Playing Pepper 2017: Atlanta Braves

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Atlanta Braves
68-93, fifth in the NL East
Last year’s Pepper

While the Braves weren’t able to make strides on the field toward regaining the glory of their past, there’s still a sense of optimism around the club.  Young talent, tradeable talent, and a new ballpark means that 2017 should have a lot of storylines as it unfolds.  To talk about some of those, we’ve got four folks that cover the Braves on a regular basis.  Alan Carpenter is new to the mix this year, but the others–Alex Remington, Carlos Collazo, and Kris Willis–have been through this process before.  Find all their info in the table below and check them out!

Name Blog Twitter Podcast
Alex Remington Braves Journal alexremington
Alan Carpenter Tomahawk Take carpengui
Carlos Collazo Talking Chop CarlosACollazo Talking Chop Podcast
Kris Willis Talking Chop Kris_Willis

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

BJ: I think it was a good offseason. I frankly loved the Colon, Dickey, and Garcia pickups, picking up somewhere around 60 league-average starts for just $30 million and a couple of C+ prospects, even allowing for inevitable injuries. Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz are pretty close to rotation locks at this point, and Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair will get a chance to prove themselves again whenever the injury bug strikes.

They made a couple of trades I liked to acquire farm depth, picking up a couple of former top prospects who needed a change of scenery in Luke Jackson and Alex Jackson, and recently got the hugely talented if flawed Luiz Gohara for a nice complimentary player who couldn’t break into the starting lineup, Mallex Smith. Smith could start on another team, but not on this one, not after Ender Inciarte signed a six-year extension. They shored up their iffy catching situation (Tyler Flowers, Anthony Recker, Tuffy Gosewisch) with Kurt Suzuki on a very modest deal.  Finally, when Sean Rodriguez was found to have suffered a potentially season-ending injury, they went out and got native Atlantan Brandon Phillips for a million dollars and two non-prospects. Phillips isn’t the All-Star he once was, but his bat and glove are comfortably above replacement level, and it’s possible that playing in his hometown will help him regain some of his former glory. Either way, he’s significantly above replacement level, and it isn’t often that a team is able to fill its greatest need for a nearly negligible price.

The modus operandi for all of these deals has been fairly consistent: acquire boring but decent veteran players for cash, and acquire high-ceiling low-floor talent in the low minors for high-floor low-ceiling talent in the high minors or major league bench. Obviously, you can’t just keep trading away major leaguers for minor leaguers and claim with a straight face that eventually you’re going to move from rebuilding to contention. But with Gohara and the Jacksons on board, the Braves have what Keith Law recently named the top farm system in baseball. Step 1 of the rebuild is over, and that makes for a successful hot stove season. Now we’ll see what the farm system can manage to yield.

TT: Generally speaking, yes: being a thin free agent class, there will always be the debate about ‘sign vs. trade’, and the Braves did quite a bit of both this Winter, both for now and for the future.  Fans wanted more, but more is coming one way or another. 2018 should be the year we’re more-or-less back… 2017 will be a tease.

Here are the bigger add-ons:

Major League Additions: R.A. Dickey, Bartolo Colon, Josh Collmenter (re-sign), Jaime Garcia (trade), Kurt Suzuki, Sean Rodriguez, Micah Johnson.
Rule 5: Armando Rivera
Minor League Deals: Eric O’Flaherty, Jordan Walden
Extended: Ender Inciarte

These are mostly transition moves. Only a couple are for something beyond 2017, which sets up the team for a strong run at free agents for next year.  The big thing was getting Inciarte set up for 5 years. That’s our version of the Adam Eaton trade – and cost the Braves nothing in prospects.

Deals not made: Chris Sale would be the big one, though the Red Sox smoked everyone else on that. Chris Archer, but Atlanta obviously could not reach the point where the Rays would be happy. Jose Quintana: cannot be certain how hard this might have been attempted, but this would be a tier below the Sale trade, though it’s clear no one has yet met the ChiSox price…whatever that might be.

It appears that Atlanta is more-or-less satisfied with their offense and opted to concentrate on getting pitchers who could eat innings while awaiting a few (prospect) starting pitching candidates to step up and demand promotion via their performance.  One thing Coppy made absolutely clear to all is that social promotions to the majors would not happen. If you don’t earn the spot, you won’t get it. Everyone is on notice.  Given all of that, the market then dictated the terms: if you want a decent quality SP on a 1 year deal, then you’ve got to go “old”. They did… and John Coppolella got that done quickly.

As for the rest, the catching market was an area of obvious need, but it didn’t really set up for anyone’s liking, frankly. Apparently, the Braves were unable to made a trade deal for a young catcher (there are a few out there), and thus we got what we got. The signing of Sean Rodriguez was a potential boon for the offense; his loss could likewise have been huge. Somehow, John Coppolella came up smelling like a rose by replacing him with someone Cardinal fans are very familiar with: Atlanta native Brandon Phillips. And he did that for practically zero cost.

I am definitely looking forward to seeing Phillips play. He should upgrade the second base position both offensively and defensively while allowing Jace Peterson to fill a super utility role from the bench – one that he is well-suited to handle.

The Micah Johnson deal is still a bit puzzling, but could work out. I do think we’ll miss Mallex Smith, though he was pretty clearly blocked for a while, so good for him. Ditto for a couple of prospect pitchers traded away, though again – likely blocked.  I do think – especially given Washington’s relatively thin pitching depth – that a bigger push for a frontline pitcher (Sonny Gray, Quintana, Archer) would have payed dividends starting this season. But that hasn’t happened… yet.  By the way: I am honestly not sure that Atlanta is entirely done making deals before this season gets underway. Of note: Craig Kimbrel was traded literally hours before the 2015 season began.

TCC: This is more of a complicated question than it might seem on the surface, if only because there were two mentalities that most fans had this offseason. One group got really excited about the early rumors of the team acquiring an top-of-the-rotation arm (Chris Sale, Chris Archer, Jose Quintana) while the other group felt that going in for one of those guys was a bit more short-sighted considering where the team is at this point, competitively.

I was handily in that second group, as I still think the Braves are a year or more away from being competitive in the NL East, especially considering where the Nationals are right now. Most of our prospects are in the lower minors, and if they’re who this rebuild is going to be built around I think it would be awkward to try and deal from that depth for an ace this offseason, with the goal to compete in 2017.

That said, I suppose I’m happy that one of those trades didn’t happen, as I’d rather stick to the long-term approach. I’m excited about the Mallex Smith/Shea Simmons trade that netted the Braves Luiz Gohara (now the Braves No.12 prospect via MLB Pipeline/No. 77 prospect in baseball via Keith Law) and Thomas Burrows.

The Ender Inciarte extension was a nice Christmas present and Kurt Suzuki’s signing at catcher isn’t exciting, but it is better than signing Matt Wieters in my mind. So, solid offseason, but nothing crazy. Sticking to the script is just fine for now.

TCK: I think the offseason was a good one for the Atlanta Braves. In some respects I think some people were expecting a move to bring in a big name starter such as Chris Sale but I don’t think Atlanta’s rebuild is to the point where that is a necessary move. The team has spent a lot of resources restocking its minor league system and I’m skeptical that this was the time to cash in a large number of those prospects.

For the most part, it felt like the Braves flew under the radar with their offseason additions. They attempted to add stability to their starting rotation with the additions of Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia. I thought the addition of Sean Rodriguez was one of the more value signings of the entire offseason. Catcher still appears to be a problem area for the team and the addition of Kurt Suzuki doesn’t do much to change that.

I would have liked to have seen Atlanta be able to add a starter like Chris Archer but I think they were correct in standing pat with the price tag at what feels like an extreme high. I think Archer is a guy that they will continue to revisit and perhaps more common ground can be found between the Braves and the Rays in the future.

C70: That’s an interesting rotation the Braves have constructed. Which pitcher are you most excited to watch?

BJ: Bartolo Colon’s at-bats, obviously. And as a deep Tolkien nerd, I’m excited to watch R.A. Dickey wield Orcrist, the Goblin Cleaver. (Nai hiruvalyë Valimar.) But obviously the key will be to see whether Mike Foltynewicz can consolidate the gains he made last year, and whether any of our other young pitchers can decisively make the leap, whether it’s Wisler or Blair, who both stumbled but showed flashes last year, or one of the fireballers on the farm, like Sean Newcomb or Patrick Weigel, whom I’ll mention below.

The Braves signed a couple 40-year-olds (and a third guy, Jaime Garcia, whose birth certificate is 30 years old but whose hamburger shoulder is more like 40 and counting) to give the kids another year to develop while ensuring that there will be no problem shunting them aside if one of the prospects proves his mettle. The future of this team depends wholly on whether its farm system — which is indisputably the best collection of pitching prospects in all of baseball — can actually turn its blue-chippers into major leaguers.

TT: I still don’t know how Bartolo Colon keeps getting people out, but I am glad to have him… he might be a July trade candidate, but that’s okay too. The overall idea of getting Dickey, Colon, and Garcia is clear: innings and consistency.

This group will give up a few runs here and there, but along with Julio Teheran and perhaps Mike Foltynewicz they should all keep the team close in most games, which will allow the offense to work. After 16 different starting pitchers in 2016, I am definitely looking forward to getting that number (hopefully) down to maybe 8 to 10. That would also help the bullpen.

I am actually most curious about Jaime Garcia and whether he can find the magic from 2010-13 that had him pitching in the 3-to-4 ERA range… or 2015 when he was better.  I admit being very surprised that St. Louis effectively gave up on him. Sure – his walks and homers were up, but velocity was actually up a tick and he’s still just a 30-year-old southpaw. He’s not going to blow anybody away, but he does get people out. He could be a steal.

TCC: It would be easy to jokingly go with Bartolo Colon, simply because he is baseball’s most exciting non-Mike Trout player at the moment — no small feat for a 43-year-old who topped out at 93.3-mph last year.

However, I’ll probably have to go with Mike Foltynewicz, as he had a nice 2016 and took a few much-needed steps forward. Of the arms who are expected to throw in the rotation in 2017, Folty probably has the highest ceiling thanks to fastball that averages 95-mph and gets up to 98-99 regularly.  His off-speed stuff was always the big question mark, along with the control, and if he can continue to make improvements in those areas the Braves could legitimately have another No. 2 guy on their hands.

Another guy I’m interested to watch is Matt Wisler as he took some big steps backward in 2016, but I’m still a believer that he can figure it out and be at least a solid rotational guy. His slider actually improved from his rookie season, but he really needs to improve the command of his entire arsenal or add a legitimate changeup, curve or cutter in my mind. He threw the fastball/slider about 90 percent of the time last year, and he doesn’t have the stuff to be a two-pitch starter. The adjustments he makes (or fails to make) this season could be decisive in his future with the Braves.

TCK: Among the new additions I think the easy answer is Bartolo Colon, but I am going to go with Mike Foltynewicz. Folty made a lot of strides on the mound last season. He will have to go earn a spot in the rotation at spring training but appears to have a leg up on most of the rest of the competition. His stuff is off the charts and it comes down to an issue of command. 2017 looks like a big year for him and one where he can cement himself as a part of the Braves rotation going forward. 

C70: What are the expectations for Dansby Swanson this year?

BJ: If anything, some may need to temper our expectations for him, after the man with the most gorgeously coiffed hair in baseball came up to hit .302 in 38 games at the end of the year. I don’t expect him to contend for batting titles regularly, but I’ve long thought that he could be a consistent Renteria type: double-digit homers, pretty good batting average, pretty good fielding, no real major holes in his game. Steamer sees him at .259/.322/.396 with good defense next year, which isn’t jaw-droppingly sexy, but would be a really solid year for a player who is still rookie-eligible. With the caveat that we don’t totally know how the new park will play, I think he could possibly be a little better than that.

Basically, I expect him to be a league-average shortstop effective immediately. It may take him a few years to realize his full potential, but the tools (including his all-world makeup) are still there for a couple of All-Star appearances in his prime.

TT: Depends a bit on how soon he’s put into the #2 spot in the lineup. He hit .300 in the brief start while hitting 7th or 8th, but I actually think he’ll be a bit lower than that average batting 2nd by choosing to move Inciarte over more than simply hitting for average.  So: I figure Swanson in the .270-.280 range with maybe a dozen homers, .350 OBP and reduced K’s (maybe 18% vs. 23% in 2016). With solid defense, that would play very well.

That’s the numbers guess. Aside from that, he seemed to be in the midst of a lot of action in his September stint, and I think that will characterize his play overall. He’s clearly got solid baseball savvy and knows where to be and when to be there. At the plate, he’ll be an excellent situational hitter. In the field, he’ll be making plays he has no business of making.  Between Swanson and Inciarte, there will be some fun highlights… and probably a real shot at the NL Rookie of the Year crown for the kid with the hair.

TCC: Everyone is pretty excited about Dansby Swanson entering the year, and there’s really no reason not to be. He excelled at every level in the minors last season before coming up to the Majors and hitting .302/.361/.442 with a 107 wRC+ in 38 games.  Keith Law recently named Swanson the No. 2 overall prospect in baseball, and while he’ll quickly move out of “prospect” status, there’s no real reason we shouldn’t expect more of the same from Swanson in 2017.

One thing that might be a bit concerning is Swanson’s .383 BABIP in his brief stint in the bigs last year. He has a good hit tool and is a solid runner, but I expecting a .380+ BABIP over a full season seems overly optimistic. With that said, ZiPS projections saw Dansby as the best prospect in baseball and projected to be a 3-win player.

His defense at short and solid hit tool should keep his floor fairly high, so I think that’s a pretty solid projection, but it will be interesting to see how pitchers adjust and what happens to the 23.4 K% he had during his time last season.  I’d be surprised if Swanson was worth less than 2.5 wins or more than 4 wins over the course of the season.

TCK: Swanson made it difficult to temper expectations when he put up a .302/.361/.442 line in 38 games at the end of last season. I’m not sure he can equal those numbers over a full season but I think the Braves will benefit having him in the lineup and at shortstop over the likes of Erick Aybar. He spent most of last season batting eighth but I think he will get an opportunity to show that he can handle the second spot in the lineup behind Ender Inciarte and ahead of Freddie Freeman. In many ways, Swanson is the face of the Braves rebuild and he is one of the big reasons that you should watch the 2017 Atlanta Braves. 

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

BJ: I’m not sure. The Braves’ top prospect still on the farm, Ozzie Albies, may be the biggest X-factor for the season: the speedy Curacaoan sparkplug suffered a fractured elbow at the end of the year, and while he’s expected to be fully recovered this year, it’s anybody’s guess as to when or whether he’ll live up to his full potential, which (if you want to dream) is Jose Altuve 2.0: a blisteringly fast second baseman who sprays line drives all over the field and has power belying his diminutive stature. He blazed through the minors, hitting .292/.358/.420 in Double-A and Triple-A last year at the age of 19, so if he comes up and holds his own at in the majors, this lineup will immediately have a solution at the keystone for the next six years. But he’s 20, and coming off an injury, so that’s an if. In any event, unless he’s hitting .400 or Brandon Phillips is hitting .200, the Braves are likely to give him another year to develop.

Obviously, he isn’t unheralded, so that isn’t really what you’re looking for. So I’ll say Patrick Weigel, who was probably the biggest helium guy on the Braves farm system last year. (Pretty much everyone agrees that he’s in the Braves’ top 10 prospects now, but a year ago he was pretty anonymous, so “previously unheralded” might be slightly more accurate.) He’s a 6’6″, 22-year-old former 7th round draft pick with a 99-mile an hour fastball, and firmly established himself as one of the Braves’ top pitching prospects with a terrific year in Single-A and Double-A. He’s knocking on the door, just like Newcomb, and if he earns his shot, the 40-year-olds in the rotation won’t stand in his way.

TT: Is Matt Kemp unheralded? I think he was having some fun after his trade and I expect he wants to build on that. If he’s at all a better fielder this year and maintains the hitting from 2016 (quietly pounded 35 homers – 19 of those in the 2nd half), then he and Freddie Freeman have the chance to be absolute beasts in the 3-and-4 spots of this lineup… particularly if Inciarte and Swanson are on base in front of them a lot.

Beyond Kemp, I want to see Sean Rodriguez. He could steal either the 2nd or 3rd base jobs. 18 homers in just 300 AB last year. Put him 5th and there’s serious thump in this lineup.

TCC: Braves fans have gotten pretty good at following the farm system and fringier players over the past few seasons of poor MLB play, so I’m not sure there’s one guy I could point out that they haven’t heard of.  For someone who’s more casually interested in the Braves, I do think Burrows is an interesting name to bring up. He was the second guy in that Gohara trade that I mentioned above, but he’s got an outside shot to make an impact on Atlanta’s bullpen this season.

He was a closer in college at Alabama and performed well in 24.2 innings last season with low-A Everett, striking out 13.5 batters per nine innings. He walked a few guys as well, but given his collegiate experience he figures to move through the system quickly.

The Braves acquired Brandon Phillips a few weeks after I originally submitted my answers, and while I think the deal was just fine for Atlanta — they are paying him just $1 million this season and sent two non-prospects to Cincinnati — it is disappointing that we likely won’t see Sean Rodriguez this season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Phillips seems to be a pretty polarizing player between traditionalists and more sabr-slanted baseball people, but he’s not the All-Star he used to be and his defense has been trending in the wrong direction. I think Rodriguez offered the Braves a bit more upside than Phillips because of his offensive breakout last year, but Phillips seems like a safer player simply because of his longevity in the league. Ho-hum, let’s get to Ozzie Albies.

TCK: I think the case could certainly be made for a guy like Sean Rodriguez who despite being a utility player, is going to find himself in the lineup a lot whether it is at second base, third base or even in one of the corner outfield spots. However, I’m going to go with Paco Rodriguez out of the Braves’ bullpen. Atlanta has a number of veteran options and the bullpen appears to be an area of strength entering spring training. One thing they are a little thin on is a left handed option to turn to late in games. Rodriguez missed all of the 2016 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery but should be ready to go when spring training begins. Left handed hitters have hit just .174 against him in over 180 plate appearances in his career. If he can perform anywhere close to that level this season, then he will be a big piece for the Braves out of the bullpen. 

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

BJ: I think this is basically a 76-win team that will be in a dogfight for third place. (ZIPS says 75 wins. Call me an optimist!)

TT: This is tough since the 2017 NL East is going to be … weird.  Washington will likely coast to a win unless they lose Scherzer along the way.  Even then, they could probably outslug everyone else.  They can win 90 without effort and without a bullpen.  The Phillies and Marlins have severe flaws:  offense and some pitching for Philly; pitching, pitching, and more pitching for the Marlins.  Miami has assembled an excellent AAA staff for their major league club. The bullpen will be on speed dial.  But they will score a bunch of runs.

The Mets are the enigma.  Of course they can pitch… if they stay healthy.  I don’t think they can play defense and I don’t think they can score consistently… unless David Wright can actually play.  If teams consistently get into their bullpen – especially if Familia if out for 30-50 games – then they are in real trouble.

Given all of that, the Braves will pitch well enough and long enough to stay in most games and should score enough to win a bunch.  I had originally thought 75-85 wins, but am leaning toward narrowing that to 80-84.  That’s probably not quite enough for 2nd place (Mets); probably not quite enough for a Wild Card (Mets/Cards/Giants/Rockies?).  Call it 3rd place… just in front of Miami and Philly (70-80 wins each).  If the Mets health falters, Atlanta could grab 2nd.  Nonetheless – most likely not a playoff team.

TCC: I know I already made a prediction on the Talking Chop Podcast and I’m pretty sure I said the Braves would win around 75 games this season, so I’ll stick with that here. I do think the Braves will be better than their 68-win season last year, but I’m a bit more skeptical than a lot of people around Braves country.  Yes, the rotation should be better, but the only sure thing is still Julio Teheran. Mike Foltynewicz should be good, but does anyone really know what they’ll get out of Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia? I don’t.

The offense should be alright, but I’m not expecting Freddie Freeman to have another career year and I’m also less optimistic that Inciarte is going to be continue that 125 wRC+ second half that everyone was so excited about. If you’re more bullish on those two guys, it’s easier to see why I’m less sold on the offense.  Catcher, third base and second base are all weak positions, and I don’t see any reason why Nick Markakis wouldn’t continue to trend down in his age 33 season. Don’t get me started on Matt Kemp.

Braves fans shouldn’t forget that a 4th-place finish in the NL East would be an improvement on 2016, and that’s what I’m predicting for them in 2017.

TCK: I think the on field product for this Braves team is much improved over last year’s club when a 9-28 start basically doomed them from the beginning. I think .500 is a realistic goal but there will be some bumps in the road along the way. I will go with 78-84 which is a 10 game improvement and a fourth place finish in the division behind the Nationals, Mets and Marlins.

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Brave and why?

BJ: Henry Aaron. Always and forever.

TT: I grew up watching the Braves on TBS in the 1970’s when they were awful. I obviously then saw the Run from 1991 into the 2000’s. It’s hard to select a particular player since there were at least 5 Hall of Famers on the field together at times. That counts Bobby Cox and Chipper Jones; I would also include Andruw Jones and Fred McGriff in HOF votes if I had one. Andruw was underrated – I believe – simply because he made everything look so easy.

Those were really good teams. Overall, my answer is probably Chipper Jones since he was there every day. On the pitching side, John Smoltz gets the nod by a hair due to his competitive spirit. Glavine and Maddux were close behind for sheer consistency. All three operated at a very high level for so long it was easy to take them for granted.

I also have a soft spot for Matt Diaz who did more with what he had available to give than anyone else I can recall.

TCC: This is kind of a sad answer, since he now plays for the Angels, but it’s easily Andrelton Simmons.

Simba was constantly the most exciting player on the field during his time with the Braves, and even if he made an annoying habit of spinning around and falling down in the batter’s box, he is still the best defensive player that I’ve ever watched in person.  I was fortunate enough to be able to cover the team as an Associate Reporter for MLB.com during the 2015 season and Simmons was always a super nice guy to talk to, regardless of the time or outcome of the game.

I’m constantly pulling for him, and I hope that he doesn’t get short-changed since he’s playing in what could easily be the golden age of shortstops and isn’t much of an offensive player. Defense is the most exciting part of the game in my opinion, and no one makes it more fun to watch than Andrelton Simmons.

Miss you, buddy.

TCK: Hands down it is Andruw Jones. He was the first Braves player that followed throughout the minor leagues all the way to the major league club. I still feel like he is criminally underrated given that he played during a time that there wasn’t as much of an emphasis on defense. While the end of his career was disappointing, I still think he is a Hall of Fame player and his two-homer game in the World Series is a moment that I will never forget.

I appreciate Alex, Alan, Carlos, and Kris giving us the scoop on the team down in Atlanta.  While they probably won’t be in the divisional race, they could be a team to make some noise one way or another!

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