Series 2 Preview: Cubs at Atlanta
Braves RHP Craig Kimbrel has quickly established himself as one of the game’s top closers. (Photo By Leon Halip/Getty)
The last two seasons have left the Braves feeling a bit cheated, with 183 regular-season wins earning them just one postseason Wild Card game. It won’t be any easier to upset Washington in the NL East this year, but not for lack of effort in GM Frank Wren’s office.
The Braves loaded up with a fraternal pair of game-changing talents—B.J. and Justin Upton—to make up for the losses of Chipper Jones (retirement), Michael Bourn (free agency) and Martin Prado (trade). The Upton brothers join right fielder Jason Heyward to form one of the game’s most dynamic outfields, with good speed, big power and cannon arms at each position. The trio also could strike out well over 400 times this season.
Heyward, shortstop Andrelton Simmons and first baseman Freddie Freeman are all 23 years old and form the homegrown core of this team. Simmons is a fantastic defender—many have hailed him as the top defensive shortstop in baseball—and a good contact hitter who appears set to lead off. Freeman already has a pair of 20-homer seasons under his belt and shows a good approach that should see him hitting a good deal higher than the .259 he managed last year while battling vision problems. Heyward regained his footing and became an impact player after a shaky sophomore season thanks to an improved willingness to go with pitches.
The Braves have a well-rounded pitching staff, even if it isn’t at its historical best. Underappreciated workhorse Tim Hudson is followed by former Cub Paul Maholm. Kris Medlen made the most of every inning in 2012, with three months of outstanding starts following a bullpen stint to keep his workload down. Mike Minor still has to put together a complete season, while top prospect Julio Teheran has the pitchability and excellent fastball-change combo to succeed in the big leagues. Meanwhile, the bullpen has the game’s best closer in Craig Kimbrel, but with setup man Jonny Venters out indefinitely with an elbow injury, there’s more pressure on the bullpen’s depth—like newly acquired Jordan Walden and former waiver claim Eric O’Flaherty.
Friday, April 5—RHP Scott Feldman vs. LHP Mike Minor
Saturday, April 6—RHP Carlos Villanueva vs. RHP Julio Teheran
Sunday, April 7—RHP Jeff Samardzija vs. RHP Tim Hudson
[PITCHER TO WATCH] Craig Kimbrel
2012 STATS: 62.2 IP, 1.01 ERA, 50 K%, 6.1 UBB%, 49 GB%
The 25-year-old right-hander’s effectiveness can be summed up easily: Kimbrel stuck out half of the batters he faced in 2012. Combine that with a good ground-ball rate and a great walk rate, and you have the elite of the elite closing out games in Atlanta.
Kimbrel starts closed from the set position before unleashing a whirlwind of torque at the batter. He gets great velocity, extension and deception on his pitches as a result of his mechanics. His fastball sits in the high-90s, occasionally touching triple digits, with a ton of natural life to it. Kimbrel loves to use it on the right side of the plate, where he can bust righties in or get lefties desperately chasing for any contact. But his low-three-quarters arm slot also allows him to get a sharp angle on the left side of the plate, which keeps batters honest. His curve is a high-80s hammer with slider velocity but big break. It’s a weapon that will get whiffs in and out of the zone, and one he’ll drop through the back door to leave batters staring blankly.
PLAN OF ATTACK: Get ahead
After a first-pitch ball, hitters had a .595 on-base plus slugging percentage in 68 plate appearances against Kimbrel. After a first-pitch strike, they had a microscopic .269 OPS in 147 plate appearances with 97 strikeouts and three walks.
PITCHf/x data from Baseball Prospectus and BrooksBaseball.net.