Line ‘em Up

andreltonThere are several different ways you could look at the Braves’ projected 2013 lineup. You could look and see that 6 of the 8 projected starters have hit at least 23 home runs in a season since 2010. You could also look at that same lineup and note that 6 of the 8 posted an OBP of .335 or lower last season. You could point to the fact that four regulars have slugged over .500 in a season in their careers. Or you could point to the fact that four regulars struck out over 130 times last season. The truth is that it’s a group of players who all have the potential to be All-Stars. Save for Uggla, all of them are under 29. Heyward, Freeman, Simmons, Justin Upton, and Johnson/Francisco should all have their best years ahead of them. But with that potential comes a degree of uncertainty. Unfortunately, the way the team is managed could play a major role in how effective the offense will be (full disclosure: I am not a Fredi Gonzalez fan; hence the unfortunately in the previous sentence). Finding the right players to embrace important roles, namely at the top and bottom of the order, will be crucial to the team’s success this season.

This article posted on ESPN on Monday provides the lineup Fredi is projected to use:

Simmons

Heyward

J. Upton

Freeman

B. Upton

McCann

Uggla

Johnson/Francisco

Shockingly, I find myself agreeing with most of this. Let’s start with the leadoff spot. Simmons’ past performance would indicate that he’s ready to be a top of the order hitter. In his only full season in the minors, he hit .311 with a .351 OBP. Before being called up last season, his OBP at Double-A was up to .372 and he had as many walks as he had strikeouts. He continued his success at the plate in the big leagues, hitting .289 and only striking out 21 times in 182 plate appearances. However, this came hitting predominantly at the bottom of the order, where the expectation was for him to provide solid defense. Any offense produced was just a plus. Putting Simmons at the top of the order changes that dynamic. The leadoff hitter is expected to be patient and work the pitcher, something Simmons has not shown he can do at any level of his brief career. He averaged only 3.26 pitches per plate appearance last year with the Braves and hasn’t drawn more than 32 walks in a season as a professional. Walks aren’t as important if Simmons continues to hit near .300, but if his average begins to decline his inability to work counts and draw walks will become an issue.

If Simmons does struggle in that role, Fredi should not look to B.J. Upton as the solution. I covered B.J’s decline following his first two full seasons in this earlier post. But what I didn’t mention is that his decline corresponded with his move to the top of the batting order. In ’07-’08, he spent the majority of the time hitting 3 through 8 in the batting order. In 2009, B.J. was moved to the leadoff spot and went on to have the worst season of his career. By August 2nd that season, his OBP had plummeted down to .318 (62 points lower than it was at the same time the previous season) and he was moved back down the order. Because of his speed and the ability to get on base he had shown in ’07 and ’08, it seemed that he should excel at the top of the order. He just hasn’t been the same player. While his OBP has stayed down since ‘09, he has regained his power, increasing his home run totals each year. Personally, I think that he should hit 6th when McCann is finally healthy, but Fredi will likely keep him in the 5-hole to keep the righty/lefty stagger in the middle of the order.

Other than the leadoff spot, the most important position in the order to lock down will be the two hitter. This is fairly obvious since Bourn and Prado were so effective in the top two spots in the order last season (well at least until mid-August for Bourn). Presumably Fredi has picked Heyward to hit second because of his speed, but I think swapping him and Freeman in the cleanup spot could be beneficial to both players. Both Freeman and Heyward have had flashes of prodigious power in their brief professional careers (Heyward’s first swing against Zambrano and Freeman’s upper deck shot in Houston come to mind), but Freeman seems to have better bat control than Heyward. I keep thinking back to the two series Freeman had last April against the Mets and D’backs where he was hitting line drives from foul to foul line at will (11-23, 3 HR’s, 5 2B’s, 7 Runs, and 14 RBI’s in 6 games) . Of course, he didn’t hit that way the entire season but he’s shown that he has that ability. The same issues Simmons has working deep counts apply to Freeman as well.  Freeman averaged under 4.0 pitches per plate appearance the past two seasons and has only walked 117 times in 1255 plate appearances. I can see Heyward being successful in the two-spot, but I think he would be better hitting cleanup. There he would be protected by Uptons (or McCann) in the order and would be less limited by the situational hitting that is required from a two-hitter. Conversely, I see Freeman thriving in that role where moving over runners and spraying balls to all fields is valuable. The cleanup spot would likely push him to try and hit more for power and de-emphasize his balanced approach.

The other adjustment I would make would be to move Dan Uggla to 8th in the order. This is not because he has been so excruciating to watch the past two seasons (OK maybe a little), but because I think it would be beneficial for two reasons. First, Uggla has spoken openly about the pressure to uphold the big contract he signed two years ago, which has obviously been a detriment to his production at the plate. The big Upton acquisitions should take some of the pressure off of Dan and putting him 8th in the order should further help this cause. Second, not much is typically expected from an 8 hitter other than to get on base and allow the pitcher to move him over or prevent the pitcher from leading off the following inning. Believe it or not, Uggla was deceptively good at getting on base last season. He led the team with 94 walks and his .348 OBP was tied with Michael Bourn for third on the team (the only hitters ahead of them: Martin Prado and Chipper Jones). Assuming he continues to find his way on base, he would be very valuable in the 8 spot, and the decreased pressure for him to perform could help bring his production back up to where it used to be with the Marlins.

This is all easy to say a month and a half before the season starts. How Brian McCann will perform after having offseason surgery will be one of the many questions for Fredi Gonzalez to tackle once the season begins. Inevitably, one (or more) of the other starters will miss significant time and the ‘ideal’ lineup will change. But for now, I have my ideal lineup card looking like this:

Simmons

Freeman

J. Upton

Heyward

McCann

B. Upton

C. Johnson

Uggla

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