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2017 Preview: Atlanta Braves

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Atlanta Braves.

The Braves have been on a very clear path for the last few seasons. Though the club has averaged 71 wins since the start of the 2014 campaign, the Braves’ farm system is arguably the best in baseball, a result of trading away major league caliber players like Shelby Miller. So what did the Braves do during the offseason? They got older. It’s not as contradictory as it sounds – the older players are just placeholders to allow the younger players the freedom to progress through the minor league ranks without pressure.

Newcomers to the starting rotation include 43-year-old Bartolo Colon (one year, $12.5 million), knuckleballing 42-year-old R.A. Dickey (one year, $8 million), and 30-year-old Jaime Garcia (acquired in a trade with the Cardinals). The Braves also recently acquired 35-year-old second baseman Brandon Phillips from the Reds. Meanwhile, veterans Matt Kemp (32) and Nick Markakis (33) return to patrol the outfield corners.

While the team would need to underperform to match last year’s dismal 68-93 record, the Braves are expected to once again be one of the worst teams. If there is a bright side, though, it’s that the Braves are strong up the middle, which is the best place to be strong.

Shortstop Dansby Swanson returns for his second season in the big leagues. The 23-year-old was acquired from the Diamondbacks in the aforementioned Miller deal after the club took him first overall in the 2015 draft. After making his debut in mid-August last season, Swanson hit a solid .302/.361/.442 with three home runs and 17 RBI in 145 plate appearances while playing plus defense. The Braves don’t need him to immediately live up to the hype in 2017, but it would be fun to watch if he did.

While Phillips is on the back nine of his playing career, he’s still plenty capable of being a positive influence on the field and off. He hit .291/.320/.416 with 11 home runs and 64 RBI in 584 PA last year with the Reds. Defensive metrics weren’t kind to him, suggesting he’s lost a step or two, but he’ll still turn in plenty of highlight reel-caliber plays throughout the season.

Ender Inciarte will reprise his role as the Braves’ center fielder. Known as the “other guy” the Braves acquired along with Swanson and pitching prospect Aaron Blair in the Miller trade, Inciarte flourished in Atlanta. He hit .291/.351/.381 with 34 extra-base hits, 85 runs scored, and 16 stolen bases while earning his first of what will likely be several Gold Glove Awards. The 26-year-old is signed through 2021, meaning he’ll likely hit his prime right as the Braves are ready to be competitive again.

As mentioned, veterans Kemp and Markakis will play on either side of Inciarte. Kemp is coming off a season during which he hit a combined .268/.304/.499 with 35 home runs and 108 RBI in 672 PA between the Padres and Braves, but he erased any good he did on offense by playing such poor defense. Kemp has reportedly shown up to spring training in much better shape, but as the saying goes, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Even if he’s in better shape, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to do enough to make up for the steps he’s lost due to injuries and age.

Markakis hit .269/.346/.397 with 13 home runs and 89 RBI in 684 PA last year. The defensive metrics were mixed: Baseball Reference had him as a plus-defender while FanGraphs graded him as poor. As he’d been graded a poor defender by both sites in each of the last five years, his glovework metrics for 2016 are likely just a statistical anomaly. Neither Markakis nor Kemp are players the Braves can truly rely on for the coming season.

Adonis Garcia will continue to man the hot corner for the Braves. Chipper Jones he is not. The soon-to-be 32-year-old hit .273/.311/.406 with 14 homers and 65 ribbies over 563 PA last year with subpar glovework. If the Braves were competitive, third base would be the most obvious area in which to start upgrading.

Across the diamond from Garcia is Freddie Freeman at first base. Freeman has become the face of the franchise and, at 27 years old, is the straw that stirs the drink, so to speak. He finished sixth in NL MVP balloting last season, batting a tremendous .302/.400/.569 with 34 HR and 91 RBI across 693 PA. He was by far the most valuable first baseman in baseball last year, according to FanGraphs, putting clear distance between himself and the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo, who finished fourth in NL MVP voting. Freeman will certainly be the Braves’ most important player in 2017 and, as he’s signed through 2021, will try to help see the Braves’ emerging young core to competitive baseball.

Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki will handle things behind the plate. Both are average hitters with defensive shortcomings. Suzuki has been working with Dickey, suggesting that he’ll be the veteran knuckleballer’s regular catcher during the season.

As mentioned, the Braves’ rotation includes veterans Colon, Dickey, and Garcia, but it will be headed by 26-year-old Julio Teheran. The right-hander bounced back from a mediocre 2015 by making his second All-Star team and finishing with a 3.21 ERA and a 167/41 K/BB ratio across 188 innings. He’s made at least 30 starts in each of the last four seasons and is easily the Braves’ most dependable pitcher.

Garcia pitched a full season last year for the first time since 2011. Sadly, he was only able to muster a 4.67 ERA with a 150/57 K/BB ratio in 171 2/3 innings. His ability to stay healthy is still in question, and pitching well over a full season is just as much in doubt. Since the Braves are just looking for innings, though, 30 more starts will be enough.

Colon has more or less defied age-related decline. Last year, at the age of 43, he posted a 3.43 ERA and a 128/32 K/BB ratio in 191 2/3 innings. “Innings eater” and “in his forties” are usually not phrases found in the same sentence, but here we are. Like Garcia, the Braves are just looking for six to seven innings out of Colon every time he takes the mound. Anything else is gravy.

Dickey put up a 4.46 ERA with a 126/63 K/BB ratio in 169 2/3 innings for the Blue Jays last year. The 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner is likely no longer an above-average pitcher, but stranger things have happened.

The No. 5 spot in the rotation will likely be a revolving door of Mike Foltynewicz, Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair, and Josh Collmenter.

In the bullpen, Jim Johnson will handle closing duties. The veteran is coming off of a career rebirth at the age of 33, as he pitched 64 2/3 innings last year to the tune of a 3.06 ERA, 20 saves, and a 68/20 K/BB ratio. If Johnson continues to pitch well and rack up saves, the Braves will likely look to trade him to a contending team at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Arodys Vizcaino, Ian Krol, and Paco Rodriguez will handle the innings leading up to Johnson with Vizcaino likely first in line to get saves in the event Johnson is traded or gets injured.

The Braves will open up the regular season in their brand new stadium, SunTrust Park. Their previous stadium, Turner Field, opened in 1997 and was still quite functional, but when taxpayers are paying for billionaires’ real estate investments, it’s hard to say no. Fans are bracing for interminable traffic that will make it difficult to be seated in time for first pitch. And they can’t take public transit because Cobb County has nixed attempts to fund transit lines that would make it easier for fans to access the stadium.

You have to feel for long-time Braves fans who live in the city of Atlanta. The team was intentionally deconstructed to the point of being unwatchable. Then the team up and left the city for the suburbs. For a team that has already garnered criticism due to its racist use of the “Tomahawk Chop,” it sure isn’t doing much to allay those concerns by moving into what I have been calling “White Flight Stadium.” This post on Medium explains the concept in great detail.

Contrary to common claims, new sports arenas don’t spur economic growth. Taxpayers are funding this unnecessary new sports arena that has abruptly left the city for the suburbs while restricting public transit into the new digs, intentionally cutting out a sizable portion of the local fan base. Braves fans got a raw deal on this one, which might dampen any enthusiasm the burgeoning young core of the team ends up creating.

Prediction: 70-92 Record, 5th place in NL East

Justin Turner is a postseason monster

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A not-insignificant amount of the Dodgers’ success in recent years has to do with the emergence of Justin Turner. In his first five seasons with the Orioles and Mets, he was a forgettable infielder who had versatility, but no power. The Mets non-tendered him after the 2013 season, a move they now really regret.

In four regular seasons since, as a Dodger, Turner has hit an aggregate .303/.378/.502. His 162-game averages over those four seasons: 23 home runs, 36 doubles, 83 RBI, 80 runs scored. And he’s also a pretty good third baseman, it turns out. The Dodgers have averaged 95 wins per season over the past four years.

Turner, 32, has gotten better and better with each passing year. This year, he drew more walks (59) than strikeouts (56), a club only five other players (min. 300 PA) belonged to, and he trailed only Joey Votto (1.61) in BB/K ratio (1.05). He zoomed past his previous career-high in OPS, finishing at .945. His .415 on-base percentage was fourth-best in baseball. His batting average was fifth-best and only nine points behind NL batting champion Charlie Blackmon.

It doesn’t seem possible, but Turner has been even better in the postseason. He exemplified that with his walk-off home run to win Game 2 of the NLCS against the Cubs. Overall, entering Wednesday night’s action, he was batting .363/.474/.613 in 97 postseason plate appearances. In Game 4, he went 2-for-2 with two walks, a single, and a solo home run. That increases his postseason slash line to .378/.495/.659, now across 101 plate appearances. That’s a 1.154 OPS. The career-high regular season OPS for future first-ballot Hall of Famer Albert Pujols was 1.114 in 2008, when he won his third career MVP Award. Statistically, in the postseason, Turner hits slightly better than Pujols did in the prime of his career. Of course, we should adjust for leagues and parks and all that, but to even be in that neighborhood is incredible.

In the age of stats, the concept of “clutch” has rightfully eroded. We don’t really allow players to ascend to godlike levels anymore like the way we did Derek Jeter, for instance. (Jeter’s career OPS in the playoffs, by the way, was a comparatively pitiful .838.) Turner isn’t clutch; he’s just a damn good hitter whose careful approach at the plate has allowed him to shine in the postseason and the Dodgers can’t imagine life without him.