The 2017 Braves were supposed to have been a tanking team, like the Phillies and Reds. But they spent only 15 days in the cellar, none after May 10. This is not to say that they were good. Only the Padres, Mets, Reds, White Sox, Phillies, Giants, and Tigers won fewer games than Atlanta’s 72. They finished third in their division, not that the National League East represents a high bar. And their future looks bright, with a farm system ranked third in baseball by Baseball Prospectus and with BP’s top-rated prospect, Ronald Acuña. The present, though…
How do they score runs? Do they get contributions from many or a few players?
The Braves position players could be fairly described as Freddie Freeman and the seven dwarfs.
Over the past five seasons, only five National League batters have compiled an OPS in excess of .900 (minimum 2500 plate appearances): Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, and Freeman. Unfortunately, Votto and Goldschmidt play Freeman’s position, first base. So Freeman’s made only two All-Star teams during that span. He’s one of the most underrated players in the game.
And the Braves really, really need him. He’s far and away the team’s best hitter, leading the team in home runs and all three slash stats, and second in walks, doubles, runs, and RBI despite missing 45 games. He even filled in at third base, where he hadn’t played since he was in Rookie ball, and did so credibly.
The supporting cast isn’t all bad but it’s not of his caliber. The Braves scored 4.52 runs per game last year, slightly below the league average of 4.58. The catching tandem of Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki had an out-of-the-blue .282/.366/.487 line last year. That won’t happen again. For the rest of this paragraph, I’m going to list each of their prior seasons (18 combined) in which they hit that well.
Elsewhere, the youth movement moves forward. Acuña (20 on Opening Day) is penciled in at one outfield corner, next to the slick-fielding Ender Inciarte (27). Freeman’s infield mates look to be Johan Camargo (24) at third, Dansby Swanson (24) at short, and Ozzie Albies (21) at second. Swanson, a preseason Rookie of the Year candidate, hit a disappointing .232/.312/.324, and the four incumbents hit a total of 27 home runs among them, one fewer than Freeman did in his limited playing time. Nick Markakis, in the last year of a three-year contract, will hold down the final outfield spot, providing league-average offense.
Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projection system projects that Braves as the fourth worst offense in the league, adjusted for home park, trailing all but the Padres, Marlins, and Rockies. A lack of power is the problem. Acuña, whose slugging percentage rose through three minor league levels last year (.478 A, .520 AA, .548 AAA), is part of the solution. There aren’t any high-quality bats in the high minors, so the team will have to make do in 2018.
Are the hitters notably aggressive or patient?
Aggressive, but in the getting-lots-of-contact sense, not the whiffing-all-the-time sense. Their 7.6% walk rate was the lowest in the National League last year, but so was their 19.1% strikeout rate. They swing a lot, leading the league in swings on pitches both in and out of the strike zone, but their aggressiveness isn’t reckless. They led the league in contact on pitches outside the zone and were sixth on pitches in the zone. They saw the fewest pitches in the league, 3.75 per plate appearance in 2017.
Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced?
The catchers are old. Flowers is 32, Suzuki 34. Markakis is 34. All three will be free agents after the season. The team may want to lock up Flowers but the other two are potential trade pieces if they have any value. Among the young position players, the only one who could be displaced is Camargo, who isn’t seen as a long-term solution at the hot corner.
Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness?
Last year was the team’s first season in SunTrust Park, so we don’t have a lot of data, but the park appears to favor left-handed hitters (increasing home runs and overall runs by 8%) while hurting righty swingers (suppressing runs by 5% and homers by 9%). Freeman, Inciarte, and Markakis are lefty swingers. Albies and Camargo are switch-hitters, though both were better last year from the right side.
What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned? Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?
PECOTA likes the Braves’ defense, projecting it to save more runs than any National League team other than the Dodgers. The exit of defensive millstone Matt Kemp, who was the team’s primary left fielder last year, is addition by subtraction.
The highly-regarded Braves farm system is pitcher-heavy. Per Baseball Prospectus, LHP Kolby Allard is the No. 24 prospect in baseball, RHP Mike Soroka is No. 33, RHP Kyle Wright is No. 42, LHP Joey Wentz is No. 45, LHP Luiz Gohara is No. 62, and RHP Ian Anderson is No. 66. (Yes, with Acuña, the team has 11% of the top 66 prospects in the game.) Plus, last year’s No. 44 prospect, LHP Sean Newcomb, pitched in Atlanta last year.
The influx of youth should improve on a staff that allowed the fourth-most runs in the National League last year, 821, just one fewer than the Marlins. The maddeningly inconsistent (5.86 ERA at home, 3.14 on the road; 6.23 ERA in May and June, 3.65 ERA the rest of the year) but reliable (one of only five MLB pitchers with 180+ innings pitched each of the past five years) Julio Teheran leads the rotation. He’ll be joined by Newcomb (who led the Braves in both K/9, 9.6, and BB/9, 5.1) and Mike Foltynewicz. Last year’s veteran rotation fillers, R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon, are gone, replaced by two other veterans, Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir, acquired from the Dodgers in a salary-related deal. The thing is, Dickey and Colon, while in their 40s, had deserved reputations as innings-eaters. McCarthy has pitched just 155.2 innings over the past three years, and Kazmir pitched only 12 innings last year—at AAA—due to hip and back injuries. So look for the kids—likely Gohara and Max Fried, who pitched briefly in Atlanta and had an impressive Arizona Fall League showing last year—to see action as well. The Braves aren’t going to compete this year, so they won’t rush the young arms.
How do they run their bullpen?
Arodys Vizcaino took over the closer’s role after an ugly eight-game stretch for incumbent Jim Johnson (since traded to the Angels) in which he blew three saves and took a loss in extra innings. From that point forward, Vizcaino pitched three outs in the ninth inning in 15 of his 21 appearances—pretty standard usage. Sam Freeman from the left side and José Ramírez from the right will share setup duties, again mostly of the one-inning variety (30 of 58 appearances for Freeman and 41 of 68 for Ramírez). This is standard contemporary bullpen usage.
Vizcaino, Freeman, and Ramírez combined for a 2.86 ERA last year. The rest of the relievers combined for 5.46. The bullpen is a possible entry point for some of the Braves’ young arms later in the season.
Does the team deploy a large number of shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players?
In manager Brian Snitker’s first full year on the job, the Braves deployed 334 fewer shifts than they had in 2016. They were below-average at turning double plays, ranking 12th in the league by converting 11.7% of double play opportunities.
Camargo was primarily a shortstop in the minors, but he’s not going to unseat Swanson. His defense at third appears to be average-to-good.
Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?
Flowers has always rated well as a framer, and last year he led the majors, handily, in framing runs. Suzuki has never rated well in catcher defense metrics, but at least in 2017 he was less bad. Neither catcher has a particularly good arm. Between them, they caught fewer than 20% of baserunners attempting to steal. Flowers’ framing more than made up for that.
Is the farm system well-stocked? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?
As noted above, the Braves have one of the best farm systems in the majors. Acuña is a Rookie of the Year candidate and, best case, could be the Braves’ second-best hitter in his first season (low bar). The only top pitching prospect likely to break camp with the club is Gohara. Several others could appear later in the season, but again, the Braves won’t rush anybody.
The talent pool for position players is considerably less deep. The Braves got Charlie Culberson in the Kazmir/McCarthy deal to provide depth at every infield position as well as left field.
Are any players particularly fragile, or coming off off-season surgery that might impact their season? How deep is the team at the positions where they have injury-prone players?
It’s anyone’s guess whether Kazmir pitches at all this year, or whether McCarthy can post his first 100-inning season since 2014. Fried missed 2014 and 2015 due to Tommy John surgery but seems fine now.
Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign? What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)?
The Braves are among many teams in rebuilding mode; clearly three fifths of their division is. Their approach is rational: Stockpile prospects, don’t hang on to veterans. They’re still running victory laps for the Shelby Miller deal with Arizona, which brought them Inciarte and Swanson. Their drafting strategy has been skewed way toward pitching, suggesting that they may have trade some young arms for bats as they near contention. That’s not a 2018 issue, though.
And it’s a good thing that the team’s stockpiled minor league talent, since the transgressions of former GM John Coppolella has the team hamstrung in the international market. The Braves lost 13 prospects, their third-round pick in this year’s June draft, and face restrictions on the international market through the 2020-2021 signing period.
What’s likely to happen?
In the National League East, the Marlins, Phillies, and Braves will all be bad. PECOTA projects the Braves with 76 wins, Steamer 73. Expect some progress on the pitching staff but a team that will still struggle to score runs. 75-87.Next post: 2018 Los Angeles Angels Season Preview
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