A group by group look at the 2014 spring training Braves, starting with a rather large group: the pitchers.
Luis Avilan: Avilan had a breakout year last year, sporting a 1.52 ERA buoyed by a .204 BABIP. While that BABIP almost certainly isn’t sustainable, he has had low BABIPs throughout his entire career, which indicates he’s a weak contact guy. Even better, Avilan hasn’t yet shown any drastic platoon splits, meaning he isn’t a LOOGY. In that way he’s very much like the guy the Braves are banking on him to replace – Eric O’Flaherty was similarly useful against northpaw hitters.
Lay Batista: Batista is new to the Braves organization, having spent the last 5 seasons in the Angels system. There’s a reason the Angels let him go, and there’s not a lot to get excited about when it comes to his run prevention. Perhaps a new life as a reliever could benefit him and allow him to use his 90’s FB with more max effort. Still listed as a starter, though, he might be organizational fodder for Gwinnett duty this year.
Brandon Beachy: There’s a lot of hope the right elbow is fixed and ready to go, but you can understand if Braves fans don’t want to get their hopes up too much. Beachy was an up-and-coming star at the time of the initial injury, which occurred in June of 2012. It sure feels like longer ago. That elbow has since cost Beachy 245 games. His brief comeback in ’13 wasn’t terrible, posting a 4.05 FIP, but the Braves are hoping that was another side effect of his recovery process. Currently penciled in as the 4th starter on opening day, Beachy would likely be around a 3 win pitcher if he managed to stay healthy all season. As we’ve seen, that’s a big if.
Ryan Buchter: Picked up in a May 2011 trade with the Cubs for Rodrigo Lopez, Buchter renders bats pretty much useless. 56% of plate appearances against Buchter last year resulted in a walk or strikeout. Yes, the K’s are prodigious enough to dream on, but the walks, 7.4 per 9 innings a year ago, are crippling. Buchter just turned 27, doesn’t keep the ball on the ground enough to overcome the walks (and the thing is, he actually does keep the ball on the ground pretty well – just not enough because of all the walks), and doesn’t have a statline that indicates he’s ready to help the big league club. There is one caveat to my caveat, though. In offseason workouts after 2012 season, Buchter started training with a heavier ball, and his K rate exploded. It was always in double digits, but last season saw it ratchet up to a whopping 15.0 K/9. He had made some strides with walk rate in the two previous seasons, getting his walks to a very manageable ~4 BB/9. The ballooning BB rate last year might have been linked to the offseason training. While the heavier ball workouts helped him strike more batters out, it’s reasonable to think that it also caused him to lose a good bit of his command. In 2014, he’ll try to maintain the K’s and cut back on the BBs. If he can prove in the spring he’s already able to do that, he’s likely to find himself on the opening day roster. If he can’t just yet, the Braves will at least give him this season to try.
David Carpenter: When regression to the mean snaps against you, it can be cold and hard and unflinching. David Carpenter’s 2013 was a charmed year. When opponents hit the ball, they found more gloves than ever before, posting just a .260 BABIP. This was due in part to Carpenter playing with a great defense behind him. Also, when they got on against Carpenter, they couldn’t get in, as he stranded a whopping 90% of baserunners. Unfortunately for the Braves and Carpenter, these aren’t sustainable trends, so 2014 should see some fall-off. Nothing symbolized the inevitable snap back to the mean than game 4 of the NLDS, when, as Craig Kimbrel shook his head disapprovingly in the bullpen with but 5 outs to play, and Carpenter throwing arguably the most important pitches of the series, nay, the season. We know what happened. It was painful, but not completely unexpected either. That being said, Carpenter should again be a useful part of the Braves pen in 2014. This is because not all his success was built on fluke rate stats. Carpenter threw harder, gaining speed on his fastball and slider, and if his pitch velocity sticks around for 2014, so should some measure of his success.
Gavin Floyd: Since David Price‘s rookie season in 2009, he has contributed 18.7 fWAR over 147 starts, at .127 fWAR per start. In the same timeframe, Gavin Floyd has contributed 13.7 fWAR over 126 starts, at .109 fWAR per start. I’m not suggesting that Gavin Floyd is presently Price’s equal, or close to it. But it does illustrate the small differences between the guys everybody views as aces and those that are mere reclamation projects. While Price has been in the league, Floyd has been at the very least a comparable pitcher in terms of quality of production. Floyd, when he’s not hurt, is at worst a league average innings eater, and he’s often much better than that. The Braves will hope for the latter or settle for the former. Floyd, recovering from May 2013 Tommy John surgery, is due to return in May or June, but realistically won’t contribute much to the the big league club until after the All-Star break.
Freddy Garcia: Here’s a list of every pitcher since 1991 who has started a win-or-go-home game in the playoffs for the Atlanta Braves, accompanied by their FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, which sounds complicated, but it’s nothing to get hung up on – it’s on the ERA scale and just happens to predict future ERAs better than actual ERA) for the season:
|Pitcher||Game||Season FIP||Win or Go Home|
|Steve Avery||1991 NLCS Game 6||3.82||Win|
|John Smoltz||1991 NLCS Game 7||3.52||Win|
|John Smoltz||1991 World Series Game 7||3.52||Go Home|
|John Smoltz||1992 NLCS Game 7||2.97||Win|
|Greg Maddux||1993 NLCS Game 6||2.85||Go Home|
|John Smoltz||1996 NLCS Game 5||2.64||Win|
|Greg Maddux||1996 NLCS Game 6||2.73||Win|
|Tom Glavine||1996 NLCS Game 7||3.49||Win|
|Greg Maddux||1996 World Series Game 6||2.73||Go Home|
|Tom Glavine||1997 NLCS Game 6||3.96||Go Home|
|Denny Neagle||1998 NLCS Game 4||4.06||Win|
|John Smoltz||1998 NLCS Game 5||2.71||Win|
|Tom Glavine||1998 NLCS Game 6||3.50||Go Home|
|John Smoltz||1999 World Series Game 4||3.14||Go Home|
|Kevin Millwood||2000 NLDS Game 3||4.06||Go Home|
|Tom Glavine||2001 NLCS Game 5||4.77||Go Home|
|Kevin Millwood||2002 NLDS Game 5||4.83||Go Home|
|Russ Ortiz||2003 NLDS Game 4||4.17||Win|
|Mike Hampton||2003 NLDS Game 5||4.08||Go Home|
|John Smoltz||2004 NLDS Game 4||2.72||Win|
|Jaret Wright||2004 NLDS Game 5||3.29||Go Home|
|Tim Hudson||2005 NLDS Game 5||4.33||Go Home|
|Derek Lowe||2010 NLDS Game 4||3.89||Go Home|
|Kris Medlen||2012 NL Wild Card||2.42||Go Home|
|Freddy Garcia||2013 NLDS Game 4||5.49||Go Home|
Which of those is REALLY not like the other? Garcia was acquired last year for the singular purpose of pitching unimportant innings, and he wound up starting the team’s most important game of the year. In a snowball effect of strange, Elliot Johnson started behind him and both actually helped, with Johnson picking up a key hit and Garcia throwing quite well. It was a truly bizarre set of circumstances ultimately overshadowed by the now iconic image of Craig Kimbrel mouthing unhappy words in the bullpen. Keeping with the unusual, Garcia was invited to Spring Training this year for more. If he makes the major league roster, he’ll be paid $1.25M that could double with incentives. If he’s not on the MLB roster on 3/25, he can opt out. If Atlanta avoids the injury bug in camp, expect Garcia to have the chance to make that decision.
Cory Gearrin: In 2013, Gearrin was a mirage for much of the season. Through his first 21 innings out of the pen, he had a 0.86 ERA, but even as you watched him, it was hard to be convinced that he was really all that good. Over his final 10 innings he posted a 9.90 ERA and an unsightly .509 OBP allowed. Erratic control and a propensity for allowing home runs isn’t just a ticket to AAA, it’s a ticket for a release. Upon arriving in Gwinnett, Gearrin was immediately placed on the disabled list with shoulder tendonitis and didn’t throw another pitch. Was the shoulder injury to blame for those final 10 innings or was Gearrin just crashing back to earth? I’d imagine it’s mostly the latter with a bit of the former mixed in. Expect to see a lot of Gearrin this March, as he’s out of options and definitely in the running for the final bullpen spot. This paragraph has been mostly negative, so it’s worth pointing out that it’s nice having guys like Gearrin around to pitch low-leverage innings and induce a few ground balls here and there.
JR Graham: Graham had so much promise prior to his shoulder injury, but shoulder injuries are bigger red flags to prospects than even Tommy John surgery. Graham has an all-star caliber fastball and an above average slider, and based on those two pitches alone, he’d have a place in the bullpen if the team decided that’s where he belonged. I think he’s ultimately headed in that direction anyway, but I imagine he’ll spend 2014 starting, working on his changeup and his longevity. If both come along, he’s a hot prospect again.
David Hale: Borderline brilliant in 2 low-pressure late season starts, Hale will need an injury or two to find his way onto Atlanta’s opening day roster. He’s an easy guy to root for. Ivy League-educated, without elite stuff, but he displays good command and he has shown a good feel for pitching. Sidenote: the rootability of Ivy League athletes is inversely proportional to the rootability of Ivy League non-athletes. Odds are he’ll bounce between Gwinnett and Atlanta this year as an emergency 5th starter, but as far as those go, he’s not a bad one.
Jason Hursh: The 31st pick of the 2013 draft, the former OSU Cowboy was seen as something of a reach by many draft analysts. He’s already had elbow surgery and his secondary offerings don’t offer a ton of upside, at least not in comparison to his big-time fastball. He’s a project with a lot of upside, if everything comes together. By everything, I mean everything – mechanics, command, secondary pitches, durability, everything. If it doesn’t, the fastball might still be good enough to pitch late innings out of the pen. Also, the Braves develop pitchers better than most, so don’t write off Hursh just yet, even if he seems like he’s a long way away. Mike Minor was a reach too, you know.
Juan Jaime: Not many human beings can throw a baseball faster than Jaime. More can throw it accurately, and that is why Jaime is a 26 year old with just 42 innings of experience in the high minors. Like everything else about him, they were exciting and frustrating innings, with 70 Ks (thumbs up) and 28 BBs (thumbs down). He’ll eventually make it into a bullpen somewhere, and he’ll probably be helpful at some point, but not enough to make you stop thinking about how good he could be.
Craig Kimbrel: Closure is a good thing, and whether or not you love Kimbrel’s 4 year, $42M extension for whatever reasons, at least there’s no continued uncertainty over it. Atlanta avoided Kimbrel potentially devastating them through the arbitration process, and Kimbrel avoids what would have been a cloud of trade rumors for the next two seasons. It’s very easy to fret over giving 8 digits a year to a guy who pitches 60 innings, but my suggestion, if fretting over such things comes naturally to you, is to just relax and enjoy the best K artist in the history of the sport while you can.
Mark Lamm: Lamm’s name doesn’t pop up on prospect lists, but he has thrown some quality innings out of the pen in the high minors the last two years. The tall righty should spend the year in Gwinnett, but has an outside chance at some MLB time if injuries necessitate it.
Cody Martin: Martin has the upside of a #5 starter, which isn’t a lot to get excited over, but it has value nonetheless. He impressed at AA Mississippi last year before getting a taste of AAA, which proved more difficult. Expect him to return to Gwinnett where he can work on increasing his workload.
Yunesky Maya: Maya’s 32, undersized, and has very little success over 59 major league innings with the Nationals. He’ll continue to get chances, though, because he was a hero for the 2009 WBC Cuban team, and ballclubs go gaga over Cuban pitchers who beat their stars in international competition. He throws an 89 mph fastball with little movement. There’s no reason to think he’ll put it all together at age 32.
Kris Medlen: Medlen came back to reality in 2013, but his reality is one that is still very helpful to the Braves. He strikes out batters and does a decent job limiting free passes. Medlen is a 2-3 win pitcher in his pre-FA years. His lack of an extension might seem to some like he’s not as important to Atlanta’s success, but he is, and he remains a very good pitcher at a very good price. Braves fans can look forward to another year of watching one of baseball’s best changeups:
Mike Minor: For all the hand-wringing this offseason over the Braves needing an ace and the need for David Price, fans seemed to ignore the capabilities of the former Vanderbilt Commodore already onhand. Minor doesn’t have the raw talent Price does, but he’s not that far off the David Price career path:
Minor was better at 23, Price better at 24, and the two virtually equal in FIP at age 25. I’m not suggesting that the Braves would rather have Minor than Price. What I am suggesting is that Price isn’t enough of an upgrade to justify trading away key members of the organization, as some fans have lazily suggested.
A fly ball pitcher, Minor is destined to have some issues with HRs, but he did make strides in that department last year, going from 1.30 HR/9 and 11.7% HR/FB to 0.97 and 8.8%. Some of that was probably random luck, but it’s possible some came from inducing weaker contact. One major boon to his 2013 stats was a sharp increase in first pitch strikes. In 2012 he started off 58.7% of at-bats with a strike; in 2013, it was up to 64.5%. If you’re wondering what kind of impact that has, here’s how MLB hitters fared after 1-0 counts compared to 0-1 counts:
After 1-0: .269/.378/.433
After 0-1: .223/.263/.338
As a better frame of reference, the average MLB hitter hits like Robin Ventura (.267/.363/.445 for his career) if the first pitch is a ball. If the first pitch is a strike, the average MLB hitter hits like Zach Greinke (.226/.273/.329 for his career). The first pitch is the most important pitch of a plate appearance, and Minor did much better in that department in 2013. Minor is only 85 starts into his major league career, and pitchers often hit a next level around start 100. Even if he doesn’t, he’s a very special pitcher and the next name on the Braves to-do list when it comes to extensions.
Aaron Northcraft: Like many of Atlanta’s prospects these days, Northcraft’s ceiling is that of a back-end starter who can eat innings and keep the ball on the ground without looking too terribly special. A GB specialist has even more value pitching in front of Andrelton Simmons, so there’s reason to believe Northcraft could help Atlanta in the near term. He has 137 innings in the high minors, so expect a little more seasoning (code word for ‘waiting for someone to get hurt’) in Gwinnett this year.
Wirfin Obispo: It’s been a long road to the majors for Obispo. Signed out of the DR in 2002 by the Red Sox, the Sox cut him loose before he ever even got out of the instructional league. He signed with the Reds, eventually dominating Rookie ball in 2006 as a 21 year old. The Reds released him and Obispo would spend the next 5 years with the Yomiuri Giants of the NPB. He returned stateside, back with the Reds, pitching pretty well in 2012, and signed with Atlanta in 2013. Obispo brings to the table a good K rate and poor control. It may never click, but as long as the K rate remains high, he’s worth having waiting in AAA in case it does.
Carlos Perez: Perez was once a very hot name in deeper prospect circles, but his mechanics remained wonky, his command never really showed up, and his changeup never matured as desired. The Braves switched him over to relieving full-time a year ago. While I think it was a bit premature – he was 21 and the upside of that arm was worth the wait – it’s easier to see him reaching the bigs as a lefty out of the pen than as a starter. Perez has never thrown a pitch about high-A ball, so be very surprised if he breaks camp with the team, but a projectable lefty reliever with 90’s heat and any kind of offspeed pitch will move quickly through any system.
Daniel Rodriguez: Rodriguez, as of 2013, was a below average starter in Gwinnett. He’s in camp because the Braves are woefully short on left-handed pitchers, which means that even if you posted a 5.77 ERA in AAA ball a year ago, you’ve still got a chance to throw some pitches in front of Fredi G and Roger, as long as you throw them with your left arm. He’s a longshot.
Gus Schlosser: The sidearming Schlosser has been a starter in his career, but that’s not where his MLB future lies, if there is one. His results tend to outpace his talent, which is a trait you have to like in any pitcher. His eventual move to the pen could portend some MLB innings, maybe even useful ones.
Atahualpa Severino: Good stuff, iffy control, and got called up to the Nationals the same day as current Braves camper (campee?) Yunesky Maya, 9/6/11. Severino throws hard from the left side, so I expect him to get plenty of chances to show what he can do this spring.
Shae Simmons: The diminutive righty can hit 97 mph on the gun and has a better than average slider. Sound familiar? Simmons struck out 95 batters in 63.1 innings scattered across Rookie, A, and AA ball last year. The Kimbrel comparisons will be both obvious (Simmons is even smaller at 5-9) and unfair, but they’ll come anyway. I expect Simmons to get some time in Atlanta in late 2014 and be part of the pen by 2015.
Julio Teheran: Of all the extensions in recent weeks, Teheran’s probably made me the happiest. Yes, it’s nice to know we won’t be taking Jason Heyward to an arbitration hearing, but the Braves didn’t buy out any FA years. It’s nice to know that Freddie Freeman is sticking around, but it took the biggest contract in Braves history to make that happen. And it’s nice to know that Andrelton Simmons will be vacuuming up ground balls until he’s 30, but if his bat doesn’t develop, he’s getting paid as handsomely as he could have been expected to. Teheran, on the other hand, signed a very team-friendly contract. His rookie year was overshadowed by NL East mate Jose Fernandez, but there’s still reason to believe Teheran will progress towards being an ace-level pitcher over the next few years (probably not on Fernandez’ level, but perhaps so). The enormously talented 23-year old should only get better, and I for one am excited to see what 2014 holds in store for him.
Ian Thomas: Another guy with better numbers than talent, Thomas turned fringy stuff into 10.6 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 at AA Mississippi last year. He has been older for his level, but the K’s suggest there’s some talent somewhere. The Braves will get a closer look over the next month.
Anthony Varvaro: Varvaro in 2013 was a different pitcher than ever before. Prior to 2013, Varvaro was a K machine with control issues and gopheritis. He gave up a lot of fly balls and they often left the park. It was easy to take pitches, but when hitters swung, they struggled to make contact. Fast-forward to last year when pretty much every one of those things didn’t just change, but were drastically different. Varvaro’s K rate of 14.1% was by far the lowest of his professional career. His BB % was also the lowest of his professional career. He surrendered just 3 HR in 73.1 innings. He kept the ball on the ground, upping his GB rate to 47.2%. Batters took him deep on 4.5% of fly balls rather than the 10-11% of recent years. Batters made much better contact on pitches inside the zone, from 79% to 91%. I think these wholesale changes are linked to two improvements: better command and more use of his changeup. The question for 2014 is whether Varvaro can maintain those basic improvements and now start to push his K rate back up to respectable levels again. If he can do that, he becomes a very valuable pitcher to have in the pen. For now, he’s a pretty good middle reliever. His strand rate is unlikely to repeat, and I think BABIP did him some favors, but Varvaro still posted a 3.47 FIP last year. I’d expect an ERA in that ballpark for 2014.
Luis Vasquez: Some have hopped on the Vasquez ’14 bandwagon, but unless Roger McDowell has some kind of magic fix in store for Vasquez this spring, he’ll remain a tantalizing player who will strike out 7+ per 9 innings and still be in danger of posting a sub 1.00 K/BB ratio.
Jonny Venters: It’s really hard to have any kind of idea as to what to expect from Venters this year. Coming off two Tommy John surgeries, Venters is a huge question mark. A question mark with elite stuff out of the pen and a wicked two-seamer, but a question mark nonetheless.
Jordan Walden: A sometimes overlooked gem of a trade is one where Wren dealt Tommy Hanson, he of a bum shoulder and dropping fastball velocity, for Walden, he of a 2.81 FIP, 10.34 K/9, and 0.77 HR/9. Walden would be the best reliever on numerous teams.
Alex Wood: The final name in this exhaustive look at Atlanta’s spring staff is a homegrown product from UGA. The Dawgs haven’t produced a star for the city of Atlanta since Dominique Wilkins, so pardon the locals for wanting Wood to have every opportunity to win a spot in the rotation. After last year’s dazzling debut, it’s likely he will win that coveted 5th spot. He keeps the ball on the ground, piles up K’s, and simply produces results. His delivery is incredibly funky, but it’s not like weird mechanics haven’t worked for some pitchers. There’s a chance Wood is just the next Tim Lincecum or Chris Sale. Unlikely, yes, but the point is to not worry over any potential problems that could arise until they do. The mechanics, while likely a strain on his arm, are repeatable and not likely to hurt his performance. There’s a chance they actually help it.