Atlanta Braves: Fantasy season preview, a la Bruce Springsteen

02/03/2013 § Leave a comment

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Upton bros, unite! (courtesy sportsnet.ca)

It’s round one of our month of fantasy baseball previews. Kyle Attanasio bats lead off – here’s his killer run at the Braves.

I saw Bruce Springsteen for the first time recently. Admittedly, I’m late to the party. The Boss has been entertaining fans for over fifty years. It’s worth taking a moment to marvel at that. Most people would die to have fifteen minutes of fame.

Bruce has quietly gone about his business making hit records and selling out arenas for the better part of five decades. He has never been particularly flashy and has stayed out of the gossip pages. Perhaps most critically, he has stayed true to his blue collar roots. It’s probably too simplistic to distill the man to blue collar formula, but the Springsteen train is still moving remarkably well. He keeps attracting new fans and the old ones are still coming along for the ride.

The Boss knows a thing or two about consistency.

“Getting an audience is hard. Sustaining an audience is hard. It demands a consistency of thought, of purpose, and of action over a long period of time.” – Bruce Springsteen

No team in Major League Baseball has exhibited Springsteen’s consistency of thought, purpose and action more so than the Atlanta Braves.

Since 1991, a starting point that is admittedly rather arbitrary, the Atlanta Braves have made the playoffs sixteen times. Only one other MLB team can match that feat: the New York Yankees and their seventeen appearances.

While the Yankees have consistently opened their pocketbook, the Braves have taken a much more frugal approach (if there is any possibility of calling an MLB payroll frugal). With more and more new money being injected into the game through lucrative TV contracts, the Braves payroll has remained fairly stable over the last decade.

The Braves have been one of the most consistent and well-run franchises in Major League Baseball for over two decades.

The key to the Braves consistency has been a top-notch player development department. Despite the departures over the past decade of future Hall-of-Famers like John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones, the Braves system has continued to produce strong and viable replacements. Moreover, the system has enjoyed the kind of depth that has allowed the Braves to make the trades necessary to fill holes in their roster such as acquiring Dan Uggla from the Marlins after 2010 and nabbing Justin Upton from the Diamondbacks this offseason.

There is much that fantasy baseball can learn from the likes of Springsteen and the Atlanta Braves. One must step into the game with a consistent strategy and be dedicated to doing everything you can to win the game. The Atlanta Braves are chalked full with the kind of consistent players that can make the difference between winning or losing your league. To help with this noblest of causes, here is a gander at the 2013 Atlanta Braves with a little help from The Boss.

Hungry Heart: Justin Upton

It really is hard to believe that Justin is only 25 years old. Since breaking into MLB at age 19 many, including most notably the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, have expected more from this phenomenal talent. Justin finds himself paired alongside brother BJ and Jason Heyward in an explosive Atlanta outfield. Upton was chastised about his lack of grit and passion in Arizona; after such an acrimonious severance of ties with the DBacks, it’s hard to believe that anyone in baseball is hungrier for a breakout than Justin Upton.

There are  some things worth noting. Justin is transitioning from an the sixth-best home runs park in Chase Field to a more neutral park in Turner Field (ranked 22nd in home runs in 2012).

That said, Justin is still getting on base at an above average rate and hit more line drives in 2012 than he ever hit before. The MLB batting average on line drives last year was a shade over 71% and Upton has above average speed which will play well in SB and run categories. Justin has decreased in strikeout rates over the last few seasons, which bodes well for the future. Some people might be undervaluing Upton and I wouldn’t want to be watching him break out this year without him on my team.

The Rising: Freddie Freeman

While there is a reasonable amount of depth at the first base position in mixed leagues, NL only leagues run pretty dry after Joey Votto. Even in a mixed league, fantasy owners could do much worse than find themselves slotting Freddie Freeman in there.

Freeman has steadily improved since his debut. His walk rate climbed from 8.3% to 10.3% while his strikeout rate fell from 22.4% to 20.8%. Additionally, Freeman hit more line drives and fly balls in 2012 than 2011, which foreshadows that more hits should start falling in. This is not intuitively obvious given Freeman’s substantial regression in batting average from .282 to .259 as well as his .295 BABIP, which was a shade below the major league average. Freeman isn’t the most fleet of out player and this also has the potential to drag down his average on balls in play.

It is important to look at all these stats in concert with one another in order to gather an accurate read on Freeman’s value. Freeman also found more power last year and will be surrounded in the lineup with the likes of BJ and Justin Upton, Dan Uggla and Brian McCann. There is reason to believe that Freeman could breakout. Those who play in leagues with OBP can happily settle for Freeman if you’re content to wait on 1B.

Born to Run: BJ Upton

Just like his brother Justin, it is hard to believe that BJ still as young as he is. Entering his age 28 season, BJ settled on Atlanta early in free agency signing a five year deal. It is noteworthy that the Braves elected to pay Upton rather than stay with in-house option Michael Bourn. Bourn generates a lot of his value with his legs, both on the base paths and on defense and the Braves seemed reluctant to commit to Bourn through his 35th birthday.

Upton is a similar player to Bourn insofar as he depends on speed to maximize his value. Upton has stolen at least 31 bases in each of the previous five seasons. He has experienced some decline after stealing 44 bases in 2008 dropping to 42, 42, 36 and 31 in the previous four seasons. Even with 31 SB, Upton managed to rank 14th in MLB. Atlanta was in the bottom portion of the league in SB in 2012, but that didn’t prevent Bourn from stealing 42 bags. BJ is safe bet for another 25+ SB. Even if BJ begins to slow down, BJ saw his ISO rise to .208 last year when he belted 28 HR. If you can handle the low batting average, BJ has the potential to produce in all other fantasy categories.

It’s also worth considering what value Upton can generate in the runs category. After playing on some weak offences in Tampa Bay over the last few years, Upton is going to have a real chance at scoring 100 runs for Atlanta this year while surrounded with Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla and brother Justin.

Thunder Road: Dan Uggla

Uggla, the poster boy of Rule V draft success, has been the definition of consistency in his big league career. So it’s understandable that some people are concerned after the previous two seasons where Uggla’s average fell to .233 in 2011 and .220 in 2012. He’s making a lot of weak contact as evidenced by a high infield fly ball rate and more ground balls than usual. This weak contact is dropping anchor on his batting average. Also, perennially a 30 HR player, Uggla dropped to 19 home runs last year. Admittedly it looks bad, but just because Uggla is not putting up the numbers we expect from him, doesn’t mean he can’t be valuable in 2013.

Uggla has a great batting eye as evidenced by his .346 OBP from 2012, which is in line with his career mark. Uggla has suffered from a below average BABIP through the last two years of .253 and .283. While Uggla is a below average runner, we would expect Uggla’s BABIP to regress closer to his career average of .292. If this occurs, you can stomach an average around .250 from Uggla because of what he does in other categories. Uggla was 7th amongst 2B last season in runs and third amongst all 2B in RBI. Atlanta’s revamped lineup seems like it can only help Uggla’s cause to bounce back closer to his career averages.

Badlands:  Jason Heyward

Springsteen’s classic Badlands chronicles a man who wants to experience his personal dream.  He realizes the dream won’t simply come to fruition. He needs to beat it down and fight for it. Jason Heyward, long regarded as a can’t miss prospect by the talent evaluating masses, seemed complacent and disinterested early in his career. Granted, there were some injuries that kept Heyward down, but in 2012, the Jason Heyward everyone has been waiting for began to flash the potential we all so desperately have been waiting for.

Heyward hit 27 HR, but his approach at the plate seemed to suffer as the season wore on. Despite the counting stats rising, there are reasons to be cautious around Heyward. His walk rate declined from 14.6% in 2010 to 8.9 in 2012, his strikeout rate rose from 20.5% in 2010 to 23.3% in 2012 and he swing at a lot more pitches, both inside and outside the strike zone.

For some players, these trends might be disturbing, but Heyward is entering his age 24 season and has shown a track record of patience in the minors that indicates he should be able to adjust. The pure talent is there and a huge season seems destined to come. If you’d rather not miss out on it, you should grab Heyward.

Reason to Believe:  Brian McCann

McCann likely won’t be as highly valued as he has been in the past, but there is reason to believe that he could be a tremendous value play in drafts. McCann underwent labrum surgery in the offseason and is targeted for a mid-April return. This factor alone might scare some owners off.

McCann also had a particularly tough season last year ending with a .230 average. While McCann hit a number of line drives and fly balls that were in a line with his career averages, he was plagued by a dreadfully low BABIP of .234. To put that into perspective, of all players with at least 475 plate appearances, only Russell Martin and Casey Kotchman suffered from worse BABIPs.

At the catcher position, most owners could do far worse than McCann, even if he misses the start of the season. With Mike Napoli suffering from a hip injury, and AJ Pierzynski unlikely to replicate last season’s 27 HR, there are plenty of question marks at the position. McCann could provide a solid contribution in a reinvigorated Atlanta lineup and has the upside to potentially finish as a top-five catcher in 2013.

Darkness on the Edge of Town: Chris Johnson/Juan Francisco

There isn’t a lot to like at the hot corner for the Braves. After losing Chipper Jones to retirement and Martin Prado in the Justin Upton trade, Atlanta is likely to turn to a platoon in 2013.

Chris Johnson struck out in 25% of his at-bats last year and the success he did have was generated by a BABIP of .354 that seems very unlikely to recur. He doesn’t play defense very well either which could lead to lack of playing time.

Juan Francisco doesn’t walk, struck out in over 34% of his plate appearances and walks only 5% of the time. Not the kind of guy you want to hang your hat on in fantasy.

Both players have some pop in their bats and are prone to hot streaks. I would avoid these guys in a draft, but keep an eye if a vacancy crops up on your roster. There’s not much depth at 3B in the Braves system.

Atlantic City: Andrelton Simmons

Andrelton Simmons is the kind of gamble in the draft that could make or break your season. Projected to hit atop the Braves order after spending last year mired in the eight-hole, Simmons has the speed, contact ability and batting eye to put up big numbers for a shortstop. There are not very many sure-thing shortstops in baseball anymore. If you can nab Simmons to contribute in runs, SB and average, you can more than make it up elsewhere in the other categories. Given what Simmons is going for in most leagues, a small bet could turn out to deliver some huge returns.

I’m On Fire: Kris Medlen

Kris Medlen blew out his arm in 2010 and spent 2011 on the disable list. The Braves eased Medlen back into things in the bullpen early in 2012 until injuries forced them to plant him in the rotation in late July. In twelve starts, Medlen responded by allowing only nine earned runs, and striking out 84 batters. While it was an incredible run, we can expect Medlen to at least come back down to earth a little bit.

Medlen is probably one of the hardest guys to gauge on the draft boards this year. It’s easy to predict regression, but it becomes harder to discern just what Medlen is. He does a lot of things right. He has phenomenal control as evidenced by a 3.2% walk rate during his time as a starter. He doesn’t give up a lot of home runs and draws a lot of ground balls. Medlen has a devastating changeup that keeps hitters off balance.  There are no glaring inconsistencies between Medlen’s minor league career and the habits he showed in 2012.

It is noteworthy that Medlen only pitcher 138 innings last season. Granted, he was coming off of Tommy John surgery, but Medlen’s arm was not overworked last year. There is potential for many more quality innings from Medlen. Watch your draft boards very closely. While you don’t want to overpay too much for Medlen, he could be worth going an extra few dollars on, especially given his residence at the pitcher friendly Turner Field.

Wrecking Ball: Craig Kimbrel

In 2012, Craig Kimbrel struck out 16.66 batters per nine innings; the highest rate in baseball. Kimbrel struck out 50% of all batters he faced. No pitcher has ever struck out even 45% before. He walked 14 batters in his 62 and a third innings. When he wasn’t destroying batters with his devastating stuff, he was producing ground balls at a rate of 48%. If you can’t strike a guy out, the next best option is to get it on the ground. This recipe led Kimbrel to one of the most fruitful seasons in MLB history for a reliever.  It likely helped that he pitched roughly 20 innings less than in 2011. He is simply the finest closer in MLB and should be first off the board in all formats.

Undoubtedly, you should probably not expect a 1.01 ERA and 0.65 WHIP from a pitcher lest you be disappointed. There are two numbers of Kimbrel’s worth highlighting as potential spots for regression: his strand rate of 92.8% and his BABIP of .250. Both numbers represent severe deviations from the MLB average. The probabilities would indicate that both his strand rate and BABIP will regress at least somewhat back towards the mean. If you have Kimbrel in a keeper league and just enjoyed the fruits of his labours, it’s worth celebrating. As good as Kimbrel is, it seems unlikely that he could reproduce such a season.

The Promise:

Julio Teheran remains the centerpiece of the Braves farm system. There are extremely high expectations for a player who was ranked as the 5th best prospect in baseball by Baseball America in 2012 as a 21 year old. He seems to have an inside track on the Braves #5 starter job. Teheran didn’t have a great season in 2012, but was experimenting with changes to his delivery and all reports from the offseason is that Julio has returned to what worked for him prior to 2012. There will likely be ups and downs for this young pitcher, but he may be worth taking a flyer on given the strong team he finds himself playing for.

Waiting on a Sunny Day: Brandon Beachy

Beachy was cruising along pretty well before Tommy John surgery cut short his 2012 season. Beachy is targeted to return around the all-star break. If all goes well, he seems likely to be slotted back into the Braves rotation.

Beachy has struggled with pitch efficiency in the past and tends to find himself in a lot of deep counts. He will need to find the strike zone more consistently if he hopes to succeed. He has swing and miss stuff when he’s on. If you have a DL spot, he is well worth stashing until he returns. The addition of a guy like Beachy midseason could deliver big returns.

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