Having gone seven years without a division title, the Braves ended their drought in particularly convincing fashion last year, running away from a Nationals team that was favored to win not only the division, but the World Series. And just like during their 15-year run from 1991 to 2005, their starting rotation carried them.
This one was lacking in star power, though. Fantasy owners already knew of Kris Medlen because of his impossible finish to 2012, but even they underestimated the impact Mike Minor and Julio Teheran would have. Not that either's breakthrough was particularly surprising. Minor was nearly as dominant as Medlen to finish 2012 (though his overall numbers did a pretty good job of hiding it), and Teheran was long considered one of the game's top pitching prospects. Both are top 30 starting pitchers heading into 2014, with Medlen just on the outskirts.
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And there's more where that came from. Yes, Tim Hudson is gone, but that's a bigger loss for the clubhouse than for Fantasy owners. Brandon Beachy flashed ace potential when he first broke into the big leagues and should be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery this spring. Alex Wood has impressive ability but may have to wait his turn, especially if he hasn't claimed the role by the time Gavin Floyd returns from Tommy John surgery in May. Freddy Garcia and David Hale are also in the mix. The bullpen has long been one of this club's strengths, anchored by historically dominant closer Craig Kimbrel. He'll again be the first player selected at his position.
The lineup is a different story. Freddie Freeman emerged as the centerpiece with Chipper Jones retired, but Jason Heyward, who seemed a lock for that role just a couple years ago, can't decide how good he wants to be. He still has superstar potential, but Fantasy owners should know not to overpay for him by now. Justin Upton did fine coming over from Arizona and remains an early-round type with room to grow, but brother B.J. Upton completely fell apart with a .184 batting average, joining Dan Uggla to give the Braves two sub-.200 hitters. A first-place team never had it so good.
Apart from baseball's unpredictable nature, neither offers much hope for a rebound. For Uggla in particular, Fantasy owners are just counting down the days until he loses his job to Tommy La Stella, an on-base specialist with little to offer in terms of power or speed. Upton may be salvageable at age 29 -- he'll get every opportunity in light of his big contract -- but frankly, shortstop Andrelton Simmons and catcher Evan Gattis have become the hotter commodities in Fantasy. Both offer plus power for the positions they play but still have some refining to do.
Bounce-back candidate ... Brandon Beachy, starting pitcher
Bust ... Andrelton Simmons, shortstopIn a different time with a different player pool, Evan Gattis would be the choice here instead of Simmons. He exhibits more of the warning signs with his all-or-nothing approach. But given the current state of the catcher and shortstop positions, Fantasy owners are more likely to overextend themselves for Simmons than Gattis, who seems to be going in a reasonable spot for a player with his power potential. The mistake they make is one so many made with Starlin Castro last year: They bank on improvement. Granted, Simmons makes contact at a much higher rate, so he probably won't get worse, but with all the home run hitters in the Braves lineup, he's in no position to steal bases. His BABIP should improve if he doesn't elevate the ball so much, but then what happens to his 17 home runs? Maybe he gets stronger at age 24 and delivers the best of both worlds -- for an 11th- or 12th-round pick, it's a worthy gamble -- but if you select Simmons in Round 6, as happened in one of our recent mock drafts, prepare to be disappointed.
Sleeper ... Alex Wood, starting pitcher/relief pitcher
Prospects ReportTommy La Stella isn't the only rookie knocking on the door in 2014. Christian Bethancourt may eventually split catching duties with Evan Gattis, especially if an injury creates an opening in the outfield, Gattis' secondary position. Bethancourt is considered a better prospect than La Stella, but mostly because of his defensive prowess. Neither is a safe enough bet for mixed-league consideration, but a big spring would give La Stella fringe sleeper appeal. ... As usual, the Braves have no shortage of pitching in the pipeline. David Hale is first in line and opened eyes in two spot starts late last season, but Lucas Sims is the real prize. A first-round pick in 2012, he dominated lower Class A last year, but the Braves won't rush him at age 19. J.R. Graham should hold them over in the meantime. He missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, casting doubt over his long-term role, but he can hit 97 mph with his fastball and is nearly a finished product at age 24.