MLB In Full Bloom - Braves Preview - 3/18/2014

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13– Number of days until Opening Day

83,674– Number of signatures at www.budweiser.com/openingday to make Opening Day a National Holiday

Atlanta Braves Preview

After getting bounced from last year's National League Division Series by the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games, the Atlanta Braves did a whole lot of nothing for the next few months. Sure, there was the announcement involving a new stadium that will get the team out of downtown Atlanta, but otherwise the Braves were quiet for most of the offseason. Then, the calendar hit February and the Braves got aggressive as they were eager to lock up their young core. The Braves agreed to multi-year extensions with Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Julio Teheran, Craig Kimbrel, and Andrelton Simmons. By the time you read this, someone else may have signed a big contract too. With their young stars secure for the next half decade, the Braves will be annual front-runners in the National League East.

Key Additions: Ervin Santana, Ryan Doumit, Gavin Floyd

Key Departures: Brian McCann, Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm, Luis Ayala

OFFENSE: The Braves lived and died by the long ball in 2013. They led the National League with 181 home runs, but only hit two home runs in their ALDS loss to the Dodgers. Six players hit at least 20 homers, with left fielder Justin Upton's 27 home runs leading the way. Meanwhile, B.J. Upton was a huge bust as he hit just .184 in 446 plate appearances last year and was among one of the most disappointing players in all of baseball. The Braves will see some regression at the catcher position with the loss of Brian McCann who left for with the New York Yankees in the offseason.

STARTING PITCHING: A few weeks ago, the Braves starting rotation was one of their strengths in 2014. However, in the past two weeks, they have lost Brandon Beachy, Kris Medlen, and Mike Minor to injuries. The Braves will be without Medlen for the entire season as he will undergo a second Tommy John surgery today. Beachy could also be heading to his second Tommy John surgery, but he is getting a second opinion this week in Los Angeles before making a final decision. Minor threw his first bullpen session yesterday and reported no issues after throwing a live batting practice since experiencing shoulder tightness. Julio Teheran will slot somewhere in the rotation, possibly as high as the #2 starter in an attempt to replicate his excellent rookie season. Ervin Santana was signed last week after the Braves learned of Medlen's injury. I have concerns about Santana pitching the majority of his starts in Turner Field. It is a launch pad and certainly could cause problems. Alex Wood and Gavin Floyd will be forced into the rotation as well and while Smith has the stuff to be a solid starter, I'm not sure he is a long-term solution at this point in his young career. The Braves always seem to have starting pitching depth in their system and they are certainly going to need to rely on it this year.

BULLPEN: Craig Kimbrel is the best closer in baseball, without any debate. Backing up Kimbrel you have a solid corps that includes David Carpenter and Luis Avilan. Keep in mind that lefty Jonny Venters should be in fighting shape for the second half. Venters is recovering from his second Tommy John surgery right now, but all indications are that he should return around the All-Star break. Don't be surprised if Jordan Walden emerges as the primary right-handed bridge to Kimbrel.

2014 Prediction: There were a lot of us, including myself that were too high on the Washington Nationals last year. The Nats, though, are a better team now and it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Braves hit hard by regression at third base and catcher. A second place finish is still a fair expectation, but unless the Braves can piece together their starting rotation during the season, they could certainly miss the second wild card spot.

Final Record: 82-80 (2nd Place NL East)

MLB In Full Bloom - Nationals Preview - 3/17/2014

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14– Number of days until Opening Day

80,663– Number of signatures at www.budweiser.com/openingday to make Opening Day a National Holiday

Washington Nationals Preview

Key Additions: Doug Fister, Jerry Blevins, Nate McLouth

Key Departures: Dan Haren, Steve Lombardozzi, Chad Tracy, Roger Bernadina

The Nationals were everybody’s pre-season darlings going into the 2013 season. In fact, I picked them to represent the National League in the World Series. They just never got it going, struggling to reach .500 deep into August. A late-season run in which they went 32-16 in the final 48 games gave fans a glimmer of hope that they could grab a Wild Card spot, but they ultimately fell short and missed the playoffs. One big reason why the Nationals struggled compared to 2012 was their production at second base. Danny Espinosa struggled, primarily due to a broken wrist and he eventually lost his job to Anthony Rendon.

OFFENSE: The Nationals essentially return the same lineup from last season, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Denard Span, the speedy outfielder who hit .279 with 20 steals, heads back to the leadoff spot in front of the impressive Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth trio. Those three guys combined for 71 home runs. Backed by Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, and Anthony Rendon there's plenty of potential for this lineup to be one of the highest-scoring units in baseball.

STARTING PITCHING: The starting rotation is the strength of the Nationals. Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann have each had a year worthy of Cy Young consideration within the past two seasons while Stephen Strasburg was better than Gonzalez and Zimmermann in ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate last season. There are some that might point to his 8-9 record, but the Nationals scored two runs or fewer in 16 of Strasburg's 30 starts. Now, add in Doug Fister and the Nationals could have the best rotation in baseball. Fister was 32-20 with a 3.29 ERA with the Tigers. He's been one of the stingiest pitchers in the league in terms of home runs allowed and now he's switching over to the league that is easier on pitchers.

BULLPEN: Despite signing closer Rafael Soriano in 2013, the Nationals' bullpen was a league average unit last year. Soriano saw a huge drop in strikeout rate as his ERA climbed by nearly a full run. Despite the red flags, there are several reasons why he will keep his job in 2014. Setup man Tyler Clippard will continue to be amazing, but Drew Storen was awful in 2013 and it's difficult to know what he will do this year. Left Jerry Blevins was the latest pitcher in the Oakland-to-D.C. pipeline when the Nationals traded for him this offseason and will be a strength in the Nats pen.

2014 PREDICTION: If last year was World Series or bust, this season could be labeled as better late than never. Yes, the Nationals were predicted to win it all by many experts last season, but just because they failed doesn't mean they have lost their chance with this nucleus. This group is as talented as any and showed as much in the final third of the season in 2013. The most likely scenario is the Nationals engaging in a two-horse race with the Braves throughout the season in the NL East. I'm picking the Nationals to win that race.

Final Record (88-74 First Place in NL East)

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