Monday, February 22, 2021

Atlanta Braves 2021 Season Preview

 


       As websites release their projections for the 2021 season, no team has gained more disrespect than the Atlanta Braves. This is a team that fixed all of their problems from 2019 in 2020, and had a dynamic offense with a successful but young rotation and bullpen. While their offseason wasn't as exciting as some of their division rivals, they remain the same Braves as last year, a team that was up 3-1 on the Dodgers in the NLCS. While they still blew that lead, there are multiple scenarios where the Braves win the World Series. 

Offseason additions: RHP Charlie Morton, LHP Drew Smyly, IF Jason Kipnis, RHP Nate Jones, IF Pablo Sandoval, RHP Carl Edwards Jr., IF Ehire Adrianza, IF Jake Lamb, IF Jack Mayfield.

Offseason subtractions: RHP Mark Melancon, OF Nick Markakis, OF Adam Duvall, C Tyler Flowers, RHP Darren O'Day, LHP Robbie Erlin, IF Adeiny Hechavarria, RHP Shane Greene, LHP Cole Hamels, RHP Mike Foltynewicz, UT Charlie Culberson, LHP Tommy Milone.


Trade Deadline 2020 summary:

Acquired: LHP Tommy Milone.

Traded: None

2020 record: 35-25

2020 placement: 1st

2020 WAR leader (batters): Freddie Freeman

2020 WAR leader (pitchers): Max Fried


Starting Pitchers

The biggest injury loss for the Braves in 2020 was Mike Soroka, the 2019 runner-up for NL Rookie of the Year. The pitch-to-contact righty had a 3.95 ERA in his first three starts before a nasty torn Achilles ended his season. He is expected to have fully recovered. The 23 year old's issue in his rookie season was average analytics, but that is certainly not an issue for Max Fried, who took over as the ace in 2020. Fried finished with a 2.25 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 56 innings, and finished 5th in Cy Young voting, plus taking home a Gold Glove. Fried is a master at forcing soft contact, with an average exit velocity of 83.4 mph and a 23.8 hard hit percentage. Those numbers are not sustainable over a full season, to say the least, but that doesn't take a lot of it away from Fried. The third overall pick in 2016, Ian Anderson was exactly what the Braves needed last year. He finished 7th in Rookie of the Year voting, and is still eligible for the award in 2021, making him a favorite. Anderson had a 1.92 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 32.1 innings, and batters had an xBA of just .184 against him. MLB Pipeline ranks Anderson as the 34th best prospect in baseball. The Braves brought back former Atlanta draft pick Charlie Morton on a one year deal. Now 37, Morton was dominant in 2018 and 2019, and was a Cy Young finalist in the latter season. Something was off with Morton last year, as he had a 4.74 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 38 innings. His once dominant curveball was hit a little bit more last year, and he shied away from it at times for his not-as-good fastball. The Braves are taking a flier on veteran lefty Drew Smyly, who may have rebuilt his career in 26.1 innings last year. Playing for the Giants, Smyly struck out 42 batters with a 2.01 FIP. His astounding 37.8 K% was undercut by a 90.6 mph average exit velocity. However, if Smyly can keep striking batters out, the exit velocity won't matter as much. 2017 5th overall pick Kyle Wright will be a spot starter and a long reliever. He's only 25, but Wright has really struggled in small MLB samples. He had a 5.21 ERA with 30 strikeouts and 24 walks in 38 innings last year, which are all numbers that need to change.

Relief Pitchers

As Mark Melancon left for the Padres, the closer of the Braves became a brawl. That could have been resolved quickly if the team had signed Trevor Rosenthal, a pitcher they reportedly had interest in. However, right now the closer isn't clear. Only two relievers on the team have substantial closing experience, and neither were great in 2020. The first is Will Smith, who the Braves dished out big money for, only for him to finish just one game, and that wasn't even a save. Smith struck out 18 batters in 16 innings with a 0.938 WHIP last year, but allowed a whopping seven home runs. Keep in mind how small the sample size is, and that Smith had a great xERA and K% in 2019. The other pitcher with closing experience is Luke Jackson, who isn't in the running now. Jackson closed games in 2019 before Melancon, Shane Greene and Chris Martin came in at the deadline. He was a strikeout machine in 2019, but only had a 15.2 K% in 2020, with a 6.84 ERA and an ugly 1.975 WHIP. Martin is likely the best reliever on the team, after posting a 1.00 ERA in 18 innings with 20 strikeouts and a 0.611 WHIP. Martin only had a 4.5 BB% and allowed a .161 wOBA. It is getting hard to predict AJ Minter. He was great in 2018, then posted a 7.06 ERA in 2019. Minter returned to dominance in 2020, striking out 24 in 21.2 innings, and allowing just two earned runs for a 0.83 ERA. He allowed an average exit velocity of just 84.5 mph with a 23.1 hard hit percentage. Tyler Matzek completed his arc from first round pick to independent ball pitcher to dominant reliever. He struck out 43 batters in 29 innings, with a 2.79 ERA, a 2.55 xERA and a .181 xBA. The Braves are probably going to carry four left-handed relievers at the minimum, in Smith, Minter, Matzek and Grant Dayton. Dayton struck out 32 batters in 27.1 innings, with a 2.30 ERA. Dayton's main pitch, his fastball, allowed a .175 average. Righty Jacob Webb continued his 2019 success by not allowing an earned run in 10 innings. He has a filthy fastball and changeup mix that both force swing-and-misses. Right now the Braves have some decent names on the outside competing for a spot. Bryse Wilson, Touki Toussaint and Huascar Ynoa are all young players who have MLB experience, but have failed to make an impact. Josh Tomlin threw more innings than any Brave besides Fried last year, making five starts and 12 bullpen appearances. His 4.76 ERA was less than desirable. The only non-roster invitee with a chance at the roster is Nate Jones, a strikeout pitcher with a career 3.31 ERA. 

Catchers

The Braves offense had little flaws in 2020, and starting catcher was not one of them. Travis d'Arnaud was just about everything they could have imagined and more, hitting nine home runs with a .321 average and a .919 OPS. d'Arnaud absolutely crushes the ball, with an average exit velocity of 93.4 mph, and a 57.8 hard hit percentage. The team let Tyler Flowers leave in free agency, so one of Alex Jackson and William Contreras will be the backup. Jackson hit 28 home runs in AAA in 2019, and he has nine games of MLB experience. The sixth overall pick in 2014, He is a few years older than Contreras, at age 25. Contreras, the brother of Chicago's Willson Contreras, went 4-for-10 in four games this year. He is yet to play at the AAA level, so he should start there. 

Infielders

There are a lot of good stats belonging to Freddie Freeman, so I'll try to keep things short. Of course, Freeman won the NL MVP award in 2020, and somehow only his second Silver Slugger. Freeman hit a league leading 23 doubles with 13 home runs, a .341 average and a 1.102 OPS while playing in all 60 games. Freeman also walked more (45) than he struck out (37), and had a .660 xSLG with a .449 wOBA. 2020 was the first season where Ozzie Albies had a below-average OPS+, but at 99 in 29 games, that is not a problem at all. Albies hit six home runs with three stolen bases, plus a .773 OPS. He also had four outs above average, which is amazing for his games played total. Every year seems like the year where Dansby Swanson breaks through, and 2020 was the closest to that. Swanson hit 10 home runs with five stolen bases, and an .809 OPS. Swanson has exceptional speed, and he had 10 defensive runs saved in 2020. Austin Riley was able to cut down on his strikeouts in 2020, something that was a big issue for him in 2019. He hit eight home runs with an average exit velocity of 91 mph. Utility infielder Johan Camargo can play second and third base, plus corner outfielder and shortstop. He is a weak hitter, with a .187 xBA in 2020, but he two outs above average at both second and third base. The favorites for the final spot are two non roster invitees. Jason Kipnis hit three home runs with a .744 OPS, although his .183 xBA and -3 outs above average were rough. Former 30 home run hitter Jake Lamb has struggled since 2017, but he improved in 13 games for the A's last year. Lamb hit three home runs with an .882 OPS for the A's. He can play third and first base. 

Outfielders

Young superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. was great again in 2020, hitting 14 home runs with eight stolen bases and a .987 OPS, picking up his second Silver Slugger award. Acuna also had a 16% barrel percentage, an 18.8 BB%, a .590 xSLG and a 92.4 mph average exit velocity. Nick Markakis is gone, so Acuna should be the main right fielder this season. The Braves brought back Marcell Ozuna, who definitely proved it on the one year prove-it deal he signed a year ago. Ozuna led the league with both 18 home runs and 56 RBIs, and he had a really good .338 average, but unfortunately could not secure the triple crown. Ozuna also had a 1.067 OPS with a 54.4 hard hit percentage. The universal DH is gone, which means that Ozuna will have to play the field again. And by his -8 outs above average in 2019, you can tell he is not a great fielder. It will be interesting to see if top prospect Cristian Pache starts out as the starting centerfielder. Pache debuted in 2020, and most of his at-bats came in the postseason, but he seemed outmatched by the Dodgers pitching. Pache had a .747 OPS in 26 AAA games in 2019, but I don't think he'll go back there to start 2021. He has great speed and is awesome defensively, which are Ender Inciarte's strengths. Inciarte is a light hitter, with a 78.2 mph average exit velocity, and a .230 wOBA. Inciarte has been a great defender throughout his career, although he had 0 outs above average in 2020. 

Projected Rotation

Max Fried (L)
Mike Soroka (R)
Ian Anderson (R)
Charlie Morton (R)
Drew Smyly (L)

Projected Bullpen
Will Smith (L)
Chris Martin (R)
AJ Minter (L)
Luke Jackson (R)
Tyler Matzek (L)
Grant Dayton (L)
Kyle Wright (R)
Jacob Webb (R)
Josh Tomlin (R)

Projected Lineup
RF Ronald Acuna Jr. (R)
2B Ozzie Albies (S)
1B Freddie Freeman (L)
LF Marcell Ozuna (R)
C Travis d'Arnaud (R)
SS Dansby Swanson (R)
3B Austin Riley (R)
CF Cristian Pache (R)
Pitcher

Projected Bench
C Alex Jackson (R)
IF Jake Lamb (L)
UT Johan Camargo (S)
OF Ender Inciarte (L)

Prediction

Once again, the NL East is a war-zone. The Braves are obviously good, but everyone else's stock has gone up since a year ago. Well, the Nationals went really far down then up halfway, but still, the Braves have competition. The bullpen got a little bit worse, but the front office boosted the rotation, and the team is better. The Braves will win the division once again in 2021, and go to the World Series. 

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