What’s in store for the Braves in 2017?
It isn’t very often that heading into spring training, a team that went 68-93, never spent a single day in first place, and at one point was 32 games out of the division the season before can have playoff aspirations. Yet here we are, the day before pitchers and catchers report, and all of a sudden, the Braves have remade themselves into a team that may compete for a wild card spot as they move into Sun Trust Park in Cobb County. Consider this; last season, the Braves fired Fredi Gonzalez following a 9-28 start. Once current manager Brian Snitker took over, the Braves went 59-65 the rest of the way, putting them on about the level of a .500 team. When you add in the Braves’ finish to the season, where they went 18-10 in September and October, it isn’t that farfetched to think that the Braves will be competitive in 2017.
Much of this optimism stems from the work that general manager John Coppolella put in to remaking the roster this offseason. Starting in the pitching rotation, Coppolella spent a combined $20 million to acquire R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon, who are currently a combined eighty-five years old. While not the most glamorous signings, both should boost the Braves rotation by giving it much needed stability, and innings. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2010, Dickey has averaged 206 innings pitched per season, and should greatly benefit from moving back to the National League East, where he had his best success with the Mets. Dickey will also be aided by facing pitchers every start instead of a designated hitter, as well as moving out of the Rogers Centre in Toronto. While Colon, 43, throws almost nothing but low 90s two-seam fastballs, he locates the pitch better than anyone in baseball, and is still as durable as they come despite his stature, averaging 195 innings pitched the past four seasons. Colon is also coming off an All-Star 2016 with the Mets, having gone 15-8 with a 3.43 ERA, and league leading 1.5 Walks/9.
Along with Colon and Dickey, Coppolella stuck a trade with the Cardinals to acquire left-handed pitcher Jaime Garcia. 2016 was not Garcia’s measure by any means; he finished with a 10-13 record, and a career-high 4.67 ERA and 1.375 WHIP. However, Garcia was healthy for a full season for the first time since 2011, making 32 starts, and also holds a career 62-45 record with a 3.57 ERA. Basically, the Braves bought low on Garcia, and a change of scenery could be all Garcia needs, as he is only one year removed from a 2015 season where he had a 2.43 ERA and 3.9 WAR in only 20 starts. All of a sudden, with Garcia, Dickey, and Colon behind rotation ace Julio Teheran, the Braves have four quality arms, which will also allow them to replace the less than stellar production of Aaron Blair (2-7 7.59 ERA) Williams Perez (2-3 6.04 ERA) and Matt Wisler. (7-13, 5.00 ERA)
The Braves middle infield should be especially improved in 2017, as Jace Peterson and Erick Aybar will be replaced by the newly acquired Brandon Phillips, and the number four prospect in baseball, Dansby Swanson. Instead of Peterson (7 HR, 29 RBI, .254/.355/.366) at second base, the Braves will roll out Phillips, who returns to his hometown after waiving his no-trade clause with the Reds. A three-time All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner, the 36 year old Phillips still produced in 2016, with 11 HR, 64 RBI, 14 steals, and averages of .291/.320/.416. Phillips can routinely be seen on top plays lists for his glove work, and should provide the Braves with a veteran presence, and additional protection in the lineup for Freddie Freeman. Aybar, who had a very low .607 OPS for the Braves, will be spelled by the future of the franchise, former number one overall pick Dansby Swanson. In a short, 38 game audition with the Braves late in 2016, Swanson excelled, hitting .302/.361/.442 with eleven extra-base hits. Swanson, who has been compared by some to Derek Jeter, is the odds-on favorite to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award, and should be a table setter for the Braves for years to come.
On top of these additions, the Braves already have a solid veteran core in place. Freddie Freeman finished sixth in the MVP vote last season, with 34 HR, 91 RBI, .302 AVG, and a .968 OPS. Freeman’s 6.5 WAR was third in the National League, and he is coming off a second half where he made a few adjustments to his swing and mashed to the tune of .323/.433/.634. In the outfield, veterans Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis will add to the lineup; although Markakis has seen his power sapped in recent seasons, he did bounce back and increase his home run total from three in 2015 to 13 in 2016, while adding in 89 RBI and a solid .346 OBP. After coming over at the trade deadline from the Padres, Kemp appeared rejuvenated, slugging .519 with 12 HR and 39 RBI in 56 games. The Braves third outfielder, Ender Enciarte, is not only coming off a Gold Glove Award in center field but also might be the most underrated player in baseball, having averaged 4.2 WAR per season in his three years in the majors. Encirate’s speed and contact skills are his biggest assets, having averaged 19 steals and only sixty strikeouts per season, which along with a .291 AVG and .351 OBP in 2016 make him a certifiable leadoff hitter.
Is it true that the Braves have some major holes? Yes, of course, it is. Their bullpen is not particularly deep, their closer, Jim Johnson is not particularly dominant, and Adonis Garcia did not have a particularly strong first full season at third base in 2016, although he will likely be spelled by Sean Rodriguez once he returns from injury. Add that to the fact that their rotation has an injury-prone left-hander and two forty something-year-olds, while the Mets and Nationals, both in the NL East, have two of the top rotations in baseball, and there is plenty of reason for pessimism in Atlanta. However, the Braves have put themselves in a position where if a little bit breaks right, the first season in their new stadium could see them return to their winning ways of old, and maybe even play some meaningful baseball come September.