Playing Pepper 2019: Atlanta Braves

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

Atlanta Braves
90-72, first in NL East, lost in NLDS
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

There’s always that one team that comes out of nowhere.  The team that was on the rise but makes a quantum leap.  The team that was expected to contend in a year but goes ahead and does it ahead of schedule.  Last year, that was the Atlanta Braves.  Even those that are big fans of the team, like the bloggers we had last year (most of which are returning in a moment) never expected a divisional flag to fly last year.  Fly it did, though, and now comes the tougher task of holding on to it with everyone aiming for you.  What say our bloggers this year?  Let’s find out.

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

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Alan: While things could still change even at this date, the phrase ‘missed opportunity’ comes to mind. With the early acquisition of Josh Donaldson, that left the Atlanta Braves in a position in which 1-2 addition players of some significance could have set them up for printing World Series tickets, yet no such moves came to pass.  That said, I do not wish to diminish either Brian McCann or Nick Markakis. Both will add significant experience and production. In particular, you know what Markakis will bring: 155+ games, .280-290 BA, high OBP, excellent AB’s.

I’ll add more about McCann in a bit, but I want to talk about the outfield first.

The Braves were ‘in’ on Michael Brantley, plus others, but never pulled the trigger to insure that they got somebody – anybody – else to help out offensively or defensively. Sirius/XM host Casey Stern had an apt illustration a few weeks ago to characterize how off-season deals have gone for the Braves… I’ll paraphrase that:

You have a guy co-worker in the office who is single, though active in dating. He often tells the office crew about How Things Went last weekend… and usually, as the story goes, they had a good time. Somebody will ask, ‘So are you gonna see her again?’ The answer is always ‘nah, I don’t think she’s quite right for me.’ After several of these encounters, the rest of the office gets the vibe… it’s the girls not wanting to see him any more, not the other way ’round.

In this scenario, Alex Anthopoulos is ‘the guy’. He is very often saying he’s involved in possible deals, but never got the deal completed. At some point, we’d have to suggest to our friend that maybe it isn’t the other trade partner’s fault. The Braves are loaded with pitching prospects… more than they can possibly use. If they aren’t used in trades, Atlanta runs the real risk of them losing their appeal or getting hurt or not living up to expectations or simply floundering in AAA with no place to go. With respect to that, yes: Atlanta may need to ‘overpay’ somebody to get a deal done. The “Have Nots” of baseball want to rebuild at the expense of a team like Atlanta, and the Braves want to win a title. So figure out who wants Kyle Wright or Luiz Gohara or Kyle Muller or Ian Anderson and get the deal done for a Mitch Haniger or J.T. Realmuto or Corey Kluber or Joc Pederson or Edwin Diaz. Or pay the extra $1 million to get Brantley. That’s what should have happened… but clearly didn’t/hasn’t.

You want to go deep into the playoffs? Then sign Craig Kimbrel. Make a big trade… although that’s probably going to be difficult to do now that Spring training is underway. It’s not impossible, but it’s more difficult. It almost doesn’t matter who else it could have been, frankly… this team is close to being able to break out of the pack, but now they will be in a dogfight. The bottom line here is that Anthopoulos went halfway down the aisle by getting Donaldson and McCann early on… and failed to go any further. So fans have been left standing at the altar.

Kris: I think if I had told Braves fans at the end of the 2018 season that the team would add Josh Donaldson as a free agent most would have been pretty excited. However, since that happened in late November and the rest of the offseason was spent watching the Phillies, Nationals and Mets add significant pieces there is a bit of concern among the faithful. I can’t say I don’t understand it either after comments made by team chairman Terry McGuirk and general manager Alex Anthopoulos at the end of last season. Adding Donaldson on a one-year deal was a significant move. It adds a significant right-handed bat to the batting order and a player who will be significantly motivated while trying to reestablish his value before entering the open market again next offseason. They saw Kurt Suzuki move over to the rival Nationals and replaced him by bringing back Brian McCann. They also entered the offseason in need of a corner outfielder and despite reportedly kicking the tires on a number of options, elected to bring back Nick Markakis for another season at a reduced rate.

That is this offseason in a nutshell. The Braves had a great 2018 season and with a young core are primed for success in the future. Whether they did enough to support that young roster remains to be seen. The bullpen has largely been left untouched although Craig Kimbrel is still out there and available. There was a lot of talk about adding a true top of the rotation arm but that never really seemed likely at any point. They missed a real opportunity to upgrade in the outfield as well. As wonderful as Markakis was in 2018 he wore down significantly in the second half.

I guess if you are looking for a silver lining it is that Anthopoulos navigated the offseason while maintaining financial flexibility and still has a number of top prospects who are at or close to the major league level. That would allow them to seek upgrades during the season if warranted.

Carlos: It was a good offseason in the sense that the team was improved. Adding Josh Donaldson improves the impact potential of the lineup and also improves the depth of the team by allowing Johan Camargo to play a utility role, while hopefully keeping the regulars more fresh throughout the season. However that’s a pretty simplistic way to evaluate the offseason and you need to take into account what happened around them.

The Braves got better on paper, but their competition in the division did much, much more to improve themselves. At Baseball America for our season preview, we ask all the writers which 2018 Division winner has the most downside, and for me that was easily Atlanta because you could realistically see this team finishing as low as fourth in the division. The Nationals and Phillies both committed long-term money to big-time free agents who are going to immediately improve their team, while the Mets addressed their lineup depth and bullpen to try and take advantage of having maybe three legitimate Cy Young candidates in the rotation.

I don’t know why the Braves didn’t pursue Bryce Harper. He would have been an obvious fit in right field and given the lineup an extremely high ceiling. It’s a bit of a joke to get a new stadium, increase profits, hit on your rebuild a year early and then just sit on everything with an obvious star available that would make the team better and draw more fans. That contract looks pretty team friendly for the Phillies given the AAV and they are already reaping the benefits of having him without playing a single game.

C70: What are the expectations of Josh Donaldson and what are the chances he is with the team in 2020?

Alan: Okay, I’ve said my ‘doom and gloom’ bit… let’s look at the optimistic side of things now. Donaldson is a cornerstone-level player… for all of the fans in Braves Country who wanted to sign Bryce Harper, this is ‘Bryce Harper+’. When healthy, Donaldson will make Harper look like a replacement-level player (I’m only half-kidding)… and there’s the hope: that we’ll see the real Donaldson, who came into camp sounding like a guy with something to prove. Frankly, while the Braves only got him for a single season, I would like to have seen a year-plus-option deal. Sure, we have Austin Riley coming, but this guy is a former league MVP.

The chances of him sticking around are quite low – he has never had his ‘big payday’ and a big year could command $25-30m… even at age 34. Getting a multi-year pact beyond 2 years may be tough for him, but he’s clearly got 5+ WAR makeup without even blinking. But if there’s any chance of making that happen, it would be with Anthopoulos … after a winning year.

Beyond that, think about our lineup: Acuna Jr, Donaldson, Freeman. Markakis or one of the catchers is liable to be the #4, but there’s a group who could put crooked numbers on the board in a hurry. If this Top 3 all hit in the .280-.310 range (quite plausible), then even the studly pitching of the NL East is going to have trouble slowing down this offense.

Kris: As far as expectations go, I think a healthy Donaldson will be a significant addition to Atlanta’s lineup. Most projection systems see him putting up numbers close to Freddie Freeman level which is something the Braves really haven’t had in a long time. Will he be around in 2020? That is a great question and honestly it probably depends on several factors the most obvious being how he performs. Anthopoulos and the Braves have resisted tying themselves up with long term contracts to this point but should Donaldson put up an MVP type season, they would have to at least explore it. Especially if the DH may be headed to the National League sooner rather than later. However, Atlanta also has third base prospect Austin Riley who is waiting in the wings and could be knocking on the door as soon as this season. If he has another strong season in the minors and shows that he is capable of handling the third base job then the Braves may be more reluctant to commit long term money to Donaldson. 

Carlos: The Braves have a few longterm options for third base in the future in both Camargo and Austin Riley, so if I had to bet on it I would guess that Donaldson is in Atlanta for just one year. He could get healthy, hit and then leverage that into a longer contract after this offseason—potentially with an AL team that could move him to DH down the line if necessary.

It’s tough to lay out his expectations this season because health is an obvious factor. If he’s healthy, I think you can expect him to be one of the best hitters in the National League. From 2013-2018 the only hitter better than Donaldson was Mike Trout. While the National League East has some tough competition on the mound, I think you can still argue that going from the AL to the NL will help him. If he’s battling injury issues then who knows.

C70: Can Ronald Acuna Jr. duplicate or exceed his rookie season?

Alan: Ronald Acuña Jr is the real deal. If you want evidence of this, then look no further than the adjustment he was asked to make in his swing – which apparently had been working well enough to make him the #1 overall prospect in baseball for 2018 – shortly after entering the league. There’s so much to say about that. The audacity of hitting coach Kevin Seitzer to suggest a change to a phenom. The willingness of Acuña to do it. The resounding success of the change

This happened around the time of the All-Star break … as Acuña was hitting .249/.304/.742 for the first half. After that? .304/.438/1.028. Seitzer literally unleashed the beast. So when we say that the Braves have ‘3 MVP candidates in the lineup’ – that’s the literal truth: it even extends to this 21-year-old kid who’s still almost wet behind the ears.

Look: many players – even the good ones – experience something known as the ‘sophomore slump’… a failure to improve on their numbers between years 1 and 2 in the big leagues… or in any other league, for that matter. Why does this happen? Before reaching the pinnacle of the sport, many players haven’t experienced much in the way of failure. They haven’t had to change much of anything to move up the ladder. However, in baseball, the major leagues represent a larger leap forward… and given the resources available (scouts, video, advanced stats, etc.), team can find the weaknesses and exploit them. Getting ‘the book’ on players often takes a bit of time to happen and then work its way around the league, but that’s way Year 2 is so critical. The player is forced to respond once their weaknesses become well known.

In this case, Acuña’s weakness was found by his own hitting coach… and that despite the fact that he was already hitting fairly well. So Acuña has already gone through a failure/response cycle and overcome the challenges involved. So do I expect him to duplicate or improve on last year? Yeah – his ‘floor’ has already been seen… it was that first half of 2018.

Kris: Ronald Acuña Jr came into last season with all sorts of expectations and I wondered if it was realistic that he would even be able to come close to meeting them. If you watched the first half of his rookie season then maybe you were wondering that too. However, in the second half he truly showed what the hype was all about. After watching that second half, I now believe that the sky is the limit for this kid and he may soon find himself being mentioned as one of the best in the game. I talked earlier about how the addition of Donaldson could potentially add another “Freddie Freeman level” offensive player to Atlanta’s lineup, a full season of Acuña could have the same effect. I am not sure if he will be hitting leadoff or if he will be dropped into the clean up spot, but wherever he ends up I expect him to build on the success he had last season. 

Carlos: Yes. He was the No. 1 prospect in baseball for a reason and he’s a true 5-tool player and potential superstar. He was near the top of the league in a number of offensive categories: in the 86th percentile in exit velocity, 91st in expected wOBA, 94th in expected slugging, 91st in hard hit percentage and 97th in sprint speed. He has all of the tools and then some to be successful, and more than held his own during his age 20 rookie season. He’s going to be good for a long time.

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Alan: Well there’s the big question. On paper (again), Washington should win the division. They have dramatically improved their clubhouse culture, improved at catcher, improved starting pitching, bullpen and didn’t lose as much as you might think offensively. They are a well-rounded team overall. But we’ve heard that message a lot over the past several years, haven’t we?

I see the Phillies as a real concern if everything goes right… they are thin on pitching and on the depth chart in general. Their offense is clearly the biggest threat, but no team can count on things going perfectly well all year. They have improved their defense significantly, but the rest will still cost them some games.

The Mets will have enough pitching – starting and relieving – to keep themselves in enough games to be really annoying. Their depth is limited as well.

I believe the Braves have depth issues in the bullpen and at the catching position. If there’s an infield issue that erupts, then the outfield depth would be at risk as either Charlie Culberson or Johan Camargo would be called upon to support the infield, and Adam Duvall hasn’t shown much (I don’t expect to see him on the club in April). The pitching is still very young and is liable to be rotated in and out to attenuate the innings load, so that should be roughly steady, though the loss of Anibal Sanchez‘ performance (sub-3 ERA) will be noticed. There’s a promise of adding more at the trade deadline as necessary. Of course, there was also the promise of doing more this past off-season, too, but that may be critical as the Braves have a softer 2nd-half schedule (lots of AL Central teams then).

In general, the front office either was unwilling or unable (as noted previously) to make ‘The Big Move’ to overcome these issues shown above, and thus this is a team that’s probably looking at second-to-third place behind Washington and Philadelphia. Overall, I believe the Atlanta Braves eke out 2nd or 3rd place – with a possible Wild Card berth – in a close battle with the Phillies. Right now I’m thinking 85-86 wins.

I do have a message for the Cardinal fans that will ultimately see this as well. I have a real belief that both NL Wild Cards could come out of the East. East teams face the AL Central squads in inter-league play, while your Cardinals and the NL Central have to face the AL West. The NL East is improved top to bottom (okay, except the Marlins), and that will hold down the intra-divisional wins overall, but every contender should feast on the AL ‘s bottom feeders, which are strongly concentrated in the Central. As a result, the Cards may have to win out their division to complete their quest for a 2019 October berth.

Kris: The crazy thing is that the Braves might be an even better team in 2019 but not sniff the postseason due to the improvements of the rest of the NL East. I certainly think they will be in the mix but Alex Anthopoulos may need to be bold and make some significant in season additions in order to get them over the hump. Right now I think the Nationals are a much better team than they were last season. With the addition of Bryce Harper you almost have to say the same thing about the Phillies as well. I think Atlanta right now is probably the third best team with the Mets also in the mix as well. 

Carlos: The NL East should be one of the most fun divisions to watch this season because of the number of teams going for it, but I don’t think the Braves are the best team here with so many questions with the pitching staff. The variance with the rotation is pretty wide given the number of talented, but unproven (and in more and more cases, injured) pitchers the Braves have to work with.

I’ve got the division like this:

1. Nationals 2. Phillies 3. Braves 4. Mets 5. Marlins

But I wouldn’t be surprised if they finished 1-4.

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Alan: There are 2 primary concerns for me: Brian McCann and Dansby Swanson. I’ll ignore the young pitching: since Atlanta has so much of it available, somebody is liable to break out and dominate, and that should be enough. Even if somebody gets hurt (as of this writing, that could be Mike Soroka), there will be another arm to plug-and-play with, too. But back to the bigger concerns…

Brian McCann believes his knees are ready for the season. That will help substantially if so, but my concern is whether he and Tyler Flowers ultimately melt/wilt in the Summer heat. This is why I believed Atlanta should have been all over J.T. Realmuto. Seeing him now with the Phils is a double-whammy that we’ll now have to live with. There should be a catcher available via a deadline trade, and I’d expect one to appear late in Atlanta… possibly right at the August 31 playoff-eligibility deadline so that he could be added without much fuss when rosters expand.

That said, the Braves could really use an extra big bat – both in the lineup and on the bench, and the hope is that these catchers might be able to fulfill both roles. Flowers and McCann both had down years in 2018 due to injury, so it will be important to keep both fully healthy – which is practically impossible to do with aging catchers.

On Swanson. All reports suggest that he was hitting virtually one-handed ever since mid-April of last season due to an early season wrist injury in the ridiculous Cubs Ice Bowl game. If that’s the case – and he had surgery to get himself fixed up and cleaned up – then we should see a much improved hitter this year. As it happens, while he’s still a defensive standout now, he does need to show a bit more on the offensive end as well. But if not, we’ll know that, too, and decisions will have to be made.

A lesser concern would be Donaldson’s health, but the Braves do have some serious depth at that position – both Johan Camargo and top-ish prospect Austin Riley. Neither of these guys are Donaldson, but the team would be no worse off at the position than last year. Many don’t remember that Rio Ruiz, Jose Bautista and Ryan Flaherty all had shots at the hot corner before Snitker settled on Camargo. Camargo had a 3.3 fWAR year… the other trio combined for -0.5.

Kris: I still think the pitching staff is the biggest question mark. Mike Foltynewicz took a big step forward last season but the Braves will need him to do so again. They also need something similar from Sean Newcomb. They added Kevin Gausman at last year’s trade deadline and Julio Teheran is still here and likely penciled in for a rotation spot. This is where a number of pitching prospects like Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Max Fried or even Luiz Gohara could have a major impact. Atlanta needs at least one of those guys or someone else to blossom in a big way. Trading for a true ace pitcher always seems like an option but in reality doesn’t happen that very often in season.

Additionally, the bullpen may be an even bigger question mark. Atlanta’s bullpen ran hot and cold in 2018 but wore down late in the season. There are a lot of internal candidates but adding one or two more proven options could transfer this from being a question mark to a strength. Craig Kimbrel anyone?

Carlos: How good is the starting rotation? I’m confident the lineup will be good, and there are enough arms to assemble a respectable bullpen, but Mike Foltynewicz is the only starter that I’m somewhat confident in over a full season. Sean Newcomb is a pretty decent regression candidate, as is Kevin Gausman. Julio Teheran is wildly inconsistent and whoever the fifth option is has no real track record of performance over a full season. I’m sure the Braves will cycle in a number of different arms over the course of the season, but multiple young pitchers will need to take steps forward and stay healthy for the Braves to repeat as division winners in 2019.

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Alan: This is an easy one to answer. It’s all about the rich personalities and enthusiasm for the game that these kids – and many of the vets – show out there on the field. This team is really fun to watch. Josh Donaldson’s addition should do nothing to detract from that, and his swagger should be infectious as well. There’s also this notion of having players on any team whose AB’s you just don’t want to miss. Atlanta has 3 of those guys… at least.

We love to see Ozzie Albies run the bases and lose his helmet between 1st and 2nd base. We love Swanson’s triumphant gestures whatever he scores a run. We laugh at the antics of Albies trolling Acuña. We want to be in on Freddie Freeman’s hugs. Truly, there’s a lot to like.

It’s a scrappy group, too: always challenging outfielders by taking extra bases, always being well aware of a game situation so as to be savvy about their base-running, and even having a couple of outfielders who will make the spectacular play now and again. Those things by themselves will make this club highly watchable… even more so than we saw last season.

The question involved ‘joy’ – and that’s truly the case here… in spite of the limitations I’ve noted earlier. This is a team that you can never count out of any game. They will fight to the end. And when it’s all said and done – even when you lose – that’s what you want to see happening.

Kris: I am really hoping that Josh Donaldson can put together a healthy season and return to that MVP caliber player that he was a few seasons ago. I think he is one of the most exciting players in the league and I am looking forward to watching him every day. Still though, the biggest draw for this team remains its young nucleus. Getting to watch Ronald Acuña day in and day out is in itself a treat. Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson and a line of young pitching prospects who are likely to arrive at some point this season. Not to mention a good group of veterans in Freeman, Ender Inciarte and others. This is a fun team to watch overall. Hopefully the pitching comes through and they can exceed expectations one more time. If they don’t however, then most of the discussion is going to be about their lack of activity this winter and that is a subject that I am already tired of. 

Carlos: Watching Ronald Acuna do everything—hit, run, field, throw, dance—will be endlessly entertaining and should get plenty of non-Braves fans to tune in as well if he follows up his rookie season in the manner we all expect him to. 

Appreciate these guys letting us in on a little Atlanta knowledge.  It sounds like the club won’t surprise anyone but they still should be right in the thick of things!

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