Playing Pepper 2021: Atlanta Braves

Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series!  OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter.  It’s Playing Pepper!  Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season.   I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole.  So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!

Atlanta Braves
35-25, first in the NL East, lost in the NLCS
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

A pandemic-shortened season didn’t do anything to knock the Braves off the track.  For the third straight year they took the NL East title, this time with help from the NL MVP.  Unfortunately, for the third straight year, they also missed out on the biggest stage, though they did advance farther this year than others.  Can they make the final step and bring the third World Championship to Atlanta?  Let’s find out what the bloggers are saying!

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

C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?

Alan: There were a lot of mixed emotions that came with the 2020 year… but for sure, the highlight was in seeing baseball games actually played. One of the most annoying components of the effort, though, was the backdrops of labor/management unrest that seemed to pervade every aspect of the process. The fact that we have two sides bent on mutual destruction rather than recognizing that their symbiotic relationship must be supported to be successful is aggravating, frustrating, and entirely detrimental to the sport. I mean, why even bother talking about rule changes to attract more viewers if the headlines are constantly talking about how owners and players can’t get along? Forget about 7-inning doubleheaders for a sec: the thing that the game needs is a celebration of the play and players on the field and their athletic prowess. That is what will bring in new viewers. Nobody wants to see people arguing over how to divide up millions of dollars (hint to negotiators: both sides win and get more money if there’s peace).

So with that, 2020 was a “make do” season. It was the best they could muster under the circumstances (labor strife included). There were numerous players opting out, numerous others who didn’t perform up to their abilities, and still others who broke out in a big way. It was… odd. But in the end, it was baseball, and it looked, felt, and smelled like the sport we want.

About the rule changes: all of them – almost literally all – went much better than I expected. In extra innings, you really can’t say “well, we’re done for now” – teams are almost always still in the game. The universal DH proved to be a hit… even among us purists. The expanded playoffs were okay, though went a bit too far… which might have been okay given 2020’s flaws. I am not really in favor of the 7-inning double-headers, given how that changes strategy significantly, but I understand why they happened. I suppose going 8 innings wouldn’t be enough of a difference to justify doing that for DH’s instead. But with all that, we NEEDED baseball… and for 2-1/2 months, that’s what we got.

Carlos: I think first of all I am just glad we got baseball in some capacity last year. The world at large and certainly sports as an industry was not prepared for something like Covid so being able to have some semblance of a regular season and also crown a champion is a credit to the league, the players and everyone involved.

As for the rules, I don’t have too many strong opinions on the roster tweaks that were primarily created because of Covid. I think I liked the idea of the three-batter minimum rule for relievers but I don’t know that it helped solve the problem it was attempting to. I would prefer to have that scrapped. I was skeptical of the extra-inning runner on second but to be honest it creates a lot of excitement, so I am on board for that in the future. The universal DH is the best of the bunch and it’s a shame we don’t have it again in 2021. I understand why it’s not back this year, but it’s still a shame to watch pitchers who haven’t focused on hitting since high school flail around in the batter’s box. If a universal DH is not part of the next CBA the league and the union will have massively blundered.

Following baseball, and to a much greater extent, covering baseball and the draft was much different during the pandemic. In some ways it was easier for me to get up with scouts and ask about draft prospects, because there weren’t any games for them to go watch and they had a lot of extra time on their hands. On the other hand, the ability to form a consensus on the talent was more difficult and having only five rounds was disappointing—because the 2020 draft class had more depth than most years.

Kris: My first thoughts on the 2020 season was that I am not sure how much we can possibly take from it. I was happy to have baseball but by the time the season was over, I was really hoping that we would be back to something resembling normal in 2021. Surprisingly, I did like the rule changes. Having the DH in the National League is a no-brainer in my opinion and for the life of me, I don’t know how the league and the players couldn’t agree to have it in place again in 2021. Initially I thought I would hate starting extra innings with a runner at second, but honestly I didn’t mind it that much. Seven inning doubleheaders didn’t bother me either. Maybe I was so happy to have any baseball at all that I just overlooked them. I was ok with expanded playoffs for the 60-game season but I’m not sure how that would work for a full 162.

Watching it was definitely different. I missed the crowd and I missed attending games in person. I missed having minor league stats to comb through. Hopefully we are close to putting all of that behind us.

C70: Freddie Freeman went from early COVID case to MVP. How much fun was it watching him play last year?

Alan: There are players who you count ahead to find as the lineup rolls through. It used to be “okay, 2 more batters until Chipper’s up”. Now Freeman is that kind of hitter. I am convinced that the best hitters rise to challenges. They simply play better and raise the games of all around them when times call for it. Hank Aaron was a master of getting runners home when in scoring position. Chipper Jones had that quality. So does Freddie Freeman. Every team needs that “dude” – a player that is the unambiguous leader in the lineup. The player whose name pitchers circle on the lineup card. The batter that opposing managers will bring the game to a halt for while carefully considering which reliever to bring in in an effort to save the game.

Yeah – in 2020, Freddie Freeman was that dude… completing the process of rising to that level over the past 4-5 seasons. And yet he was just a part of the best Atlanta Braves offense in at least a couple of decades. Having Acuna, Albies, Freeman, and Ozuna together as the top four? That was excellent. And they’re back together again to try a full 2021 campaign. These are must-see ABs.

Carlos: It was a blast, really. Freeman has been one of the best pure hitters in the game over the last several seasons and to see him get the big award was certainly fun. I am sure doing it after dealing with his Covid case only heightens how meaningful that award is for him.

He led baseball in Offensive WAR, per Baseball-Reference, and given the young players coming up behind him (Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr. and his own teammate, Ronal Acuna Jr.) and Mookie Betts, it might be his last shot at that kind of hardware. I would never want to count Freeman out until he actually starts showing signs of decline, but he is entering his age 31 season and that trio of players I mentioned should be strong favorites to win MVPs for years. Kudos to Freeman for getting it after finishing among the top 10 vote getters four times previously and missing out on the Rookie of the Year award in 2011 to Craig Kimbrel.

Kris: It is always fun watching Freddie Freeman. That he overcame having COVID and essentially got one week of summer camp before he was back in the lineup for Opening Day. The Braves offense as a whole was so much fun to watch in 2020 and Freeman was a huge part of that. When heated up down the stretch, it just felt like he was going to be the runaway winner for MVP. Now if he and the Braves can just get that extension done. 

C70: The Braves brought in some rotation help in Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. What do you think those guys will bring to the table?

Alan: In short, it’s innings. The offense should support itself well enough, but the Braves were literally cobbling together a rotation last Fall – especially after Mike Soroka went down. I also expect the “veteran leadership thing” to be in full vogue with them around: the kids (Fried, Anderson, Wright, etc.) had the pressure of needing to perform well with every single outing. Hopefully, Morton and Smyly will blunt that pressure – or at least deflect it.

By the time August and September roll around, we certainly hope that Atlanta will be in a playoff position again. So by October, the Braves could have an available rotation of Soroka, Fried, Anderson, Morton, and Smyly (in some order), which would keep them relevant in every single post-season contest. Could that be better? Maybe. But maybe it doesn’t have to be, either.

Carlos: I am a fan of both pickups. GM Alex Anthopoulos has nailed a few short-term free agent signings in recent years (Josh Donaldson, Marcell Ozuna) and both of these seem like low-risk deals that could pay off pretty well.

I actually chose Drew Smyly as my breakout pitcher of the year in Baseball America’s Crystal Ball predictions for the season. The improvement he showed in his fastball velocity last year helped his stuff play up across the board and his out-of-zone swing-and-miss rate increased at a pretty significant rate as well. It’s certainly a question if he will be able to hold that velocity over a full season, but if he does he could be quite good.

Morton reuniting with the team who drafted him is fun, and he has proven to be a solid No. 2/3 type arm over the last few years with ace-level production in the playoffs. His fastball velocity has ticked down over the last two seasons and he’ll be pitching in his age-37 season… but the Braves don’t really need him to do a Jacob deGrom impression—just be a consistent middle-of-the-rotation type.

Kris: One area that the 60-game season in 2020 played to the Braves’ advantage was it helped cover up their rotation issues. I don’t think they would have been able to survive had it been a normal season. Consider that Atlanta hoped to have Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb and Felix Hernandez in the rotation to begin 2020. Soroka was lost for the season during his third start. Foltynewicz didn’t make it four innings. Newcomb was banished after four starts and Hernandez opted out all together. All that without even mentioning Cole Hamels who showed up hurt, stayed hurt and logged a total of 3 1/3 innings.

With that as the backdrop, there was no doubt that Alex Anthopoulos would have adding depth to the rotation near the top of his list during the offseason. The Morton addition felt like a Braves move all the way. A veteran presence with a solid pedigree of postseason success. The velocity has looked good so far this spring and the Braves will be careful with him and will try to keep him fresh for the postseason. Smyly was impressive in a small sample in 2020 and the hope will be that both will be able to eat some innings and add some depth back to the rotation.

C70: Is this a make-or-break year for Dansby Swanson?

Alan: I’m going to change the question a bit and suggest that this name should have been spelled as “Austin Riley”.

I’m of the opinion that Dansby is exactly who he was in 2020: a very good player who plays well enough on defense and hits well enough for his position on offense. He isn’t one of the elite shortstops in the sport – and doesn’t have to be. He gets the most out of his skills with Grade 70 game-awareness, and there’s solid value there. Swanson’s hitting could improve just a bit, but I do think we’ve seen what he actually is, and I believe the team is okay with that at this point.

Riley, on the other hand, has much more at stake. While the club has clearly considered going in a different direction for third base, they seem committed now to going forward with him despite the plate struggles he’s had. Riley is a gamer, there’s no doubt on that. He’s also providing much better-than-expected defense at third base. It’s the hitting part that’s concerning. Riley can murder mistake pitches, but he needs to be able to recognize breaking pitches better. In the limited arena known as the 2020 season, he did look like some improvement could be developing: average up marginally (.226 to .239), OBP up 22 points, and K-rate down noticeably (36.4% to 23.8%). If Riley – who’ll play at age 24 this year – can continue this kind of improvement, then the Braves lineup becomes almost unstoppable. If he regresses to a spot in the order where pitchers can find an “out guy”, then it’s merely above average… and the team will be forced to replace him.

Carlos: In what sense? That the Braves are going to move on from him if he doesn’t take some sort of massive step forward? I don’t think so. Atlanta doesn’t need Swanson to be a middle-of-the-order bat. That’s what Freeman, Ozuna, Acuna are here for. He’s been a good—and at times great—defender at shortstop and he has also been a close to league average (95 OPS+) hitter in 2019-20.

While it would be great if Swanson were to breakout and become yet another star for the Atlanta offense, I really think it’s OK if he is just a solid, everyday player who provides value on both sides of the ball. If he’s going to take a step forward offensively, I think he’s going to need to cut down on his strikeouts. He’s been a bit up and down in terms of walk rate, but he’s never posted a strikeout rate lower than 22% which is slightly problematic given his power output—though that has slowly trended in the right direction over the last few years. I would love to see him get on base more given his impressive running ability, but I’m still skeptical about whether or not there’s another step to take in his offensive game. He is entering his age-27 season which should be around the prime of his career… We’ll see.

Kris: I won’t call it a make-or-break season yet, but Swanson could go a long way in solidifying his future in Atlanta. There are reasons to be hopeful. Swanson appeared to be having a breakout season in 2019 when he set a career-high with 17 home runs by the All-Star break. However, a heel injury mostly wiped out his second half although he did recover in the postseason. Swanson avoided injury in 2020 and played in all 60 games while posting a career-best 1.9 fWAR and a 116 wRC+. A .350 BABIP may be hard to replicate but Swanson has done a much better job of making hard contact over the last two seasons. Perhaps this is the year that he puts it all together. 

C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?

Alan: The Braves solid in the starting nine, but very thin below that. I do expect additional add-ons for both the bench and the bullpen through the end of Spring Training, but barring a major trade, the roster is going to remain a bit iffy below the regulars. Heck, we don’t even have anyone as a backup catcher as of this writing… save for internal prospect options.

That being said, it’s extraordinarily difficult to go through an entire campaign without losing someone to injury. Depending on which player(s) go down, the season could turn on a dime from a 90-95 win team to a 78-82 win team. The overall hope is that all of the “kids” continue to make additional strides that build on what they’ve already accomplished. All of them – Acuna, Albies, Soroka, Fried, Anderson – have shown they can handle major league competition. Others (the aforementioned Riley and Cristian Pache) need time to establish for themselves that they are true major leaguers.

Nonetheless, the talent level is such that it would be difficult to see Atlanta severely challenged for the division title… or at worst, 2nd place behind maybe the Mets, given their pitching. It’s still relatively early in the Braves “competitive window” for winning a World Series with this group, but it would have felt better if the front office had taken an additional step or two to “go for it” this off-season… even as we watched other clubs executed those kinds of trades and signings. Best guess right now is that Atlanta still finishes 1st or 2nd in the NL East, but is unable to reach the World Series… just like what happened in 2020. Call me for a redo on that if Alex Anthopoulos actually makes a big trade deal between now and then.

Carlos: The Braves should continue to be one of the better teams in baseball and compete for their fourth-straight NL East title. I know Atlanta as a city has developed a pretty good reputation for folding in any and all playoff events, but that is the second-best active streak (behind the Dodgers) and something I think deserves more recognition. Sustained regular season success is hard to achieve in baseball and the Braves have done that in a competitive division.

But, I do have them as the favorite in the division entering the year despite the noise that the Mets made over the offseason. I think they are probably the most balanced team in the division still. I like the lineup, I like the defense, I have a lot of faith in the starting rotation given the quality and quantity of the arms, but I will be watching their bullpen and the production of Ozuna (both offensively and defensively) carefully early on.  Making the playoffs should be the expectation and the goal. Once you get there, it’s a coin flip.

Kris: I expect the Braves to again be one of the better teams in the National League. There is no doubt that the competition got better. The Dodgers are World Series Champions, the Padres were aggressive this offseason and the Mets landed Francisco Lindor. I think Atlanta improved as well and expect to see them back in the postseason and challenging for another NL pennant. 

C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?

Alan: I just hinted at this above. Our site has literally been begging Alex Anthopoulos to use his 2nd tier pitching prospects to make the Big Trade Deal that would put the team over the top as an indisputable league and MLB favorite. They are that close. Had Atlanta landed Nolan Arenado or George Springer, for instance, that would be established. Perhaps even J.T. Realmuto. All of these top-tier free agents were said to be in play for the Braves to one degree or another, but the front office failed to make the decisive move to land any of these players… or Mike Clevinger last year, or Darvish or Musgrove or… well, the list gets long quickly. In short, all we’re really looking for here is one more impact player. For a change, we really can’t blame parent company Liberty Media, either… they’ve definitely spent the money lately.

Credit should be given for not messing up the talent already in the house when Anthopoulos arrived, but since then his impact accomplishments have been limited: Josh Donaldson’s signing in 2019, Ozuna in 2020, the great bullpen arm acquisitions for 2020, and the re-signing of Ozuna for this season… which frankly, was more the result of Ozuna’s own desire to return and the curious market conditions in which we reside today.

The Braves should be the league co-favorite with the Dodgers by now. The fact that some are projecting them second or worse in the division is because of front office inactivity. That compels a grade of B-minus because teams that are this close should be tearing down any and all barriers to reach the Promised Land. So far, this hasn’t happened.

Carlos: The Braves do a really good job in plenty of areas. They draft well, they develop well and the front office has done a nice job adding pieces and filling holes over the years without mortgaging the future by trading off impact-caliber prospects. The farm system is still strong (we rank it 5th in baseball) and ready to reinforce the big-league club now or in the near future with players in the upper levels of the minors (Drew Waters, Shea Langeliers, William Contreras, Kyle Muller, Braden Shewmake, Tucker Davidson) and young players who have already gotten big league time and will step into bigger roles (Cristian Pache, Ian Anderson, Bryce Wilson) in 2021.

I believe the Dodgers are the 80-grade team in baseball because they excel in every area and supplement the team regularly by investing in big-money players through free agency (Trevor Bauer) and trades (Mookie Betts). I think you could criticize the Braves by saying they have not gone fully in to try and make those bigger acquisitions and fully capitalize on their current window. That’s an ownership criticism, certainly, but the owners are part of the organization in the same way the GM, manager and players are.

If San Diego can decide to go after Manny Machado and ink Fernando Tatis Jr. to the contract they just signed him to… no other team in baseball really has an excuse to not aggressively go after talent. Every team can afford to if they have the desire to and Atlanta isn’t a small market. If anything, signing Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies to such stupidly team-friendly contracts should make them more willing to spend in other areas. Did you see the prospect haul the Rockies just got for Nolan Arenado? There’s no chance the Braves couldn’t have matched that or exceeded that if they wanted to spend the cash required to take on his contract.

So for now I think I would put them at a 60- or 70-grade team on the 20-80 scale. Tough for me to find the exact spot I would feel comfortable with so maybe I’ll cheat a little bit and give them a 65.

Kris: I give them a solid B+. I think hiring Alex Anthopoulos helped put the controversy of the John Coppolella era behind them. Atlanta has a young core and they are investing heavily in it. That was apparent this offseason as they let a number of veterans like Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Tyler Flowers go and will be looking at internal options to replace them. I think the only question remaining is whether or not they will be willing to spend enough to get that final piece that puts them over the top. 

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