2016 Preview: Atlanta Braves

AP Photo/Jon Barash
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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 2016 season. Next up: The Atlanta Braves.

According to FanGraphs, only the Phillies are expected to finish with a worse record than the Braves. That’s on purpose, as the club is rebuilding. Over the offseason, the Braves continued to pawn off veteran players, sending shortstop Andrelton Simmons to the Angels and starter Shelby Miller to the Diamondbacks for minor league players. Their additions – mostly players on cheap one-year deals or minor league contracts – were of little consequence.

Let’s not downplay the importance of those two trades, though. The Braves received pitcher Sean Newcomb from the Angels, who now ranks as the club’s second-best prospect, per MLB Pipeline. Newcomb features a power fastball that can hit the high-90’s and even the triple digits at times, and throws a curve which grades out as a plus pitch as well. Minor league pitcher Chris Ellis was also received in the deal and MLB Pipeline ranked him 14th in the Braves’ system. Ellis made a quick jump from Single-A to Double-A last season, using a fastball-slider-change combination, though he battled with control issues after the promotion. Both Newcomb and Ellis are expected to debut in the majors in 2017.

In the Miller deal, the Braves got Dansby Swanson, Aaron Blair, and Ender Inciarte. Inciarte is a capable major league outfielder who will likely end up traded at some point this season if he can stay healthy and continue performing. Swanson, the Diamondbacks’ #1 overall pick in the 2015 draft, is expected to be the Braves’ shortstop of the future. His power may take some time to develop, but it is believed that he already has major league-capable average and on-base tools with the ability to swipe bases. Blair ranked fourth on the Braves’ top prospect list. He’s a ground ball pitcher who’s just about major-league ready. He could debut later this season if the Braves move any of their current starters or if they suffer injuries.

On the actual major league roster, the focus will be on which players the Braves could end up dealing by the August 1 trade deadline. That could be anybody besides first baseman Freddie Freeman and outfielder Hector Olivera, though the club is under no particular pressure to move starter Julio Teheran, outfielder Nick Markakis, or catcher Tyler Flowers. We could see Inciarte, outfielder Michael Bourn, utilityman Emilio Bonifacio, 1B/OF Nick Swisher, pitcher Bud Norris, and shortstop Erick Aybar, among others, moved in deals throughout the year.

The Braves would like to see further development from Olivera. The 30-year-old was signed by the Dodgers out of Cuba last May and was traded in July as part of a three-team deal that also involved the Marlins. In 87 major league plate appearances with the Braves, Olivera hit .253/.310/.405 with two home runs and 11 RBI. The Braves would like to see him develop into a middle-of-the-lineup bat. So far, he’s having an outstanding spring, racking up 18 hits, including four doubles, in 43 at-bats for a cool .419/.422/.512 line.

Freeman, of course, is an old standby, though only 26 years old. The first baseman, when he’s healthy, is good for 20-25 home runs and approaching or exceeding 100 RBI. His OPS has ranged from .795 to .897 since becoming the Braves’ regular first baseman five seasons ago. While he’s comparatively old in an increasingly younger organization, Freeman will be the cornerstone of the next competitive Braves team.

The Braves’ closer situation is in flux, as it depends on the health of veteran Jason Grilli. Grilli, 39, suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in July, keeping him out of action for the entire second half. If he’s completely healthy by Opening Day, he is expected to be the club’s closer. Prior to the injury, Grilli had racked up 24 saves with a 2.94 ERA over 33 2/3 innings. His competition, though, is Arodys Vizcaino, who has thrown five scoreless innings so far this spring. The 25-year-old posted a 1.60 ERA with a 37/13 K/BB ratio in 33 2/3 innings last season, showing that he has plenty of upside. However, the Braves would prefer Grilli close because it bolsters his trade value and keeps Vizcaino’s price tag down as he will head into his second of four years of arbitration eligibility after the season.

At the top of the rotation, the Braves will be hoping for a bounce-back effort from Teheran. After compiling a 2.89 ERA in 2014, the right-hander battled inconsistency throughout last season, finishing with a 4.04 ERA. His walk rate increased, but there was otherwise nothing noticeably different, so a rebound effort wouldn’t be a shock.

Matt Wisler, 23, will also be worth keeping an eye on in the rotation. He entered last season among baseball’s top-100 prospects, but stumbled to a 4.71 ERA with 72 strikeouts and 40 walks over 109 innings. He is very reliant on his command, as he doesn’t miss bats with much regularity, but his 8.4 percent rate of last season won’t cut it in the big leagues. If Wisler is able to make some adjustments, he can be a mid-rotation innings eater and may eventually provide the club some trade value.

What do the Braves need to do to succeed in 2016? Their definition of success, as a rebuilding team, is a bit different since losing is, in multiple ways, beneficial.

  • Lose enough games to finish with a protected first round draft pick in 2017
  • Get some ROI on rostered veterans with non-waiver trades before the August 1 deadline and waiver trades before the August 31 deadline
  • Olivera hits well enough to rise up in the batting order
  • Swanson and Newcomb continue rapid progression to prepare Braves for a youth movement next season

Prediction: 69-93, fourth place in the NL East