COMMENTARY | Despite the Atlanta Braves having upped their win total in each of the past two seasons, one gaming institution feels the 2014 season will find the Braves hitting the skids and regressing back to the rest of the pack in the National League East.
The Atlantis Casino in Reno, NV., became the first sportsbook to issue its yearly projections when it published its estimated win totals for every team in Major League Baseball.
The Los Angeles Dodgers were given the best outlook with a projected 92.5 wins, while Atlantis is expecting the Braves to drop by 9.5 games in the standings with only 86.5 wins being anticipated for the 2013 NL East champs.
Do the Braves still have what it takes to contend for a Word Series title, or should fans expect their club to lose ground in a much tougher NL East this season?
The Braves had a very quite offseason this year by focusing on re-signing their own players, rather than hitting the free-agent market to acquire new personnel. However, Atlanta did make two under-the-radar moves it hopes will pay big dividends this season.
Gavin Floyd: He may not be David Price, but Atlanta did secure a veteran starter by adding Gavin Floyd to its No. 6-ranked MLB starting rotation. At times, Floyd has looked like he could be a true No. 1 starter, including going 17-8 with a 3.84 ERA in 2008; however, he recorded a 5.18 ERA in just five starts last season before having to undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery.
Floyd may be able to give the Braves the veteran presence they were lacking in the playoffs last season, but he is not expected to be fully recovered until May at the earliest.
Ryan Doumit: Losing Brian McCann in free agency meant more than just having to replace a nine-year mainstay behind the plate, it also meant that Evan Gattis would no longer be a safety net in the outfield should B.J. Upton falter again in 2014.
Unwilling to put all of their eggs into the Upton basket, the Braves signed Minnesota Twins dual-position catcher/outfield Ryan Doumit to allow for a similar type of positioning option they had carrying three catchers last season.
Doumit split his time between catching duties and patrolling the pasture in right field for the Twinkies last season. Doumit is a power-hitting switch-hitter who cranked 14 long balls last season and hit .300 during his time in the outfield.
Brian McCann: The Braves have officially turned the page on the old era of Atlanta baseball by letting McCann walk in free agency. The New York Yankees offered Mac a five-year, $85 million deal that the Braves were simply unwilling to match for an aging catcher who, despite still being productive, has shown signs of wearing down in recent years.
The Braves will now have to account for McCann's 20 home runs, but, more important, that that may be trying to replace McCann's clubhouse leadership.
Tim Hudson: Atlanta's season may have changed dramatically on July 24, 2013 when Eric Young Jr. fractured the ankle of Hudson on a bang-bang play at first base. The Braves lost their staff leader for the rest of the season, and the 38-year-old suddenly became a risky gamble to re-sign in the offseason.
The San Francisco Giants gave Huddie a two-year, $23 million deal to return to the Bay Area to pitch, and the Braves have been struggling ever since to find a veteran presence with as much consistency as Hudson gave them over his nine seasons in Atlanta.
Hudson finished his Braves' career with a record of 85-51 and had seven straight seasons with an ERA under 4.00.
Eric O'Flaherty: The Braves once had an unstoppable three-headed bullpen monster in Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and O'Flaherty. But after the latter two were both hobbled and forced under the knife for season-ending Tommy John surgery, the Braves were still able to piece together the best bullpen in all of baseball.
With Luis Avilan and Jordan Walden taking up the slack, either Venters or O'Flaherty would become expendable, and, once the Braves agreed to a one-year, $1.65 million contract with Venters, the writing was on the wall and O'Flaherty signed a two-year, $7 million deal with the Oakland Athletics.
Considering the .179 and .187 respective batting averages the Braves got from Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton last season, the biggest additions to the Atlanta roster could be found simply by these two former All-Stars returning to form.
In addition to individual struggles, the Braves had to battle countless injuries to key players. It is remarkable to consider how Atlanta was able to win 96 games in 2013 when McCann, Jason Heyward, Ramiro Pena, Uggla, Venters and O'Flaherty all spent a considerable amount of time out of the lineup.
The lack of new additions could be augmented by merely having a healthier team in 2014.
Are the Washington Nationals a Threat?
In addition to dropping the Braves to only 86.5 projected wins for 2014, Atlantis has also elevated the Nationals to 90.5, making them the prohibitive favorites to come away with the NL East crown this season.
After posting 98 wins in 2012, Washington regressed in 2013 to only accumulate 86 victories and never truly give the Braves a serious challenger for the division title. However, the Nats were 36-25 over the last two months of the season and have some people believing they will be a threat once again in 2014.
Led by Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals' starters were still among the tops in the National League last season, but their offense ranked No. 13 in the NL during the first half of the ear, digging themselves into a hole they were unable to climb out of all season.
The Nats improved their already potent rotation by adding former Detroit Tigers' right-hander Doug Fister. But the only major addition to their offense was the signing of former Braves' disappointment Nate McLouth.
The Braves went 13-6 against Washington last season, but fans should expect a much tighter race this summer.