Adonis Garcia

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

2017 Preview: Atlanta Braves


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

Royals and Braves reportedly interested in Trevor Plouffe

Getty Images

Free agent third baseman Trevor Plouffe has reportedly been drawing interest around the league, says Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe. The Braves and Royals are rumored to have shown interest alongside the Red Sox and Athletics, though no contract talks have emerged as of yet.

Plouffe, 30, was outrighted by the Twins in November after rounding out a seven-year run with the club. He slashed .260/.303/.420 with 12 home runs over 344 PA in 2016, but logged just 84 appearances after missing several months with an intercostal strain, cracked rib and left oblique strain.

Plouffe got lost amid the reshuffling of the infield and outfield when the Twins tried to accommodate Michael Sano last season, but a clean bill of health and a steady gig could see him return to his career-average .727 OPS and 22-homer rate in 2017. While the Red Sox are not thought to have room on their roster or enough space on their payroll for another significant commitment (though previous reports from the Boston Herald mention a potential one-year, $2-3 million deal for the third baseman), Cafardo notes that the Royals could be a good fit for the infielder if they consider trading Mike Moustakas. Like the Royals and Red Sox, the Braves appear to have the hot corner set for 2017, but could sign Plouffe to a short-term contract to complement Adonis Garcia and Rio Ruiz if necessary.

And That Happened: Sunday’s scores and highlights

Getty Images

Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Red Sox 5, Yankees 4: Hanley Ramirez hit two homers and drove in four runs, with his first homer bringing the Sox back to within one run after being down 4-0 in the fifth inning and his second homer breaking a 4-4 tie in the seventh inning. The Red Sox sweep and the Yankees have lost five in a row overall, sending them four back in the Wild Card race. Just a brutal weekend for the Bombers.

Brewers 3, Cubs 1: The Cubs have lost four of six and everyone’s yawning. They do that two or three weeks from now, they’re labeled a grand disappointment. Which is a good time to talk to you about the nature of playoff baseball and predictions and things. If you hear some talking head musing that the Cubs — or any team for that matter — looks invincible heading into the playoffs, just remember that yesterday Brewers reliever Tyler Thornburg struck out Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo with two on in the ninth to end the game. Playoff series can turn on a pitcher or two making a couple of key pitches and a bat or two going cold for, like, a day. If that happens in September, no one notices or cares. You get a couple of those breaks in a couple of games in October, however, and 100+ win teams get sent home in a division series by a Wild Card winner. In other news, Kyle Hendricks allowed two runs in six innings and lost while seeing his ERA go up. This is why I never set high standards. It just leads to disappointment later.

Tigers 9, Indians 5: This one sure got chippy. Trevor Bauer had no idea where the ball was going and hit three dudes, including Ian Kinsler in the head. And now Kinsler is showing concussion symptoms, so that’s just grand. Justin Upton hit a ball about 900 miles and stood and admired it and after the game Brad Ausmus said this kind of thing can inspire a team. I dunno, man, call me in two weeks if the Tigers are in the Wild Card game. Everything else is just spin.

Royals 10, White Sox 3: Kendrys Morales drove in four runs and notched his 1,000th career hit. After the game, Morales said “First and foremost, I didn’t even know I had 999 hits.” If I was a big leaguer I’d probably look at my page every single day. That, along a complete lack of physical gifts, athletic skills and a work ethic, is probably a reason I’m not a professional baseball player.

Reds 7, Pirates 4: The Reds wore green jerseys. I thought it was because they wished it was March again, back when there was still hope and everything was new. Now it’s late September and two weeks from this moment these guys will be packing up equipment bags or hopping flights home. The playoffs are great but not everyone gets to play in them. Oh well. For the record the green jerseys were for “ShamRock the Ballpark” which was part of an Irish heritage weekend. As for the game, Joey Votto homered and Tucker Barnhart drove in four.

Mets 3, Twins 2: When your pitching staff looks like a M*A*S*H unit you can take solace in the fact that you’re playing the Twins and still sweep the series. Michael Conforto hit a two-run RBI single and T.J. Rivera homered while Mets pitchers Ba Ling Wyre and Duc T. Ape kept the Minnesota bats at bay.

Orioles 2, Rays 1: Manny Machado homered in the sixth, Mark Trumbo homered in the eighth and six O’s pitchers stifled Tampa Bay, led by Wade Miley‘s four scoreless innings to start things off.

Braves 6, Nationals 2: The game took two hours thirty six minutes. Rain delays amounted to two hours and fifty seven minutes. In all, it only went seven innings because of the rain. Adonis Garcia drove in three and Matt Wisler was effective. That was helped by the fact that Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon got the day off and Ryan Zimmerman only pinch hit.

Marlins 5, Phillies 4: Down 4-2 in the eighth, Christian Yelich hit a game-tying home run and J.T. Realmuto hit a go-ahead RBI single later that inning. The Marlins are still be referred to as Wild Card contenders by some people. Not buying it, but they haven’t given up either.

Athletics 5, Rangers 2: Two homers for Khris Davis, giving him 40 on the year. A quarter of them have come against Texas. Colby Lewis walked five dudes, three of which came in one inning. I think he needs a bit more tuning up before the playoffs.

Angels 4, Blue Jays 0: Alex Meyer and four relievers combine for the shutout. It was Meyer’s first major league win. Toronto has lost four of six and are now in the second Wild Card position, a game behind Baltimore and two up over Detroit and Seattle. The Blue Jays have not won a series in September.

Cardinals 3, Giants 0: Alex Reyes tosses seven shutout innings in his third big league start and Aledmys Diaz hit a two-run homer as St. Louis takes two of three from San Francisco. The Giants are now five back of the Dodgers and are a mere game ahead of St. Louis for the second Wild Card spot. The Giants now go to L.A. to face Clayton Kershaw tonight, so that’s fun.

Mariners 7, Astros 3: Seth Smith hit two homers and drove in four as Seattle salvages the third game of the three game series. Luckily for them both the Tigers and Jays have been struggling.

Rockies 6, Padres 3: The sweep. Mark Reynolds homered. That’s good! Then later he got hit by a pitch and broke his hand. That’s bad! He sounded upbeat after the game, though, saying that he’s “going to get it better and get ready for next year.” That’s good! Next year he’ll be a year older with no guarantee of a job anywhere, though. And will contain potassium benzoate.

*blank stare*

That’s bad.

Diamondbacks 10, Dodgers 9: Brandon Drury hit a walkoff single with two outs in the 12th. He had three other hits in the game, including a homer. Drury has been on absolute fire lately, which is a good thing for a utilityman on a bad team to be late in the season. It’s the sort of thing that ensures you’l be in someone’s plans over the winter.