Playoff aspirations not reached in disappointing season
Ineffective offense leads to Braves' sub-.500 record in 2014
ATLANTA -- Instead of defending a division crown like their predecessors once did on an annual basis, the Braves endured one of the most disappointing seasons in Atlanta history. This marked just the third time since 1990 that they did not post a winning record. But unlike the 2006 and '08 teams, this year's club went through most of the season with legitimate postseason aspirations.
"It is definitely a disappointing season in all of our eyes here in the clubhouse, because we're geared to win," Braves right fielder Jason Heyward said. "We want to win, and that is what this organization my whole career has been about."
When the Braves lost two of their top starting pitchers -- Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy -- to season-ending elbow injuries less than 24 hours apart in March, there was reason to believe that this might be a trying season in Atlanta. But nobody could have predicted that the struggles would be a product of the anemic performance of a lineup that had scored the National League's fourth-most runs just a year earlier.
As they won 17 of their first 24 games, the Braves saw their reconstructed starting rotation produce an incredible 1.57 ERA. Like it was assumed that this overachieving quintet would soon experience a regression, it was also expected that the offense would start carrying the load. But the second part of this equation never came close to materializing.
The Braves entered the final days of this season feeling good about their rotation and bewildered by the offense, which spent most of the year proving to be one of Major League Baseball's least productive units.
"You look at the guys on paper and we have a great team, and we didn't live up to our potential this year," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "We as players need to take it upon ourselves to put this as a chip on our shoulder and come out in 2015 and show what we can do."
One year after notching 96 victories and capturing the NL East, the Braves fired general manager Frank Wren, who had entered this year expecting to field a roster that looked quite similar to the one he employed the previous season. There was no doubt the offseason departures of Brian McCann, Tim Hudson and Eric O'Flaherty weakened the clubhouse culture, just like the departures of Martin Prado and David Ross had entering the 2013 season.
But with Heyward, Freeman and Justin Upton in their lineup once again, the Braves had no reason to expect the offensive miseries they experienced this year. They endured a rough September for the second time in four years. But their skid actually started on April 29, when they began a five-month stretch within which they would play more than 10 games below .500 the rest of the season.
Record: 79-83, second place in the NL East
Defining moment: Though they had stumbled during a portion of July, the Braves had seemingly righted themselves just before they began an eight-game road trip to Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle. They opened this journey by blowing a two-run, fifth-inning lead at Dodger Stadium and concluded it by watching Julio Teheran allow four third-inning runs after the Braves had gained a 3-1 third-inning lead over the Mariners.
The Braves lost each of the eight games during this road trip that served as the stimulant to the slide that would follow. There were a number of lowlights, but the most memorable misery of this trip occurred on Aug. 3, when a 10-inning loss to the Padres could have been avoided. Evan Gattis' inability to get a good read on a ball hit to left-center field gap led to him advancing only from second base to third base on a Chris Johnson double. Three batters later, B.J. Upton became the second Braves player in less than 24 hours to ground into a 5-2-3 double play.
What went right: When the Braves lost Medlen and Beachy, they filled their voids with Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang, who capably teamed to solidify the fractured starting rotation ... Though September proved to be one of the worst months he has experienced in Atlanta, Justin Upton actually exited August as a legit NL Most Valuable Player Award candidate ... Heyward led the Majors in Defensive Runs Saved and last year's leader, Andrelton Simmons, enjoyed a second straight top-three finish ... Craig Kimbrel became the first pitcher in Major League history to notch at least 40 saves in each of his first four full seasons. Kimbrel also broke the franchise's career saves record, which was previously held by John Smoltz.
What went wrong: Coming off a career-best year that provided him an unexpected contract extension, Johnson regressed back to the mean and then dipped even further as he endured one of the worst seasons of his career ... After hitting an unexpected 17 homers in 2013, Simmons developed some bad habits that further highlighted the problems he has had with gaining a sound and consistent offensive approach. Simmons' offensive problems were visible with a regular array of off-balance swings that might have been a product of a bothersome ankle ... After leading the Majors in home runs and strikeouts in 2013, the Braves maintained their strikeout rate and proved unsuccessful in their bid to clear the outfield wall with as much consistency ... The mistake to bring Dan Uggla back after leaving him off the postseason roster last year led to him spending two months as a limited bench player before being released with a little more than $19 million still owed to him through the end of the 2015 season ... B.J. Upton's second straight disappointing season has provided reason to wonder what the Braves will do with the approximate $46 million he is owed over the next three seasons.
Biggest surprise: When the Braves signed Harang hours after he had been released by the Indians during the final week of Spring Training, they became the fifth organization to employ him in one calendar year. Expectations were low and he seemed to be just a Band-Aid who would be traded or released at some point. But Harang was sensational throughout most of April, and he proved to be one of the steadiest members of the rotation.
Hitter of the Year: Though his numbers dipped in batting average, home runs and OPS, Freeman still proved to be the most consistent threat in the Braves lineup. Despite not producing impressive numbers in these traditional categories, Freeman still ranked among the top NL players in wRC+. The All-Star was also the only qualified Braves player to hit above .275 and compile an on-base percentage above .370.
Pitcher of the Year: Though he was shut down for six weeks to moderate the innings he totaled during his second full professional season, Alex Wood proved to be the club's most impressive member of the rotation. Teheran deservedly gained an All-Star selection and quickly rebounded after stumbling in early August. But Wood led the team in ERA, Fielding Independent Pitching and strikeouts per nine innings.
Rookie of the Year: Phil Gosselin made a strong push courtesy of the production he provided after he arrived in late July and Christian Bethancourt might have been a strong candidate had he not spent all of August back with Triple-A Gwinnett. But even with the late-season struggles he endured, Tommy La Stella gets the nod simply because he of the impact he made while serving as a regular at second base throughout June and July.