Last Updated: 2018-03-01
The Washington Nationals are going to win the National League East, barring a huge upset, but the division is really interesting. Well, 80 percent interesting, anyway. Sorry Miami Marlins fans. As we start our journey through the Senior Circuit, we start with the Atlanta Braves, who are loaded with young talent and have one of the best hitters in all of baseball.
It wasn’t quite standing room only on the Braves bandwagon last season, but people were starting to take notice. Atlanta fell short of expectations, much to the chagrin of those that saw value in last season’s mid-70s win total. The Braves went just 72-90. For a team that was just two games under .500 at the All-Star Break, it was an incredibly disappointing outcome. After all, Atlanta gained some favor in the marketplace by going 37-35 in the second half of the 2017 season.
The alternate standings metrics don’t provide a whole lot of solace. Per Pythagorean Win-Loss, the Braves were a 73-89 team and BaseRuns nearly hit their numbers dead on with a -88 run differential projection. The Braves finished -89 for the season. Pitching was the team’s downfall, but help is on the way. Five arms in the system rank in both the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 Prospects or the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects. Joey Wentz is also in B-Pro’s Top 101 and Max Fried is in BA’s Top 100. In total, seven of Atlanta’s youngsters are in the top 66 per Baseball Prospectus and eight rank in the top 72 at Baseball America, including the top prospect at both sites in Ronald Acuna. Four of those pitchers are expected to be part of the rotation at Triple-A Gwinnett and Double-A Rome. The future looks bright, but what about the present?
It was a very busy offseason for the Braves. They made some moves, shed some salary, lost a GM, lost some prospect depth, and watched as their division rivals either got markedly better or markedly worse. As we look ahead to 2018, there are two key questions to the season. How fast will the youngsters arrive? How effective will the veterans be?
The Braves look like something of a high-variance team and those types of teams often create good season win total opportunities one way or another. Which way will we look to go with the Braves?
Season Win Total Odds:
5Dimes: 75 (-110/-110)
BetOnline: 75 (-110/-110)
Bovada: 74.5 (-150/120)
Additions: Charlie Culberson, Preston Tucker, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, Peter Moylan, Anyelo Gomez, Chase Whitley, Grant Dayton, Chris Stewart, Rob Brantly, Christian Colon, Tyler Smith, Jaff Decker, Josh Ravin, Shane Carle
Losses: Josh Collmenter, Ian Krol, Micah Johnson, RA Dickey, Jason Motte, Kris Medlen, Jim Johnson, Matt Adams, Jace Peterson, Matt Kemp, Adonis Garcia
The biggest story of the offseason for the Braves came back in November when John Coppolella was relieved of his duties as GM and placed on Major League Baseball’s banned list. Coppolella illegally circumvented MLB’s international signing rules. As a result, the Braves were stripped of 13 prospects, including Kevin Maitan. Additional sanctions will limit Atlanta’s involvement in the international free agent market until 2021. The Braves system took a hit, but it remains one of the strongest in baseball.
At the MLB level, the Braves acquired Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, and Adrian Gonzalez in a deal that sent Matt Kemp back to the Dodgers. Gonzalez was waived and wound up with the Mets. They also reunited with Peter Moylan and brought in Preston Tucker from the Astros. The Braves basically needed some veteran arms to refrain from rushing the youngsters in Triple-A and also provide some stability at the back end of the rotation, if healthy.
None of the losses were all that significant. All in all, the Braves made the most of the offseason, which really started out ugly with the Coppolella fallout.
Why bet the over?
There are a lot of things to like about the Braves this season. Freddie Freeman is the obvious starting point. Freeman’s .307/.403/.586 slash with a .407 wOBA and a 152 wRC+ really stood out last season. He was a 4.5-win player despite managing just 514 plate appearances. The 28-year-old ranks among the best hitters in baseball and there is no reason to think that he should stop. In fact, Freeman lowered his K% from 24.7 percent in 2016 to 18.5 percent in 2017. As long as he can stay healthy, there is a reasonable chance that we see Freeman’s best offensive season of his career with more balls in play and a sustainable walk rate. He’s hit more fly balls the last two years, so that should provide some sustainability to the power numbers. He has a great chance to surpass the 34 dingers he hit in 2016. Freeman is an easy four-win player and I’d expect more with a healthy season.
Ender Inciarte is a really strong player when it comes to projecting out a season. In his four MLB seasons, Inciarte has been between 2.7 fWAR and 3.6 fWAR. Last year, he managed to post a 100 wRC+ with a .304/.350/.409 slash line. He doesn’t hit for much power, but he makes a ton of contact and has great speed to make something out of it. He did fall back a little bit with his defensive metric last season, as he was a full-time center fielder once again, but he’s a very high-floor player with tremendous contact skills and above average defense in CF.
Just like we all expected, Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers combined to be one of the most valuable tandems at the catching position. Suzuki hit 19 home runs in just 309 plate appearances and Flowers had a career offensive year of his own with a .281/.378/.445 slash line. Suzuki’s breakout came out of nowhere, but his FB% jumped from 38.5 percent to 46.6 percent. The 17.1 percent HR/FB% probably regresses, but he has some margin for regression to still be a solid contributor. Flowers cut down on the strikeouts and put more balls in play. He was able to sustain a high BABIP, which allowed him to post a career-best .378 OBP. I’m not sure how much I want to buy into both guys having similar seasons, but most catchers are negatives at the plate. These two should be better than league average collectively. Both are marginal defensive catchers, but they should hit enough to overcome it.
The youth movement could define the season for the Braves. Ozzie Albies made his MLB debut last season and posted a 112 wRC+ in 244 plate appearances and played good defense. Albies had a .286/.354/.456 slash line and did not look overmatched at all against MLB pitching with a very strong 14.8 percent K%. The 21-year-old, who just turned 21 in January, possess plus speed and can play either middle infield position, so if Dansby Swanson continues to falter, Albies can slot over to SS if need be. Scouts aren’t ready to give up on the 24-year-old Swanson, who had a .334 wOBA and a 107 wRC+ in 145 PA in 2016. He had a really atrocious .276 wOBA with a 66 wRC+ last season, but walked a lot and played average defense per UZR. DRS wasn’t a fan, but Swanson is an okay defender, so some offensive gains would be a big help.
Ronald Acuna is the guy that everybody is watching. Acuna has high-upside power with good speed and he’s also a solid outfielder as well. The 20-year-old, who can’t legally drink in the US until December, has terrorized pitching at every level so far. Last year, he batted .326/.374/.520 at Double-A in 243 plate appearances before getting pushed to Triple-A, where he batted .344/.393/.548 in 243 plate appearances. He hit 21 homers across three levels and stole 44 bases. Acuna is not on the 40-man roster yet, so he is technically a non-roster invite. Be aware of that if he makes the ballclub because some fantasy leagues force you to wait until a player is placed on the 40-man. How good is Acuna? Well, ZiPS has him projected for a .269/.321/.452 slash with a .329 wOBA, 21 HR and 33 SB, and above average defense as a 20-year-old rookie.
Johan Camargo hit well at two levels last season and played good defense at multiple positions in his 82 games at the MLB level. Nick Markakis has the power of a dead battery, but he still walks and makes a lot of contact, so there are some practical advantages to his skill set. There really is a lot to like about this offense. Reserve OF Lane Adams had a 110 wRC+ in 122 PA. Preston Tucker had a .343 wOBA in 569 PA with Triple-A Fresno in the Astros organization before he was acquired by the Braves to provide some bench depth.
The starting rotation takes a little bit of imagination to like. Julio Teheran is only a season removed from a 3.21 ERA with a 3.69 FIP and a 4.13 xFIP. His strikeout rate fell and his walk rate climbed last season, so it was hard for Teheran to build off of his 2016 season. He did have a K% bounce back in the second half that could be a positive building block moving forward. At worst, Teheran should be a league average dude for 180 innings, but he obviously has the upside for more, with 3.2 fWAR in both 2014 and 2016.
Mike Foltynewicz is a league average dude as well. Sean Newcomb has a bit of upside if he can harness his obscene walk rate. Newcomb has always missed a lot of bats, but he never really knows where the ball is going. Last season, an elevated home run rate really hurt him. He posted a 10.9 percent HR/FB% after years of great HR/FB% marks in the minor leagues. Some positive regression in that area could really help.
Newcomers Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir are interesting. McCarthy amassed 2.4 fWAR in just 92.2 innings last season with a 3.98 ERA, a 3.28 FIP, and a 4.34 xFIP. McCarthy hasn’t been healthy since 2014, so who knows what we can expect, but he was effective last season when he was out there. Kazmir missed all of 2017 at the MLB level and had just 12 innings of work at High-A. From 2013-16, he was pretty effective, so he’s a decent gamble. Across 667.2 innings in that span, Kazmir had a 3.75 ERA with a 3.79 FIP and a 3.81 xFIP. He had a solid K/BB ratio as well.
The kids may dictate the year on the pitching side. Luiz Gohara is basically MLB-ready. So is Max Fried. So is Aaron Blair. So is Lucas Sims. So is Matt Wisler. All five guys already have MLB experience. Gohara looked pretty good in five starts last year with over a strikeout per inning and a 2.75 FIP. A small sample size alert, obviously, so take it with a grain of salt, but Gohara has pitched well at just about every stop on his path to the bigs. Fried, Sims, and the others may need a little more seasoning and polish.
The second wave of arms behind them has a ton of upside as well. Mike Soroka is the third-best prospect in the org per BP and BA. Kolby Allard is second per BP and seventh per BA. Touki Toussaint isn’t even ranked anymore. Kyle Wright is in camp, but he is likely coming in 2019.
There are two important points to make here. The first is that a Braves team making an unlikely playoff push could use some of these organizational riches to fill other holes. The other is that this is a team that can withstand some injuries because of its depth. These guys all have raw talent. In terms of polish, they are all over the map, but the Braves will be replacing any injured starter with somebody that has some measure of upside. That is a big deal.
Some of these starters will invariably be moved to the bullpen down the line. For right now, this bullpen is quietly solid. Arodys Vizcaino had a 2.83 ERA with a 3.72 FIP. His xFIP was high at 4.21, but that’s because he slants to the fly ball side. Vizcaino struck out over 27 percent of opposing batters. Peter Moylan is an excellent right-on-right matchup guy. AJ Minter looked dominant in his 15 innings and has had good strikeout rates in the minors. Chase Whitley has some MLB experience, so he’ll be a decent option in the middle innings. This bullpen doesn’t jump off the page in any way, but it won’t be a hindrance.
Ironically, the Braves’ best month last season was the one that they played without Freddie Freeman. They were 16-12 in June and Freeman missed the entire month. What that means going forward, I’m not quite sure, but Freeman has a better supporting cast and this starting rotation has a lot more upside than it had with guys like RA Dickey, Bartolo Colon, and Jaime Garcia.
Why bet the under?
Ronald Acuna is a can’t-miss prospect. There is no denying that. Ozzie Albies looked really good in a small sample. Beyond that, we’re really hoping for a lot of things to go according to plan. One big key for the Braves this season is that guys like Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir stay healthy long enough for the starters in the minors to develop or the Super Two deadline to pass to get that extra year of control. There are a lot of exciting prospects here, but Luiz Gohara is the only one that truly appears to be MLB-ready in that he can be an average or above pitcher.
Julio Teheran is no sure bet to bounce back. There was a distinct loss of command for Teheran, whose HR/FB% went back up to 13.7 percent, which it was in 2015, and the walk rate also regressed to 2015. It looks more and more like 2016 was the outlier for the current version of Teheran. His walk rate ballooned even though he threw a higher percentage of first-pitch strikes than he had since 2013. His swinging strike rate went down despite being ahead in the count more often. All of his non-fastball offerings graded out below average. There may be an underlying injury here with the loss of both command and control. Teheran also threw his slider less often and was more fastball-heavy, which could have been another sign of discomfort. I’m not buying much Teheran stock.
Mike Foltynewicz has never really impressed me. The numbers were a little bit better last season, but he’s an average starter at best, even with the baseline for average much lower than it used to be. His SIERA was actually 4.57, which is a pretty good indicator of future performance and that would be just below average as an ERA. I also don’t love pitchers that are so fastball-reliant in today’s run environment. Folty has used a slider more and threw the curveball a bit more last season, but I just don’t love the long-term viability of the arsenal in a starting role. I think he’ll be one of those future bullpen arms out of this starter group. Both variations of fastballs graded out below average last season as well.
There is always the chance that Acuna flops in this first look and has to go back to the minors and figure things out. Not that Acuna and Dansby Swanson are particularly interchangeable, but Swanson posted a .276 wOBA and a 66 wRC+ in his first full season at the MLB level as a college hitter that got fast-tracked to the big leagues. Acuna shouldn’t do that by any means, but still. He may not be a bat out of hell right out of the gates.
As you start to go through the lineup, there are other areas of concern. Kurt Suzuki’s previous career-high in wOBA was .324 back in 2014. His top wRC+ was that season as well at 106. His SLG last season was only 154 points above his career average. His wOBA was 67 points above his career average. He had hit 16 HR over the previous three seasons combined before hitting 19 last season. Color me skeptical of the offensive breakout, in which his HR/FB% ballooned to 17.1 percent, which is more than 2.5 times his career rate. His partner in crime, Tyler Flowers, also had a career year at the dish. This is a trend he built off of from 2016, but his 22.2 percent K% dropped as a result of an outlier season in terms of making contact on pitches outside of the zone. He made contact with 65.9 percent of pitches outside of the zone. His career average is 49.8 percent. So, he stayed alive more frequently. He still swung through more pitches in the zone. I’m not going to buy into the K% decrease. The power might be fine, but his FB% dropped as well. I’d expect both Suzuki and Flowers to regress offensively.
Even though the Braves posted their best month without Freddie Freeman, he’d still be a substantial loss long-term, especially on an offense that probably won’t stand out in too many other ways. Freeman has missed ample time two of the last three years. His injuries haven’t really been chronic things, but it is just worth taking a look at in terms of the season-long wager.
The bullpen is pretty pedestrian. Arodys Vizcaino had a decent season, but his 2.83 ERA was accompanied by a 3.72 FIP and a 4.21 xFIP. He got pretty fortunate on balls in play with a .248 BABIP against, so an ERA regression towards his advanced metrics is hardly out of the question. Beyond him, there just aren’t a lot of high-upside guys. The other Jose Ramirez had a 3.19 ERA with a 4.88 FIP and a 5.00 xFIP, so I’m not sure I’d bet on him. AJ Minter only had 16 appearances. Daniel Winkler only had 16 appearances. There are a wide range of outcomes with this bullpen. Vizcaino should be a decent closer his high velocity, but the setup men and the middle relievers could go in any direction and I wouldn’t be all that surprised. With the current emphasis on relief pitching league-wide, it is tough for me to feel overly confident in this group.
A bet on the Braves could be viewed as a bet against the Mets or against the Phillies. The Marlins are going to be a dumpster fire. The Nationals are going to the playoffs as the NL East champion in all likelihood. The Mets are pretty clearly the second best in this division, but their upside is in question. The Phillies have made some moves this winter and continue to look at ways to upgrade the ballclub. With everybody set to beat up on Miami, how Atlanta fares in the 57 games against the Nats, Mets, and Phils could be a deciding factor in this win total because the bottom feeders of the NL like the Reds, Padres, and Giants have made some improvements.
Pick: Over 75 (-110, 5Dimes or BetOnline)
I’m going to buy the Braves this season. I didn’t fall for it last year, as Atlanta stayed under the win total. A lot of times, we see teams exceed expectations one year after falling short of them. This is a team that has a few key building blocks and a lot of young, hungry talent in the minor leagues. The hard thing about taking an Atlanta over is that I think Philadelphia will be in the same spot and the New York Metropolitans will be a lot better. Somebody in this division has to lose aside from Miami.
It is hard to argue with the amount of Major League talent that is ready or soon-to-be ready in the minors. The Braves have a lot to be excited about and I think this is a team that could flirt with a .500 record. They’ve done it for a half in each of the last two seasons, so it’s just a matter of developing a bit of consistency. I’d say my confidence level is around a 6.5/10 here because this is an offense highly-dependent on Freddie Freeman and 20-year-old Ronald Acuna. So, there will be stronger opinions in the National League as we move forward, but I like the veteran additions to the starting staff and if the Braves can get first halves out of Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir before injuries pop up, the organizational depth can fill the void.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
Well, we’ve finally reached the final division in the 2017 MLB Season Win Totals preview series. That is the National League East. It has been interesting to watch the rebuild unfold and now fans can watch the rebuild in a new facility. SunTrust Park will open for play when the Atlanta Braves return home on April 14 against the San Diego Padres.
As an aside, we’ll have to see how the ballpark plays. The outfield dimensions are pretty similar to Turner Field, but parks play differently based on the construction. Turner Field, which had been a pretty decent pitcher’s park for a while started to play better for hitters in recent years. It probably won’t have a significant impact on Atlanta’s season win total, as the team isn’t exactly tailored to have more success in a hitter’s park or a pitcher’s park, but it could be a little bit different for visiting teams.
The Braves also enter this season under the direction of Brian Snitker. Atlanta started 9-28 under Fredi Gonzalez last season and very quietly went 59-65 under Snitker over the final 124 games. The Braves had one game rained out that was not made up, so they finished the year 68-93. Again, very quietly, Atlanta was a 37-35 team in the second half of the year, despite a -23 run differential. The Nationals won 15 of the 19 head-to-head meetings, otherwise things could have been quit a bit different. Atlanta won the season series against the other three division foes. The final year of Turner Field was a dud with a 30-50 record and July 4 loss at Fort Bragg Park as the home team.
Per Pythagorean Win-Loss, the Braves were one game worse than their expected record. Per BaseRuns, Atlanta was two games worse than their projections. The Braves did seem to accelerate the timeline of their rebuilding, however, by looking as competent as they did over the final 75 percent of the season.
Given the offseason acquisitions, this is another transitional year for the Braves, but the farm system is stronger, help is getting closer, and hope is on the horizon.
Season Win Total Odds
BetDSI: 74.5 (-105/-125)
BetOnline: 74.5 (-105/-125)
5Dimes: 74.5 (100/-130)
Additions: Brandon Phillips, Kurt Suzuki, Bartolo Colon, Jaime Garcia, RA Dickey, Sean Rodriguez, Micah Johnson, Rio Ruiz, Kris Medlen, John Danks, Blaine Boyer, Rex Brothers, Christian Walker
Losses: Joe Wieland, Emilio Bonifacio, AJ Pierzynski, Williams Perez, Mallex Smith, Shae Simmons
This offseason followed pretty much the same plan that the previous offseason followed. The Braves stocked up on veterans at reasonable salaries to look to fill gaps in the everyday lineup and possibly spin some of those guys later on for prospects. The Braves traded for Brandon Phillips from Cincinnati, who wanted to unblock Jose Peraza, and also acquired some middle infield depth in Micah Johnson. Sean Rodriguez could have been helpful, but he and his family were involved in a serious car accident and his injuries will keep him from playing this season.
Bartolo Colon, Jaime Garcia, and RA Dickey are there to use and abuse while waiting on a lot of Single-A pitchers to move up through the system. The same can be said about Kris Medlen and John Danks. It helps to have proven veterans with track records in Spring Training and in the organization to help out the kids. The Braves made a late add of Christian Walker once Spring Training already started.
The losses aren’t overly significant, though Mallex Smith was a pretty toolsy player. Shae Simmons is a fireballer, but has a pretty checkered injury past.
Why bet the over?
It’s not a fluke that the Braves were 59-65 over 124 games to end the 2016 season. That’s a long amount of time to keep up a façade. Well, then again, the Texas Rangers did it all season, but when a team as bad as the Braves can do it, that’s something noteworthy. The Braves led the National League in runs scored from September 1 through the end of the regular season and slashed .289/.353/.447 in the process. Overall, the Braves were sixth in runs scored in the second half of the season with a .277/.346/.428 slash line.
The leader of that second-half charge was Freddie Freeman. Elite players on bad teams get overshadowed way too often, but Freeman hung a .323/.433/.634 slash with 18 HR in his final 312 plate appearances last season. He posted a 177 wRC+. The list of players that had a higher wRC+ in the second half? Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera. For the full season, Freeman hit 34 HR with a .302/.400/.569 slash line. His 152 wRC+ was a career high and so was his 6.1 fWAR. The 27-year-old is locked in the prime of his career and that’s definitely exciting for a franchise that doesn’t have a ton to be excited about at the Major League level right now.
Dansby Swanson showed some of the reasons why he was the first player selected in the 2015 MLB Draft out of Vanderbilt University. Swanson slashed .302/.361/.442 in his first 145 plate appearances as a Major Leaguer. He made the jump straight from Double-A and looked like he belonged. He also played league average defense, which was nice to see. As a polished college bat, Swanson doesn’t have a big minor league sample size, but he posted good walk rates and made a lot of solid contact. Those things should carry over to the big league level and did last season in a small sample size. He’s a big upside play in this lineup.
There’s a decent chance that we look back at the Arizona/Atlanta trade on December 9, 2015 as one of the worst in the history of baseball. The Diamondbacks traded Swanson, Ender Inciarte, and Aaron Blair to Atlanta in exchange for Shelby Miller. The 26-year-old Inciarte just signed an extension with Atlanta after posting a 3.6-win season with a .291/.351/.381 slash line and exceptional defense in center field. Considering how much ground Inciarte had to cover with statuesque Matt Kemp to his left, this was a remarkable season. Inciarte is now about 1,600 plate appearances into his career and seems to be improving. He increased his walk rate by 3.2 percent last season. Leaving Chase Field hurt his power production a little bit, but he’s more of a slash-and-dash hitter anyway.
Matt Kemp’s defense was so bad that it overshadowed a pretty good offensive season. Kemp didn’t walk a whole lot, so he posted a 109 wRC+, but he hit 35 HR and drove in 108. He slashed .268/.304/.499. Kemp is one of those guys that has more value in the counting stats than he does in the advanced metrics, so the projection systems are going to be down on him, but he’s one of those old school guys that drives in runs in the middle of the order. Some people prefer players like that. I’m not one of them, but I do understand and appreciate their value.
Nick Markakis went from three homers to 13 homers last season. He posted a .269/.346/.397 slash, which was slightly below average, but he did happen to rebound defensively with 12 DRS. UZR was less excited about his season, so we’ll have to see how that plays out, but Markakis basically posted similar numbers to the last two seasons when he had wRC+ marks of 106. The league-wide power spike skewed offensive metrics for everybody and Markakis, with another sub-.400 SLG, was one of the guys hurt the most by that development. He still posted a strong OBP and is a calming veteran presence in the lineup.
Adonis Garcia doesn’t walk much, but his contact quality is pretty good. He posted a .308 BABIP with 14 HR in 563 PA. His final slash was an unspectacular .273/.311/.406, but he provided a bit more old school value than new school value. It’s interesting to see a lot of players like that for the Braves. There are a lot of .260 and .270 hitters surrounding high OBP guys like Swanson and Freeman. Every team seems to be looking for that next great inefficiency. Maybe Atlanta feels like this is theirs. Brandon Phillips fits that mold and he was the target of their offseason position player plans. Phillips actually batted .291, but only posted a .320 OBP with how little he walked. He had an 11/14 season and his defense is still passable.
Julio Teheran is the anchor of the Atlanta staff. Teheran had the bounce back year that he needed to have. His K% went up and his BB% went down, so he went from a 4.04 ERA with a 4.40 FIP and a 4.19 xFIP to a 3.21 ERA with a 3.69 FIP and a 4.13 xFIP. He also cut down his home run rate. Teheran’s usage shows a spike in straight four-seam fastballs with more sliders, curves, and changeups to make up for the drop in two-seamer usage. The two-seamer was far and away Teheran’s worst pitch in 2015. It was the only pitch that graded below average in 2016. It’s great to see pitchers take data and apply it. Teheran did and the results were pretty eye-opening. Expecting similar usage this season, Teheran is a good bet for a good year.
Another guy I like for a bounce back is Jaime Garcia. The lefty actually made 30 starts last season for the first time since 2011. He’s spent a lot of time making rehab starts and in the trainer’s room. Ironically, he had a poor season. He’s still an extreme ground ball guy and his HR/FB% should regress a little bit from last year’s 20.2 percent. The Braves are a decent defensive team on the infield and good in center, so hopefully that helps Garcia. He also started walking more batters last season to exacerbate his problems. Projection systems like a bounce back and so do I.
I don’t see it with Mike Foltynewicz, but projection systems do like him a little bit as about a league average pitcher over 150 innings. If he can be an average starter, that will be good enough given this season win total and the outlook for the Braves. A guy like Bartolo Colon should be a little bit above average. Since the PRP injection that saved his career, Colon has worked at least 190 innings every year since 2013 and has done so with FIPs that are better than league average. He’s missing fewer bats, but he’s still a wizard in terms of control and that won’t suddenly stop. RA Dickey is nothing special, but he’s a different look as a knuckleballer and a league average stat line in the NL isn’t a stretch.
By loading up on velocity via trades and acquisitions, the Braves have some strikeout artists in the bullpen. They also have a lot of guys that will issue walks. Mauricio Cabrera is probably the guy with the most upside with a bullet train fastball and no real idea of where it’s going. He did pitch around some walks last season and by being effectively wild, he didn’t give up a single home run in 38.1 innings. Arodys Vizcaino also has suspect control, but runs it up close to triple digits. Jim Johnson, who probably has the best control in the Braves pen, will start as the closer.
Why bet the under?
The Braves had a couple of guys in Freeman and Inciarte who rated very well across the board in all metrics. Unfortunately, most others did not. Nick Markakis had an out-of-body defensive experience with regards to defensive runs saved, but UZR was not a fan of his performance. Corner outfielders with slugging percentages under .400 are not particularly valuable players. In the opposite corner, Matt Kemp had good counting stats, but he also plays the outfield like Ray Charles. Kemp is now -106 defensive runs saved in the outfield for his career, including a -55 mark over the last three seasons. Power is nice, but Kemp’s .304 OBP is not nice at all. It was .336 when he got out of the San Diego Padres organization, but Kemp also hit 12 HR in just 56 games with the Braves. I think we need to temper expectations for his offensive performance. That short two-month sample with Atlanta wasn’t quite what we should expect. And, because his defense is so bad, he’s been a replacement-level player since 2012.
It’s easy to see why Dansby Swanson is so highly touted. The tools are all there, but it is also fair to wonder what we will see from the 23-year-old this year. He wasn’t exactly tearing up Double-A when he got the call with a .261/.342/.402 slash. There’s a reason people call it a sophomore slump. Opponents adjust. From September 11 to the end of the season, Swanson struck out 32.4 percent of the time in 68 plate appearances while facing mostly NL East competition. It is an extremely small sample size and it’s not predictive, but it does illustrate the challenges that hitters face once teams have advance scouting reports. If not for a .432 BABIP when he did put the ball in play, he would have ended the season on a very sour note. Also, it’s always fair to wonder how players will do with the 162-game grind. That’s not to rain on Swanson’s long-term projections, it’s simply to say that I don’t know what to expect this season. On a Braves team that appears to be batting him second, that could be a really interesting thing to follow.
I love Freddie Freeman, but I’m pretty confidence in saying that the 2016 season was the outlier for Freeman. He jumped from .195 to .267 in ISO. His HR/FB% went from 15.8 percent to 19.9 percent. The list of players that carried a 19 percent or higher HR/FB% last season are established power threats like Khris Davis, Nelson Cruz, Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Chris Carter, Miguel Cabrera, Edwin Encarnacion, and Mike Napoli. I don’t know if Freeman can keep up a pace like that. It’s entirely possible that he’s just coming into his own, but I’m looking for offensive regression. He also carried a .370 BABIP with that massive power spike. Home runs obviously count towards batting average, but not towards batting average on balls in play. With regression coming in those key areas, I’d expect something more like Freeman’s 2015 line of .276/.370/.471. That’s obviously a very good season, but it’s not 6.1 fWAR good. I think there’s some regression here. It won’t be overly concerning, but it will definitely cut into Atlanta’s bottom line offensively.
Brandon Phillips is a below average offensive player. Adonis Garcia is a below average offensive player. He’s also not a particularly good defender. Whichever catcher gets the nod to play the most games, they’re all poor offensive players. Even though Ender Inciarte provides a decent amount of value that wRC+ doesn’t account for as much as it probably should, he was a below average offensive player. His walk rate also spiked 3.2 percent, so we’ll have to see if that change hangs around. The Braves were pretty fortunate to be such a good offense in the second half because Freddie Freeman was unconscionably hot and Matt Kemp had a big burst.
I detailed Julio Teheran’s usage changes last season and they certainly helped in a big way. I think he’ll be an above average starter no matter what, but he did have a 77.8 percent LOB% last season, which is certainly higher than you would expect from a guy with a strikeout rate a couple ticks better than league average. Some regression from that would push his ERA from 3.21 to closer to 3.61. It’s a big deal, necessarily, but, as I’ve talked about, we look for small edges to create bigger ones. Each bit of player improvement or regression can have an impact on the full season.
I’m probably selling Mike Foltynewicz short because he has started to mix his pitches a lot better. He was primarily a thrower and now he’s showing signs of being a pitcher with more slider usage and more changeups. His bread-and-butter remains the four-seam fastball, but it was his worst pitch last season and he threw it over 50 percent of the time. He got a bit unlucky in the second half to cut his SLG against by 91 points and still post an ERA that was more than a run higher than the first half. I’m still worried about the depth of his arsenal and I don’t know if the command is good enough to play at anything more than average.
One’s a knuckleballer and one’s able to defy Father Time, but RA Dickey and Bartolo Colon are both on the wrong side of 40. The reason those two guys were brought in on fairly expensive free agent deals is to simply buy time to let guys like Aaron Blair, Max Fried, and the collection of prospects headlined by Touki Toussaint develop. If age catches up with either of them, there’s a decent option in Matt Wisler, but there’s not a whole lot behind that. It’s not like it will take much to replace a guy like Dickey, but there’s also value in volume when it comes to starting pitching. The Braves have no illusions about this starting staff. Its entire goal is to stay healthy. When you talk about guys well on the wrong side of the aging curve, that’s worrisome.
The Braves bullpen is something. There are a lot of guys that will strike out over a batter per inning. There are also a lot of guys that will issue a lot of walks. Jim Johnson’s massive strikeout bump from last season should be viewed with a fair amount of skepticism. He was in the National League, which helps, but relievers aren’t seeing pitchers the way that starters are. I don’t see any really significant usage changes that could explain anything. We’ll see how this group goes, but there could be some frustrating moments.
Season Win Total Pick: Under 74.5 (-125; BetDSI or BetOnline)
Yeah…I’m not buying the Braves for this season. A lot of people seem to be on the Braves train and like this team to surprise. It’s easy to see why. They were very good in the second half of last season and played good ball over a sustained period of time. Unfortunately, there isn’t a group on this team that I really like. The starting rotation is well below average in my estimation. The Braves don’t have a great equalizer like a dominant bullpen. The lineup is decent with Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson, and Freddie Freeman, but Freeman is going to regress. Swanson should have growing pains. Inciarte is what he is and he’s a good player, but he has to cover a large swath of land in the outfield.
The unfamiliarity of SunTrust Park makes it hard to endorse this as a play. I do think that the Braves will take some steps back in key areas, so I’d still look at the under. If I had to make a play in the NL East, this would be second to a pick with the other rebuilding team. There just isn’t enough depth or upside here for me. This is a work in progress and too many of the interesting prospects are in the lower levels of the minors. They’re coming, but not fast enough to make an impact this season. As exciting as it was to see the Braves go 59-65 over the last 124 games, that pace over 162 games is just 77 wins. I really don’t see them getting to that point.
<< Previous PostNext Post >>