To say the Atlanta Braves have made no headlines this offseason is manifestly false. Since November, barely a day has passed without mention of the team’s planned relocation. December and January brought the glad tidings that three distinguished former Braves had earned Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Still, discussions regarding Cobb County and Cooperstown have nothing to do with the 2014 Braves, about whom there has been little to say. There has been no major trade, no big-ticket signing. There hasn’t been much of anything unless you count exits — Brian McCann to the Yankees, Tim Hudson to the Giants, Eric O’Flaherty to the A’s. So we ask: Does the lack of winter buzz mean that the season ahead will be likewise humdrum?
“We were pretty good last year,” closer Craig Kimbrel said Monday, speaking after the first session of the Braves’ early throwing camp at Turner Field. “A lot of those core guys are back.”
The 2013 Braves were a very good team, though often we wondered how. Their two highest-salaried players (Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton) hit under .200. Brandon Beachy worked only 30 innings. Hudson was lost to a broken ankle on July 24. O’Flaherty threw his last pitch on May 13. Jonny Venters didn’t throw a pitch all season.
That those Braves won 96 games and the National League East wasn’t a function of a slew of guys having career years. Among the everyday eight, only third baseman Chris Johnson generated a breakout season. Freddie Freeman hit .319 with 109 RBI’s, but nobody believes this excellent hitter peaked at age 24. Jason Heyward underwent an appendectomy and jaw reconstruction and, not surprisingly, hit only .254. Justin Upton drove in 35 runs in months that began with A – 19 in April, 16 in August – but only 35 in the other four.
Andrelton Simmons authored a great defensive season but has it within him to become a great all-around player. Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran had moments where they appeared capable of becoming a No. 1 starter, but none of them is there yet. Evan Gattis showed that the legend of El Oso Blanco was more than myth, but he’s nowhere close to a finished product.
Put simply, this is a good young team — one that finished, not incidentally, 10 games ahead of Washington’s good young team — that should get only better. That the Braves have done little this winter is a reflection of both age and economics: If the Angels were to make Albert Pujols available, would any general manager — not just the Braves’ Frank Wren but anybody anywhere — swap Freeman, who’s asking for $5.75 million in arbitration, for the 34-year-old Pujols, who’s owed $212 million over the next eight seasons?
This isn’t to say the Braves couldn’t stand an upgrade — they chose to start the Kansas City castoff Elliot Johnson at second base while omitting Uggla from their NLDS roster — but there aren’t many spots where upgrading makes financial sense. As much as we on the periphery might wish that the Braves could again be like the Yankees and outspend every mistake, that’s never going to happen so long as Liberty Media writes the checks. (And it must be said that spending isn’t everything. Uggla, the elder Upton and Derek Lowe constitute the podium lineup for Wren’s biggest whiffs.)
There will come a time when the Braves mightn’t be able to keep Kimbrel — who opened his press session Monday by saying, “No arbitration questions” — or Freeman or Heyward or Simmons or Minor or Teheran, but those days aren’t at hand. For now, this is a team that can stand as the envy of baseball. It’s young and gifted and affordable.
“The guys I played minor-league ball with are now the veterans of the ballclub,” said Kimbrel, who’s 25. “And we’re still going to win a lot of ballgames — that’s our mindset.”
Even after a quiet offseason, there aren’t many teams that can match rosters with the Braves. Sometimes clubs that appear to have won the winter don’t look so hot come July. This time a year ago, the Nationals were the runaway choice to win it all and how’d that World-Series-or-bust thing work out, Davey Johnson?
Asked about the absence of acquisitions, Kimbrel pointed to Gavin Floyd, the starting pitcher who’s coming off elbow surgery and who signed for one season at $4 million. “That’s a big move,” Kimbrel said. “It’s not a big-money move, but it’s a big move.”
The Braves don’t need Floyd to win 20 games. They’ll need him only if one of their younger arms doesn’t deliver. As Skip Caray was wont to say, a little insurance never hurt.