Playing Pepper 2020: Atlanta Braves

If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper!  For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear.  It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about.  It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.

These answers were obtained before (or very soon after) spring training was halted and Opening Day was delayed.  Obviously, things may be very different when baseball returns but my hope is that this gives you a good feel for the Braves, even if some specific items may be affected.

Atlanta Braves
97-65, first in NL East, lost in NLDS
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

While allowing 10 runs in the first inning of a winner-take-all game leaves a rough taste, Braves fans had plenty to be excited about last season.  That made it two straight years in the playoffs and with a young, talented nucleus, the future is still very bright.  Can Atlanta take the next step, though?  We’ve got some Braves bloggers to talk about that and more!

Blogger Site Twitter
Alan Carpenter Tomahawk Take carpengui
Kris Willis Talking Chop Kris_Willis
Carlos Collazo Baseball America CarlosACollazo

C70: Atlanta had a busy offseason, culminating (at least so far) with the signing of Marcell Ozuna. What move did you like the most and which move were you a bit leery of?

Alan: As it turns out, the Atlanta Braves had options all over the map this Winter – way more than we had probably figured on. That came about because first the first time in recent memory, the team was spending money – and doing so fairly freely. In terms of what they did, I have only a couple of hesitations… but neither quite rises to the level of regret.

At the very beginning of the off-season, option years for Tyler Flowers and Nick Markakis were technically declined and the buyout prices paid off. Each was then re-signed to the an amount giving them the same monies for 2020 they’d have had if the options had been picked up ‘normally’. Why? This had the effect of taking $4 million of 2020 money and pushing it back onto the 2019 ledger. At the time, I figured this was for Liberty Media’s corporate accounting purposes, but now I recognize that it saved the Braves $4 million and change (in terms of player benefits) against the 2020 luxury tax threshold… a figure that almost no one guessed might be in play. But it actually is… and this will be something to keep in mind come Summertime. Brilliant… though admittedly, in bringing back Flowers and Markakis… they could end up being the weakest links on the club.

I fully understand the moves:. Without Flowers, you need two catchers and would have none that know the pitching staff. Without Markakis, you cut out a significant leader, clubhouse presence, and father figure… and this team does need a scout leader (Freeman is one, but 2-3 more would be helpful). Still, after the way things played out, Ozuna’s presence gives Markakis a definite bench role. After the events of this week (the Betts trade and the failed Angels trade), you might also wonder if someone like Joc Pederson might be more appropriate for the extra OF/lefty bat position… you’d have to think he’s very available (anyone calling from the Cardinals, perhaps?).

Josh Donaldson is clearly the fish that got away. He wanted to come back. The Braves wanted him back. Unfortunately neither side could see eye-to-eye on the subject of the money. And the years. And the money. That is a point of regret, but it’s a decision that will be very difficult to grade until another 3-5 years has passed. It’s probably a coin flip on how that non-move will be perceived at that time.

Otherwise, seeing Alex Anthopoulos getting the bullpen arms that he did was excellent. The only “new” addition is Will Smith, but he was arguably the best reliever available. Smith is also the only one that will have to acclimate himself to new surroundings. The rest made that transition at the end of the 2019 season, so there should be enough familiarity (other than the new Spring digs in North Port, FL) to allow them to get right to work. Don’t underestimate ‘comfort level’ when acquiring new players… it’s hard to be acquired, change cities, change uniforms, find out where to go and then be expected to perform at a high level immediately. Shane Greene found that out.

Kris: I was pretty disappointed that they were unable to keep Josh Donaldson but I think the reasoning is understandable once the bidding increased into the four/five year deal category. I was impressed that the Braves were able to pivot so quickly and land Marcell Ozuna on a one-year deal which is in itself surprising as well. I thought that was a really solid move and while he won’t completely replace Donaldson’s performance, I think he will fit nicely into the team’s lineup.

The biggest move the Braves made was acquiring closer Will Smith on a three-year deal. While I don’t hate the move or that they spent significantly to improve an area that was a problem spot for most of last season, I am leery given the volatile nature of relievers in general. I think Smith will be a great addition but he better be and Atlanta’s bullpen better be a strength given the amount of financial resources that have been devoted towards it.

Carlos: I generally liked most of the moves the Braves made. I think they addressed their biggest areas of need, though I am always a bit leery when teams spend a significant amount of money on relievers. I know Will Smith is good and I don’t doubt he’ll be an important piece for the team this season (whenever that comes), but 13 million for four years? I don’t hate this move, but it does scare me a bit. As for the move I liked the most… It’s probably the Felix Hernandez signing. I know in all likelihood it’s not going to turn into much, but how cool would it be if the King could revitalize his career or have a bright spot towards the end of it with Atlanta? For one year and a million bucks it’s essentially no-risk. But it’s fun to hope for Felix, so that’s my choice here.

C70: Cardinal fans saw all they wanted of Ronald Acuna Jr. in the NLDS. Is last year’s season about what you expect from him or is there still more in there?

Alan: The only concern I have about Acuna is his concentration level. I think we all saw in the playoffs what he can be when he stays focused. I’ll speak a bit later about player maturity, but in this specific case, if Acuna can maintain his baseball ‘zone’ more often, he will become an absolute monster. That clearly is difficult to maintain over the course of a 162-game grind, but the first step is to think less about himself, the batflips, and the admiration of high-arching fly balls that may-or-may-not leave the yard. I’m not quite sure if he’s there yet… a number of his actions over the past year or so point to an athlete who’s still trying to draw attention to himself.

After the first day in camp, though – and his arrival was with the very first group of position players seen this week – perhaps there’s now a sign of more focus. We’ll see soon enough how that goes going forward. I’ll grant that this criticism sounds more like a parent talking, but the flip side of that coin is that Acuna clearly wants to have the spotlight on him, and that only works if he’s producing at a high level. He’s still clearly having fun with this game, and that’s not hurting him a bit. We’ll see if that concern is warranted soon enough, but to directly answer your question: there are those in this sport who are speaking Acuna’s name in the same breath as that of Mike Trout, so yes: there is definitely more to come. Those folks with that opinion have reason to be listened to. Check’s list of Acuna’s “Similar Batters through (age) 21”:

Frank Robinson
Miguel Cabrera
Giancarlo Stanton
Hank Aaron
Justin Upton
Tony Conigliaro
Eddie Mathews
Mike Trout

That’s a heckuva list. One of these seasons – soon – Acuna is just going to go off and put up 10 WAR or something. He’s fully capable. He’s scary-good.

Kris: I think Acuña will be a perennial 35-40 home run guy but I also think there is still some improvement to be had. Most metrics had Acuña as a positive defender in 2019 but I think that is the area that he can improve the most in. The Braves are planning to play Acuña more in right field this season and that should help. He has the tools to be a great defender he just needs to spend more time focusing on it and I think that will come with experience. 

Carlos: I think there could be more in the tank. We talk about Ronald Acuña Jr. pretty regularly in the office at BA and while he does everything pretty well, there’s room for improvement when you start nitpicking. He does not yet have the plate discipline that the elite hitters in the game possess, and while he might never be a Juan Soto sort of batter, he could get better in that area. the defensive metrics have been just fine for Acuña’s outfield play, so there’s probably some refinement we could see defensively as well. I truly think Acuña has the toolset to be a top-three player in the game. Now we’ll have to see if he can make those little nuanced, detailed adjustments from season to season that separate great players from extraordinary ones. 

C70: Who will establish themselves as the team ace by the end of the season?

Alan: Mike Soroka and Max Fried are liable to make this a dead heat through the year. I could also throw in Cole Hamels (if he can remain healthy), but in his case, there’s a high likelihood that he’ll be renting a post office box in a different state come 2021, so the idea of putting him in this question’s context is a bit out of place. Both Soroka and Fried set personal professional records for innings pitched (between 165 and 175) and both hit walls at some point last season.

Soroka: ‘Only’ 3 scoreless outings after May 15; gave up 5, 3, 0, 2, 4, 0, 4 runs from June 12 to July 20. Gotta admit, it was hard to find his ‘fail’ stretch.
Fried: gave up 2, 4, 5, 3, 5, 2, 2, 3, 5 0, 4 earned runs in consecutive starts from May 22 to July 27. Finished strong: no runs allowed on Sept 21 and 28.

Neither pitcher was tagged for more than 5 earned in 2019. Soroka is unflappable. Fried has more strikeout stuff. Soroka walks fewer. Fried is recently 26 years old. Soroka just 22½. Both should be stronger later in the year having now worked through a long season for the first time.

Both should thrive while we wait to find out if Hamels is going to be great again, whether Folty has his confidence, and whether Sean Newcomb or somebody else will be that 5th starter.
But for the staff ace? Right at this moment, I’d put my money on the Canadian – Soroka. Fried could definitely push him, though… and that’s not a bad thing.

Kris: I think this is easily Mike Soroka and I also believe we were trending heavily in that direction last year. He is the odds on bet to be the team’s starter on Opening Day and the Braves probably would rethink not throwing him in Game 1 of the Division Series last year if they had another chance. 

Carlos: Mike Soroka? He basically already did that a season ago, so he has to be the favorite for this category this year. Sure there’s going to be some regression, but I still think he’s going to be the best pitcher on the staff.

C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?

Alan: Atlanta will win the NL East again. I can’t say that any more plainly or confidently. Here’s why:

  • See the answer to Question 6
  • See the answer to Question 2
  • The Mets improved with attempts to upgrade their bullpen. They lost Zack Wheeler. Their starting pitching is still very good (Rick Porcello is an interesting question mark), but the bullpen is uncertain, and offense is not really any better.
  • The Phillies signed Wheeler and Didi Gregorius. They will also have Andrew McCutchen back. Their pitching is still shaky all the way around, so they’ll have to out-slug people… which is plausible. I’m not convinced.
  • The Nationals lost Anthony Rendon and are attempting to plug that hole with every veteran they can sign… but they can’t all play at once… or at Rendon’s level. Their bullpen is better, but losing Rendon will hurt. Their ‘kids’ should be better, but Atlanta has more than they do.
  • The Atlanta Braves have a roster full of players that can be projected above 2019 levels – and that kind of upside is potentially explosive on offense. But we’ll have more to say about that later…

Kris: It looks like the NL East will be strong again with the Braves, Nationals, Mets and Phillies all at least eyeing contending. I think losing Donaldson hurts Atlanta slightly but hopefully they have made up for it in other areas such as the bullpen. I will predict somewhere around 91-94 wins for the Braves and I think they will take the division for the third straight season. 

Carlos: Every year at BA we all post our predictions for every division in baseball and this year I pegged the Braves for first in the NL East. It will again be one of the more competitive divisions in baseball, but I think the Braves have the quality of depth necessary to make it three straight. They also have the prospect depth to make a big addition in-season.

C70: What’s the main topic Braves fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?

Alan: Right now, the Atlanta Braves are poised to literally do anything that they need to do at the trade deadline this Summer. Money… prospects… ready to go. They avoided making the ‘big trade’ (or any trade, really) this Winter, so all of their premium prospects are going to be sitting at AA or AAA … locked and loaded. In addition, they have signaled that the money will be available to make another move… even if it were something as big as Nolan Arenado, for instance. So while there are still a couple of question marks as Spring camps are opening this week (as this is being written), any questions still needing answers by Summer can be dealt with.

What are those question marks? Third base and the rotation. While there are reasons to believe that the Braves will be okay at third with Johan Camargo and then Austin Riley if Camargo falters, Atlanta might be looking for more offense at this position for the post-season if this duo doesn’t hit well. If injuries or poor performance ends up biting the team among the starting 5, then a deal to obtain a proven starter would be needed. That’s why I have confidence in this club for winning the division… they already have sufficient talent to make good things happen, but they will be quite able to pivot to fill a need this Summer if necessary.

Kris: Two areas really, third base and the rotation. The Braves are going to try and replace Donaldson with internal options in Johan Camargo and Austin Riley. Both had nice springs and there wasn’t a clear leader in this race when the Grapefruit League schedule was postponed. Riley was impressive after debuting last season but slumped badly down the stretch. If he can make adjustments and cut his strikeout rate, then he might actually be the the right-handed power bat that this club has been looking for. If both falter then we may see the Braves looking for outside help at the trade deadline.

Atlanta was reportedly in the market for a frontline starter this offseason but only added veteran Cole Hamels on a one-year deal. Hamels is expected to miss the start of the season after he irritated his shoulder during his offseason workouts. The Braves entered spring camp with two open spots in their rotation with a competition involving Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright, veteran Felix Hernandez and several of Atlanta’s other young pitching prospects. While Hernandez appeared to have locked down one of the spots to start the season, the Braves really need someone like Kyle Wright or Bryse Wilson to take a step forward. Wright looked the part during the exhibition season but he needs to prove that he can handle one of those rotation spots. If this doesn’t work out then this could be another area that Alex Anthopoulos is looking to shore up at the deadline.

Carlos: Each year I probably have less of a feel for this than my pals answering along side of me, but I generally think Braves fans are more in-tune with their minor league system and prospects than most other fanbases. The passion seemed to grow when the team started collected an absurd amount of prospect depth and now that it’s started matriculating to the major league level, the thirst for knowledge about Atlanta’s farm system is still there. And that’s really cool to see. Perhaps in general baseball fans are starting to care more about prospects, but I think this is particularly true for Braves country. 

C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?

Alan: The maturation process of ‘the kids’ all around the diamond… pitchers included. This is not a team that has plateaued or is otherwise seeing the end of their ‘window’. Many of these Atlanta Braves are still looking up to their peaks – in fact you could argue that there is still performance upside potential at nearly every position on the diamond. Think that’s an exaggeration?

  • FREEMAN – yes, he’s now 30 years old, but for the first time in numerous years, he’s (by his own admission) coming in pain free thanks to an elbow cleanup. Between that and the bad taste of that 2019 finish in October, Freeman has a chip on his shoulder instead of in that elbow. He could have his career year in 2020.
  • ALBIES – Blew up in 2019, but that still hadn’t quite matched the kind of hitting he did in the minors… plus he started relatively slowly last year (.239 in May). People already recognize he’s a real threat in the lineup… and can still be better.
  • SWANSON – He’s a better hitter than he’s shown and we’re hoping that his own hand and wrist issues are fully healed. He’s been streaky – partly for those kinds of reasons. Time to put it all together… but if his defense can return to the quality of 2018, that itself could be enough.
  • d’ARNAUD – Is he really the guy that the Rays saw in 2019? If so, then it’s a real coup for the Braves. If not, he’ll still produce at least as much offense as Brian McCann did in 2019.
  • CAMARGO – We saw what he could do in 2018. This season he should have the motivation to take this third base spot he’s been given and make it his own. Everyday play is going to be better for him than last year’s spotty ABs… plus he seems to have gotten his hitting straightened out at AAA. Of note: Camargo doesn’t have to be the next Josh Donaldson. That’s why we have Ozuna. If Camargo is a 3 WAR guy… that will be plenty.
  • OZUNA – Is that right shoulder finally fully healed and strong again? If so, he will be able to drive the ball to the right side again. That’s when he’s most dangerous… and as Cardinal fans know, he wasn’t bad even with some ailments (broken fingers aside). Heck, he hit well in 2019 without a strong right side.
  • INCIARTE – He’s typically been streaky, but last year was struck by multiple injuries. He’s said to have used the down time to work on his offense, so that could be a nice surprise if he makes it work.
  • ACUNA – I think I’ve already said enough about his as-yet-unrealized upside.

That list hasn’t even scratched the pitching, and there’s at least 2 pitchers (Soroka/Fried, possibly Foltynewicz) that we should see improvements on this year as well. If Newcomb or Wright or Wilson then comes along to burst out… this could be a underrated – yet quite effective – starting 5. If that happens… this is going to be a very difficult team to beat – particularly with a shutdown bullpen to avoid the blown leads experienced in 2019. Sure – it’s not likely that everybody will have a break-out season… but even if 3 or 4 of these Braves do… that will likely be enough, for it’s hard to imagine much regression among these youngsters.

Kris: This question takes on new meaning given that I am answering it just two days after the Grapefruit League season was postponed and Opening Day was pushed back. My original answer would have been another season of watching Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies. Now I am just hoping that we get to see baseball soon.

Carlos: At this point, I’m simply looking forward to getting back to life as usual. Give me baseball games, in whatever capacity. If this were a normal season I would be most interested in how fans and other teams reacted to the Astros scandal in-season. And from a Braves perspective I’ll always be most interested in Acuña’s evolution as well as how the pitching staff sorts itself out.

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