Friday, March 25, 2016

NL East Preview - Atlanta Braves

The NL East preview plows ahead through the doldrums of the division with the Atlanta Braves:

2015 Record: 67-95
Fangraphs’ 2016 Projection: 68-94
Fangraph’s 2016 playoff odds: 0.3%

It’s hard to talk about the Braves without repeating a lot of the Phillies story as the two teams are expected to duke it out for the bottom of the division amidst massive rebuilding efforts. But the Braves have been on the rebuilding train for a while now while Philadelphia is new to the party. Ever since the new Braves stadium was announced, the front office has set its sights beyond the current season to the 2017/2018 season when they make their move to Cobb County. That rebuild continued this offseason as the Braves made two major moves that moved players from two totally different ends of the spectrum.

In the bigger move, the Braves traded away Shelby Miller to the Diamondbacks for a king’s ransom of prospects. Miller was only a Brave for one season as he was one of the pieces the Braves acquired from trading away Jason Heyward the season prior. Miller was an average-ish starting pitcher for the Cardinals who had flashes of brilliance mixed in with some frustrating moments. The Braves helped Miller tweak his pitch mix a bit and saw the hired gun take off as a result. The team quickly cashed in on that one year of success by flipping Miller to the D’Backs for starting outfielder Ender Inciarte, top pitching prospect Aaron Blair, and recent #1 overall draft pick shortstop Dansby Swanson. It’s an intriguing mix of current talent (Inciarte) and future talent (Swanson and Blair) that should serve the Braves well down the line.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Braves traded away the homegrown defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons to the Angels. In a real test of how much value teams place on defense, the Braves didn’t get back all that much in return for the top defensive shortstop in baseball since he struggled to top a .270 batting average and showed very little power. The Braves will take on Erick Aybar for the year, which will help give them a veteran presence in a clubhouse that doesn’t have many other veteran options, but the real focus of this deal were pitching prospects Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis. It’s an interesting move by the Braves as Simmons is young and under team control for a long time. He could easily have been the shortstop for the Braves when they return to competitive form in 2018-2020 but the Braves made the calculation that the downside of Simmons’ bat didn’t outweigh the majesty of Simmons glove.

In a smaller move that mostly flew under the radar, the Braves again made good on a buy low veteran in Cameron Maybin, flipping him to the Tigers for pitcher Gabe Speier and former National Ian Krol. It’s a move that may not make a huge impact in the long run but it proves that this front office has the ability to find some diamonds in the rough and capitalize on it.

On the field in 2016, the Braves will have an interesting mix of players you recognize and young guys trying to prove themselves for the first time. Freddie Freeman will continue to be the focal point of the offense. Freeman loves to beat up on the Nationals, but the rest of the year he is a guy who will hit for a solid average but not as much power as teams normally expect from their first basemen. On top of that, Freeman has been struggling with wrist issues for the last couple of seasons and there are questions about his health swirling in Spring Training camp. Outside of Freeman, the previously mentioned Inciarte will be a solid contributor in the outfield and Nick Markakis will still patrol right field and likely play average defense and hit like an average outfielder.

On the flip side, the Braves have some new faces that will look to prove themselves at the major league level. Jace Peterson came over in the Justin Upton trade and will man second base for the Braves. He’s held his own defensively and on the base paths but will have to prove he can hit major league pitching after struggling last season. The Braves have another new face in Hector Olivera, but he’s not your typical prospect. He’s a 31 year old Cuban import only a year removed from signing a big deal with the Dodgers. After a handful of minor league games and some injury concerns, the Dodgers quickly gave up on Olivera and flipped him to the Braves last year. He hit well in a small sample size of games for the Braves and potentially has the ability to play multiple positions defensively.

The starting pitching isn’t quite as clear cut for the Braves though. It’s essentially Julio Teheran, what’s left of Bud Norris, and lot of question marks. The Braves will hope that guys like Matt Wisler can step up. Wisler hit the big leagues last year after a solid minor league track record but over 19 starts posted a 4.71 ERA. 2016 will be the year for the Braves to see if his weak contact inducing approach can work in the majors. Keep an eye out for other prospects to hit the big league squad over the course of the year like Manny Banuelos and Mike Foltynewicz. It probably won’t be a pretty experience at first, but the Braves hope the steep learning curve in 2016 leads to better results a year or two down the road.

Player to Watch:Julio Teheran. After two years of ERA’s of 3.20 or under, Teheran took a big step back last season and posted a 4.04 ERA and 4.40 FIP. He walked more batters than ever before and really struggled facing left handed hitters. Of course, Teheran is only 25 years old and has been dominant at times. On top of that, he’s under contract through 2019 and has an option for the 2020 season so the Braves are going to give him every opportunity to bounce back in 2016. Does he turn back into the dominant Teheran of old who looked like a future ace or is 2015 a sign of things to come? This upcoming season might provide an answer.
Best Case Scenario:There are enough pieces in Atlanta to make 2016 an interesting year. It’s not enough talent to compete for the division even in a best case scenario but squint hard enough and it’s possible to see a competitive team here. Suppose Freddie Freeman continues to rake and the wrist injuries aren’t an issue. Nick Markakis fights off father time for another year. Erick Aybar plays a steady shortstop and provides more offense than Simmons ever did. Hector Olivera and Jace Peterson rise to the occasion. Layer on a quality bounce back year from Teheran and a couple break out seasons from the army of young pitching prospects and the Braves could be fighting for second or third in the division rather than fighting their way to the number on draft pick.

Worst Case Scenario:On the other hand, it doesn’t take much squinting to see how everything can go wrong. In fact, it’s almost expected. Freddie Freeman is still bugged with his wrist injuries and if he’s not 100% he won’t provide much power in this lineup that is built around his bat. Sure, Olivera looked good in a handful of games last year but he’s a player in his thirties having to learn how to hit major league pitching for the first time. What if he’s not up to the task? Nick Markakis isn’t capable of carrying a team, even in his best years. Finally, the pitching staff just doesn’t have enough proven arms to keep games close. If Teheran is really the pitcher from 2015 and not the Teheran of old, Bud Norris certainly won’t be carrying this team. If none of the young pitching prospects can pick up the slack, expect a lot of high scoring games from the opposing team. At least there is always the shot to earn that number one draft pick.

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