The Atlanta Braves were not good in 2015. In fact, they were awful. The Braves unloaded plenty of star players last offseason, a trend that continued into the season and once again during this offseason. But with the team’s young talent getting closer and closer to the majors, will 2016 result in more misery or an unexpected surge?
Depth Chart (as of 3/22)
C: AJ Pierzynski
1B: Freddie Freeman
2B: Jace Peterson
SS: Erick Aybar
3B: Adonis Garcia
LF: Hector Olivera
CF: Ender Inciarte
RF: Nick Markakis
SP: Julio Teheran
SP: Bud Norris
SP: Matt Wisler
SP: Williams Perez
SP: Manny Banuelos
CL: Jason Grilli
New Faces: Erick Aybar, Gordon Beckham, Aaron Blair, Emilio Bonifacio, Reid Brignac, Jhoulys Chacin, Chris Ellis, Tyler Flowers, Jeff Francoeur, Nate Freiman, David Holmberg, Ender Inciarte, Jim Johnson, Kelly Johnson, Casey Kelly, Ian Krol, Sean Newcomb, Bud Norris, Alexi Ogando, Jose Ramirez, Dansby Swanson, Alex Torres, Carlos Torres
Departures: Christian Bethancourt, Pedro Ciriaco, Todd Cunningham, Ross Detwiler, Edwin Jackson, Sugar Ray Marimon, Cameron Maybin, Shelby Miller, Mike Minor, Peter Moylan, Eury Perez, Andrelton Simmons, Joey Terdoslavich
Position Battles: Well…let’s see here. The infield is kind of a mess aside from Freddie Freeman at first and Erick Aybar at short. Jace Peterson and Adonis Garcia are the favorites to win the jobs at second and third, but Gordon Beckham, Kelly Johnson, and maybe even Emilio Bonifacio could wrestle away some playing time when all is said and done. The outfield is set, but the fourth outfielder position is still up for grabs. Michael Bourn has the edge because of his versatility, and I really don’t see any way the Braves don’t release the limited Nick Swisher before the beginning of the season. There’s also the question of Jeff Francoeur, who isn’t really good, but hey, sentimental value!
Three rotation spots are locked down, with Julio Teheran, Bud Norris, and Matt Wisler grabbing a firm hold on them. The other two spots are a free for all, with Williams Perez, Manny Banuelos, Jhoulys Chacin, and Mike Foltynewicz in competition. I think the Braves will end up going with Perez and Chacin when all is said and done, letting Banuelos and Foltynewicz hone their crafts in the minors until Perez and/or Chacin hit the eventual wall.
As for the bullpen, only three spots are definitely spoken for. A handful of cuts in recent weeks have limited the players competing for the last four spots, but 2014 Rule 5 pick Dan Winkler, out of options NRI Alex Torres, and out of options Jose Ramirez look to have the inside track on three of the jobs. Ian Krol is the last healthy lefty in camp (along with Torres), so he’d get the last spot by default if the Braves don’t want to look outside the organization for a reliever in the final days of Spring Training.
Injury Concerns: Freddie Freeman’s wrist was an issue through the end of last year, and initially appeared to be an issue early in camp. While he’ll be good to go for Opening Day, surgery could be on the agenda for Freeman if he re-aggravates the injury and struggles at the dish. Closer Jason Grilli missed the second half of 2015 with a torn Achilles, but is scheduled to be the closer for the Braves on Opening Day.
There’s also the whole Tommy John epidemic with the Braves. Andrew McKirahan is likely to have his second TJ after tearing his UCL earlier this month. Paco Rodriguez, acquired from the Dodgers last year in the Hector Olivera trade, will likely miss all of the season after August Tommy John surgery. Shae Simmons had TJ during last year’s Spring Training, but could end up breaking camp with the team if healthy. And then there’s Mike Foltynewicz, who missed the end of the seasons following thoracic outlet syndrome surgery – he might start the year on the DL as he’s still trying to regain lost weight and his velocity.
Key Player: The cornerstone for the Braves is obviously Freeman, but I want to talk about Nick Markakis since I spent the majority of 2015 railing against the guy. Markakis didn’t have a bad year in 2015 – just an unexpected one. His .296/.370/.376 line resulted in a .327 wOBA and 107 wRC+, nearly identical to his marks from 2014. Yet, he homered just three times (obviously a career low), and his once-revered defense in right field was once again shaky (-6 DRS, -3.7 UZR). Offseason neck surgery can be blamed for some of those issues, but Markakis *did* show more pop in the second half, still walked at a double digit rate, barely struck out, and notched 38 doubles, his highest total since 2010.
The Braves offense isn’t going to have much pop this year outside of Freeman and maybe Olivera (more on him later). Markakis doesn’t need to launch 25 bombs, but getting into double digits would be a welcome sign – especially since he’s playing a corner outfield position and will be getting paid $10.5 million in each of the next three seasons. You can play a guy without power in a corner as long as he’s a good defender, but if a player is in a corner outfield position, isn’t hitting balls over the fence, and isn’t playing top-tier defense? We’ve got a problem. The 32-year old’s best days are likely behind him, but he has to improve *somewhere* over the final three years of this contract.
Underrated Asset: I’ve kind of made a hobby of crapping on AJ Pierzynski. But even I can admit that the guy is somehow still a capable starting catcher, despite turning 39 in December. Pierzynski hit .300/.339/.430 last season in 113 games, his first full season in the National League since his ill-fated 2004 with the Giants. Pierzynski should be able to help Atlanta’s young pitching staff develop a bit more, and he won’t be pushed for playing time following the trade of failed prospect Christian Bethancourt (especially since new backup Tyler Flowers is kind of uh, not all that good).
Before you start laughing at me, just consider how bad the state of catching in baseball is right now. Pierzynski’s .333 wOBA last year ranked sixth among all catchers with at least 400 plate appearances, right above Miguel Montero and Brian McCann and right behind Stephen Vogt and Yasmani Grandal. Maybe it was a one year bounceback for Pierzynski, but hell, he’s been doing it for so long that I wouldn’t bet on him *not* having another solid-average year in 2016. And just remember – he’s only making $3 million this year. That’s a damn bargain.
Burning Question: What do the Braves have in Hector Olivera?
The 30-year old Olivera is killing the ball this spring (.417/.420/.500), but as we all know by now, that doesn’t matter a lick. In his 24 game major league debut last year with the Braves, Olivera struggled, slashing his way to a .253/.310/.405 line with two homers, also contributing some poor defense at thrid base which resulted in Atlanta moving him to left field. He only played in a total of 35 minor league games before getting called up to the majors, so there isn’t exactly a long book on his production to go off.
The Braves have Olivera under control though the 2020 season for $32.5 million. If he’s even a league average hitter and fielder, the contract is a bargain for the Braves. If he’s not, Atlanta might be better off literally lighting the cash on fire and installing the bonfire at Suntrust Park as a new fan attraction. And here’s the scary thing – no one really has any idea what the Braves will get from Olivera. He’s a complete wild card, and yet, Atlanta will be locked in to him for the foreseeable future. On the bright side, the package the Braves traded for him (headlined by Jose Peraza and Alex Wood) isn’t exactly doing its best to make them regret the deal quite yet.
Best Case Scenario: Expectations have been altered in Atlanta. It’s no longer “World Series or bust!” Instead, we’re talking about…progression of players. I’d consider 2016 a “success” for the Braves if Olivera and Markakis take steps forward offensively, Freeman’s wrist doesn’t require surgery, Julio Teheran proves that 2015 was a blip on the radar, and at least one of their young starting pitching prospects takes a positive step forward in the major league rotation. If the team loses 100 games, yet all of those things happen, Braves fans should be more than content with their season.
Worst Case Scenario: Everything I mentioned above? Yeah, it doesn’t happen. Olivera stinks. Markakis still has no power. Freeman is ineffective offensively and his season ends before the All-Star Break. Teheran struggles and, in the recent Braves tradition, requires Tommy John surgery. None of the young pitchers are able to stay healthy or effective. At the end of year two of their rebuild, the Braves don’t have any cornerstones – just the thing the team doesn’t want before opening Suntrust Park next spring.
Realistic Prediction: The Braves will be battling the Phillies for last place in the NL East. They’re not going to go on a run after a Wild Card berth like some insanely hopeful optimists may believe. And as I’ve said so much with this rebuilding teams this offseason, their success or failure in 2016 won’t be determined by wins and losses, but by the progression of their young talent. I think that by the end of the year, for better or worse, the Braves will know which players they can count on in 2017 and beyond – and I don’t think they’re done moving talent.