For some teams, spring is a time of excited, hopeful anticipation, heralding the beginning of a new baseball season, in which they might place into motion the culmination of their work in order to contend for championship glory. For others, though, for which any reasonable approximation of contention is at least a year away, a new season and the actual playing of games can seem like little more than a necessary inconvenience. For a team like the Atlanta Braves, which spent the last three seasons ripping out every piece of its roster that wasn’t nailed down (i.e., Julio Teheran and Freddie Freeman, as of this writing), playing the regular season even could be detrimental if it forced them to rush still-developing players up the organizational ladder just to fill out a major-league roster for 162 games.

Even if the team and its new local government can’t quite figure out how to build a pedestrian bridge that will allow fans to traverse perhaps a dozen of the busiest interstate highway lanes in the country in order to actually reach the new ballpark, the Braves at least had the foresight to build some roster bridges to offer its very young prospects safer passage toward a (hopefully) better future. Rather than prematurely expose its collection of raw talent to the harsh, erosive weathering of the majors, Braves management brought in some probably past-their-prime veterans with familiar names on short-term contracts as buffers for the youngsters until they decide which of their Coppolella’s Ark of left-handed pitching prospects will make the climb to Atlanta, and which will be traded for position players. Thus, in rough order of acquisition, Nick Markakis, Tyler Flowers, Matt Kemp, R.A. Dickey, Bartolo Colon, and Brandon Phillips all find themselves in Atlanta as members of your 2017 Braves. This motley bunch has more combined career WARP (158.2) than Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, Ender Inciarte, Jace Peterson, Mike Foltynewicz, and Aaron Blair have in combined years lived on this planet.

On the assumption that we all have done enough reading and writing about the wrongheadedness of the decision to move Atlanta baseball out to the suburbs for the time being, this 2017 team preview will, with the help of BttP colleague Nick Strangis, focus on what’s going to be happening on the new field, rather than the potential immoralities and unconstitutionalities of the new field itself. To that end, here are my answers to Nick’s eight burning questions about this season’s Atlanta Braves.

1. We know how much everybody hates the idea of getting to Braves games in their new location. What I don’t know is what I can look forward to at SunTrust Park. Can you sell me on any new amenities or features of the new stadium?

Nick! Man! I just said we weren’t going to dwell on this point. But you’re right. The final stage of grief is acceptance, so we might as well turn our eyes toward the inevitable future. What does that rapidly approaching future look like? This. That’s a live webcam of the park, which remains very much under construction. The good news is that the Braves have the latest home opener (April 14) of any team this year. The bad news is that they’re scheduled to play an exhibition game against the Yankees on March 31. Chop chop indeed.

Food is a big part of any baseball park experience, and, in a city with a restaurant scene as strong as Atlanta’s, it’s no surprise that the dining options at Turner Field were solid. While neither Waffle House, Chick-fil-A, nor Holeman and Finch will be traveling with the team to Cobb County, there should be a healthy offering of local flavors, including a steakhouse by Linton Hopkins (of Restaurant Eugene fame); a bar serving Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q; and outposts of Superica and Antico, all inside or adjacent to the park in an area that’s been dubbed “The Battery.” The Battery, which, from early reports, sounds and looks a little bit like Atlantic Station, also is reported to include a Terrapin Beer taproom and a few national franchises like Wahlburgers (yes, that’s what you think it is) and Punch Bowl Social, a hip-sounding dining and entertainment space featuring bowling, bocce, and karaoke somewhat reminiscent of the Ponce City Market rooftop.

Oh, you actually wanted to watch some baseball while eating all that food? The seating capacity is roughly twenty-percent smaller than that at the Ted, which is supposed to improve the game experience for those inside by creating the sense that there are more people attending the games and supporting the team. Those seats also generally will be closer to the field than their downtown counterparts, and awnings should offer a more shaded experience for fans, meaning you actually may be able to sit on the first base/right field line without turning into a baked potato this summer. Safety netting, a controversial topic at Turner Field and around the league, now will extend from home plate to the far end of each dugout. The symmetry of Turner Field’s outfield wall also is gone, and the closer fence in right could be an advantage for a lefty slugger like Freeman.

Delicious snacks, more home runs, and postgame bowling? I think there will be a healthy appetite for that.

2. What’s up with the Braves acquiring Brandon Phillips? He’s famous and that’s cool, but can he really help the team at this juncture, or are we just going to be mad that Ozzie Albies isn’t getting playing time?

Phillips considers himself a Georgian (he went to high school in Stone Mountain), so his move here after years in Cincinatti is cool. PECOTA likes Phillips for 0.6 WARP this season, which literally isn’t nothing, but it certainly isn’t much more than that. (While his tenth-percentile projection is -0.8 WARP, his ninetieth-percentile is 2.3 WARP, so there may be more ceiling than floor in his potential 2017 outcomes.) There’s no question that Albies is the Braves’ second baseman of the perhaps-very-near future, and if Phillips struggles, you’re right to expect fan clamor for the kid.

Atlanta can look forward to a long run with a Swanson-Albies middle infield, but I think there’s a good argument that Albies isn’t quite ready to take his side of second base in the majors on an everyday basis, at least not immediately. He’s never played above Triple-A, and his 247 plate appearances in Gwinnett last year comprise his only experience above Double-A. A fractured elbow last September triggered a premature end to his season and serves as a reminder that there’s no need to rush him along.

Sean Rodriguez was supposed to play second for the Braves in 2017, but the injurious results of a scary car wreck will have him out for much or all of the season. When the team learned of the severity of Rodriguez’s situation, they had to make a move, and the Phillips acquisition makes sense. As mentioned above, it pairs well with their veteran-bridge approach apparently designed to give the young guys some breathing room as they get ready for the big dance.

If we haven’t seen Albies in Atlanta by the end of the summer, expect him to join the team when the roster expands in September. Unless Phillips flops, though, there’s no reason to unnecessarily burn up Albies’ arm and legs, or his service time.

Two other quick notes about the Phillips acquisition: i) his contract expires at the end of the upcoming season, and the Reds are paying $13 million of the $14 million due to Phillips this year, meaning the Braves get him for just a cool million, and ii) the fact that he hits from the left side allows Atlanta the possibility of regularly starting a batting lineup that alternates handedness at least through the first six spots in the order, which should provide some frustration for opposing pitching staffs.

3. Should I be mad the Braves traded Mallex Smith? He seemed like a really chill dude who was going to play great defense and steal a lot of bases.

This trade bothered me too, both because Smith is a fun player to watch, and because of what the Mariners did with Smith immediately following their trade with the Braves.

Smith’s speed and aggressive style of play certainly endeared him to fans last season, his first at the big-league level. If he wasn’t already on your radar as a prospect, his steal attempt in April that ended with him leaving the field with a smashed face served as a memorable introduction. Smith might be a little too headstrong, having been caught stealing eight times in just 215 plate appearances in 2016, but in an age in which the art of base stealing largely is a vanishing one, Smith’s sixteen successful tries over that span hold promise for an exciting, and hopefully slightly more refined, future.

In January, the Braves completed the second of their two trades with Seattle of this offseason by flipping Smith and Shae Simmons, a little-used relief pitcher who had Tommy John surgery in 2015, to the Mariners for– surprise!– a couple lefty pitching prospects. Later that same day, Seattle rerouted Smith to Tampa Bay, along with a lefty pitching prospect (hey, that sounds familiar) and a seventeen-year-old infield prospect, in exchange for Drew Smyly, who seems like he would’ve made a pretty nice addition to Atlanta’s rotation.

Missed transactional opportunities aside, Smith still seems a bit raw, and he doesn’t hit much, so his defense and speed likely would be wasted in a corner infield spot. With Inciarte rightly ahead of Smith in center field, I can understand why the Braves saw Smith as expendable.

4. How much is Matt Kemp’s defense going to weigh down the Braves in the field?

I was in left field for Kemp’s Braves debut, so my initial answer is “a lot.” I also saw the team use Adonis Garcia in left in an early season loss to the Diamondbacks, and Garcia looked about as lost as Kemp. PECOTA has Kemp at -3 FRAA in left for 2017, but there just isn’t a good option out there. Twelve different players started at least one game in left field for Atlanta last season, and, of those with double-digit starts at that position in 2016, Kemp had the best Range Factor per Game of the four, two of whom– Smith and Jeff Francoeur– aren’t on the team anymore. The other, Peterson, could offer a defensive improvement over Kemp even if he’s a more natural infielder (who now isn’t likely to start much at his usual position, second base, ahead of Phillips), but, of course, he lacks Kemp’s bat. Atlanta’s just going to have to stomach Kemp and his bad hips in left field and hope that most of their opponents’ outfield hits fly in Inciarte’s direction.

5. Has Ender Inciarte topped out in terms of production?

He’s only twenty-six, so conventional aging curves suggest he is just entering his prime, although different skills age differently, and there is some (fairly intuitive) thought that defense and speed– which happen to be Inciarte’s calling cards– peak earlier than power, for example, so you may be onto something.

He contributed 5.1 WARP last year, in his third and, by far, best season in the majors. The 2016 season certainly looks like a peak for Inciarte, and PECOTA agrees, predicting a step back to 3.5 WARP this season, and nothing above 4.9 WARP through his age-thirty-five season in 2026.

That said, declaring 2016 Inciarte’s peak season shouldn’t be the end of the discussion. Removing it from his career trajectory as an outlier, there’s reason to believe he’s still on the upswing. I’m no scout, but here’s how PECOTA sees the rest of Inciarte’s career playing out after this season:

To my eyes, that’s a very stable, productive career with more development yet to come.

6. Freddie Freeman had a breakout year in 2016. How far might he fall in 2017, and am I too pessimistic to expect a step back?

I think it probably is rational to expect a player who has a career year at age twenty-six to take a step back from that level in the following season. I’m a chronic optimist, but I think there are a few good reasons to believe it won’t be a large step back:

  • Age: Now coming into his age-twenty-seven season, Freeman should be rapidly approaching his prime. Unlike Inciarte, whose speed and defensive contributions likely peak a bit earlier in life, Freeman’s contributions center on hitting and power, which tend to peak relatively later.
  • Context: The notion of lineup protection is controversial in some quarters, but the 2017 Braves’ everyday lineup should provide a more robust top-to-bottom challenge to opposing pitchers than it did in 2016. No one will mistake them for the Cubs or Red Sox, but Freeman ought to see better pitches thanks to an improved supporting cast on offense.
  • Environment: As mentioned above, the right-field fence at SunTrust park will be closer than it was downtown, which should play to Freeman’s favor. The fence is significantly higher, though, so that might be a mitigating factor.

Freeman’s health may be the biggest x-factor in this regard. Before 2015, he spent a total of only twenty-five games on the disabled list. He missed forty-four games that season with a wrist injury, and he tried to play through a finger injury last year. His history is a relatively healthy one, but his health, especially including that of his hands, could be the largest determinant in whether Freeman continues to be a five-plus win player in 2017.

7. Does anybody in baseball have better hair than Dansby Swanson?

Nah. He’s the anti-Colby Rasmus.

8. Is it really smart to load a system with this many pitchers and an apparent lack of high-ceiling hitters? There are only five spots in a starting pitching rotation. Are we going to see some of these pitchers die on the vine before they get to Cobb County?

Thanks a lot for waiting until the end to ask the big, ultimate question about this team, Nick! In our preview of the 2016 team (which, by the way, basically nailed the win-loss-record prediction), I wrote, with regard to the current rebuild:

As Mark Bradley, Braves beat reporter for the hometown paper of record, nicely illustrates in his 2016 Baseball Prospectus Annual essay (and highlights in his recent appearance on Effectively Wild), the Atlanta front office has cracked open the fruitful archives from the 1990s and is stockpiling young pitching prospects the way doomsday preppers stockpile cans of dried beans.

The theory here appears to be threefold: 1) the recipe for developing a strong pitching staff calls for many, many pitching prospects; 2) other teams are going to want good, young pitchers, so the Braves eventually can swap some of these guys to fill out the rest of their roster; and 3) that’s the way the team did it in the 90s, and maybe it will work again.
. . .
It’s dissimilar from the recent rapid-rebuild approaches executed in Houston and Chicago’s North Side, and it seems to lack asset diversification in its emphasis on pitching prospects, but we also know that, in competitive copycat environments, the copycats usually overpay for diminishing marginal returns and that, hey, everybody always needs pitching.

More recently, Atlanta GM John Coppolella has noted another important difference between his current situation and that of the Cubs’ Theo Epstein: money. Under the ownership of Liberty Media, a publicly traded company, the Braves front office faces more budget constraints than those imposed upon Epstein in Chicago. Following in the footsteps of the defending world champs simply isn’t a financially realistic approach.

Keeping the TINSTAAPP mantra in mind, it of course is possible that some of these accumulated young pitchers fade away before they make it to the big team, but I think the hope is that Coppolella & Co. are able to hang onto the most promising pitching prospects and trade the others for bats and positional help before they dry up. If they can’t, this is going to be a much longer process than even the most cynical observers anticipate. Either way, I don’t see Atlanta making waves in the standings until, at the earliest, 2018.

2017 Record Prediction: 74-88

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