Unlike the Philadelphia Phillies the Atlanta Braves rebuild is lacking a clear direction and they are biding their time for more prospects who are still in rookie or A ball to develop. The Atlanta Braves marketing department should put out a sleazy used car sales ad that cites “Come down to the circus and come see our collection of former all-stars. We’ve got former gold glovers, Cy Young Winners and MVP contenders. We won’t be good but we’re sure to have some fun!” That one’s on the house Braves Marketing, I’ll bill you next time. I’d try harder but the fact that the Braves fans still engage in the racist tomahawk chop bothers me so fuck em. Let’s get on with this so we can move on to good teams in future previews.
At shortstop, the Braves will bank on continued improvement from top prospect Dansby Swanson. Swanson was the first overall draft pick for the Diamondbacks in 2015 but was traded to the Braves for Shelby Miller in late 2015. He had a cup of coffee with the Braves in 2016 as a late season call up and got into 38 games. Swanson showed in that time that he has the tools to be both an above average hitter and defender. At the age of 23 he has a lot of time to grow into his role as the Braves shortstop of the future, but he is likely ready to begin contributing immediately. Unfortunately, so many young shortstops broke out for career years last year and some unrealistic expectations may be placed on Swanson. He is unlikely to become a power hitting shortstop, he is realistically going to project out to have a hitting line similar to that of Red Sox shortstop, Xander Bogaerts, but with better defensive acumen and a slightly lower batting average. Swanson is a really good piece for the Braves future but it’s going to take some time for him to become the “guy”.
Third basemen, Adonis Garcia doesn’t bring a lot to the table. His defense and bat leave a lot to be desired and the Braves will have to look at an upgrade here in the near future. He is now 31 years old and is only entering his third major league season. What you see is what you get here. For now he projects to hit in the top half of the order but it’s unlikely he is worth rostering in fantasy baseball or even as an MLB starter. He is pretty much the definition of a replacement level player who will hit 0.265/.311/.397 but with no speed and below average defense. Next please.
In 2017, Freddie Freeman will continue to be the Braves best player and one of the best first basemen in all of baseball. He had a career year in 2016 where he played good defense and slashed .302/.400/.569 and hit 34 home runs, scored 100 runs and drove in 91 RBI’s. Those are some kick ass numbers, it’s just too bad he had nobody around him to drive home because those counting stats for RBI’s should have been a lot higher. I really like Freddie Freeman but regression is going to occur as he had a .370 BABIP which is ridiculous for a first basemen. In 2016, Freeman was able to hit the ball harder then he ever did compared to the rest of his career (44% hard hit vs. 38% career average) but his average is still likely to drop to around 0.278. The power is legit and should remain and I expect 30 home runs out of the slugger. Unfortunately his RBI’s are unlikely to improve due to the lack of weapons in the Braves lineup. Freeman is in the middle of an 8 year/135 million dollar contract and is only 27 years old. He’s in his prime for some time to come so hopefully the Braves can continue to add more offensive pieces around one of the best first basemen in baseball.
The Braves who were active this off-season slightly upgraded at second base with the acquisition of former Reds all-star second basemen, Brandon Phillips. The 35 year old is set to start at 2nd base and begin playing for a new team for the first time in a decade. Phillips realistically isn’t much more than a replacement level player at this point in his career. His defensive metrics have fallen year after year since 2013 and his bat no longer possesses the same power it once had in his prime. Phillips still has a knack for making contact and had 0.291 and 0.294 batting averages over the last two years but that might have been his last high watermark. As a free agent after this season it’s very unlikely he returns to the Braves as top prospect, Ozzie Albies is set to take over full time in 2018. In the mean time Phillips will have to prove he can remain an MLB starter or else he will likely end up as a bench player as early as this summer with Albies ready to rock.
The biggest move the Braves made in 2016 was acquiring all-star outfielder Matt Kemp from the San Diego Padres in a bad contract for garbage contract mid-season swap. Kemp was once the NL MVP runner up back in 2011 but the next couple of seasons were plagued by injury and Kemp never reached those heights again. Now 32 years old, his health issues are seemingly behind him but his defense is a fucking disaster in the outfield. He will likely be relegated to left field and is realistically better suited for an AL DH role given that he’s been responsible for an average of -18 defensive runs saved per year He’s essentially cost his teams two losses every season due to bad defense… good grief.
The one thing that Kemp still does well is mash baseballs. He hit 35 home runs last year which was the second highest total of his career. What concerns me about Kemp is his plate patience has diminished year after year and he’s now only walking 5.4% of the time compared to 7.5% career average. Without the power Kemp isn’t really a rosterable for any major league team, but the power will likely remain and Kemp is likely good for 25-30 home runs if healthy.
In right field, Nick “The Stick “ Markakis remains and he is another veteran who is what he is, He will play average defense (although he was a bit above average in 2017), hit 0.270, hit a dozen home runs, 65 RBI’s and score 70 runs. There isn’t much of a ceiling here and he is a place holder type player for the Braves until his contract runs out in 2018.
The outfielder with the most upside for the Braves is 26 year old centre fielder, Ender Inciarte. Given his corner outfield mates defensive limitations, it’s a saving grace that Inciarte plays such good defense in centre and attempts to negate Kemp’s limited range. Inciarte has almost no home run power (Career average of 4 dingers per year) but he’s a solid lead off option due to his speed on the base paths and ability to get the ball in play and beat out infield hits. If you’re looking for a cheap source of steals in fantasy baseball and someone who can hold a high batting average, then Inciarte is your guy. Just be aware that he is unlikely to score as many runs as other top lead off hitters due to the guys hitting behind him.
At catcher, the Braves will utilize, Tyler Flowers as well as former Minnesota Twin, Kurt Suzuki. Flower is about as average of a catcher as it gets and showed defensive decline in 2016, hence why Suzuki was brought in as a free agent. Neither option can hit that well and are not likely to be long term future pieces for the rebuilding Braves. Next.
This is where the Braves really shined this off season and decided to become equal opportunity employers and sign MLB equivalent senior citizen pitchers R.A Dickey and Bartolo “Big Sexy” Colon. I can see it now “Come down to the park to see our former Cy Young winning pitching staff!” just don’t ask anyone what year those awards were won. In all seriousness though, there’s some method to the Braves madness here.
Julio Teheran remains the team’s young ace. After a disappointing 2015 campaign, Teheran defied advanced statistical projections and turned in a respectable bounce back season. His pitch repertoire improved across the board last year and he was able to throw all four of his pitches as above average pitches with consistency. Tehran improved his command and allowed the least amount of walks in his career. I’d expect his ERA to fall back closer to his career norm, but I would also expect the top pitcher in the Braves rotation to win more than 7 games in 2017. Expect a dozen wins, 3.74 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 175 strike outs in 2017.
Jaime Garcia was acquired from the Cardinals in return for three prospects in December and is likely the number two starter for the Braves. Garcia has been up and down over the past few years and was deemed excess by the Cardinals. The Braves are banking on a return to his better years and Garcia will absolutely need his fastball to work it’s magic again. The heater’s velocity didn’t drop but it was being crushed by hitters and Garcia allowed the most home runs in his career. Garcia was the lucky recipient of favourable .267 BABIP during his 2015 renaissance but that ship sailed in 2016 where he returned back to career norms. Garcia’s best days are probably behind him but the Braves have to hope that Garcia remains healthy. If he can figure his fastball issues out he could be a prime target to be traded at the trade deadline for a haul of better prospects then were given up to acquire him as he will hit free agency after this season and is unlikely to return.
R.A Dickey will be bringing his knuckleball circus to Georgia after spending four controversial seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays. Dickey had been a reliable inning eater for the Jays during his time there, but he failed to live up to his 2012 Cy Young performance that netted him a decent extension after the trade to Toronto. I won’t bother getting into the philosophy of the knuckleball but it’s random and erratic at best. In his time in Toronto, Dickey seemed to do pretty well against batters the first two times through the order, but the bottom would often fall out fast as the heart of the order got a third look. Nonetheless he is a very reliable source of innings pitched and has been extremely healthy during his knuckleball career. A return to his Cy Young days is not going to happen but Dickey will be a good signing for the Braves relative to his contract. On a side note, thankfully Dickey didn’t have his knuckleball caddy, Josh Thole signed because he may have been the worst part of watching a knuckleballer pitch every fifth day.
Big Sexy, Bartolo Colon, is the oldest pitcher in baseball and still looking great. The Jiggly thing will slot in as the number four or five starter for the Braves. Bartolo has come off a stretch of three seasons with the Mets where has won an average of 15 games per year. The pressing question for baseball fans now is if Bartolo has another epic home run left in his bat. They should make a movie about this guy because that home run was amazing! But in all seriousness Bartolo is another guy on this roster who is what he is. He’s been relatively healthy and is a reliable innings eater who throws a fastball 89% of the time. The velocity on the heater has dropped year after year but it’s effectiveness has remained. Bartolo is a prime example that throwing fast means squat unless you can hit the corners and nibble on those corners is what big Bart does best. How else do you explain a 44 year old’s success with an 89 Mph heater that he throws 89% of the time? Don’t change Bartolo, don’t ever change.
To round out the rotation will be the hard throwing youngster, Mike Foltynewicz. The former first round Astros draft pick had a solid second season with the Braves but still gives up too many walks and home runs. The good news is that the walk rate has fallen from 3.38 BB/9 in 2014 to 3.01 BB/9 in 2015 and to 2.55 BB/9 in 2016. I don’t think he will drop another .4 walks per 9 in 2017 as his secondary pitches are not good enough to fool batters, but he’s showing positive signs that he has the stuff to become a solid number 3 in a rotation one day. To the Braves he is still in development and being sheltered in between some grizzled vets which should help said development.
The closer position will belong to Jim Johnson to start the season. The former Baltimore Oriole pitcher was once one among the best closers in baseball from 2012 to 2013. He was however a disaster in Oakland, Detroit and Los Angeles from 2014-15 before finally settling down in Atlanta last year. Johnson took over the closer role once Arodys Vizcaino was injured and he went on to put up the best strike out rate of his long career. You’d think Johnson’s best days would be behind him but it appears that his curve ball has been progressing well over the past two years and that secondary pitch is what is responsible for his renewed success. Ultimately you could do much worse if you were looking for a closer and Johnson will look to continue where he left off in 2016.
Arodys Vizcaino is set to be the 8th inning guy if he is healthy enough to start the season on the team. The young righty had reverse splits and fared better against lefties but was crushed by righties last year. His biggest issue at this time is walk prevention as allowing 6 walks per 9 innings won’t cut it anywhere in the majors. His curveball is pretty good but that heater needs to be harnessed. If Johnson falters at all, Vizcaino could be next in line but only if can get the walks down.
Rounding out the pen will be Chaz Roe and Ian Krol who both had their best seasons to date and put up some solid strike out rates. After these guys it gets thin with guys like Blaine Boyer, Jose A. Ramirez, Mauricio Cabrera and swing man Josh Collmenter. Bullpens tend to figure themselves out but if Johnson regresses back into the pile of doodoo he was in 2014 and 2015 then it’s going to be very hard to close out games for the Braves.
The Braves are a team in transition and in search for identity. The identity they have chosen for the time being is to be a collection of veteran has been’s. Outside of Freeman, Swanson, Inciarte and Teheran the Braves are like a freak show of flawed baseball players. The Braves will hit for some power and their starting pitching if healthy will be good enough to keep them in a lot games; however, the defense and bullpen will be slightly below average and cost some tight losses. I expect the Braves to tie for last in the NL East with 75 wins.
Freddie Freeman – He will hit for 30 home runs, 85 RBI’s, 92 runs and even add in a handful of steals! The 2016 batting average will regress to .278 but his OBPS will remain elite around .375. Don’t over draft him and you will be thrilled with his consistent production as he is likely to be a top 5 first basemen this year and that’s pretty damn good.
Matt Kemp – Outside of the home runs Kemp isn’t too special. His totals from 2016 will not be repeated and I assure you that you can acquire a better outfielder with upside and without the injury risk. I expect 25 home runs, 72 runs and 85 RBI’s but a batting average of 0.262 and in on base percentage leagues he will hurt you with an OBP of 0.308. His draft cost will be a top 80 pick in most leagues. Hard Pass.
Mike Foltynewicz – The strike out potential is tantalizing but the walk and home run rates are concerning. As a very late round flier or waiver pick up I think he has the potential to win 12 games and strike out 170 batters. His ERA and WHIP aren’t going to help you so he is more of a streaming option at this point until he proves that he is improving.