Evan Gattis, Justin Upton Have the Braves Rolling

Chicago Cubs v Atlanta BravesManager Freddi Gonzalez has pushed all the right buttons so far in 2013, guiding the Braves to an 11-1 start that includes a number of impressive wins. They have dominated their divisional competition during this early run, going 8-1 against the rest of the NL East with a +31 run differential in those games. And all of these victories have come despite the fact that big free agent acquisition B.J. Upton and homegrown star Jason Heyward are hitting south of the Mendoza line. Here are just a few of the reasons Atlanta has been able to stay red-hot:

No Brian McCann, no problem

If you thought losing Brian McCann for the first few weeks of the season at minimum would be a problem for Atlanta you weren’t alone. McCann, a 6-time All-Star, has hit at least 20 homers in each of the past 5 seasons and he’s been behind the plate for at least 120 games each year as well. But a bulky shoulder slowed him a bit in 2012 and led to offseason surgery, preventing McCann from playing for most of the first month.

That left Atlanta with Evan Gattis, a 26-year-old catcher with quite the backstory. Gattis was a highly touted prospect in the state of Texas at the age of 18 and he was slated to play for Texas A&M after graduating high school. But he never showed up to play and after working the occasional odd job he entered rehab for marijuana and alcohol. After completing his rehabilitation program Gattis, who stands 6’4″, 240 pounds, decided to pick baseball back up again. He enrolled at University of Texas-Permian Basin, where he spent the season crushing the ball. The Braves decided to take a flier on the then 23-year-old, selecting Gattis in the 23rd round of the draft.

Once in the minors, Gattis absolutely mashed the ball, hitting .308 with eye-popping power at 3 different minor league levels which finally earned him a promotion this year. And with Brian McCann out because of his injury, Evan Gattis has made the most of his promotion, crushing the ball during the first two weeks to the tune of a .324 batting average with 4 homers and 10 RBI. He’s also been quite stingy behind the plate, limiting opposing base runners to just 2 steals on 3 attempts in 74 total innings behind the plate. It’s one hell of a way to start your career.

Justin Upton, top 5 player

Stardom has been predicted for Upton since he was a teenager. Upton was one of the most highly touted #1 overall picks in baseball history when he was chosen by the Diamondbacks in 2005 and he was able to live up to the hype, reaching the Major Leagues by the age of 19. He showed marked improvement over during his first 4 years in the bigs and by 2011 Upton had landed his first top 5 MVP finish after hitting .289 with 31 homers and 21 steals.

Upton had finally arrived. He was considered a foundation player. The type who can change a franchise’s fortunes. But Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers didn’t exactly feel that way, putting Upton out there on the trade market. Thanks in part to injury, Justin Upton’s 2012 season was a disappointment. He hit just 17 homers and wasn’t able to drive in even 70 RBI, prompting the offseason swap to Atlanta.

The Braves had already signed his brother B.J. and now they were planning to unite the two Uptons in the same outfield and thus far the result has been a success. Justin Upton is at the top of the National League in nearly every offensive category while displaying prodigious power. His 7 long balls are tops in baseball and even when the ball doesn’t leave the park it’s been going for extra-bases. The younger Upton looks to be playing with an ease that was seldom seen in Arizona and if he keeps this up 45 homers aren’t out of the question.

The best bullpen in baseball

The Bravos have called on their relief corps. for 33.1 innings of work this year and nearly every one of those innings has been 1-2-3 dominant. The Braves have a 1.35 ERA out of the bullpen thus far, holding opponents to a .188 batting average. Closer Craig Kimbrel has been his usual brilliant self, throwing 6 shutout innings while racking up 6 strikeouts. Eric O’Flaherty has looked sharp as well as has Jordan Walden, the hard-throwing righty acquired from the Angels in the offseason. Having a bullpen that’s this talented, this hard-throwing, and this deep turns each game into a 6 inning affair. If you’re trailing the Braves after the 6th, the game is already over.

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There have been plenty of other contributing factors to Atlanta’s hot start as well. Paul Maholm has morphed into an early season ace, throwing 20 scoreless inning to start the year with 20 strikeouts compared to just 5 walks. Tim Hudson, Mike Minor, and Kris Medlen have been damn near unhittable as well, sharing 8 earned runs in 43 innings of  combined work. That probably won’t continue over the course of the season in part because that rate of production is ridiculous and in part because Atlanta won’t always be facing light-hitting attacks like the ones in Miami and Chicago. But they could become one of the best rotation’s in the league, one that could pile up wins when combined with this particular bullpen and a Justin Upton-fueled offense that figures to get better as the weather warms up. B.J. Upton, Andrelton Simmons, and Jason Heyward aren’t likely to slump this badly for too long. If they can get heated up quickly, this Braves team could be good enough to chase down 100 wins.

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