Regarding the 2015 Atlanta Braves, let's assume the worst. Let's assume that John Hart, who bears the lengthy title of VP of Baseball Operations but is the architect of this massive remodeling job, is finished for the offseason except for a few tweaks here and there.
If so, are the Braves destined to scrap with the Philadelphia Phillies to avoid last place in the National League East? The consensus answer among baseball analysts is yes. Jason Heyward, who led the team in batting average after the All-Star break gone.
Justin Upton, who led the team with 29 home runs and 102 RBI gone.
Ervin Santana, who shared the team lead with 14 wins gone.
Aaron Harang, second on the team with 204 1/3 innings pitched gone.
Jordan Walden, a valuable set-up man for closer Craig Kimbrel gone.
Those are significant losses.
But here's the reality. Even before those moves, the Braves were going to struggle to keep pace in the beefed up NL East. After leading the division for virtually all of the first half, the Braves were among the worst teams in baseball in the second half. They were last in runs scored (211) and next to last in batting average (.232) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.634). This was largely because they were a terrible situational hitting team that struck out too much.
As Hart told Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz: "Let's be honest: This team finished 29th in offense. It's not like I'm breaking up the '27 Yankees."
Barring any more changes, the team that will open the 2015 season is not much different than the one that fell apart last year. Compare.
C -- Evan Gattis, 1B -- Freddie Freeman, 2B -- Tommy La Stella/Phil Gosselin, 3B -- Chris Johnson, SS -- Andrelton Simmons, LF -- J. Upton, CF -- BJ Upton, RF -- Heyward
Starting rotation before: Julio Teheran, Santana, Mike Minor, Alex Wood and Harang
C -- Christian Bethancourt, 1B -- Freeman, 2B -- Alberto Callaspo, 3B -- Johnson, SS -- Simmons, LF -- Gattis, CF -- BJ Upton, RF -- Nick Markakis
Rotation after: Teheran, Minor, Wood, Shelby Miller, David Hale
They won't be worse than they were last season. In fact, they could be better. Given a chance to play 150 games, Gattis should be able to hit 30 home runs and drive in 90 or more. Markakis is better offensively than Heyward. Their stats are similar, but Markakis is far more consistent than Heyward. Markakis is a grinder.
Callaspo won't remind anyone of Dustin Pedroia at second base. But he's a contact hitter who understands the value of putting the ball in play.
Another year of experience will have to help Freeman, Simmons and Johnson.
There's still the dilemma of what to do with the remaining Upton. But maybe now that they've extracted some $34 million from last year's payroll in J. Upton, Santana, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Gavin Floyd and Jonny Venters, there's room to acquire an upgrade in center field. Even if they don't, this lineup is improved in two regards. It's better defensively up the middle where it matters most. And contrary to what some are saying, it's not appreciably worse on the outfield corners.
Yes, Heyward is widely considered the best defensive right fielder in baseball. But Markakis is right there with him, the reigning American League Gold Glove right fielder.
Yes, Gattis is limited due to his range and lack of outfield experience. But JUp led all major league left fielders with eight errors in 2014. That's not an aberration. With Arizona, Upton committed 11 errors in '08, 12 errors in '09 and 13 errors in '11. How much worse than that could Gattis be?
In sum: It's hard to get too excited about the 2015 season. But it's far too early to give up on it just yet.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.