Playing Pepper 2022: Atlanta Braves

It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching.  Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside.  Not in this space!  Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch.  There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper!  If you want to keep up with the Braves during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well.  You can follow that here!

Atlanta Braves
88-73, first in the NL East, won World Series
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by bWAR: Max Fried (5.4)
Top hitter by bWAR: Austin Riley (6.1)

You wouldn’t necessarily expect the first playoff team you come to when you are going in reverse standings order to be the World Champions but that’s what we have here.  The Braves may not have had a dominating regular season (though even with fewer than 90 wins, they still won their division by 6 1/2) but as we always say, all you have to do is make it to the playoffs.  What do you do for an encore?  Let’s talk to some very happy folks to find out.

Contributor Site Twitter
Alan Carpenter Tomahawk Take carpengui
Carlos Collazo Baseball America FutureProPod
Kris Willis Battery Power Kris_Willis

C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Atlanta’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?

Alan: Some things you have to be resigned to accept, and that includes the return of Marcell Ozuna. While his chance to contribute as an offensive weapon is well known, I have long been campaigning for teams to have an “out” clause to terminate a contract for reasons of bad behavior. The Braves could not afford to become another “victim” of his actions by writing him a $53 million check to go away, so he’s back… for what it’s worth.

The quick signing of Manny Pina provides a solid backup for Travis d’Arnaud (and a nice power bat as well). This on the heels of the prior signings of d’Arnaud himself and Charlie Morton signaled early on that Alex Anthopoulos was not going to leave the core of this team without adequate support during this multi-year run. I am disappointed at the loss of Freddie Freeman, but that may have come a bit from Freeman’s camp overplaying their hand. In the events that followed, the Braves clearly felt the need to go ahead and complete their off-season moves and not be left standing when the music stopped. In that process, though, Anthopoulos came out with a spectacular result: not only landing the absolute best possible replacement in Matt Olson, but anchoring him to the club for at least 8 seasons. It’s a shocking end of the Freeman era, but ensures that this core team will be competitive for at least the next 5 to 7 seasons. The price for Olson was understandably high (and Oakland did very well there), but other than catcher Shea Langeliers, the Braves can justify moving on without those prospects. Of note, William Contreras is still in the organization, too.

Kirby Yates and Collin McHugh will certainly help a bullpen that found itself last fall… no reason to think that this is a weakness for the team as we thought early on in 2021. The second roster shocker for Atlanta, though, was getting Kenley Jansen. That move truly makes the pen a formidable weapon, and one that will have shutdown power that can stretch from the 6th inning onward. That will be a key for the early portion of the season at the very least, and will certainly protect the back end of the rotation.

The only disappointment, really, is that centerfield could not be properly addressed, which means Ronald Acuna will be at that position most often with Adam Duvall and Guillermo Heredia as backups. Here’s hoping that doesn’t stress Acuna’s repaired ACL. My off-season dream scenario was to re-sign Freeman and trade for Bryan Reynolds. I can’t say that the club is any worse off given its actual new configuration.

Carlos: Atlanta’s offseason obviously revolved around the decision by the Braves and Freddie Freeman to agree to a new contract and lock the face of the franchise up for his entire career, or part ways. I don’t think there would have been anyone who would have expected the Braves to improve at first base without bringing Freeman back, but I think a case could be made for just that after the Matt Olson trade and extension.

One of the criticisms you could see coming for the Braves after winning the World Series would be that with extremely team-friendly contacts on the books—with players like Ronald Acuna (8 years/$100 million), Ozzie Albies (7 years/$35 million)—letting Freeman go could indicate the team simply wasn’t willing to spend to be competitive. I think the Matt Olson contract (8/$168 million) makes prevents that criticism entirely and shows that the Braves are committed to fully taking advantage of their current win-now window and young core that’s still under team control for over the next several years. Of the main pieces on this team, only shortstop Dansby Swanson will it free agency after the 2022 season.

Seeing Alex Anthopoulos trade away several of the team’s top prospects to acquire Olson in the first place was fun to see. Prior to that trade, Anthopoulos had only traded away depth pieces further down the system’s prospect rankings. Parting with catching prospect Shea Langeliers (No. 2), outfielder Cristian Pache (No. 3) and righthanders Ryan Cusick (No. 9) and Joey Estes (No. 14) represented a real commitment to winning at the big-league level with a strong package of young and talented players. I thought the trade itself was fair for both sides given where the clubs are at, but really this one could come down to how much Pache and Langeliers wind up hitting at the big-league level. The Braves, meanwhile, acquire one of the better slugging hitters in baseball.

Lower profile transactions like signing relievers Colin McHugh, Kenley Jansen and lefthanded hitting outfielder Eddie Rosario were nice moves to round out the roster as well and keep them as the team to beat in the NL East in my mind.

Kris: It was a crazy offseason for sure. I think losing Freddie Freeman stings but going out and acquiring Matt Olson while locking him up to an eight-year extension was the best possible move that they could have made. I’m excited to see Olson play in a more hitter friendly park and while it probably isn’t fair to suggest that anyone could really replace Freeman, Olson was the next best option available and was a move that Atlanta simply had to make.

I was expecting the Braves to add a veteran starter to the mix, but that never really materialized. Instead, they doubled down on the bullpen with additions of Collin McHugh and Kenley Jansen. I am excited to see McHugh and he can fill so many different roles that I believe he is going to be a valuable addition. Jansen just adds another high leverage option to a bullpen that is coming off of a strong postseason performance.

C70: It was a long time in coming, but the Braves finally took home the Commissioner’s Trophy. What will you remember most from that run?

Alan: Whenever you win a World Series, a lot of things have to go “right” and a lot of things have to come together. That said, things were considerably frustrating for Braves fans early on as the team really didn’t seem to “gel” as expected.

Then came the bad news: Ronald Acuna out for the year. Marcell Ozuna got hurt and then did something stupid which put him out for the year. Mike Soroka reinjured his Achilles, due to a freak allergic reaction to sutures… and he was gone for the duration. Huascar Ynoa lost a round with a dugout bench. Travis d’Arnaud messed up a hand ligament. At that point, many — if not most — were about ready to mail in the rest of the year. Then Alex Anthopolous happened. He basically grabbed every bat he could find, plus Richard Rodriguez (though he proved ineffective)… and that seemed to energize the team.

You could argue that a lack-luster NL East helped Atlanta’s chances, but there’s also a view that all of its members were beating up one another until the Braves finally went on a run to take charge (consider the volume of top-level pitching in this division). But that run was fueled by the emergence of the pitching staff (both starters and relievers), Austin Riley, and the newly-acquired bats. All that produced a hot team entering October, and one that could throw enough quality pitching at anyone while clutch hitting (particularly against some key mound opposition) provided enough offense to carry the club. Having been involved in the playoffs for 3 years prior certainly helped as well.

Carlos: For me, it’s hard to be a true “fan” of any one team any more considering the job I currently do with Baseball America. For that reason, I typically am drawn more to fun storylines and exciting games regardless of the teams involved. But this one was certainly different for me because throughout the process I had so many friends and family members who are Braves fans who were constantly touching base and expressing their excitement and fear and euphoria once the team finally made it happen. For me, it was a blast to see people who I know are generally more casual baseball fans really go all-in during the playoffs and find a deeper connection to the game and get invested in a sport and find players they really fell in love with. I had other friends who I know have been pulling for this team their entire lives and had gone through some periods where the team simply wasn’t that good or didn’t live up to expectations in the playoffs. Finally seeing their reaction to the team reaching the pinnacle of the sport was a blast for me. So it was a lot of excitement for others more than excitement for myself and that might have been even better.

Kris: There were so many amazing moments but I think what I will remember the most is just how the team came together over the final two months. They floundered for over half of the season and then lost Ronald Acuña Jr. to a knee injury. There was legitimate talk as to whether they should sell at the trade deadline. The acquisitions of Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler, Eddie Rosario and Adam Duvall breathed new life into the club. Once they hit their stride, they were playing as well as any team in the league. It carried over to the postseason and it was such a magical run. Watching it all unfold was surreal. 

C70: What are the health reports on Ronald Acuna Jr. and what do you expect from him this season?

Alan: Early indications were that Acuna might be held back until May. While that remains a possibility, recent comments from Brian Snitker suggest that he might use Acuna as the Braves’ DH until he’s ready to start in centerfield… and since Atlanta didn’t get one, that’s ultimately going to be his position this year. I personally have some concerns from afar that base-running could cause some issues for him if he’s back too soon — particularly things like running out an infield grounder or a sudden direction change to dive back into first base ahead of a pickoff attempt.

If he stays healthy, then we could be talking about the unleashing of a beast. With a May start, I could envision at least 30 homers and 80+ runs scored. But opening day? 40-45 homers and 100 runs (hopefully the Braves limit his steal attempts for health reasons). The only real question I have is whether he can maintain the kind of batting average (.280-285 or better) that he’s done in the past, given the time off. But there’s zero question about his power.

Carlos: I have no inside information into this, I just read the guys who are following the team everyday like Mark Bowman and DOB (Dave O’Brien). It sounds like early May he should be back and the designated hitter could be used to help slowly get him back into a regular role. I expect him to continue playing like one of the best players in baseball when he’s fully healthy. I think he’s proven his talent to be at that level at this point and until he proves otherwise, I don’t know why I would expect anything else.

Kris: By all accounts, Acuña’s rehab has gone well. There have been some discrepancies, but I think it is safe to assume that he will be back in the lineup sometime around the start of May. The Braves aren’t going to rush him and I expect him to be brought along slowly and will probably see some time at DH until he fully gets his legs under him. 

C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?

Alan: Until a few days ago, the answer was “Shea Langeliers”. That trade has significantly gutted the Braves’ farm system, but there are a few guys still worthy of a watch.

So my new number 1 is outfielder Michael Harris II. He’s the closest thing to Acuna 2.0 right now, though I don’t wish to suggest that we’re talking about that level of production… at least not yet. He should hit AA this year at his age 21 season and his numbers should be revealing of what to expect in the future — whether good or not. It’s about time to see Harris’ power potential emerge, and that will be tested in what has been traditionally a pitcher’s league at Mississippi (the old Southern League). All of his tools score 50+ grades, a notch below where Acuna was at this stage while also a year older. Still, that’s the makings of a solid MLB outfielder who could be ready for the show in 2023 or 2024. But no rush needed.

Carlos: The Braves farm system has trended down in a big way over the last few years, partially because of the international sanctions that prevented them from reloading the lower levels of the system and partially because the organization has done a nice job graduating players who have made big league impacts. The most interesting player in the system is clearly outfielder Michael Harris, the team’s top prospect, who should get a chance to test himself against the upper levels of the minors this year. He is the best pure hitter in the system and also has the most well-rounded toolset and has a chance to be an impact outfielder with speed, power and great center field defense.

Scouts will be critical of his approach and swing decisions this year, but he showed good progress month over month in this area a year ago, so I think he can be fine in this category with the barrel maneuverability to cover every part of the zone. The Braves have moved players quickly in the past, but they seemed pretty conservative with Harris in 2021 when perhaps you could have argued that his performance warranted a promotion. I wouldn’t be stunned if he continued mashing and forced his way to the majors this year if the team had a need in the outfield, but more realistically he should get time at Double-A and Triple-A this year and perhaps be looking at a 2023 ETA or 2024 if he struggles.

Kris: My first answer would be Spencer Strider, but he actually made his debut in the final weekend of 2021. Michael Harris would be another, but I think he is realistically another year away. So, I guess my answer will be Drew Waters. A lot of the prospect shine is gone now from Waters but he is still just 23-years old. He struggled at Triple A in 2021, but that was coming off of a lost season in 2020. I think Waters will eventually put it all together and should be the next man up in Atlanta’s outfield if someone goes down with an injury. 

C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?

Alan: We’re still waiting to see how things are going to shake out with the rest of the NL East clubs, but I am optimistic about the Braves chances to not only compete well, but also to have a chance at repeating as champions in 2022. Right now, I’d order the East as Braves / Mets / Phillies / Marlins / Nats. Atlanta’s lineup is going to provide few places for pitchers to go to find outs and literally every position carries a 25+ homer bat.

The weakest spot for the Braves will be their 4th/5th rotation spots, but Atlanta will do what they have often done there: rotate guys in from AAA until someone proves they have earned the right to stick in the spot. With 6-8 candidates for those roles, something will work… or the team will outslug the opposition. Outfield defense will be iffy at times unless both Acuna and Duvall are on the field at the same time. But this team will definitely pound the baseball. The bench is solid with the addition of LHH Rosario. Outfield patrons should stay on alert throughout every game.

Overall, it feels like a 90-92 win team given the competition (and Atlanta has to face the AL West in interleague play). Also feels like the Dodgers (once again) will be the biggest competition for them in the NL.

Carlos: I see no reason why the Braves aren’t a playoff team in some capacity given the (lame) expanded playoff format and they should compete for a fifth straight NL East title. I hope we get a good Mets-Braves battle in the division because it has been a bit light in recent years. Once the playoff field is set, anything is possible as Braves fans well know from a year ago. I won’t hazard a guess there, but my official BA prediction for the World Series is Dodgers over Blue Jays if that means anything to you about where I see the Braves.

Kris: I think by acquiring Olson and locking him up long term signals that the Braves believe their championship window is wide open. I still believe that as well. I expect Atlanta to again be among the best teams in the league. The NL East should be better, but I think the Braves improved along with everyone else. Given their bullpen additions, I think this is a team that is built for postseason success. 

C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Braves Twitter accounts to follow.

Alan: There are soooo many. Braves Twitter has become legendary in the industry. @JDunnah and @RhubarbBrown are insane at trolling, mockery, and generally getting under the skin of opposing fans (particularly the latter). Follow at your own risk. Another fun follow is Blooper, the Braves mascot, who has won me over after the initial reveal (@BlooperBraves). I’ll add a couple for more serious content: @BravesAmerica and @BravesHerbert.

Carlos: For my money, Mark Bowman is the king of Braves coverage. I had the chance to work with him, so sure I am biased, but I think most Braves fans would tell you this as well. Bow is a great reporter, a great writer and a great person. Hard to top that: @mlbbowman.

The recently rebranded Battery Power is the best Braves blog on the internet and perhaps the best fan-blog of any team in baseball. If you’re a Braves fan and aren’t following them, you’re simply missing out: @BatteryPowerSBN.

Braves twitter is pretty infamous at this point and one of the more passionate (and at times actually crazy) fanbases on the internet. Scott Coleman (@scottcoleman55)—who also writes and podcasts for Battery Power—seems like the heartbeat of the fandom online from my perspective and adds plenty of great commentary, comedy, memes and regular thoughts on the team.

If you only followed these three accounts, I feel like you would have a great understanding of the team throughout the entire season with a mix of straight reporting and fan-based accounts.

Kris: What a great question. Demetrius Bell @fergoe, Scott Coleman @scottcoleman55 and Garrett Spain @BravesMiLB.  If you follow those three guys, then you are going to be well informed on the Braves.

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