an all-star! Is the rotation in great shape? Of course not. But it's hardly worthy of the FULL-BLOWN PANIC that some seem to think.
And if that isn't enough, remember that Atlanta returns most of their players from last year's 96 win team, including the best shortstop and closer on planet Earth. Thinks may not be looking great right now, but I have a feeling we'll be just fine.