Atlanta Braves 2020 Season Preview 2.0

From Sports Illustrated

       Entering 2019, it was an almost unanimous opinion that the NL East was the strongest division in baseball. But, the Braves were able to fend off the surging Nationals, the new-look Phillies and the self destructive Mets to win the division. However, the Braves lost in the NLDS to the Cardinals after a terrible Game 5, while the Nationals won the World Series. The offseason wasn\’t easy either, as the Braves made many additions, but lost multiple star players. The Braves still have a very young core, so their window is not close to closing.

       Offseason additions: LHP Will Smith, OF Marcell Ozuna, C Travis d\’Arnaud, LHP Cole Hamels, RHP Felix Hernandez, OF Peter O\’Brien, IF Yangervis Solarte, OF Shane Robinson, 1B Yonder Alonso, LHP Chris Rusin

       Offseason subtractions: 3B Josh Donaldson, LHP Dallas Keuchel, RHP Julio Teheran OF Matthew Joyce, RHP Kevin Gausman, RHP Anthony Swarzak, LHP Jerry Blevins

The Braves cut ties with former ace Julio Teheran in the offseason, because Teheran is now a third starter type. But, the Braves have their own new ace. As a rookie, Mike Soroka had a 2.68 ERA with 142 strikeouts in 174.2 innings. He had a WHIP of just 1.11, while allowing 7.9 hits per nine. Mark Melancon was the only Braves pitcher with at least 20 innings pitched with a HR/9 under Soroka\’s 0.7, and Melancon pitched in just 21 innings. Soroka finished 6th in Cy Young voting and 2nd in Rookie of the Year. With Dallas Keuchel gone for Chicago, Max Fried will have to step in to be the number two starter. Fried and his great curveball struck out 173 batters in 165.2 innings with a 4.02 ERA in his first full MLB season. The aforementioned curveball, averaging 74.5 miles per hour, struck out 68 of those 173 batters, more than any other of his pitches. He went to it 24.7% of the time, with an average rpm of 2844, good enough to land in the 91st percentile among all curveballs in the league. Mike Foltynewicz had a career season in 2018 with a 2.85 ERA, but made just 21 starts in 2019, and went back to his prior struggles, with 105 strikeouts in 117 innings and a 4.54 ERA. His 100 ERA+ means that he was a league average pitcher. The Braves signed four time all-star and World Series MVP winner Cole Hamels to a one year deal, and the pandemic meant that he would not miss the first couple of weeks of the season with a shoulder injury. He struck out 143 batters in 141.2 innings with a 117 ERA+ for the Cubs last season at age 35. Sean Newcomb was a big part of the rotation in 2018, making 30 starts with a 3.90 ERA. He was moved to the bullpen in 2019, and had career highs in ERA (3.16) and ERA+ (144). He is probably best suited for the bullpen, but he will try to make the rotation. Young prospects Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright are also candidates. They both struggled in little play last season. Former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez is in camp. However, he has flamed out by now.

The Braves gave Will Smith $40 million over three years to be their closer. The best available reliever in free agency, Smith had a 2.76 ERA with a career high 34 saves and 96 strikeouts in 65.1 innings. He will be a welcome addition for a Braves team whose closer most of last season was Luke Jackson. However, Jackson was a pleasant surprise for the Braves. A former Texas supplemental first rounder, Jackson was traded to the Braves for two lowly regarded prospects in December 2016. Last year, he struck out 106 batters in 72.2 innings with 18 saves and a 3.84 ERA. However, Jackson lost the closer job to Mark Melancon after he was acquired from San Fransisco at the trade deadline. Melancon, who had 98 saves from 2015-16, saved 11 games for the Braves and struck out 24 batters in 21 innings. The Braves acquired both Shane Greene and Chris Martin at the trade deadline as well. Greene had a 1.18 ERA and a 10.2 K/9 in 38 games with the Tigers, but struggled after the trade, with a 4.01 ERA and a 7.7 K/9 in 27 games. Martin is a success story that walked one batter and struck out 22 in 17.2 innings for the Braves. However, he also allowed eight earned runs for them. Combined with his \’19 stats for the Rangers, Martin threw in the zone a career high 53.3% of the time, but saw batters hit the ball in the zone less, with a personal best 79.8% zone contact percentage. Darren O\’Day was acquired at the 2018 trade deadline but didn\’t make his Braves debut until late 2019. The submariner allowed one run in 5.1 innings. There are two more spots to be filled if-or-when rosters revert to 26 men, and more than two competitors. Josh Tomlin is a non-roster invitee. He had a 3.74 ERA in 79.1 innings over 51 games (one start). Jacob Webb had an amazing rookie season, with a 1.39 ERA and a 329 ERA+ in 32.1 innings before an injury ended his year. The problem is that Smith would be the only lefty on the roster. AJ Minter saved 15 games for the team in 2018, but had a terrible 7.06 ERA in 29.1 innings. Former Rockie Chris Rusin is in camp on a minor league deal. He only pitched an inning in the big leagues last year. He has starting experience and is a lefty, so he could be an alternate to Tomlin. Southpaw Grant Dayton broke his toe playing a game of catch, and missed over a month. He allowed two earned runs in 3.2 innings when he returned, rising his season ERA to a still respectable 3.00 in 12 innings.

The Braves saw veteran Brian McCann retire after the team\’s loss to St. Louis. They went out and signed former 1st rounder Travis d\’Arnaud to a one year deal. d\’Arnaud started out 2019 by going two-for-24 for the Mets and Dodgers before catching on with the Rays. d\’Arnaud then broke out, hitting 16 home runs with a .782 OPS in 92 games. He was helped out by a career high 90 miles per hour average exit velocity. However, his 85 strikeouts were 21 more than his previous career worst. Tyler Flowers is entering his 5th season with the team. His first two were great, but he has been bad since, with averages under .230 and and OPS under .750 in both 2018 and 2019.

The Braves had one of baseball\’s best infields in 2019. Even after Josh Donaldson walked in free agency, it is still shaping up well. Freddie Freeman is still a top three first baseman in baseball. He had career highs in home runs (38) and RBIs (121) with a .295 batting average and a .938 OPS while swiping six bags. He finished with 59 barrels, 8th most in the league, the highest rank of his career. Somehow, his Silver Slugger win was only his first. Ozzie Albies also won a Silver Slugger award, hitting 24 home runs, stealing 15 bases and hitting .295 with an .852 OPS. His home plate to first base time was 4.04 seconds on average, the fastest of his career. Former first overall pick Dansby Swanson is still inconsistent, but had his best season at the plate. He hit 17 homers, stole 10 bases, hit .251 with a .748 OPS. Johan Camargo had a breakout 2018 at third base, but struggled after Donaldson took his spot. He had a terrible .663 OPS in 98 games. He fights Austin Riley for the starting position. Riley plays third base and left field, like Camargo can. Riley hit 18 home runs in his 80 game rookie season. However, he hit just .226 with a .750 OPS. His 13.7% barrel rate was higher than Freeman\’s 12.5%. Adeiny Hechavarria is known as a great defender with a weak bat. However, in 24 games for the Braves last season, Hechavarria hit four home runs with a .328 average and a 1.039 OPS. Charlie Culberson can play seven positions. He has played over 100 games for the Braves in the last two years, but is in camp as a non-roster invitee. He was very bad offensively, with a .731 OPS. Despite playing in 108 games, Culberson made just 144 Plate Appearances. Yonder Alonso has a shot at the 30th roster spot. He hit 51 home runs over a two year period from 2017-2018 (and went to one all-star game), but hit just 10 last year. He had a .199 average and a .641 OPS, but things picked up in his last 54 games, when he signed with the Rockies after the White Sox released him. It could be due to Coors Field, but Alonso had an .837 OPS for Colorado.

Ronald Acuna Jr. has usurped Freeman as the face of the franchise. The former Rookie of the Year winner flirted with a 40-40 season, hitting 40 home runs and stealing 37 bases, the latter leading the league. Acuna also lead the league in Plate Appearances (715) and runs (127). He ended the season 5th in MVP voting and with a Silver Slugger. His 46.9 hard hit % was not in the top 10% of the league, but was an improvement on his 2018 mark, which was in the top-nine percent of baseball. The Braves poached Marcell Ozuna from the Cardinals after he beat them in the playoffs. Ozuna hit 29 home runs with an .800 OPS in his second season in St. Louis. Ender Inciarte won three consecutive Gold Gloves leading up to 2019. However, he played in just 65 games, stealing seven bases, a career low. He has 113 stolen bases in six years. However, he is not a good hitter, with a career high OPS of .759. Nick Markakis chose to re-sign in Atlanta, which would have likely ruining his outside shot at 3,000 hits. However, the addition of the DH in the National League will move Ozuna away from the field most of the time. The 36 year old Markakis has 2,355 hits in his career. Two time 30 home run hitter Adam Duvall played in 41 games, hitting 10 home runs with an .882 OPS.

       Projected Opening Day Lineup
LF Ronald Acuna Jr. (R)
2B Ozzie Albies (S)
1B Freddie Freeman (L)
DH Marcell Ozuna (R)
RF Nick Markakis (L)
C Travis d\’Arnaud (R)
CF Ender Inciarte (L)
SS Dansby Swanson (R)
3B Johan Camargo (S)

       Projected Rotation
Mike Soroka (R)
Max Fried (L)
Mike Foltynewicz (R)
Cole Hamels (L)
Sean Newcomb (L)

       Projected Bullpen
Will Smith, closer (L)
Mark Melancon (R)
Shane Greene (R)
Chris Martin (R)
Luke Jackson (R)
Darren O\’Day (R)
AJ Minter (R)
Josh Tomlin (R)
Jacob Webb (R)
Grant Dayton (L)

       Projected Bench
C Tyler Flowers (R)
SS Adeiny Hechavarria (R)
3B/LF Austin Riley (R)
1B Yonder Alonso (L)
UT Charlie Culberson (R)
OF Adam Duvall (R)

Baseball-Reference OOTP Simulator Stats (at time of writing):
45-36 record, 2nd in NL East
Most home runs: Marcell Ozuna (15)
Highest batting average: Ozzie Albies (.352)
Highest OPS: Ozzie Albies (.956)
Best ERA, starters: Bryse Wilson (2.58)
Best ERA, relievers: Mark Melancon (2.92)
Most innings pitched: Max Fried (100.1)
Most Strikeouts: Bryse Wilson (93)
Best K/9: Will Smith (13.8)

Record through 60 games, last five seasons:
2019: 33-27
2018: 35-25
2017: 27-33
2016: 18-42
2015: 29-31

The Braves are a really good team. However, they have not been great in their first 60 games in recent years. I think that because of that, they will not win the NL East, although I did not predict they would win it in a 162 game year. I think a win total in the 34-35 range is reasonable, and so is picking up the 2nd wild card spot in the National League.

Published by carterhud SI Kids Kid Reporter, Prime Time Sports Talk writer

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