Playing Pepper 2018: Atlanta Braves

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Atlanta Braves
72-90, third in NL East
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

You have to appreciate the Braves if you are a Cardinal fan.  Now, the most recent “banned from baseball” personage isn’t Chris Correa, the Cardinal employee at the head of the hacking scandal, but rather the former Atlanta GM John Coppolella.  While the repercussions of that will probably reverberate for a bit, there’s still some hope for a strong Atlanta future.  However, we’re here to talk about 2018 and that could be a different story.  Read on as these fine bloggers tell you all about the team from Georgia.

Writer Site Twitter
Alan Carpenter Tomahawk Take carpengui
Alex Remington Braves Journal alexremington
Carlos Collazo Baseball America CarlosACollazo
Kris Willis Talking Chop Kris_Willis

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Alan: Kinda. It’s actually a bit difficult to tell (even at this date), because the direction is considerably different from last season.

2018 will be ‘The Year of the Kids’ for Atlanta… Swanson, Albies, and (maybe) Camargo in the infield; Ronald Acuna arriving at some point for the outfield. Aside from Markakis, Freeman, some pitching and the catchers, the veterans are no longer present.  But that doesn’t mean the team is necessarily better. Over a third of their homers are gone, for example. The rotation will have a lot of inexperience combined with unknown durability (though a lot of options for gap-filling). The bullpen probably can’t be much worse… they will be able to close out games (Arodys Vizcaino and A.J. Minter), though, and that’s clearly good.

The biggest upside may be defensively, particularly on the left side of the field – that’s one of biggest areas of emphasis for Alex Anthopoulos. But the biggest difference-makers could end up being Acuna, Albies, and Swanson. If those 3 can hit to their capabilities (or anything close – I don’t expect Acuna to be an All-Star out of the box), then the Braves will have an improved year.

One more note there: I don’t know that third base is settled yet – does that sound familiar? Maybe the Cards and Braves should flip a coin… On heads, y’all get Moustakas and we get Neil Walker… Tails: we reverse that.

Alex: Hoo boy! Well — any time your general manager gets banned for life and your farm system loses 12 prospects in some of the severest sanctions ever levied by the league, it’s hard to say the team “improved.” Even though scouts were unimpressed by Kevin Maitan‘s first glimpse of pro ball, there’s no way to sugarcoat a winter that will live in infamy. However, I have long been an admirer from afar of the new GM, Alex Anthopoulos, and he has rather sensibly taken a wait-and-see approach this off-season rather than trying to make any big moves right after arriving. I think that’s appropriate, though it does mean that there hasn’t been anything to distract fans from the disastrous start to hot stove season. The major league team really hasn’t improved in any way other than getting a year older. But for Ozzie Albies and hopefully Dansby Swanson, that may be enough.

Carlos: For some context here, at Baseball America we do a series of staff questions leading up to the season and one of them is “Which team had the most disappointing offseason?” My answer was the Braves. So that’s the short answer to the first part of this question and the short answer to the second question is also no. Let’s dig a little deeper on both of these if you want.

In my mind it’s hard for the team who got caught up in a cheating scandal, had their general manager banned from baseball for life, lost a dozen international prospects and a third round pick in the 2018 draft to not have the worst offseason in the league. Sure, the Marlins PR and new ownership group gave them a run for this prize and took some heat off of their division rivals, and the Reds seemingly do nothing every year, but this was a bad, bad offseason for the Braves. The team won’t be able to sign international free agents for more than $10,000 during the 2019-2020 signing period and had its 2020-2021 international bonus pool reduced by 50 percent, effectively taking that talent acquisition avenue out of the picture for the next few years. That won’t be noticed immediately given the strength of the Braves farm, but it should hurt down the line.

I do think the big league club has improved marginally this winter however, if only because wunderkind Ronald Acuna should be getting many of the innings that Matt Kemp received last year and I believe that Dansby Swanson is a better player than he showed in 2017 as well.

Kris: It was quite an offseason in Atlanta that began with the resignation of John Coppolella, an MLB investigation which resulted in the loss of 13 prospects and additional sanctions to the eventual hiring of Alex Anthopoulos as the team’s GM.

Anthopoulos made essentially one big move dumping Matt Kemp and his salary to the Dodgers in exchange for Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir and Charlie Culberson. The Braves immediately DFA’d Gonzalez while the other three players have a shot to open the season on the major league roster. There was two main objectives behind making that deal though.  One, it cleared them of Kemp’s future salary obligations and the Braves will have just over $38 million in committed salary as they head into the off season and could be a major player in free agency. Additionally, Kemp’s departure opens up a corner outfield spot for No. 1 prospect Ronald Acuna.

Atlanta was otherwise pretty quiet during the offseason. Before Coppy’s departure there was a general fear among the fanbase that the team might attempt to speed up the rebuild this offseason and cash in some of their prospects. Anthopoulos reportedly kept tabs on the market for guys like Christian Yelich but elected to stand pat and further evaluate the young players that are moving through the team’s system. Ultimately I think that was the correct move. People wanting this rebuild to be over won’t be happy but 2018 feels like the season where they figure out which prospects they have can help and then enter the offseason looking to fill holes with the goal of competing in 2019.

C70: The 2018 opening rotation will be vastly different than the 2017 one. Who will be the starting five and how successful can they be?

Alan: That’s also in flux, but the initial 5 are likely to be Julio Teheran, Brandon McCarthy, Mike Foltynewicz, Luiz Gohara (currently slowed by groin injury), and Sean Newcomb. Next on deck are Scott Kazmir, Max Fried, and Lucas Sims.  Gone are the veteran gap-fillers R.A. Dickey, Bartolo Colon, and Jaime Garcia.

Teheran couldn’t buy a win at home for quite a while in 2017 – if that problem goes away, then there’s a strong improvement right away. Foltynewicz needs to show consistency – we think he may have ace stuff, but that shows in flashes. He tends to have lapses where he’s either very hittable for a while or wild for a while.  McCarthy is a bit of an unknown quantity. He last threw 200 innings in 2014, but he hasn’t been all that good since 2012. The hope is that he can provide some innings to keep Atlanta from having to rely on the rookies so much.

As for Gohara and Newcomb… I do expect very good things from both, but the better bet is Gohara. Newcomb still needs to control the strike zone better. Even in games that he is doing well in, he will occasionally come off the rails for a bit and walk 2 or 3 in a row. Gohara is still getting better, so a 4 ERA is probably the expectation for this season, but he has ‘#1 starter’ written all over him.  Hopefully the improved defense will bolster all of them.

Alex: Good question! This is really hard to predict. The top of the rotation will be Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz, whom the Braves just beat in arbitration, followed by as many healthy starts as Brandon McCarthy has in him, and then it’s anybody’s guess. Luiz Gohara and Sean Newcomb both flashed signs of dominance last year in limited action, and Max Fried and Lucas Sims have done about all they can down on the farm, too. Oh, and Scott Kazmir is *still* only 34. Who knew?

If you ask me, I’d bet on Gohara, Newcomb, and Fried each spending much of the year in the rotation, with McCarthy and Kazmir spending much of it at the doctor’s office. I think Sims is a middle reliever. I don’t think all three of Gohara, Newcomb, and Fried are future rotation anchors, but I think at least one and possibly two will have a good career ahead. They’re lefties who throw hard, so they shouldn’t have any trouble getting additional chances.

Carlos: This is a tough question given Luiz Gohara’s groin injury and the fact that the opening rotation could and probably will change within a few weeks of the season starting either way. I’ll say this is the Opening Day starting rotation: 1. Julio Teheran 2. Mike Foltynewicz 3. Brandon McCarthy 4. Sean Newcomb 5. Scott Kazmir. Apparently they could also go with a four-man and give Gohara some time to return before adding in a fifth arm thanks to the off days early in the schedule. 

I fully expect this to change quickly and throughout the season as injuries inevitably strike and young pitchers underperform or rise to the occasion. There are just so many different guys who are close to being ready for a shot and should get it at some point. Gohara is obviously going to get in there when he’s healthy but you also have guys like Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Lucas Sims and Max Fried to name a few. The variance of this starting rotation seems particularly high because there are health questions, playing time questions and questions about how these young players are going to respond to the major leagues. If you have someone who accurately tells you how successful the Braves starting rotation is going to be this season you need to have that person buy you a few lottery tickets. 

Kris: The Braves opened 2017 with a pair of 40-year old starters in R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon. The group will be much younger this time around and could get even younger as the season progresses. Julio Teheran is coming off a lackluster season but will most likely be the defacto No. 1. Mike Foltynewicz experienced quite a few growing pains in 2017 but will again be given an opportunity to take a step forward. McCarthy if healthy figures to slot into the middle of the rotation and provide some veteran leadership. The final two spots are up for grabs in spring training with Sean Newcomb and Luiz Gohara as the expected front runners. Newcomb made 19 starts last season and really isn’t talked about nearly enough. There has never been a question about his stuff, just whether or not he can improve his command. If he does, then this rotation immediately starts to look much better. Gohara was impressive in a cameo appearance last September. He is a hard throwing lefty that has command questions of his own. He has been slowed during the early part of the spring due to a groin injury which could ultimately set him back behind the other pitchers just a bit.The intriguing thing about the Braves rotation is that it could change quite a bit as the season moves forward. At this point Scott Kazmir is nothing more than a lottery ticket. If he could prove that he was capable of giving a team some innings then Atlanta could slot him in to the rotation for a bit in an effort to build some trade value. The Braves have guys like Max Fried, Kyle Wright, Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard knocking on the door as well. That could lead them to move guys like McCarthy and perhaps even Teheran depending on how the season goes.

Just to summarize, the biggest differences with the Braves’ rotation this season will be age and that they will have multiple options as the season progresses.

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Alan: There’s probably a few things, such as the fact that Atlanta might actually have a running game for the first time in a while. Albies (70 speed), Inciarte, and Swanson can all steal a base for you and all have good instincts on how to go first-to-third. When he gets here, Acuna isn’t slow, either. In a couple of years Crisitian Pache might arrive – he has 70 speed, too. The Braves are going to be fast.

Alex: Dansby Swanson is still probably going to have a long, successful major league career, for all the same reasons that we thought he would before he came into his rookie year. Last year was a struggle, but he has always received high marks for his makeup, which is one reason why I’m betting on him to bounce back in 2018. He won’t swipe enough bases or hit enough homers to be a fantasy star, but I think he’ll be a valuable contributor.

Carlos: Blooper, as a mascot, is terrible. You downgraded your mascot’s name from Homer to Blooper and now it looks like some weird combination between the Phillie Phanatic and the two-headed monster from Sesame Street. More seriously I think that Johan Camargo is better than most people think, but he still has to develop more track record before we can know what his most realistic future role is going to be. 

Kris: Whether this team succeeds or not will likely come down to whether or not they have a serviceable bullpen. Atlanta entered 2017 with a bullpen that many thought would be a strength but it quickly became apparent that wasn’t the case. There are some intriguing pieces like Arodys Vizcaino and rookie A.J. Minter who could eventually emerge as the team’s closer. There is also a chance that some of the younger guys that fail as starters could emerge as bullpen options. Guys like Lucas Sims and Matt Wisler come to mind. No matter how it comes together, the Braves need some guys to emerge to get to Vizcaino and Minter in the late innings. This is one of the biggest battles of the spring that fans should keep an eye on.

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Braves to do well?

Alan: I think they need several, and the real answer will depend on the ultimate lineup construction. At the top could be Albies and Inciarte to set up Freeman. But if there isn’t a threat behind Freeman, then he’ll be pitched around. So that points to guys like Johan Camargo, Tyler Flowers, Kurt Suzuki to earn the respect of the opposing pitchers and be the run-producers. As I say, the home runs are going to be scarce, so these guys have to play gap-to-gap to avoid stranding runners all over. That leads back to the base-running note above.

Alex: Freddie Freeman. The team’s highest-paid player finally established himself as one of the top hitters in baseball last year. As much variability as there can be among prospects, Freddie is now in the role Dale Murphy was in 30 years ago. Win or lose — and they’re likely to do a lot more of the latter — this is Freeman’s team.

Of course, there’s another possible answer to this question, and he’s the elephant in the room and the team’s single biggest X factor: Ronald Acuna. On the one hand, he has all-world talent and there’s a chance that he could treat major league pitchers the way he’s been treating minor league pitchers. On the other hand, it’s not that likely. There’s a top prospect in baseball every year, but 20-year-olds capable of hitting major league pitchers come along perhaps once or twice a decade. (Even King Albert graduated when he was 21.)

Carlos: I’ll go with the obvious guy here and say Freddie Freeman. He’s one of the most consistent hitters in baseball and has posted a wRC+ of 130 or better in each of the last five seasons. He’s one of just 14 players in baseball who has an OPS+ of 140 or better over that same period of time, ahead of the likes of Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and Josh Donaldson. If he doesn’t hit like he normally does this offense is more than likely going to struggle. There’s some talent in the lineup with Ender Inciarte, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson and Ronald Acuna, but three of the four players I just listed are 24 years old or younger and are far from a sure thing. Guys like Nick Markakis, Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suziki have performed to various extents and time periods previously, but are aging and can’t be relied on in the same sort of way. 

Kris: It feels like Freddie Freeman is always the answer to this question. Freeman missed just over a month last season and Atlanta was able to weather the storm thanks to the addition of Matt Adams. This year’s team features a severe power shortage and won’t likely be able to function well if Freeman were to be out for any length of time. 

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Alan: I can see a scenario for 70 wins. I can see a scenario for 90 wins (which would come only with strong pitching, a good free agent third baseman, and another Mets’ meltdown). 75-80 feels about right at this point… I’ll go with 77 and have them battling both the Phils and Mets for 2nd-4th places.

Alex: It’s incredibly unlucky to say this, but with the Marlins in the division I’m not sure the Braves could finish last if they tried. That said, this team’s youth movement could finish with anywhere from 69 to 79 wins and I wouldn’t be shocked. I’ll still peg them right at 74 — with a much worse record if it weren’t for those 19 games against Derek Jeter.

Carlos: I think the team will be marginally better than 2017 and finish in third place in the NL East, behind the obvious division favorite Nationals and the Mets, who should be better because of some key players coming back healthy. Last year I believe I said they would win 75 games and missed that by three wins. This year I’ll peg them at 77, which is slightly higher than most of the projection systems I’ve looked at. 

Kris: If everything breaks right, I think this team can flirt with a .500 finish. I do think this team will be much more enjoyable to watch given that they will run out a lineup that features Freddie Freeman, Ender Inciarte, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson everyday with Acuna arriving at some point. I think the team we see at the end of the season will be a much better product than the team on opening day. At this point I predict another incremental step forward with them landing somewhere between 76-78 wins. 

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Alan: “Was the off-season a missed opportunity to position this team for 2019 and beyond?”  It was, and that’s laid mostly at the feet of John Coppolella. While I would (and do) beg Alex Anthopoulos to take advantage of this year’s free agent/trade market, it’s really not too fair to ask him to dive in and start his wheeling and dealing. With him that will come, but he didn’t have much time at all to get up to speed, so AA will mostly be using 2018 as a year to see what he’s really got before starting to ‘go for it’ in 2019.

Alex: When will the Braves win the World Series? Twelve different franchises have won it all since Atlanta last popped the champagne in 1995, and the last three — the Royals, Cubs, and Astros — did so after engaging in precisely the kind of tear-down rebuild that the Braves are on. Even before ex-GM John Coppolella was banned from baseball, though, the team had been unclear on precisely when they expected to contend. Would it be 2018? 2020? Now that a new regime is in place, the question is even harder to figure.

The rebuild began in earnest with the Jason Heyward trade in 2014. But when will it end? Dayton Moore won a World Series with the Royals after he’d been in the job for nine and a half years; Jeff Luhnow needed just six years in Houston and Theo Epstein took five years in Chicago. If Swanson and Albies, and Gohara and Fried and Newcomb, and most of all, Acuna, all maximize their potential, then this team could have the makings of a championship core within the next three years. But if too many of them miss, Anthopoulos might have to tear down the teardown and start from scratch, pushing the championship window out even further.

My extremely rough guess is that the next Braves championship has something like a 5% chance of happening in the next five years, and a 20% chance of happening in the next ten. That may be overoptimistic: there are 29 other teams, and after all, 12 of them have won the World Series more recently than the Braves have, and they won’t be waiting patiently to allow that to happen. The Braves have the best farm system in baseball even after graduating a lot of their top prospects, and that’s enough to give them a pretty good chance. But just a chance. If they don’t catch enough lucky breaks, their wait could continue to stretch well into the new millennium.

Carlos: “How will new GM Alex Anthopolous impact the team this season?” Or something along those lines. This will be fascinating to watch as the year progresses and especially when it comes to the trade deadline. AA has all the chips he needs to make a big splash and advance the rebuild, if that’s the direction he thinks he needs to take. It’s already been a bit slower with him at the helm than I would have expected, thanks in part to the glacially slow offseason and also because he’s learning a new system compared to his previous stint as a GM in Toronto where he knew the players and started dealing almost immediately. In spite of the end to his run with the Braves, John Coppolella did a terrific job putting this club on the cusp of contention and now it’s up to Anthopolous to see the rebuild through the final stages and join the likes of the Astros, Cubs and Royals and find sustained major league success. I’m not sure if I’ve even answered the question that I just gave myself, but keeping an eye on it will be fascinating as the season progresses. 

Kris: When will we see Ronald Acuna in the major leagues? Acuna will probably do enough during spring training to warrant being in the outfield on opening day but given where the Braves are in their rebuild that doesn’t appear to be a likely scenario. Atlanta will likely opt to have Acuna open the season at Triple-A for at least a couple of weeks so that they can gain another full year of team control. That pretty much stinks but it is the system and that is the reality. There is no way that two weeks of Acuna as a rookie would be worth more than a full year of control so that is likely the path.

Lots of good information and thoughts there and my thanks to everyone that contributed.  We’ll see if the young guns have Atlanta rising again ahead of schedule this season!

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