If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition. (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.) Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper! This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams. Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper! If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!
Given the talent level and the fact that they were the defending champs, Atlanta losing in their first playoff round last year was a bit of a surprise. The Braves didn’t rest on their laurels, adding some more young talent to their storehouses. So is there a deep run in them this year? We’ve got some Braves faithful to talk about it!
C70: The Braves had an active offseason and, of course, handed out some more extensions to young players. What did you think of their winter moves and how does this team look as 2023 gets ready to open?
Carlos: Atlanta had fewer big-time moves than other clubs this offseason but had fewer moves needed to be one of the best teams in baseball. The young core is probably as good as you can hope to get thanks to all of those extensions, some great drafting and consistently good player development on both the pitching and hitting fronts. I expected the team to make some sort of addition to address either left field or shortstop, but given the trade to acquire Sean Murphy and secure a long term catching solution I think you can give Atlanta a bit of a pass for that. It’s more difficult to find an impact catcher than left fielder, and perhaps the Braves can prove us all wrong again by getting Vaughn Grissom to step into a steady, everyday shortstop role.
I thought the trade to acquire Joe Jimenez was a solid one for Atlanta. The team has done an excellent job putting out one of the best bullpens in the game in recent years and that goes a long way in continuing that for the 2023 season. Malloy would have had a chance to step into the LF spot for the Braves if he was still here, but I think there’s a chance he is a platoon bat, so I think it’s a solid move.
Alan: Atlanta has undertaken a course that many teams are envying… they have locked up so many young position players that the starters came into North Port knowing exactly who they will be seeing at almost every position, every day… and for several years to come. Talent aside (and that’s the reason the extensions were offered in the first place, of course), that breeds familiarity, camaraderie, confidence, and a “team” in the truist (see what I did there?) sense of the word. This will pay dividends down the road.
The off-season saw a couple of obvious holes: left field and shortstop. In true Braves’ fashion, though, they went into another direction entirely with the expectation that internal solutions would suffice to fill those holes. For catcher Sean Murphy, they gave up a lot of potential talent, but got back one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, which will pay big dividends in their efforts to suppress everyone else’s running game.
The other big move that didn’t get a lot of attention was the acquisition of Joe Jimenez from Detroit. This could be a stealth steal for Atlanta, providing yet another 8th-inning-type arm that just adds to a bullpen of strength. Likewise, Lucas Luetge was snatched from the Yankees, which further extends the bullpen’s reach. Besides this pair, though, there’s a lot of competition for the end of that bullpen bench from numerous relievers brought in to see if they can recover prior levels of performance (Nick Anderson most notable here). If half of them do so, the pen will be untouchable.
Vaughn Grissom showed enough during the Winter in his workouts with Ron Washington to tell the team they could afford to move on from Dansby Swanson — despite Swanson having the best WAR year for any shortstop in the history of the Braves’ franchise. If Grissom can make the routine plays and throws at short, then he’ll be fine… and any offensive support will be a bonus. We tend to forget that in the years since 1990, the average season for any Braves SS was in the 2.0-2.4 WAR range. Grissom is certainly capable of that, though there’s a late push from Braden Shewmake to challenge for the job. I still think Grissom gets it, but Shewmake could very well be his middle-infield backup.
Grissom and/or rookie Braden Shewmake will be in the mix at some point, but it was announced last week that Orlando Arcia will be the Opening Day starter at shortstop with the others going to AAA Gwinnett. Defensively? Arcia is slightly better. Offensively: a career OPS+ of 75 isn’t terribly exciting. Stay by the phone, kids.
Kris: Overall I was pretty pleased with Atlanta’s offseason. I don’t think enough people realize just how big of a move obtaining Sean Murphy really was. The deal looks even better after they locked him up longterm on a six-year contract. Losing Dansby Swanson stings just because he meant so much from a leadership standpoint, but that was something that everyone should have been prepared for. The decision not to address the shortstop position is interesting, especially now that it seems that it will be Orlando Arcia and not Vaughn Grissom on Opening Day. Still, this was a team that had a roster that was pretty much set going into the offseason and they were able to make a big move in landing Murphy and added depth at some key positions.
C70: Max Fried, as of this writing, will be a free agent at the end of next season. What do you expect from him this season and are you surprised he hasn’t gotten the extension treatment?
Carlos: I am not too surprised. Fried is closer to free agency and so there’s less incentive for him to take a long-term deal in the same way that players like Spencer Strider and Michael Harris did just last year. Especially if you consider the current market for what big league pitchers are getting. Add in the left handed factor for Fried and he should be one of the most attractive pitchers on the market.
If I was him there’s no chance I would want to sign a team friendly long term deal before testing the waters in free agency. He’s been a top 10 pitcher based on fWAR over the last two years and of the 17 pitchers who have thrown at least 350 innings in that span he is fourth with a 2.74 ERA behind only Julio Urias (2.57), Corbin Burnes (2.71) and Sandy Alcantara (2.71). I don’t throw around the ace tag too often, but I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t put that label on Fried. I expect him to pitch like a No. 1 or No. 2 the entire season and he’s solidly in his prime years.
Alan: Fried just turned 29 in January and will be entering his age 31 season when he hits free agency. He is clearly elite — and I’d expect nothing less than that from him this season again — but getting him signed up for the long haul will be problematic. For one thing, he hasn’t shown the kind of long-term innings production you’d normally want to see before signing a pitcher to an extension. He finally broke through a bit with 185.1 in 2022. That’s good, but 17 other starters exceeded that career high number last year. Another 180+ inning campaign in 2023 would go a long way toward allaying any fears there… but also make him even more expensive.
Pitchers like Aaron Nola (career ERA+ 117) may soon set a bar that the Braves can’t really reach with Fried (ERA+ 140). People are already suggesting something close to $30 million annually for Nola… and while he has been more durable overall, Fried has clearly the better performing pitcher.
The de facto ceiling number for Braves’ contracts right now is $22 million annually. Fried is clearly worth more than that. While the Braves would be highly reluctant to get to that $30m range, they’d likely need to be around $25-26 million just to get a conversation underway. Even so, Fried would have to want to stay if he were offered something in that ballpark.
So in this case, it’s likely a case where both sides would have to give in a bit — quite a bit, in fact — to make such a deal work. So those are the core reasons on why I’m not surprised on Fried’s status, but of course, just the general idea of extending pitchers well into their 30’s is fraught with risk. Buyer beware.
Kris: I expect Max Fried to front what should be a solid starting rotation for the Braves and to be among the best pitchers in the National League. He doesn’t get the publicity that some of the other pitchers do, but he has been in that group every season since 2020. It would be great to see Fried and the Braves come to an agreement on an extension, but I am not terribly surprised that it hasn’t happened. Fried is going to be 30 years old when he enters free agency and is going to command a high price. He has no doubt earned it, but that doesn’t really go along with the type of deals that the Braves have been handing out. If it is going to happen, then it will probably be soon because the closer he gets to free agency, the higher the price tag is going to be. Given what we have seen with Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson, I won’t be surprised if he just finishes out his contract and signs elsewhere.
C70: What’s the weakness of this team and do you expect the club to address it during the season?
Carlos: The very obvious questions come at shortstop and left field. I think one of those positions should be fine given the quality of Vaughn Grissom’s bat, but I am not positive yet that he’s capable of being an everyday shortstop in the big leagues. I know the Braves have been working with him a lot this offseason to prepare him for that role, but in doing reporting on the Braves farm system over the last three years, I never talked to a scout or an evaluator who talked about his shortstop defense in an optimistic fashion. Those highest on him always made it seem like he could play shortstop in a pinch if necessary, but figured he would be better served at third base, second base or in a more utility sort of role. I’m open to being proven wrong of course, but it could be pretty tough for the pitching staff to go from Dansby Swanson’s glove at shortstop to Grissom’s.
In an ideal world, you just put Grissom in left field and let him focus on hitting I would think. But the Braves didn’t go after an obvious solution at shortstop this offseason so it seems like they’re going to give him every opportunity to win the job.
Michael Harris and Ronald Acuna could give the Braves 8-12 combined WAR in center and right field, but there’s a pretty huge drop off in quality to left field assuming Grissom won’t be there. I think the lineup is good enough to overcome the one clear offensive weakness though and don’t know that the Braves necessarily need to make a huge upgrade at the position. If not having a 2+ win player in left field is holding them back that means there are more serious problems elsewhere given the quality of this lineup.
Alan: While left field wasn’t specifically addressed in the off-season, it’s clear that bringing in more outfielders (Sam Hillard, Jordan Luplow, Kevin Pillar, Eli White) sends a message to both Eddie Rosario and Marcel Ozuna that their playing time is not secure… though manager Brian Snitker has declared that Ozuna will play (and he’s getting tons of Spring reps). As noted earlier, the Braves have enough offense around the diamond, so they don’t necessarily need a thumper in left field. But Atlanta also ranked 30th — dead last — in left fielder WAR in 2022. That needs to change. So this will be an area to watch closely. In-season trade options are going to be difficult, given the dearth of talent now in the minors and general lack of available quality OF’s (not counting the impossible-to-get Bryan Reynolds).
All that said, the more important task might having to find another Jake Odorizzi– or Drew Smyly-type if rotation depth becomes an issue. So regardless of the position – LF or pitching – Atlanta is running through numerous candidates in the hope someone steps up to seize the opportunity and avoid needing an in-season option… and that’s being done in this way for budgetary reasons.
Kris: The biggest weakness that the 2023 Braves are facing is at shortstop where Orlando Arcia is currently penciled in as the Opening Day starter after Vaughn Grissom and Braden Shewmake were optioned to Triple A. That is a pretty big let down after Grissom was hyped as the favorite for the job and performed well during the spring. I expect the Braves will address the position at some point given that Arcia isn’t much of an every day option at this stage of his career. Whether they address it by promoting Grissom, Shewmake or addressing it via trade remains to be seen.
I could see not addressing the position during the offseason when the thinking was they were going to go with someone like Grissom with high upside. To land back at Arcia, who has played shortstop six times in the majors since 2020, is just a disappointing outcome.
C70: There are so many young talents already established, but is there a rookie or someone that hasn’t played much MLB yet that will make an impact this season?
Carlos: The system is barren in terms of bats, so I wouldn’t expect a huge jump from any of the hitters. Perhaps Jesse Franklin gets a chance in left field to do something, but he doesn’t look like a true everyday player just yet.
In terms of arms, there are a few to get excited about at the upper levels. Jared Shuster doesn’t have crazy stuff but he could serve as a solid back-of-the-rotation starter if needed, as could both Darius Vines and Dylan Dodd. On the reliever front, it wouldn’t be surprising to me if Blake Burkhalter moved quickly through the system, but I think the Braves could also try and stretch him out as a starter given the quality of his command.
Alan: A month ago, I was prepared to say “no”… since there were no rookies even in the mix as position players, and even pitching prospects seemed like longshots. However… Atlanta has seen what 5th-starter candidates Bryce Elder and Ian Anderson can do in the past, and the team is obviously still looking for ‘more’. Enter 2020 Wake Forest draftee Jared Shuster along with 2021 SE Mizzou State product Dylan Dodd. On March 15th, both Elder and Anderson were optioned to AAA Gwinnett — effectively ending (for now) their pursuits of the 5th starter role. With Mike Soroka still yet to throw a competitive pitch (and indeed, his last MLB pitch came on August 3rd, 2020), that leaves Shuster and Dodd as the only remaining candidates with 2 weeks to go in Florida.
The 24-year-old Shuster ended the 2022 season at AAA (9 starts, almost 49 innings, 4.25 ERA), but did well at AA Mississippi before that (16 starts, 90.2 IP, 2.78). In nearly 9 Spring innings, though, his numbers have been eye-opening: 0.71 ERA with a 0.553 WHIP in 12.2 innings… 5 hits, 2 walks, and 16 punchouts against decent quality hitters, including a full-on audition success against the Red Sox.
Dodd has been nearly as good: a 0.69 mark… for both ERA and WHIP over 13.2 innings. His audition against the Phillies went almost perfect after yielding a leadoff homer. The odds are that the ‘next man up’ scenario will still be fully in play for the end of the Braves’ rotation among 5 pitchers: Shuster, Allard, Anderson, Elder, and hopefully Soroka. But it’s looking like Shuster might get the first chance… which could give him a 2-month window of opportunity to stick.
Kris: The easy answer to this would have been Grissom. Still, the Braves have a pair of rookie left-handed pitchers in Dylan Dodd and Jared Shuster who have burst onto the scene with strong performances during the spring. As things currently stand, they are competing with each other for the final spot in the rotation. No matter how that comes out, both have shown that they are ready to contribute and we will likely see them at some point this season.
C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?
Carlos: Best case: sixth straight NL East championship, Ronald Acuna Jr. has an MVP season and pushes the Braves to their second World Series championship in three years.
Worst case: Acuna Jr. fails to return to superstar form, the entire young core regresses, injuries plague the team, Atlanta falls to fourth place in the division and Alex Anthopoulos retires after the season.
Most likely case: The Braves are a postseason team and give Atlanta a taste of the playoffs for the sixth straight year, but ultimately fall short of the championship.
Alan: Best case is easy: the Braves pitching is healthy, the offensive leaders slug and run (I expect stolen bases to be a story), and everything comes together for a runaway World Series title… they are certainly capable of this on paper.
In the worst case, we have a repeat of 2014 when the Braves lost starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy on consecutive days or 2008 when the pitching fell apart then, too. Even that latter team’s offense (Brian McCann hit .301, Chipper Jones OPS’d 1.044) couldn’t overcome the pitching damage and the team stumbled to 72-90. Even so, I’d think the lowest possible floor this year comes at 81-83 wins since there’s so much mediocrity around the league.
Most likely? The offense will be solid and at least 4 starters will be reliable at a given time. Given the newly-semi-balanced schedule, there’s 12 fewer games against the Mets and Phillies, so that helps… but it helps those clubs, too.
The Braves reached 101 wins last year despite a slow start. With a full year of a healthy Acuna and Albies (hopefully) plus a full year from Harris II, the slow start trend should vanish. This is a team that should exceed the predictions of 94-95 wins that many are making. I am bullish on that: 97 wins or better… which might be enough to win the East again.
Kris: The shortstop position is a sore spot, but this is a team that is loaded with good young core that is for the most part locked up long term. Atlanta has won five straight division titles, but probably can’t afford another slow start to the season given the improvements that the Mets and Phillies have made. Still, the Braves look like one of the best teams in the majors that is capable of winning the World Series if things break their way in October.