ATLANTA — Some folks are fretting that the Braves have done next to nothing since last they played. Some wonder if Washington hasn’t positioned itself to catch and pass the Braves. (The Nationals added Doug Fister to their rotation and Nate McLouth — Nate McLousy when he was a Brave — to their outfield.) The Braves’ offseason haul has been more of a handful: Gavin Floyd, slotted as a sixth starting pitcher, and Ryan Doumit, seen as a No. 2 catcher.
Since their playoff elimination, the Braves haven’t landed anyone who projects as a regular. That wouldn’t seem much of a yield for three months’ work, especially at a time when the team bid adieu to stalwarts Brian McCann and Tim Hudson. But here we ask: Exactly what did the Braves need to do? They have a five-man rotation that’s both gifted and young. (Kris Medlen, who’s 28, is the oldest.) At catcher, they have Evan Gattis, folk hero, and Christian Bethancourt, the prospect who’s better with the mitt than the bat, and Doumit to try to approximate McCann. They have Freeman and Chris Johnson as corner infielders, Justin Upton and Jason Heyward as corner outfielders. They have the best shortstop and the best closer in the business.
The chief complaints: Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton are still on the roster, and no certifiable ace is. The first is a function of economics. Because of the money owed them, Uggla ($26 million) and B.J. Upton ($59.8 million) are all but untradeable. The Braves would have to pay far more than the $10 million they sent to Cleveland with Derek Lowe to make either go away, and in Upton’s case such a selloff might be — pause for effect — premature.
Dan Szymborski of ESPN lists Upton among his top bounceback candidates for 2014. Szymborski’s ZiPS system projects Upton to hit .231 with 57 RBIs and 19 homers, which would trump the .184, 26 and 9 of last season. Writes Szymborski: “He’ll hit for enough power and continue to play solid defense in center, enough to return him to the ranks of a league-average player. After a minus-1.8 WAR (wins above replacement) season, simply putting up a 2-WAR season represents a four-win swing.”
As for Uggla: If he doesn’t hit in spring training, it would be no surprise if he’s released. The Braves could try Ramiro Pena or the prospect Tommy La Stella at second base, and could either be any worse than the guy who was omitted from the postseason roster? As for the ace: Yes, it’s nice to have one. There’s a reason the Dodgers are sinking $215 million into Clayton Kershaw. But the Braves have won more games than Kershaw’s team every season he has been in the majors, and the regular season is, contrary to popular belief, where aces matter more.
Lest we forget, the ace-high Braves of Glavine-Maddux-Smoltz won but one World Series. What succeeds in the postseason is all but unknowable. The Dodgers, with both Kershaw and Zack Greinke, and the Tigers, with both Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, were beaten in their respective league championship series last year. The World Series was won by the Boston Red Sox, who had no ace but many bearded trolls.
Those Red Sox, it must be noted, were widely derided last winter for making small moves — they acquired Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew and Mike Napoli — but no major one. They wound up winning 97 games a year after losing 93. What looks good (or less good) in January might well appear otherwise in August.
To suggest the Braves must arm themselves with an ace to win it all is to ignore history. They’ve proved they don’t need one to make the playoffs — they’ve qualified three of the past four years — and the playoffs themselves teach us that aces don’t always carry the day. As nice as it might be to rent David Price for two years, how nice would it be to watch him leave in November 2015? How much young talent would the Braves have to offload for those two years?
To suggest that Frank Wren is content to sit idle is to dismiss the man’s nature. He enjoys the deal-making process as much as any general manager. Sometimes, though, there isn’t a deal to be made. Sometimes a team doesn’t need to do much except avoid messing up a good thing.
Last year the Braves withstood injuries to key pitchers and the historic awfulness of Uggla and the elder Upton to finish 10 games ahead of the ballyhooed Nationals. Nothing that has transpired this offseason indicates that a 10-game gap has been bridged. The Braves might not have done much, but they still appear the stronger team.