by: Ryan Waldis
Over the next 30 days (March 1st through March 30th), I’ll be previewing each of the 30 MLB teams in reverse order of the 2017 league standings. The series will conclude on March 31st, when I’ll be releasing my predictions for the 2018 season. With that said, let’s jump into the 8th team preview of the series, featuring the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves finished third in the NL East in 2017, their highest placement since a 2014 campaign that saw them go 79-83 yet somehow finish second. They continue a trend of slow improvement, reaching 70-plus wins after two consecutive seasons under that threshold. More importantly, many of their top prospects took positive steps in their progressions as the farm system cemented itself as the crown jewel of the league. Fans were able to take solace in the fact that their favorite team will become a perennial contender sooner rather than later.
Atlanta posted a solid first half record (42-45) on the back of a strong June when the team went 16-12 while posting a positive run differential (138 runs scored against 134 runs allowed). They cooled off considerably over the second half of the campaign, compiling a mediocre 30-45 record, allowing close to 50 more runs than they scored. The Braves longest winning streak of the season was five while they fought through four losing streaks of six games. Perhaps surprisingly, the Braves only went 33-43 inside the division as they weren’t able to take advantage of fairly weak competition.
The Braves split up their catching duties in 2017, with Tyler Flowers appearing in 99 games and Kurt Suzuki appearing in 81. Flowers has seemingly been underappreciated by a lot of fans around the league over the past several seasons. He’s always been solid behind the plate; Flowers finished with the highest Framing Runs mark in the league last season with a 29.6 total, while tying with Austin Hedges for the highest adjusted FRAA among catchers (24.1). However, his production at the plate has drastically improved since his time with the White Sox—the backstop has cut his strikeout rate by 14 percent since 2014, and posted a .281/.378/.445 triple-slash in 2017, by far the best of his career. He also showcased some power, hitting 12 home runs.
Long known as a catcher who was subpar with the bat and questionable with the glove, Suzuki had a breakout year at the age of 33. He finished with the highest wRC+ of his career (129) while sending 19 balls out of the yard, a new career-high and his most since 2011 when he was with the Athletics. He wasn’t fantastic defensively—the -2.2 Framing Runs and -3.2 adjusted FRAA leave a little to be desired—but the .283/.351/.536 slash-line in 309 plate appearances was definitely a sight to see.
It’s hard to believe that homegrown talent Freddie Freeman has been a major league player since 2010; it doesn’t seem like the first baseman has been around for that long. He’s another player who doesn’t get the respect he deserves. Freeman posted a 152 wRC+ in 2017 and almost OPS’d close to 1.000 (.307/.403/.586), also contributing 28 home runs and a keen approach at the plate (12.6% BB%, 16.5% K%). Had it not been for a fractured wrist that he suffered in the middle of May that sidelined him for close to two months, Freeman’s final numbers could have been a lot better.
Matt Adams had a nice start to the season with the Cardinals and was rewarded with a trade to Atlanta in the middle of May. In 100 games with the Braves, the first baseman posted his best wRC+ (115) since 2014, slashing .271/.315/.543 with 19 home runs and passable strikeout and walk rates (22.6% and 6.1%). He even graded out positively in the field—while Adams finished with a 0.0 UZR at first, the 0.6 UZR in left field was a nice contribution.
Brandon Phillips had the prototypical Brandon Phillips season in 2017. He provided a .291 average, but fans know that his batting average the past several years can be described as empty. He didn’t strike out a ton (11.4% strikeout rate), but the extremely low walk rate (3.8%) leads to some misleading statistics. The longtime Red hit 13 homers and swiped 11 bags, but especially after his trade to the Angels, it was clear that the keystone player’s time as a major league regular was coming to an end.
One-time Diamondbacks prospect Dansby Swanson came into the 2017 season with high expectations. The rookie slashed .302/.361/.442 in 2016, posting a 107 wRC+ and a -0.5 UZR. He didn’t contribute much in the power department, hitting only three home runs and seven doubles, but Swanson set a nice floor to potentially exceed in his sophomore campaign. Unfortunately, things went awry for the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, as Swanson slashed just .232/.312/.324 while getting demoted to the minors in late July. The shortstop wasn’t projected to be the best offensive threat in the league, but a 66 wRC+? That’s bad.
Another top prospect, Ozzie Albies logged 57 productive games for the Braves in his freshman campaign. Over 244 plate appearances, the infielder contributed a little bit of everything as a rookie, hitting .286/.354/.456 with six home runs, nine doubles, and eight stolen bases. His performance at the plate netted him a 112 wRC+, which is great for a rookie. He was even a positive in the field, finishing with a 3.6 UZR at the keystone.
Atlanta trotted out a fairly old outfield in 2017, which isn’t unheard of for a rebuilding team. Ender Inciarte was the main highlight; the outfielder contributed a league average wRC+ (100) while hitting .304/.350/.409 with 11 home runs, 22 stolen bases, and solid defense. Matt Kemp only appeared in 115 games, but he was league-average at the plate in those 115 games. He walked less than six percent of the time while striking out over 21 percent, but he hit 19 home runs and slashed .276/.318/.463. He was very rough defensively, which was to be expected. Nick Markakis hit .275/.354/.384 while walking ten percent of the time. The 16.4% strikeout rate was the highest of his career, but he posted near similar stats to 2016.
The Braves finished with a cumulative 4.72 ERA, which placed them at 24th in the league. Somehow, at least according to WAR, 42-year-old R.A. Dickey was the best starting pitcher the Braves trotted out every fifth day in 2017. Perhaps it was because he was able to pitch 190 innings over 31 starts, but the fact that Dickey was one of Atlanta’s best pitchers was a little eye-opening. He pitched to a 4.26 ERA, but the 4.72 FIP and some of his other stats—the 6.44 K/9 and 3.17 BB/9, namely—would indicate that he wasn’t extremely impressive. Sean Newcomb made 19 starts in his rookie campaign and pitched to a 4.32 ERA over 100 innings (4.19 FIP). The control (as it was in the minors) was a major issue—the 12.2% walk rate was unsightly. Still, he struck out close to ten batters per nine innings, and he kept the ball in the yard. Jaime Garcia wasn’t awful during his 18 starts with Atlanta, either. For a middle to back-of-the-rotation arm, Garcia’s 4.30 ERA (4.15 FIP) was palatable.
Mike Foltynewicz also deserves recognition. The 25-year-old made 28 starts and tossed 154 innings of 4.79 ERA ball. The 4.33 FIP was interesting though, and if it wasn’t for control issues—his walk rate increased two percent—the final stat line might have looked better. As it was, the 8.36 K/9 left a little room for optimism. The other three starters weren’t good. Lucas Sims seemed like he didn’t belong with an ERA and FIP both over five, Julio Teheran struggled after seemingly regaining his conference in 2016 (4.49 ERA, 4.95 FIP, 3.44 BB/9), and Bartolo Colon showed his age with an ERA over eight.
Atlanta’s bullpen had a couple solid performers but as a whole it was pretty unimpressive, pitching to a combined 4.58 ERA, which was 26th in the league. Sam Freeman and Arodys Vizcaino were the two faces of the Braves ‘pen. Both pitched to sub-three ERAs (2.55 and 2.83, respectively) with FIPs in the low-to-mid threes. Special recognition also goes out to a trio of young relievers in A.J. Minter, Dan Winkler, and Akeel Morris: they pitched to 3.00, 2.51, and 1.23 ERAs, respectively, albeit in limited time (the first two names had 16 appearances, while Morris had just eight). The rest of the bullpen was uninspiring. Names like Jim Johnson, Eric O’Flaherty, and Ian Krol simply weren’t good, while arms like Jason Motte and Jose Ramirez had questionable peripherals.
The Braves had a fairly quiet offseason. Outside of a trade with the Dodgers, they only made very minor moves. There weren’t really any notable additions; none of the players they acquired this offseason are likely to contribute much, if it all. It’s clear that the Braves are simply biding their time until their prospects are ready.
The most notable departure was Matt Kemp. He was a part of that aforementioned Dodgers trade. It’s fair to wonder how much his departure will truly hurt the Braves; he’s been declining for years, so it might turn out to be a positive.
Best Case: The Braves continue their slow improvement, winning close to 80 games on the backs of their young talent. Albies and Swanson prove that they’ll be the middle infield of the future for the Braves while Freddie Freeman continues to rake. The pitching staff, while inconsistent, is led by the young trio of Newcomb, Teheran, and Luiz Gohara. Ronald Acuna gets recalled and impresses in his rookie debut, giving fans even more reasons for optimism heading into 2019 and beyond.
Worst Case: Freeman gets injured again, Inciarte regresses, and Swanson is not able to get back to the floor his created during his rookie campaign? There are some things that could go wrong for the Braves in 2018, but they are in such an enviable position with the amount of top-tier prospects they have in their farm system. The Braves could struggle mightily in multiple areas this season, but as long as their prospects continue to progress, another losing season for Atlanta wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
PECOTA Projected Record: 76-86, 707 RS, 754 RA