LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL — With a combined record of 135-188 over the past two seasons, it may be easy to say that the Atlanta Braves are set for improvement of some sorts. With the first full season under manager Brian Snitker taking shape here at the Wide World of Sports complex, improvement is evident. After acquiring Matt Kemp from San Diego on July 30 of last season, the Braves posted a 32-25 record to finish out the 2016 campaign. Over this offseason, the Braves added many key veteran role players such as Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, Kurt Suzuki, Jaime Garcia, and Brandon Phillips.

Pitching experience and consistency were the big problems that slightly halted the competitive rebuilding process. With a team ERA of 4.51 (25th) it was partially due to control issues as they issued the sixth-most walks (547). The average age of the 35 different arms used last year was 26.1 years old. To give a comparison, the 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs average age of the pitching staff was 30.3 years old. The additions of Dickey, Colon, and Garcia will coincide well with emerging team ace Julio Teheran, whom the Braves front office felt strongly on holding onto. This all despite last year’s trade interest from other teams about the now 26-year-old. The bullpen still has flaws and holes, as any team in a rebuild will have. Veteran closer Jim Johnson and flame-throwing Arodys Vizcaino will be pieces to the puzzle that is the back of the Braves bullpen. With strong veteran leadership, the young arms such as Matt Wisler, Lucas Sims, Max Fried, Mauricio Cabrera, and Aaron Blair are in a great place to learn and develop.

The offense is where I see the greatest trend in the right direction from the past two seasons. The type of postitive impact that can and I think will surprise baseball fans. With season openers about two weeks away, the very tentative lineup that I would expect come April will look something like this:

  1. Ender Inciarte, CF
  2. Brandon Phillips, 2B
  3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
  4. Matt Kemp, LF
  5. Nick Markakis, RF
  6. Adonis Garcia, 3B
  7. Dansby Swanson, SS
  8. Kurt Suzuki / Tyler Flowers, C
  9. P

The addition of Phillips solidifies a productive spot at the top of the order and corresponds well with the left-handed Freeman, who posted a career-high 5.5 offensive WAR due to his 34 home-runs and .302 batting average in 2016. A full offseason for the 2015 first-overall pick Dansby Swanson will develop his bat greatly to all fields. The 23-year-old still seems to lack power development, which could halt some offensive production. Power was a major issue for Atlanta last year after hitting a historically low 122 team home runs and still could be. But a complete season of Kemp should help aid the home run droughts. Also, the move to SunTrust Park should increase home runs to right field, as right-center is 15 feet shorter than at Turner Field and the right-field corner is five feet shorter. Granted, the wall height is higher. As for a batting average perspective, the Braves hit at a league average .255 in 2016.

Overall, this is a far more complete team than the past two years, and yet still again ranked number one in farm system rankings by ESPN’s Keith Law. It truly is impressive what general manager John Coppolella has done since the conclusion of the 2015 season, making the Braves MiLB system something out of a prospect guru’s fantasy. The young talent will continue to drastically get better behind the Braves solid player development. It will be exciting to see who will get called up throughout this upcoming season and potentially fill out the Braves’ lack of depth.

The bench on this current roster may be the biggest cause of concern as of right now. It will be tough for the team to rely on a mixed bag of utility players such as Chase d’Arnaud, Jace Peterson, and potentially Emilio Bonifacio, who follow the somewhat common theme that is lack of power.

After chatting with new third base coach and baseball lifer Ron Washington, he mentioned that the player he has seen the most improvement out of is the 22-year-old Rio Ruiz. He spoke highly of Ruiz, continually stressing his improvement thus far since Washington was introduced to his new team. Ruiz came up towards the end of last year mainly just for a cup of coffee, going 2-for-7 at the plate in limited action. Currently the youngest player on the Braves 40-man roster, Ruiz said, “Age is just a number and I want to do my best to contribute.” When asked who has helped push him up the minor-league ranks the most, he gave a lot of the credit to the Braves Triple-A affiliate Gwinnett, saying it was an “amazing group of players and coaches.” This backs up how significant the minor league system is, especially for the youngest of talents coming through the ranks. I expect Ruiz to be an important piece in the immediate future.

Ultimately, my main reasoning for why I believe this Braves could be the surprise team of 2017 is the potential of the team. To some extent, it is a handful of players who are looking for bounce-back seasons and even some players who are trying to re-establish their previous superstar status. To me, it’s the perfect mix for what a team usually has when they succeed: veteran talent and young talent ready to emerge any moment knocking on the door. From witnessing batting practice and fielding drills, it is an incredibly loose yet focused bunch. On top of everything, the amount of trade chips the Braves have throughout their system is intriguing. While Atlanta is still probably a two or three seasons from really reaping the benefits of the process, this looks like the year they take a big leap in the right direction.

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