Where Do the Braves Go From Here? by Drew Fairservice September 17, 2014 Unlike the previous iteration of the “Where Do The _____ Go From Here”, the immediate future of this week’s focus, the Atlanta Braves, remains very much unwritten. The Braves are 5.5 games out of a National League Wild Card spot with one team to leap frog. Should a litany of things break their way, they’ll play at least one game of significant significance. That said, the Braves finding themselves in that pivotal play-in game would represent a serious reversal of fortune. Right now, and for much of the last month, the Braves look bad. Their offense is abysmal, one of the worst in baseball in the second half of the season, and they just watched their main rival celebrate a division title in their own soil. Their ongoing presence in the playoff race is more a testament of the rather putrid NL Wild Card class, currently featuring a Giants team that opted not to win a single game during the summer months and the Milwaukee Brewers, currently showing the Braves what a real slump looks like. The problems with the Braves are relatively minor. They won 96 games last year, which we know to be extremely good. They hung in the Wild Card race and at the top of the NL East all season despite losing 40% of their starting rotation before the year even started, and then losing their lottery ticket starter before they even got to scratch it. But the issues the Braves currently face are largely issues they might have addressed in the offseason. After their surprisingly terrific 2013 season, Braves GM Frank Wren balanced a need to improve a club that perhaps misrepresented its true talent one year against very real budgetary concerns in the next. Other than nabbing Ervin Santana on a one year desperation deal and acquiring Ryan Doumit for mildly inexplicable reasons, they stood pat and are now paying the price. “Why mess with a 96 win team?” you might wonder. The Braves did indeed post 96 wins in 2013, but the talent they had on hand at the start of 2014 projected to win 82-86 games. Right now, the problem for Atlanta is this team is about as good as it should be. They came into the year with a question marks at a few spots in the lineup and did nothing to address them. The Braves needed underperformers like B.J. Upton to rediscover their old form while the upstarts such as Chris Johnson needed to repeat their production of the previous season. Or they could make a push to improve their team and push themselves into 90 win territory, It didn’t happen. So now we’re left to take stock of the Atlanta Braves, now and in the future. The Braves have: Black holes – it is hard to believe that the Braves one Chris Johnson slump away from becoming just the ninth team of the expansion era to have three qualified hitters post an OPS+ lower than 80. Those three hitters –Johnson, Andrelton Simmons, and B.J. Upton — aren’t going anywhere soon, as they’re all signed for at least two more seasons beyond this one. Simmons’ isn’t in the lineup for his offense, and as suggested a few weeks ago, he might be suffering from a small identity crisis at the plate. Upton is playing slightly better in 2014 than he was in 2013, but his far below-average productions sends his contract into “worst free agent deals ever” consideration. Three extremely good hitters – for all the flailing at the bottom of their order, in Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, and Evan Gattis, the Braves have three exceptional offensive players at their disposal. It’s a nice problem to have, though Gattis misses a little too much time for comfort. Freeman and Upton are young enough to form the backbone of a very good team for a long time. Freeman is signed long term and Upton can test free agency after next season. Enviable run prevention – When Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen went down with elbow problems this year, all looked lost in Atlanta. But their pitching staff has barely missed a beat. They boast two of the best defenders in baseball in Simmons and Jason Heyward, as well as well-regarded players at other positions. Just look at Aaron Harang and his 2014 renaissance, buoyed by the Braves D as he might be (to be fair to Harang, he’s keeping the ball in the park as much as he benefits from the Braves defense.) The Braves have a good starter signed for pennies in Julio Teheran, starters with nice track records but health questions in Medlen and Beachy, league-average starters (at worst) in Alex Wood and Mike Minor, and another cohort of young pitchers shuttling through their minor league system. Plus, they’ve demonstrated and ability to wring decent innings out of slightly washed-up starters like Freddy Garcia and Harang, a nice trick to lean on when the unexpected happens. The Braves need: To overpay a bench player – the failings of the Braves offense in 2014 breaks down right along “stars and scrubs” lines. Subbing out one of their sub-par hitters with even a league-average performer could go a long way, to say nothing of giving notorious batting order butcher Fred Gonzalez a few more options. Simmons is firmly entrenched (quite rightly) so it’s between Johnson and Bossman Junior to decide where the upgrade needs to come, though even a full season of unspectacular play from Tommy La Stella at second base might stop the bleeding from the non-core hitters. Heading down to the “guy who plays multiple positions and can thrive without playing everyday” store isn’t an option, but a player like the one they thought they acquired in Emilio Bonifacio will go a long way. This year’s Braves squad is pathetically short on depth, a glaring need going forward. Decide on one of Heyward or Upton and trade the other – money will always be a challenge for the Braves, who cry poor often enough that they might actually believe it themselves. Both Jason Heyward and Justin Upton are destined for free agency at the end of 2015. They are both very young and about to become very expensive. They offer similar production in two very different shapes. It won’t be an easy decision, should they decide to move one and build around the other. Perhaps the Braves will attempt to keep the current outfield in tact for one more season and then let them both walk, recouping draft picks for complete franchise overhaul. Either way, these are valuable trade chips and the temptation to move them will be strong. Fixing a team one year removed from 96 wins shouldn’t be a difficult task, but the choices before Wren and the Braves front office are tough indeed. There are many nice pieces in place right now but the Atlanta Braves team that takes the field on Opening Day next season could easily feature a whole host of new names and faces.