2018 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 2018 season. Next up: The Atlanta Braves.

The rebuilding Braves went 72-90 last season, still managing to finish in third place in a very weak NL East. While the offense wasn’t that bad – mostly thanks to Freddie Freeman – the pitching staff was one of the worst in baseball. The Braves, in fact, didn’t have a single starter aside from Max Fried (who made four starts) finish with an ERA below 4.00. The bullpen had some bright spots like Jose Ramirez, Sam Freeman, and Arodys Vizcaino, but was overall still a source of stress during the season.

Going into 2018, the Braves didn’t do a whole lot. The club signed only two free agents: veteran reliever Peter Moylan for $575,000 and veteran catcher Chris Stewart for the same price. The Braves also traded outfielder Matt Kemp to the Dodgers for Adrian Gonzalez (who the Braves promptly released), Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, and Charlie Culberson. The deal helped the Dodgers stay under the competitive balance tax. The Braves, meanwhile, got some warm bodies to put on the field as the rebuild continues.

Unsurprisingly, the Braves are once again expected to be among the worst teams in baseball this season. FanGraphs projects them to finish with 72 wins while PECOTA is more optimistic at 76 wins.

First baseman Freeman will once again be the backbone of the Braves’ offense. He had another stellar year last season, batting .307/.403/.586 with 28 home runs and 71 RBI but he only played in 117 games due to suffering a fractured left wrist in May. If he’s able to stay healthy and play in 150-plus games this season, Freeman will likely find himself in the NL MVP Award conversation.

Ozzie Albies will start the season getting everyday playing time at second base. He impressed last season, hitting .286/.354/.456 across 57 games following his promotion at the beginning of August. Along with a solid bat, Albies plays good defense and provides speed on the bases. With another step forward, he can make himself a linchpin of the Braves’ offense.

Dansby Swanson returns to shortstop, hoping to bounce back from a rough 2017. The former No. 1 overall pick hit a meager .232/.312/.324 across 551 plate appearances. While the Braves don’t expect to be competitive in 2018, Swanson finally living up to his billing would be a welcome sight, regardless of whether or not it amounts to anything in the win column.

At third base, Johan Camargo will get regular playing time. He had a solid 2017, hitting .299/.331/.452 in 256 PA. He’s dealing with a back issue at the moment, but the Braves are expecting he’ll be ready by Opening Day. This was a position that many thought the Braves would address by going after someone like Mike Moustakas, but they ultimately decided to say in-house with Camargo.

All-Star Ender Inciarte will direct the outfield from center field once again. Billed as one of the best defensive outfielders in the National League, more advanced defensive analytics think he took a step back defensively last season, though he walked away with his second consecutive Gold Glove Award. Inciarte also hit a solid .304/.350/.409 with 27 doubles, 11 home runs, and 22 stolen bases in 718 plate appearances. According to Baseball Reference, the 27-year-old Inciarte has been worth at minimum three Wins Above Replacement in each of his four seasons in the majors thus far, which is really good. Not a bad guy to have at a premium position during a rebuild. Inciarte signed a five-year extension with the Braves in December 2016.

34-year-old Nick Markakis will once again handle right field in Atlanta. He’s still a solid hitter but doesn’t provide much defensively, which has limited him to less than two WAR each season since 2012. Last year, he hit .275/.354/.384. The Braves don’t have anybody banging on the right field door, so Markakis could ride out the final year of his contract with the Braves or he could be traded by the deadline.

Left field is by far the most interesting position for the Braves because it should be Ronald Acuna’s to begin the regular season. Acuna is the No. 2 prospect (behind Shohei Ohtani) across all of baseball according to just about everyone, including MLB Pipeline. The Braves aren’t going to have him on the Opening Day roster, however, because of service time. Acuna split his season between High-A Florida, Double-A Mississippi, and Triple-A Gwinnett, hitting an aggregate .325/.374/.522 with 21 home runs, 82 RBI, 88 runs scored, and 44 stolen bases in 612 plate appearances. He has backed that up by hitting .432 in 44 spring at-bats, homering four times and knocking in 11 runs, both spring-highs across baseball. Lane Adams and Preston Tucker will handle left field for the first half of April. The Braves will then promote Acuna and he’ll never look back.

Julio Teheran will lead the Braves’ rotation. The right-hander struggled last season, finishing with a 4.49 ERA and a 151/72 K/BB ratio in 188 1/3 innings. Teheran, now 27 years old, struggled with control, walking nearly nine percent of batters he faced, two percent higher than his career average. He also missed bats at a lower rate, also declining two percent relative to his career average. Those aren’t good signs, but one year does not a trend make.

Teheran will be followed in the rotation by Mike Foltynewicz, Brandon McCarthy, and Sean Newcomb. Scott Kazmir and Max Fried are battling it out for the No. 5 spot. As it was last year, the rotation will be a weak spot for the Braves in 2018, but the club is rich in pitching prospects – MLB Pipeline rates Gohara No. 4 and Fried No. 7 in the system, for example.

Arodys Vizcaino will close games out. The right-hander took over closing duties when the Braves traded Jim Johnson last season. Vizcaino overall saved 14 games with a 2.83 ERA and a 64/21 K/BB ratio in 57 1/3 innings. The 27-year-old has the stuff to become one of baseball’s better closers, but he isn’t likely to see many save opportunities across the season.

As mentioned above, Ramirez, Freeman, and Moylan will pitch behind Vizcaino, bridging the gap between the starter and the ninth inning. Rex Brothers, A.J. Minter, and Dan Winkler will also pitch in out of the bullpen.

The Braves as a team are going to be hard to watch. The whole NL East outside of the Nationals and occasionally the Phillies will be hard to watch, frankly. But the Braves will also be a team everyone will keep their eyes on with Acuna’s development and a cavalcade of other highly touted prospects making their way up to the big leagues throughout the year.

Prediction: 73-89, fourth place in NL East