Why the Braves will win the pennant

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

On Opening Day, everyone can dream a little... or a lot.

SB Nation 2014 MLB Preview EDIT: This post was written and submitted for the team preview series before Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy were injured. The overall sentiment has not changed, however.

In some ways, the Braves had a painfully quiet offseason, losing Brian McCann and Tim Hudson and replacing them with a pinch hitter and a pitcher coming off of Tommy John surgery. Yet, it's understandable that they didn't do much in terms of changing the roster: the Braves were easily the best regular-season team in the NL East last season even with career-worst performances from high priced players in Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton, so if those players fail to repeat their almost historically disappointing seasons, it's easy to forecast improvement for the team even without major additions.

The biggest strength of the Braves is their pitching. While none of Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, and Alex Wood are likely Cy Young contenders, they are a solid, youthful rotation with a ton of upside. The Braves will also have Gavin Floyd back at some point in the season to provide some veteran depth. At the other end of the game, the best closer in baseball resides at Turner Field, heading up what has been the best bullpen in the game over the past few years, last season's being the most impressive season as a group as they were without former star set up men Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters for almost the entire season.

Many of their relief arms, such as Luis Avilan and David Carpenter, surprised with outsized results. Both had tremendous years, and while they should not be expected to replicate their minuscule ERA's from last season, they will play integral parts in the bullpen along with Jonathan Walden. One reliever to keep an eye on is Luis Vasquez, a going-on-28 sidearming right-hander out of the Dodgers system who has a history of high strikeout rates while also walking the park at times. That is the same M.O. that David Carpenter had when before he came to Atlanta, so the Braves have some history of coaching this sort of player to success; don't be surprised if Vasquez ends up being a big part of the bullpen this season.

The position players are led by a trio of 24-year-olds in Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward, and Freddie Freeman. All three are productive on both sides of the ball, with Freeman being a bit more bat-oriented and Simmons being an absolute wizard with the glove. All three have the potential to be five-plus win (WAR) players. In addition, the Braves still have the Upton brothers, Chris Johnson, and El Oso Blanco (Evan Gattis); these players provide solid right-handed production. Johnson will likely see his batting average drop this season, while it is reasonable to expect B.J. Upton's to come back closer to his career averages. Whether Evan Gattis can succeed as a full-time player has yet to be seen. He's got as much power as any catcher in baseball, but given last season's .242/.291/.480 rates (.219/.262/.391 after May) whether he can stand the rigors of catching every day while also producing in what will likely be the cleanup spot in the lineup.

Second base, for now, is Dan Uggla's. Prospect Tommy La Stella is hot on his trail, however. La Stella is a left-handed contact hitter, a la Matt Carpenter, and the Braves can use a player that can control the strike zone from the left side. Expect La Stella to be up at some point in the season, and to be the starter at second should Uggla continue his downward trend in performance.

The Braves have Ryan Doumit, Ramiro Pena, Jordan Schafer, and Gerald Laird on the bench. This quartet all provide value in a number of different areas, but the Braves really need Doumit to step out and be a reliable pinch-hitter. He is the only one of the four with legitimate power, so the Braves will be expecting a lot out of him.

All in all the team looks a lot like it did last season, with a bit of youth injected into it and a bit of experience swapped out. Evan Gattis and Alex Wood will be asked to fill the gap that McCann and Hudson left behind; I expect they are up to the task.

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