The 2015 edition of the Atlanta Braves was like Home Alone without Macaulay Culkin. Law & Order: SVU without Christopher Meloni. That ’70s Show without Topher Grace. Or Star Wars, just Star Wars.
The Bravos finished last season with the league’s third-worst record, were one of five teams to fall short of 70 wins, and stumbled to the wrong chapter of Atlanta’s record book. They have suffered only five worse seasons since their move to Atlanta in 1966 and managed their worst record in a quarter-century.
Jason Heyward was flipped for Shelby Miller. Craig Kimbrel and the Upton Brothers (Justin and Melvin) were sent to San Diego for Cameron Maybin and prospects. Evan Gattis was shipped to Houston for more prospects. Atlanta attempted to weather the storm by signing veterans Nick Markakis, A.J. Pierzynski, Alberto Callaspo, Jason Grilli, Jim Johnson and former Brave Kelly Johnson, but if you’ll re-read this sentence you will understand why the Braves lost 95 games a year ago. The Braves added six more in-season trades, but each adhered to their roster renovation.
Inadequate they have become, an improvement I sense in them.
Ender Inciarte, a .300-hitter a year ago, arguably the most prominent offseason acquisition gives Atlanta a 25-year-old center fielder who ranked sixth in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and second in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), among outfielders in 2015. Inciarte also ranked sixth among players with at least 500 plate appearances with an 89.8 contact percentage. This adds to current right fielder Nick Markakis, who ranked third in the same statistic with a 90.2 percent, and a Braves squad that finished fourth among 30 teams with an 81.4 percent contact rating.
Hector Olivera, a midseason acquisition a year ago, signed a six year, $62.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers last offseason. Now a 31-year-old projected to be the Braves’ opening-day starter in left field, played just 59 games in the states last season including just 24 major-league games — all with Atlanta. While he didn’t explode onto the major-league scene, he did hit nearly .348 in his 19 minor league games with L.A. — right on par with his success in the Cuban National Series.
Olivera, in less than 81 games-per-season on average in Cuba, or half of the traditional MLB schedule, averaged 14.6 HR and a .335 AVG in a five-year span from 2007-11. He was 26 years old at the end of his run. A reason for concern is his absence since. He didn’t play in 2012, played 73 games in 2013 — albeit with a .316 AVG and seven HR, before again missing the 2014 season. His stateside debut came as a 30-year-old, four years after his “prime” in Cuba.
Set for a full-time gig for the entire 2016 season, Olivera should not be dismissed. Can we expect similar production to his Cuban success extrapolated out to 162 games? No, and it would be reckless to do so. But due just $32.5 million over the next five years as the Dodgers remain responsible for his $28 million signing bonus, John Hart, the Braves’ current President of Baseball Operations, said, in an article by David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month:
“We ended up getting a five-, six-hole type hitter that we’re going to control affordably, and we can add other pieces.”
-John Hart / President of Baseball Operations
Among those pieces are a litany of previously successful, but now middling veterans. The cast includes pitchers Jim Johnson, Bud Norris, Jhoulys Chacin, Kyle Kendrick and Alexi Ogando, as well as position players Gordon Beckham, Emilio Bonifacio, Tyler Flowers, Kelly Johnson and Jeff Francoeur.
Bud Norris, now 31 years old but holder of a career 8.3 K/9, is expected to crack the rotation’s final cast. As recently as 2014, Norris — with the Baltimore Orioles — started 28 games, survived 165.1 innings, surprised with a 3.65 ERA and a 1.216 WHIP — albeit an anomaly. Alexi Ogando, former All-Star and 13-game winner, in camp as a non-roster invitee, is the current favorite for one of the final spots in the bullpen after sporting a sub-4.00 ERA in 64 appearances for the Boston Red Sox last season.
Gordon Beckham is what he is. In a full season he’ll hit about .240 with 12 HR, but he hasn’t played 150 games since 2012. Now a a reserve at second and third base, Beckham’s bat and leadership should offer more good to the show, than harm. Tyler Flowers, a former four-year secondary role player in Chicago to current backstop A.J. Pierzynski, Flowers has played at least 84 games each of the last three seasons and racked up at least 112 games in each of the past two seasons. Kelly Johnson, a former first round pick of the Braves in 2000, returns to play the supporting roles at first, second and third base. He is no longer the .284 AVG, 26 HR offensive weapon he was six years ago, but he returns as a fan favorite with some power for a power-deprived lineup. And Jeff Francoeur, while not guaranteed a role in 2016, returns as another fan favorite with the chance to put fans in the seats for what most feel will be a comedic film this season … or a horror film if you ask the right person.
But that’s all rotten tomatoes if you ask me. While the 2016 edition of the Atlanta Braves, after their offseason losses, might not have the all-star cast of, say, The Departed, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to know they won’t be the 60-minute debacle known as, well, True Detective.
Atlanta almost assuredly won’t be as bad offensively as it was last season. Its team batting average ranked 15th at .251, helped by the aforementioned contact percent of its lineup, but the Bravos finished last in HR (100), SLG (.359) and OPS (.674). Extra-base hits weren’t their forte, but there is reason to believe that won’t be the theme this go-round after scoring a league-worst 573 runs.
Hector Olivera and Ender Inciarte replace Jonny Gomes and Cameron Maybin respectively. Erick Aybar, a 32-year-old former All-Star, replaces perennial gold-glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons. On the surface this may look like a downgrade, but for the 2016 season alone, Aybar could prove to be the better option. After Simmons’ 17 HR in his first full season, he has combined to hit just 11 HR in 293 games since. He provided little on the bases and was known as a general free-swinger with little to show for it. Aybar has topped 30 doubles in each of the last five seasons with a cumulative average of .277. Simmons has just 41 doubles combined in the past two seasons with a .255 AVG.
Nick Markakis, a gold-glove outfielder in the past, who had never hit less than 10 HR in a season, managed just three in last year’s power outage. His .296 AVG was just a tick above his .291 career mark, so its safe to assume Markakis should only improve on last season’s mediocrity. A.J. Pierzynski (C), Jace Peterson (2B) and Adonis Garcia (3B), by in-large, return as starters from last season. Pierzynski, barring health, is a sure thing. Peterson, a rookie second baseman, peaked his average at .293 on May 12 and held a .282 AVG as late as June 21. He torpedoed rapidly after that, but if he can find some consistency with his first-half success from a year ago, he could prove to be sneaky good second baseman. And if either of these three struggle, Beckham, Johnson and Bonifacio are all capable replacements.
But possibly the key to the 2016 film is Freddie Freeman‘s starring role. After back-to-back All-Star appearances in 2013 and ’14 including a league-best 162 games played in 2014, Freeman dealt with a power-sapping wrist injury that forced him to miss 44 games and play at less than 100 percent for plenty more.
As outlined by Matt Goldman on SB Nation, Freeman hit .299 with 12 HR in 283 plate appearances before the injury. He was on pace for a .300-25 HR season. Instead he racked up just 18 HR and a .276 AVG. But the light at the end of the tunnel for Freeman and the Braves is, despite the injury, he matched his HR total (18) from his All-Star season the year before, despite playing in 44 fewer games. As the leader and new face-of-the-franchise for the Braves, we can all expect, barring another unforeseen injury, that Freeman will return to his peak form and his niche as one of the premier players at first base.
But Freddie Freeman gets to be the Abby Singer of this take, as the pitching staff takes the Martini Shot. And if they are given the run support they had last year, we’ve no reason to think they won’t just move on to whiskey. The Braves, as a unit, ranked 27th in both ERA at 4.41 and BAA at .268 last season, and walked 550 batters — second worst behind only Colorado. Defense removed, the pitching staff finished 28th with a 4.36 xFIP and ultimately had the worst WAR at 5.0. But the return of a healthy Jason Grilli, last season’s closer before a torn Achilles ended his season, and a Julio Teheran resurgence should serve the staff well. Teheran, after posting career worsts in ERA, BB/9, H/9 and HR/9, should gravitate back to career norms after his HR/FB rate skyrocketed to 13 percent last season. His groundball percent was a welcomed improvement, but he suffered through his worst first left-on-base percent (73.8). The rotation will be rounded out with previously mentioned veterans, as well as an array of under-25 arms including Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz, Manny Banuelos and Aaron Blair — all of which have been ranked as top-50 prospects by either Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus or MLB.com. And the bullpen features a healthy Shae Simmons and newcomer Chris Withrow — a former first round pick with a career 11.4 K/9 in 56 major league innings.
With all of this said, I’m not alleging that the Braves will reach .500. Again in 2016, come October, Atlanta will be exiting stage left. But with John Hart as the Playwright featuring an underrated cast, don’t be surprised to see the Atlanta Braves with 75-plus wins as the lights fade.