Thursday, February 27, 2020

Atlanta Braves 2020 Season Preview

From Sports Illustrated


          Entering 2019, it was almost a unanimous opinion that the NL East was the strongest division in baseball. But, the Braves were able to fend off the surging Nationals, the new-look Phillies and the self destructive Mets to win the division. However, the Braves lost in the NLDS to the Cardinals while the Nationals won the World Series. The offseason wasn't easy either, as the Braves made many additions, but lost multiple star players. The Braves still have a very young core, so their window is not close to closing.

          Offseason additions: LHP Will Smith, OF Marcell Ozuna, C Travis d'Arnaud, LHP Cole Hamels, RHP Felix Hernandez, OF Peter O'Brien, IF Yangervis Solarte, OF Shane Robinson, 1B Yonder Alonso, LHP Chris Rusin

           Offseason subtractions: 3B Josh Donaldson, LHP Dallas Keuchel, RHP Julio Teheran OF Matthew Joyce, RHP Kevin Gausman, RHP Anthony Swarzak, LHP Jerry Blevins

           Rotation
The Braves cut ties with former ace Julio Teheran in the offseason. Teheran is now a third starter type. But, the Braves have their own new ace. As a rookie, Mike Soroka had a 2.68 ERA with 142 strikeouts in 174.2 innings. He had a WHIP of just 1.11, while allowing 7.9 hits per nine. Mark Melancon was the only Braves pitcher with at least 20 innings pitched with a HR/9 under Soroka's 0.7. Melancon pitched in just 21 innings. Soroka finished 6th in Cy Young voting and 2nd in Rookie of the Year. With Dallas Keuchel gone for Chicago, Max Fried will have to step in to be the number two starter. Fried and his great curveball struck out 173 batters in 165.2 innings with a 4.02 ERA. It was his first full MLB season. Mike Foltynewicz had a career season in 2018 with a 2.85 ERA, but made just 21 starts in 2019, and went back to his pre-2018 struggles, with 105 strikeouts in 117 innings and a 4.54 ERA. His 100 ERA+ means that he was a league average pitcher. For Opening Day, the rest of the rotation is a big question mark. The Braves signed four time all-star and World Series MVP winner Cole Hamels to a one year deal, but he will miss the first couple of weeks of the season with a shoulder injury. He struck out 143 batters in 141.2 innings with a 117 ERA+ for the Cubs last season at age 35. Sean Newcomb was a big part of the rotation in 2018, making 30 starts with a 3.90 ERA. He was moved to the bullpen in 2019, and had career highs in ERA (3.16) and ERA+ (144). He is probably best suited for the bullpen, but he will try to make the rotation. Young prospects Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright are also candidates. They both struggled in little play last season. Former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez is in camp. However, he has flamed out by now.

            Bullpen
The Braves gave Will Smith $40 million over three years to be their closer. The best available reliever in free agency, Smith had a 2.76 ERA with a career high 34 saves and 96 strikeouts in 65.1 innings. He will be a welcome addition for a Braves team whose closer most of last season was Luke Jackson. However, Jackson was a pleasant surprise for the Braves. A former Texas supplemental first rounder, Jackson was traded to the Braves for two non prospects in December 2016. Last year, he struck out 106 batters in 72.2 innings with 18 saves and a 3.84 ERA. However, Jackson lost the closer job to Mark Melancon after he was acquired from San Fransisco at the trade deadline. Melancon, who had 98 saves from 2015-16, saved 11 games for the Braves and struck out 24 batters in 21 innings. The Braves acquired both Shane Greene and Chris Martin at the trade deadline as well. Greene had a 1.18 ERA and a 10.2 K/9 in 38 games with the Tigers, but struggled after the trade, with a 4.01 ERA and a 7.7 K/9 in 27 games. Martin is a success story that walked one batter and struck out 22 in 17.2 innings for the Braves. However, he also allowed eight earned runs for them. Darren O'Day was acquired at the 2018 trade deadline but didn't make his Braves debut until late 2019. The submariner allowed one run in 5.1 innings. There are two more spots to be filled and more than two competitors. Josh Tomlin is a non-roster invitee. He had a 3.74 ERA in 79.1 innings over 51 games (one start). Jacob Webb had an amazing rookie season, with a 1.39 ERA and a 329 ERA+ in 32.1 innings before an injury ended his season. The problem is that Smith would be the only lefty on the roster. AJ Minter saved 15 games for the team in 2018, but had a terrible 7.06 ERA in 29.1 innings. Former Rockie Chris Rusin is in camp on a minor league deal. He only pitched an inning in the big leagues last year. He has starting experience and is a lefty, so he could be an alternate to Tomlin.

           Catchers
The Braves saw veteran Brian McCann retire after the team's loss to St. Louis. They went out and signed former 1st rounder Travis d'Arnaud to a one year deal. d'Arnaud started out 2019 by going two-for-24 for the Mets and Dodgers before catching on with the Rays. d'Arnaud then broke out, hitting 16 home runs with a .782 OPS in 92 games. However, his 85 strikeouts were 21 more than his previous career worst. Tyler Flowers is entering his 5th season with the team. His first two were great, but he has been bad since, with averages under .230 and and OPS under .750 in both 2018 and 2019.

            Infielders
The Braves had one of baseball's best infields in 2019. Even after Josh Donaldson walked in free agency, it is still shaping up well. Freddie Freeman is still a top three first baseman in baseball. He had career highs in home runs (38) and RBIs (121) with a .295 batting average and a .938 OPS while swiping six bags. Somehow, his Silver Slugger win was only his first. Ozzie Albies also won a Silver Slugger award, hitting 24 home runs, stealing 15 bases and hitting .295 with an .852 OPS. Former first overall pick Dansby Swanson is still inconsistent, but had his best season at the plate. He hit 17 homers, stole 10 bases, hit .251 with a .748 OPS. Johan Camargo had a breakout 2018 at third base, but struggled after Donaldson took his spot at third base. He had a terrible .663 OPS in 98 games. He fights Austin Riley for the starting position. Riley plays third base and left field, like Camargo can. Riley hit 18 home runs in his 80 game rookie season. However, he hit just .226 with a .750 OPS. He is not guaranteed a roster spot for Opening Day. Adeiny Hechavarria is known as a great defender with a weak bat. However, in 24 games for the Braves last season, Hechavarria hit four home runs with a .328 average and a 1.039 OPS. Charlie Culberson can play seven positions. He has played over 100 games for the Braves in the last two years, but is in camp as a non-roster invitee. He was very bad offensively, with a .731 OPS. Despite playing in 108 games, Culberson made just 144 Plate Appearances.

            Outfielders
Ronald Acuna Jr. has usurped Freeman as the face of the franchise. The former Rookie of the Year winner flirted with a 40-40 season, hitting 40 home runs and stealing 37 bases, the latter leading the league. Acuna also lead the league in Plate Appearances (715) and runs (127). He ended the season 5th in MVP voting and with a Silver Slugger. The Braves poached Marcell Ozuna from the Cardinals after he beat them in the playoffs. Ozuna hit 29 home runs with an .800 OPS in his second season in St. Louis. Ender Inciarte won three consecutive Gold Gloves leading up to 2019. However, he played in just 65 games, stealing seven bases, a career low. He has 113 stolen bases in six years. However, he is not a good hitter, with a career high OPS of .759. Nick Markakis chose to re-sign in Atlanta, likely ruining his outside shot at 3,000 hits. The 36 year old has 2,355 hits in his career. He will be a 4th outfielder and bench bat. Two time 30 home run hitter Adam Duvall played in 41 games, hitting 10 home runs with an .882 OPS.

             Projected Opening Day Lineup
RF Ronald Acuna Jr. (R)
2B Ozzie Albies (S)
1B Freddie Freeman (L)
LF Marcell Ozuna (R)
C Travis d'Arnaud (R)
CF Ender Inciarte (L)
SS Dansby Swanson (R)
3B Johan Camargo (S)
Pitcher

              Projected Rotation
Mike Soroka (R)
Max Fried (L)
Mike Foltynewicz (R)
Cole Hamels (L)
Sean Newcomb (L)

               Projected Bullpen
Will Smith, closer (L)
Mark Melancon (R)
Shane Greene (R)
Chris Martin (R)
Luke Jackson (R)
Darren O'Day (R)
AJ Minter (L)
Jacob Webb (R)

              Projected Bench
C Tyler Flowers (R)
3B/LF Austin Riley (R)
SS Adeiny Hechavarria (R)
OF Nick Markakis (L)
OF Adam Duvall (R)

               The Braves are still a really good team. While they will be hurt by a young pitching staff, they have the bullpen to bail them out. I believe that they will lose the division, but make the Wild Card as the first team.

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