MLB Team Report - Atlanta Braves - INSIDE PITCH


ATLANTA -- It was during the dog days of July that the wheels came off for the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves were in sole possession of first place on July 18 with a 53-43 record. They were within a half game of the Nationals on July 28.

The Braves stopped hitting home runs and began losing games. An eight-game losing streak that swept them out of contention and the Atlanta never found its way back into the postseason race.

The team finished 79-83 and 17 games out of first. They dropped into a tie with Mets for second place in the National League East and fired their general manager along the way.

Not quite what they have in mind when they refer to the "Braves way."

"If you can take something out of it, something positive, it's that you don't want this to happen again," first baseman Freddie Freeman said.

It got even worse.

The Braves went 7-18 in September and watched as Washington and Pittsburgh celebrated playoff-clinching moments at Turner Field. It was the worst finish for the club since going 72-90 in 2008.

The offense was anemic and weak. They hit .241 (12th in the N.L.), hit 122 home runs (12th), averaged only 3.55 runs (15th) and struck out 1,360 times (third most). That wasted excellent pitching; the staff had a 3.40 ERA, the fourth-best in the league.

"In the second half we just really never put it together," Freeman said. "If we hit good one day, pitching gave up runs. Usually our pitching was pretty good all year. We just didn't do anything offensively. It's just one of those years, put it away as fast as you can. Starting looking forward to 2015."

The team of club president John Schuerholz, long-time manager and Hall of Famer Bobby Cox and special assistant John Hart are tasked with finding a replacement for ousted GM Frank Wren. It may wind up being Hart, a two-time MLB Executive of the Year, who has denied seeking the position.

Once a new GM is in place, the club must determine the fate of manager Fredi Gonzalez. Cox, who hand-picked Gonzalez as his successor, has already issued a vote of confident. But the new GM will like have the final say.

The club must then decide whether the 2014 season was an aberration or closer to reality than the 96-win team from 2013. Depending on that assessment, the Braves could make a few alterations or clear the decks for a total overhaul.

Despite a string of injuries, including a second Tommy John surgery for young starter Kris Medlen, the pitching staff was the team's strength.

The Braves got 33 starts each from veterans Aaron Harang, who they claimed off the spring training scrap heap, and Ervin Santana, who was signed as a free agent to a one-year deal just before the start of the regular season.

However, neither is under contract for 2015.

Right-hander Julio Teheran and lefty Alex Wood are two young players with bright future, but left-hander Mike Minor, who made much progress in 2012-13, seemed to take a step backward in his injury-riddled season.

Teheran (14-13, 2.89) made 33 starts, 26 of them quality starts, and led the team with 221 innings pitched. He struck out 184 and walked 51. Teheran is considered the only untouchable member of the starting rotation.

The bullpen has one of the game's most dominant closers in Craig Kimbrel, who saved 51 games, but was almost useless in the final month because of the lack of save situations.

This offseason, it's up to Hart and his hand-picked GM to save the Braves from that unfamiliar losing feeling. The leadoff spot is a priority as is second base and overall depth.

"It's a different feeling. I don't like it," Gonzalez said. "Hopefully we don't get very many more years like this. It's the worse feeling in the world."

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MLB Team Report - Atlanta Braves - NOTES, QUOTES


RECORD: 79-83, tied for second place in National League East

TEAM MVP: RHP Julio Teheran established himself as a top-of-the-rotation guy in his second full season with the club. Teheran (14-13, 2.89) made 33 starts, 26 of them quality starts, and led the team with 221 innings pitched. He struck out 184 and walked 51. Teheran is considered the only untouchable member of the starting rotation.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: 3B Chris Johnson signed a three-year, $23.5 million contract in the spring based on last year's .321. While no one really expected Johnson to duplicate those numbers, few expected him to fall off as dramatically. Johnson hit just .263 with 10 homers and 58 RBIs. Johnson got off to a poor start, got his average up to .280, but swooned like the rest of the club and wound up hitting into 23 double plays. He did lead the N.L. with a .400 average against left-handers. He's expected to bounce back, but could be part of a trade since he's contractually tied at a reasonable price.

TOP PROSPECT: Christian Bethancourt showed why he's considered the franchise's catcher of the future. Big and strong (6-2, 205) the rookie has a rocket arm and proved to be an adept game manager during his two tenures with the Braves. Bethancourt, 22, continues to improve as a hitter and should be adequate in that department. He should be the starter in 2015 or at least share the duties. He hit .248 with six doubles in 31 games.

PLAYER NOTES:

--1B Freddie Freeman was probably the most consistent hitter again this year, but his production fell from .319 with 23 homers and 109 RBIs to .288 with 18 homers and 78 RBIs. Freeman also struck out 145. Freeman set a team record for innings played. But Freeman is one of the top fielders in the league and is likely a centerpiece for the team going forward.

--SS Andrelton Simmons continued to show himself as the best fielding shortstop in the league, but he regressed at the plate. Simmons hit .244 with seven homers, seven fewer than in 2013. His numbers dropped in every offensive category and he hit into a team-leading 25 double plays. He hit only .209 after the All-Star break. The team would like to see him work with driving the ball to other parts of the field and making more consistent contact.

--LHP Alex Wood established himself as a starting pitcher once he got a chance when Gavin Floyd was injured. Wood went 11-11 with a 2.76 ERA and struck out 170 in 171 2/3 innings. The University of Georgia product won fans with his tenacity and could start the 2015 season as the No. 2 man in the rotation.

--C Evan Gattis suffered through an injury-plagued season, with back issues putting him on the disabled list and strep throat and a kidney stone keeping him sidelined for most of September. "El Oso Blanco" hit .263 with 22 homers in 108 games. While he is immensely popular, it is believed the club will try to move him to an American League team.

--OF B.J. Upton completed a second straight subpar season and set the franchise strikeout mark with 173. He hit .208 (24 points higher than 2013) with 12 homers and 20 stolen bases. There's no doubt the team would like to move him, but his massive contract will make it difficult.

--LF Justin Upton had a great April and a great August, but was otherwise mediocre at best. He wound up hitting .270 with 29 homers and a career-high 102 RBIs. But he also struck out 171 times and disappeared in September. No one would be surprised to see him moved during the offseason.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's a different feeling. I don't like it. Hopefully we don't get very many more years like this. It's the worse feeling in the world." -- Manager Fredi Gonzalez, about not going to the playoffs.

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MLB Team Report - Atlanta Braves - ROSTER REPORT


No one expects the Braves to stand pat after such a disappointing season.

The Braves have most of their young core players under contract. 1B Freddie Freeman SS Andrelton Simmons, 3B Chris Johnson, RHP Julio Teheran and RHP Craig Kimbrel all signed multi-year contracts in 2014.

It is generally believed that only a handful of players are untouchable, which means this roster will undergo multiple changes before 2013.

BIGGEST NEEDS: The club again lacked a true leadoff hitter in 2014, something it hasn't had since allowing Michael Bourn to leave for free agency and replacing him with B.J. Upton. Atlanta used eight different players in the leadoff spot, with RF Jason Heyward the most effective. But Heyward's bat is better suited for the middle of the order, where he can drive in runs.

The team must also identify their direction at second base. Since the decision to release Dan Uggla in midseason, the team mainly used rookies Tommy La Stella and Phil Gosselin at second. La Stella got off to a hot start, but wound up at .251, and Gosselin hit .265. Neither has power.

There is also a need for a better bench. The Braves were ineffective with their pinch-hitters and had no speed once OF Jordan Schaefer was optioned out.

FREE AGENTS: OF Emilio Bonifacio, OF Ryan Doumit, RHP Gavin Floyd, RHP Aaron Harang, C Gerald Laird, RHP Ervin Santana

Santana has said he would like to come back to Atlanta, but he earned $14.1 million on his one-year deal and the Braves may not want to pay -- or more -- again. Laird was a strong presence in the clubhouse and could return in the backup role he's played for two years. Bonifacio can play all three outfield spots, second base and shortstop and could be a nice piece for the bench.

ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: RHP Brandon Beachy, RHP Kris Medlen, LHP Mike Minor, INF Ramiro Pena, LHP James Russell, RHP Jordan Walden

Minor was on the verge of arbitration last year when he signed a one-year deal and could go the same route. It is unlikely the Braves will offer a multi-year deal unless Minor shows he can rebound from this year's 6-12 season. The Braves will definitely want to keep Walden, who was 0-2 with a 2.88 in 58 appearances and proved to be an effective set-up man for Kimbrel. Russell didn't get left-handers out with the effectiveness hoped for, but is still expected to have a part in the bullpen makeup.

IN LIMBO: The Braves may try to move C Evan Gattis to an American League team, where he can spend time at designated hitter. Atlanta would like to move OF B.J. Upton, who is still owed $45 million over the next three years, but the club would likely have to eat some of that contract or obtain another club's contractual pariah.

MEDICAL WATCH:

--LHP Jonny Venters (Tommy John surgery in September 2014) underwent a third elbow reconstruction. He is not expected to return in 2015.

--RHP Kris Medlen (Tommy John surgery in March 2014) underwent a second elbow reconstruction. He could be able to return by June.

--RHP Brandon Beachy (Tommy John surgery in March 2014) underwent a second elbow reconstruction. He could be able to return by June.

--RHP Cory Gearrin (Tommy John surgery in April 2014) could be able to return by July.

--RHP Shae Simmons (right shoulder strain) is expected to be OK for spring training.