Fantasy baseball 2013 team preview: Atlanta Braves
Before they fell victim to the National League Coin-Flip Game last year, the Braves looked poised for another deep postseason run. They went 94-68, tied with the eventual World Series Champion Giants for the third-best record in the NL. They won eight of their final 11 games of the year, and had Cy Young candidate Kris Medlen on the mound against the Cardinals. Of course, the 94-win Braves lost one game to the 88-win Cardinals, thus allowing the Cardinals to move on to the National League Division Series, undermining six months worth of regular season baseball. But that's another argument for another day. Today, we're talking about the Braves, whom I believe are one of the three best teams heading into the season, and their players' fantasy prospects for 2013.
The Braves made two huge moves this offseason, signing B.J. Upton and trading for his younger brother, Justin. Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman are ascendant stars at their respective positions, and Brian McCann remains one of the best fantasy catchers in the league. They dealt promising, yet oft-injured, pitcher Tommy Hanson to the Angels, and prospect Randall Delgado to the Diamondbacks, but the 2013 rotation should be an upgrade over last year's, thanks mainly to getting a full season's worth of starts out of Medlen. Tim Hudson, Mike Minor, Paul Maholm and Julio Teheran round out the rotation, and Brandon Beachy, who was leading the majors with a 2.00 ERA through 13 starts, is due back in late June after Tommy John surgery. The bullpen, meanwhile, still features the three-headed monster of Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty, and even added Jordan Walden, to boot. As a baseball fan, I can't wait to watch the NL East race between the Nationals and Braves this season. Of course, that means one of them will be subject to this year's NL Coin-Flip Game. But I hope that as I'm watching the Nats and Braves battle it out in the East, I'm watching a ton of guys from my fantasy team, as well.
1. Andrelton Simmons, SS
2. Jason Heyward, RF
3. Justin Upton, LF
4. Freddie Freeman, 1B
5. B.J. Upton, CF
6. Brian McCann, C
7. Dan Uggla, 2B
8. Chris Johnson, 3B
1. Kris Medlen
2. Tim Hudson
3. Mike Minor
4. Paul Maholm
5. Julio Teheran
Bullpen: Craig Kimbrel (closer), Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, Jordan Walden, Cristhian Martinez, Luis Avilan, Cory Gearrin
• What impact will the Upton brothers have in Atlanta? I covered this in our Burning Questions series a few weeks ago. Don't worry, I won't rehash my arguments in this column. Click here to find out what I think about the Uptons and how they'll fare with the Braves this season. Speaking of Burning Questions, I tackled another one on Kris Medlen a few weeks ago, too.
• Is it Julio Teheran's time? After a huge 2011 season at Triple-A Gwinnett when he was just 20 years old, Teheran appeared to be on a fast track to the majors. He went 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 3.06 FIP and 122 strikeouts in 144.2 innings that year, and looked like the best among a strong group of Braves pitching prospects, including current rotation-mate Mike Minor and new Diamondback starter Randall Delgado. The wheels completely came off last year, though, as Teheran went 7-9 with a 5.08 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 4.83 FIP and 97 strikeouts in 131 innings at Gwinnett. His BABIP jumped to .318 from .288, but that doesn't wholly explain the dramatic shift in results. I think the problem stems completely from his sudden inability to get strikeouts. Before we go too crazy, let's remember that these sorts of things can happen to a 21-year-old. Reports coming out of Dominican Winter League had his fastball sitting around 95 or 96 MPH, and he remains Atlanta's No. 1-rated prospect. He's one of my favorite SP targets late in drafts this year.
• Will Freddie Freeman join the elite at first base? Check every fantasy site on the Internet, and you're probably going to find Freeman's name among the sleepers or breakouts. As a 21-year-old rookie in 2011, Freeman hit .282/.346/.448 with 21 homers, 32 doubles and 76 RBI. Last year, his batting average fell to .259, largely because of a BABIP that dipped by 45 points, but he had a .340 OBP, .456 slugging percentage, 23 homers, 33 doubles and 94 RBI. Those are two great seasons that have Freeman primed to break out in his third year in the majors.
Four advanced stats help guide projections for Freeman in 2013. First, he increased his walk rate while decreasing his strikeout rate last season. Those numbers came in at 10.3 percent and 20.8 percent, respectively. In 2011, they were 8.3 percent and 22.4 percent. That's an impressive adjustment for someone in just his second league in the majors. Meanwhile, despite a dramatically lower BABIP, Freeman actually shaved five full percentage points off his ground-ball rate, dropping it to 37.1 percent, and he posted a line-drive rate of 26 percent, up from 23 percent in 2011. Freeman may have had a great 2012 season, but, somehow, he was actually a bit unlucky. That's really the only way those stats could add up to a .295 BABIP. So long as he continues along this trajectory he has set for himself, he should go .280/.345/.480 with 25 homers and 95 RBI this season. He won't quite reach the elite at his position, but he'll be in the second tier, poised for entry into the penthouse in 2014.
• Can Andrelton Simmons be a starter in mixed leagues? If Simmons asserts himself as a starter in mixed leagues, come September we'll be looking back on a guy who rode a high contact rate to a strong batting average and OBP, took advantage of his perch atop one of the league's best offenses and used his above-average speed and baserunning skills to scratch out 20 steals. Looking at his numbers, both from his 49-game run with the Braves last year and his career in the minors, I'm rather sanguine about Simmons ending the year as a starter in 12-team mixed leagues.
Simmons hit .289/.335/.416 in his small sample at the majors last year. However, in 44 games with Double-A Mississippi before his promotion, he hit .293/.372/.420 with 10 steals. As a 21-year-old at High-A Lynchburg in 2011, he hit .311/.351/.408 with 26 steals in 131 games, and his walk and strikeout rate with Mississippi last year were both 9.9 percent. He continued to walk at a decent pace in the majors, registering a 6.6 percent walk rate, while posting an 11.5 percent strikeout rate -- a solid mark for a rookie. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has already named Simmons as the odds-on-favorite to lead off, so that alone should get him to 100 runs. The protection afforded by Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and the Uptons should also result in him seeing a ton of fastballs. So long as he's patient, a skill he has already shown at the major league level, he should get himself into plenty of favorable counts. I'd rather have him than Alcides Escobar or Everth Cabrera.
Andrelton Simmons: Simmons isn't being drafted as a starter in mixed leagues, but that's exactly what he'll become this season and it will be apparent by June 1. That means you can focus on other positions early, account for his likely stat line, and snag him without worrying at all about your shortstop at any point during the draft.
Brian McCann: This is not a bust in the traditional sense. I like McCann, and think he'll produce at his established levels this season. But catcher is as deep as it has ever been, with at least 11 strong starting options, and that doesn't include guys like Jonathan Lucroy, Jesus Montero, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Carlos Ruiz and A.J. Pierzynski. McCann just isn't worth the price you'll likely have to pay to get him.
Freddie Freeman: Freeman burst on the scene as a 21-year-old rookie in 2011 and only improved on his numbers last year. This is the season when he earns entry into the upper echelons of the first base position. It's also the last season you'll be able to get him outside the top-50 picks.
Chris Johnson: Johnson had a decent showing with the Astros and Diamondbacks last year, hitting .281/.326/.451 with 15 homers and 76 RBI in 136 games. Beware that he's already 28 years old and he had a .354 BABIP last season.
Paul Maholm: The 30-year-old lefty went 13-11 with a 3.67 ERA, 4.00 FIP and 6.67 strikeouts per nine innings with the Cubs and Braves last year. He has posted FIPs of 4.00 or less in three of the last four seasons.