Playing Pepper 2016: Atlanta Braves

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

Atlanta Braves
67-95, fourth in the NL East
Last year’s Pepper

For those that grew up through that amazing run of the Braves starting in the mid-90s, not seeing this team compete for division titles on a regular basis is pretty strange.  There’s new front office staff with a plan and one last year in Turner Field, so brighter days are coming, but they probably aren’t at hand.

To talk about the Atlanta squad, we’ve brought in a good selection of bloggers.  First up, Alex Remington makes his second straight Pepper appearance.  You’ll find Alex at Braves Journal and on Twitter @AlexRemington.  Following Alex is newcomer Kris Willis, who is one of the managers over at Talking Chop.  His Twitter handle is @Kris_Willis.  Lastly, Carlos Collazo rejoins us.  This is Carlos’s second straight year and third overall.  He’s now also at Talking Chop and he Tweets @CarlosACollazo.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason?  Did they do what they needed to do?

BJ: It has been a melancholy offseason. For the first time in a very long time, a dreadful Braves team enters a new season with little chance or intention of being other than dreadful, and then the team traded away the single best reason to watch. The Andrelton Simmons trade may have been the worst single moment in Atlanta Braves history.

A fan favorite, the best defensive player in baseball, frequently the only reason to watch many of the games, signed to a reasonable extension scarcely a year and a half prior, traded to the Angels for two pitching pitching prospects and a rented Erick Aybar.

It would have been a gut punch no matter who they got back, but the return was regarded throughout baseball as light. What made it so wrenching was the sheer grasping penurious unnecessity of it, of what appeared like shipping an affordable player out of town for little more reason than that he was making something above the major league minimum. Sean Newcomb may turn into a fine pitcher, and I suppose so may Chris Ellis, but the odds are very slim that either one turns into half the player that Simmons is today.

But the offseason didn’t end on November 12, thank God, and four weeks after packing Simmons’s bags they picked the Diamondbacks’ pockets in one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory. They sent Shelby Miller and a minor league reliever to Arizona for Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson, Aaron Blair: an All-Star caliber center fielder, a potential All-Star shortstop prospect, and a very solid pitching prospect. The acquisition of Swanson did not retroactively justify the Simmons trade — they still weakened the major league team for no particularly compelling reason — but it replaced the stench of mortification with a faint waft of hope.

TCK:I believe so. The Braves are in the middle of a rebuild and made a couple of trades in particular that might have sped up the process somewhat. The Andrelton Simmons trade was a bit hard to swallow from a fan’s perspective, but it returned a top flight pitching prospect in Sean Newcomb and a stopgap at shortstop in Erick Aybar. Getting Dansby Swanson and Aaron Blair in addition to Ender Inciarte in the Shelby Miller trade was a home run as well.

The 2016 Braves may not have a lot of success, but the club is reloading from the inside out. Hopefully, that carries over into on-field success in the near future.

TCC: Overall, I was pretty thrilled with what the Braves did over the offseason. I think they made bigger strides for this rebuild than anyone could have seen coming, and the return General Manager John Coppolella was able to get for Shelby Miller is just ridiculous.

Between Dansby Swanson and Sean Newcomb (who came over in the Angels deal), Atlanta acquired two guys who immediately become the best two prospects in what has become one of the game’s best farm systems.

I graded the Braves an A- for this offseason on one of our podcasts, and I’ll stick by that now. The only reason I threw the minus on is because I’ll miss Andrelton Simmons playing shortstop for the team. I still think the trade is a good one for the team moving forward, but I won’t deny that he was my favorite player and the 2016 edition of the team will be less interesting with his departure.

That said, Coppy has done a fine job in his short tenure as GM, and I don’t think this offseason was any different.

C70: There’s definitely a rebuilding vibe to this team.  Should they have traded Freddie Freeman to really commit to that?

BJ: Absolutely not, for two reasons. First, I do not believe that it would have significantly aided the rebuilding process. Second, it would have significantly hurt the major league team, which places additional strain on the farm: it’s a lot harder to get from 65 to 90 wins than it is to get from 75 to 90.

The reason I don’t believe a Freeman trade would have helped them rebuild is simple: Freeman has another hundred million dollars due to him, and is coming off a year in which he struggled to stay on the field. Trading him would have amounted to a salary dump, and teams that take on hundred-million-dollar commitments do not typically also send away massive prospect hauls at the same time.

But more importantly, I don’t believe that fire sales are either necessary or good. The Heyward, Upton, and Gattis trades each made sense on the merits, as Heyward and Upton were one-year rentals and Gattis had no position in the Atlanta lineup. The Kimbrel trade was painful, but made sense: closers are luxury goods. Trading Alex Wood for Hector Olivera made a great deal less sense: Wood was a good young pitcher whose absence created a serious hole in the rotation, and Olivera had serious questions about his health and hadn’t played in two years. A cynic would note that the prospect trade allowed them to acquire Olivera without having had to pay his signing bonus. Six months later, it is no longer even clear that Olivera can play the infield.

The whole purpose of a rebuilding process is to fill a team with good young players who will be around long enough to see the team improve. Trading Simmons and Wood did not suit that purpose. Neither would trading Freeman.

TCK: They could have but I don’t think it is necessary either. Freeman is someone that they have indicated that they want to build around and they need him to return to form after battling through a wrist injury for much of last season.

I wouldn’t be shocked if we again heard Freeman’s name mentioned in trade rumors this season, particularly if he is healthy. But, the price is going to be exceptionally high to get the Braves to pull the trigger.

TCC: I don’t think so. I think they could have also kept with Andrelton Simmons and still committed to the rebuild, considering both players are young and under team-friendly long-term deals.

Freeman in particular shouldn’t have been dealt simply because the team would have been selling low, given his 2015 production and the wrist injury that he battled through during much of the season. That’s certainly a legit concern for any team that would look to trade for him and the package the Braves would receive would be smaller because of it.

The Braves have done a nice job acquiring a number of potentially high-impact arms and it looks like Freeman is going to be the bat that Atlanta will try to build a solid lineup around.

C70: Will Tyrell Jenkins make it to the majors in 2016?

BJ: I’m not sure, but I doubt it. He’s got a great arm, but his control isn’t nearly what it should be: he’s walking 10% of batters and striking out fewer than 15%. He simply isn’t ready. But the team can afford to be patient with him. They have been stockpiling pitching prospects like so many lottery tickets, including Newcomb, Ellis, Blair, and Jenkins himself, who came over in the Heyward trade.

TCK: Barring injury yes. Jenkins made it to Triple-A last season and I am guessing that he starts there but gets a shot sometime this season. Atlanta’s starting rotation figures to be in flux for a lot of next season and I think Jenkins is among the prospects that will be there before the season is over.

TCC: I think so. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him win a starting rotation spot out of Spring Training. Even if he doesn’t do that, given what we’ve seen of him in Triple-A I would expect to see him at the big league level sooner rather than later.

His peripherals aren’t great at the minor league level though, so it will be interesting to see how he fares once he does get here, as I don’t think his ceiling is very high.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

BJ: I almost hesitate to answer this question, for fear that the team will trade him. Anyway, there are a few answers that come to mind.

i. Hector Olivera: he did very little in the majors or minors last year, and his ultimate defensive position is unclear, but scouts uniformly agree that his bat is for real, and there’s nowhere to go but up.

ii. Jace Peterson: he had a fine first half, and was solid all year with the glove, but his bat utterly vanished after the end of June. He’ll turn 26 this year, has a minor league track record of hitting for average and getting on base, and he is a fine athlete. If he’s ever going to be a major league hitter, this is the year for him to show it.

iii. Shae Simmons. Not well known outside of Atlanta, Simmons came up in 2014 and was terrific for 21 2/3 innings before going down with an arm injury; his injury roughly coincided with that team’s second-half collapse. He’s set to come back from Tommy John surgery in May, and if he’s healthy — perhaps a big if — then, with closer Arodys Vizcaino, he could form a formidable one-two punch at the back of the bullpen.

TCK: I’m going to go with Matt Wisler. He took some lump last season but finished strong and I think he can carry that over and be a dependable starter for the Braves this season.

TCC: Matt Wisler is the guy for me. He flashed a ton of potential in 2015 right from the start, when his debut basically mirrored that of John Smoltz. While I obviously don’t think that he’s going to be that caliber of pitcher, I do think he has the stuff to turn into a solid middle-of-the-rotation type of guy.

His fastball has enough velo already, but I’m looking for him to improve the command of that pitch. I also saw flashes of a plus-slider from him during the season, although I think that pitch needs a good bit of work as well.

The big thing you hear with Wisler though is with his mentality and make-up. By all accounts — and from the few times I spoke to him myself — he seems like an extremely bright kid who’s always trying to get better. That combined with his raw abilities have me confident in him improving on his 4.71 ERA of 2015.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

BJ: Last year, I said 72-90, and they actually finished 67-95. I think that embarrassed top brass, though certainly not enough to prevent them from trading away one of the team’s best players. The Braves have the fortune of playing in the same division as the Phillies, another awful team going through a rough transition into an uncertain future. The two worst teams in baseball will face each other 19 times, and someone actually has to win. If they split their meetings, they’ll both wind up with 10 or so extra wins. As a result, I do not think that either the Braves or Phillies will contrive to lose 100 games. But they’ll be in a yearlong dogfight for possession of last place. I’ll say the Braves finish 70-92, tied for fourth.

TCK: It is a little hard to project given Atlanta’s propensity for making trades over the last several seasons. We are never sure what the team might look like in the second half of the season. With that said, I don’t think this team can finish .500 so I will go with 71-91 and a fourth-place finish in the NL East.

TCC: I’ll peg the Braves for fourth in the division, behind the Mets, Nationals and Marlins, but ahead of the Phillies. I think that’s the obvious answer but we usually look back at projections and laugh at how far off we were.

As for the win total, your guess is as good as mine, but I feel like a 70-92 season is certainly attainable if some of the younger pitchers can make strides and Julio Teheran can have a bounce-back year.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

BJ: The Nationals, without question. Before you get to tell other people that you’re the presumptive champion, you have to actually win something. Watching Washington flail under the weight of their own unearned expectations is the closest I come to enjoying baseball these days. It may be churlish, but if it weren’t for schadenfreude, I wouldn’t have any freude at all.

TCK: Everyone hates the Washington Nationals right?

TCC: It’s always fun to beat up the Nationals, because they’ve somehow attained this air of invincibility despite the fact that they haven’t won anything except for a couple pre-season World Series.

Still, they should be much better than the Braves again this season and I’m not going to expect too much in the way of victory against them. I’ll enjoy the little victories when and if I can.

Appreciate Alex, Kris, and Carlos shedding some light on the Braves.  It may be a long season for these guys, but hopefully the payoff will come sooner rather than later!

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