Wednesday, March 25, 2015

NL East Preview: Braves

Fangraphs’ 2015 Projection: 73-89
Fangraph’s 2015 playoff odds: 3.1%

The first big news of the offseason was when the Braves announced their move to a new stadium in2017. All the moves that followed this offseason, with one glaring exception, seemed geared toward that 2017 team as the franchise began the process of rebuilding for the future.

That rebuild started by trading away most of the established stars on the 2014 Braves roster. Justin Upton went to San Diego as the Padres set their sights on world domination by way of power hitting outfielders, Evan Gattis is plying his trades and awesome back story in Houston, and Jason Heyward is taking his undervalued talents to St. Louis. Those moves took three of Atlanta’s top offensive weapons and dealt them away for prospects who will load up the Braves’ minor league system. What the moves didn’t do, though, is restock the offense on the major league team. As a result, the major league roster is pretty lacking in offensive firepower.

While the offense in Atlanta isn’t anything to write home about, the lineup won’t be totally punch less. Freddie Freeman will be holding down the fort at first base with a projected 3.9 WAR. While his power output probably won’t ever top 30 homeruns, he consistently hits the ball hard and puts up impressive OBP numbers. Offensively, he reminds me a lot of Joey Votto in the sense that he commands the strike zone, always squares the ball up, has the ability to hit for power, but (to the dismay of some of his critics) doesn’t sell out for the home run ball and is more than happy to hit a double into the opposite field gap.

The next most valuable position player for the Braves brings almost nothing to the table offensively, but his defense is so phenomenal that that he is still projected for 4.0 WAR. People keep hoping Andrelton Simmons will be able to put his athletic talents to use offensively, but it almost doesn’t matter. Any offense he provides (Fangraphs projects a .296 wOBA) is gravy when he provides quite possibly the best defense at shortstop in recent MLB history. Simmons can’t be taken for granted at the plate though, as he still has the ability to square up a pitch and take it yard.

While both Freeman and Simmons are young-ish and figure to be cornerstones of the 2017 Braves team that takes the field on the Opening Day at the Braves’ new ball park, the one big offseason signing the Braves made seems totally out of line with their rebuilding mindset. The Braves made early waves in the free agency period of this offseason by signing Nick Markakis away from the Orioles with a 4 year, $44 million contract. This isn’t to say Markakis isn’t a useful player. He provides some value offensively, with projections putting him at around a .320 w OBA, though with limited power. While advanced metrics don’t like his defense, scouts seem to think he is at least an average defensive right fielder. What really makes this deal odd is that players who offered the same value as Markakis (like Nori Aoki, for example, recently of the Royals now with the Giants) were signed for much less of a dollar commitment. Sure, the Braves had some money to spend and needed to fill a hole in right field after the departure of Heyward, but Markakis might be approaching the last legs of his career once 2017 rolls around. Add on top of that his checkered health history (in fact it’s looking doubtful he will be ready for opening day after surgery on his neck this offseason), and it’s a confusing route for the Braves front office to take.

The pitching side of things can give Braves fans something to show up for this summer. At the top of the rotation, Julio Teheran (2.4 WAR) and Alex Wood (2.3 WAR) lead a rotation that should challenge opposing offenses. Acquired in the Heyward trade, former Cardinal Shelby Miller has always shown flashes of talent, but hadn’t seemed to be able to put it all together in St. Louis. Clearly, the Braves saw something in Miller they liked, as he was the center of the trade this offseason. He will be someone to keep an eye on to see if the Braves front office comes out a winner of the Heyward trade. While Mike Minor impressed when healthy, his health woes continued this offseason and, unfortunately, I doubt we see much more from him going forward. Turning to the bullpen, Craig Kimbrel continues his reign of dominance with a projected 2.2 WAR, made all the more impressive when you realize that he is only projected to pitch a total of 65 innings.

Player to Watch:

Christian Bethancourt: The Braves youth movement starts with their young catcher. Known primarily for his defensive prowess behind the dish, Bethancourt was a prized prospect in the Braves system who got the call up to the big leagues near the end of last season. Now that Gattis is no longer on the Braves, Bethancourt has the starting catcher position on lock down. The youngster might not provide much offensively at the moment, but the offensive bar set for catchers is pretty low and the Braves believe in him enough to hand him the starting role in 2015. His defense will keep the running game in check and help out his pitchers, but the key for the Braves will be how he progresses with his bat this year. The Braves have a couple other prospects to keep your eye on in the years to come (RHP Mike Foltynewicz, 2B Jose Peraza to name a few you could see in the big leagues in 2015), but Bethancourt is the only one with guaranteed playing time right out of the gate and so he will be one to keep an eye on.

Best Case Scenario:

The starting pitching keeps up its end of the bargain, picking up some slack for the at times lackluster offense. Meanwhile, some of the young guys in the system hit the big leagues running, allowing the team to stay in the Wild Card hunt for part of the season while keeping the long term outlook bright for the franchise. The front office can swing a couple deals at the trade deadline to continue to stock the farm system, and the Braves stay right on track to be contenders come 2017.

Worst Case Scenario:

It wouldn’t take much for the Braves to turn into an unwatchable team in 2015: Their young starting pitching can’t keep up with their previous successes and the rookie guys on offense disappoint more than expected. Bethancourt can’t hack it with the bat. Nick Markakis comes back healthy but puts up below average numbers offensively and defensively and makes the Braves wonder if they were better off buying $44 million of Coke bottles instead. To top it all off, the Shelby Miller gamble back fires as he can’t outperform his numbers with the Cardinals and the Braves end up competing with the Phillies to stay out of the basement of the National League.

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