The Pirates are currently in Atlanta for a three-game series that begins tomorrow. The Braves are 26-27, but after a tumultuous 2014-2015 offseason, they're a remarkably different team than they've been in the recent past. Here's what to expect.
POSITION PLAYERS: .252/.315/.374. 5.4 fWAR, 11th in the National League. After losing Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis from last year's club, the offense of the rebuilding Braves has been a bit better than expected. Freddie Freeman (.299/.362/.525) has been a beast, and Andrelton Simmons, probably baseball's best defensive player, has added a bit of offense to his game as well (.265/.318/.367). Second baseman Jace Peterson and outfielders Nick Markakis and Cameron Maybin have contributed as well. The Braves acquired third baseman Juan Uribe, another excellent defensive player, from the Dodgers last week, and he's hit well in his first handful of games with the club. The weak link in the team's lineup was another infielder, Alberto Callaspo, so effectively swapping him for Uribe was a neat trick. Veteran outfielder Jonny Gomes has, somewhat predictably, been awful.
Last week, I criticized the Padres for adding a bunch of sluggers in a series of win-now moves this offseason but failing to build a defense. What the Braves have done is something like the inverse of that, and it's a considerably smarter proposition -- they're rebuilding, but they've softened the present-day impact of their rebuilding moves by keeping a decent (though not outstanding) defense in place.
Having Simmons gave them a huge head start in that regard, of course, but he and Uribe should be terrific together on the left side of the infield, and Peterson has posted very good numbers so far at second. (The Braves' infield bench includes former Bucs "Where's Waldo" character Pedro Ciriaco, who you might be able to glimpse on the game broadcasts if you can possess a DVR, a magnifying glass and an inexhaustible supply of patience.) Add a good pitch-framing catcher (which A.J. Pierzynski isn't, unfortunately), and that's exactly how I'd try to maintain a competitive team while shipping off high-profile hitters.
PITCHING: 4.19 ERA, 4.32 FIP, 4.21 xFIP. 2.0 fWAR, last in the National League. Now this ... hm. The Braves have already used 20 pitchers this season, and 11 of them have been below replacement level. That includes Julio Teheran, a key starter whose walk rate has spiked this season and who the Pirates will face on Saturday. On Friday, it'll be Williams Perez, a stocky righty who the Braves promoted despite limited Triple-A experience. He's fared reasonably well in his first five appearances in the big leagues, demonstrating control problems that are understandable for a pitcher who probably ought to be facing batters in Durham or Norfolk, not Atlanta. Of course, the Braves basically let Sunday's starter, Alex Wood, skip Triple-A too, and he's fared well in each of his first three big-league seasons so far, including this one.
The Bucs will miss Shelby Miller and Mike Foltynewicz, both of them dynamic young pitchers. Miller's peripherals show he hasn't been nearly as good as his 1.89 ERA suggests, but he appears to be morphing into a ground-ball pitcher, which could help him remain a rotation mainstay for years to come.
Teheran aside, the Braves' rotation has mostly been reasonable overall. It's the bullpen that's the problem. Its top pitchers, Jason Grilli (who continues his career as if whatever he was doing in a Pirates uniform last year didn't happen), Jim Johnson and Luis Avilan, have basically been fine, and GM John Hart deserves kudos for getting Grilli and especially Johnson on the cheap.
The issue is that, with the departures of Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Walden, Anthony Varvaro and David Carpenter from the 2014 bullpen, they're a little bit short, and that's even before considering injuries to Shae Simmons and Josh Outman and the suspensions of depth guys like Arodys Vizcaino and Andrew McKirahan. As a result, they don't have enough good arms, resulting in a string of bullpen-related transactions longer than a 1:00am conga line. Is the Braves' current bullpen of Grilli, Johnson, Avilan, Trevor Cahill, Brandon Cunniff, Nick Masset and Cody Martin finally the right combination? Maybe, but I doubt it, and in the meantime, the team's relief pitching has been a consistent source of frustration.
OUTLOOK: As rebuilding teams go, the Braves are in better shape than most. Their bullpen has been bad, but rebuilding teams are supposed to have bad bullpens (and many of the arms in their 2014 bullpen, like Walden, Varvaro and Carpenter, now look like they might have been ticking time bombs anyway). The Braves had some good relievers, and they did the sensible thing and got young talent for them.
Now, there are interesting young or young-ish players scattered throughout Atlanta's roster in Freeman, Simmons, Wood, Miller, Foltynewicz and Teheran, along with a refurbished minor-league system dotted with guys the team acquired in trades. It's not yet clear what it all adds up to, and decisions like signing the 31-year-old Markakis (although, again, he admittedly has played well so far) to a relatively costly four-year deal raise questions about whether the Braves will make wise decisions as they prepare for the opening of their new ballpark in 2017. Hart has built successful teams before, though, and with a variety of key Nationals players due to hit free agency in the coming seasons, there could be opportunities for the Braves (along with the Mets and Marlins) to step up. It's rare to meet the Braves in a down year, but they might not be down for long.