For Braves, 94 something to work from, not toward
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Frank Wren believes that this is the best team he has had as general manager of the Atlanta Braves.
When you consider that the 2012 Atlanta team won 94 games and qualified for the postseason, that is a substantial endorsement. Wren, who earlier served the Braves as assistant general manager to John Schuerholz, has been the Braves GM since October 2007.
Much of the news regarding the Braves in this Spring Training has focused on the outfield acquisitions of the Upton Brothers, B.J. and Justin. And these two have added considerably to the Braves' talent base and provided a reader-friendly family angle. But an argument could be made that, like the best Braves teams of the past quarter century, this one will include pitching as a major strength.
After discussing those aspects Saturday at Champion Stadium, Wren was asked if he thought this was his best club as GM.
"I think so; yeah, I think so," Wren said. "Just seeing what their capabilities are, and they all have a track record that you can look at. I think it's by far the most athletic, the most speed, the most power, the most balanced. I think there's a lot of things to like about the team. Now, we've got to go play."
The rotation should be top-notch, with veteran Tim Hudson leading the way. Kris Medlen was superb after making the transition from the bullpen to the rotation in midseason. Lefty Mike Minor worked his way through difficulties and finished strong. Paul Maholm was impressive after coming over in a trade with the Cubs. Julio Teheran, the leading candidate for the fifth rotation spot, is regarded as one of the game's foremost pitching prospects. And for further potential excellence, Brandon Beachy, who was leading the Majors in earned run average when he was injured, is expected back from Tommy John surgery in midseason.
The rotation could be better this year, Wren said, in part because the Braves will have "Medlen all year in the rotation, and Maholm. Maholm is a guy who I think has really matured as a pitcher, from his days in Pittsburgh where he felt like he had to blow the ball past people. Now he knows how to take a little off and turn it over and get hitters to hit his pitches. And he's kind of that mature lefty, which you love to have in your rotation because, especially against some hard-charging teams in our division, they can really give them some trouble.
"So I think we've a variety that is interesting. Teheran, if he does anything like he did last fall, he's going to be an impressive [addition] for us, as well."
The bullpen should be a source of success, too, with hard-throwing Craig Kimbrel by now an established closer and with added late-inning power pitching from setup men Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty.
The Braves have a team younger than last year's, but not short on experience. For the foreseeable future, this is also a group that will be under the Braves' control. Only one everyday player, catcher Brian McCann, has a contract expiring at the end of this season. This is a formula for sustained success.
What the Braves won't have this year, of course, is Chipper Jones, who was many things for this team, all of them helpful. He was a team leader, an elder statesman, a spokesman and the go-to guy for the media, in good times and bad. And his presence, as a future Hall of Famer, made him even more of a focal point.
So who takes over the leadership role?
"I think it happens," Wren said. "We can't create it. We can't do it. It's going to happen in that clubhouse. And we know who the leader of that pitching staff is, that's Huddy [Hudson]. I think there's going to be a carryover. There was a carryover a few years ago when some guys left, and Smoltzie [John Smoltz] became a leader even though he wasn't a regular player. I think Huddy is going to be part of it, and I think there's lots of candidates. That's probably the least of my worries -- of all the things that could happen is that a leader won't emerge -- because I believe that somebody will."
If that is the least of Wren's worries, what is the largest?
"Just staying healthy," the general manager said. "If we stay healthy and guys don't feel like they have to do too much, I think I'll be a happy man."
So in this view, and it is a reasonable one, the Braves won 94 games last season and then made improvements. The only problem, and it's a relative problem, is that the Washington Nationals, the team that led the Majors in regular-season victories with 98, also appeared to improve. And the Nats kept the Braves from the top of the NL East in 2012.
But for the Braves, 94 victories is a nice baseline number from which to work forward. It would have won or tied for first in three other divisions last season.
"That is a big number," Wren said. "You start winning 94 games regularly, you're going to have a lot of good years. I think in our division, Philadelphia is not as banged up, hopefully, for their sake, as they were a year ago. The Mets are getting better. I thought last year they made a nice step forward. The Marlins, I don't know. It remains to be seen in terms of performance and how they put their team together.
"But the division is still not an easy division. [The Nationals] I think fixed some areas that they needed to fix, just listening to them. They felt like they needed a true centerfielder and they get [Denard] Span ... He makes their lineup deeper. They added a veteran guy in their bullpen in [Rafael] Soriano. Like us having Medlen all year, they'll have [Stephen] Strasberg all year. It's going to be an interesting division."
An Atlanta team, at 94 victories in 2012 and arguably better now, would make it even more interesting, not to mention difficult.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.