2018 Season Preview: Atlanta Braves

The Braves farm is extremely talented, but is the team ready for contention in 2018?

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(Image Credit: 11alive.com)
As winter draws to a close, temperatures rise—Ann Arbor aside—and Spring Training gets underway it can only mean one thing: Baseball is (almost) here! Welcome back to M-SABR’s Season Preview 30 Teams in 30 Days series, where our staff writers share their insights on what to expect from your favorite team and players in 2018 and get you ready for that very first first pitch.

by Zane Harding

2017 Record: 72-90 (3rd in NL East)

2017 Payroll: $115,455,675 (23rd)

(All player projections for 2018 from Steamer)

Projected 2018 Opening Day Lineup:

  1. CF Ender Inciarte .291 AVG/.338 OBP/.394 SLG, 2.4 fWAR
  2. 2B Ozzie Albies .272 AVG/.328 OBP/.416 SLG, 2.1 fWAR
  3. 1B Freddie Freeman .291 AVG/.394 OBP/.539 SLG, 4.2 fWAR
  4. LF Nick Markakis .269 AVG/.347 OBP/.387 SLG, 0.3 fWAR
  5. C Tyler Flowers .260 AVG/.334 OBP/.425 SLG, 1.4 fWAR
  6. SS Dansby Swanson .257 AVG/.334 OBP/.384 SLG, 1.3 fWAR
  7. RF Ronald Acuna .280 AVG/.329 OBP/.450 SLG, 0.9 fWAR
  8. 3B Johan Camargo .271 AVG/.311 OBP/.399 SLG, 0.9 fWAR

**C Kurt Suzuki will be the most notable contributor off the bench for the Braves. He is projected to bat .257/.315/.412 with a 0.6 fWAR, which is a very conservative estimate. After all, Suzuki produced a spectacular 2.7 fWAR in only 81 games last season. Additionally, while OF Ronald Acuna is not expected to start to begin the season, he is considered by many to be baseball’s best prospect and he will likely start in RF more often than not throughout 2018.

Projected 2018 Rotation:

  1. Julio Teheran, 179 IP/4.81 ERA/1.37 WHIP, 1.3 fWAR
  2. Brandon McCarthy, 156 IP/4.46 ERA/1.37 WHIP, 1.9 fWAR
  3. Sean Newcomb, 153 IP/4.21 ERA/1.46 WHIP, 1.8 fWAR
  4. Mike Foltynewicz, 150 IP/4.66 ERA/1.37 WHIP, 1.4 fWAR
  5. Max Fried, 91 IP/4.39 ERA/1.50 WHIP, 0.9 fWAR

** SP Luiz Gohara will miss the beginning of the season with a left ankle sprain. That said, Gohara, the team’s #6 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, is projected to be Atlanta’s best starter in 2018. Steamer projects Gohara to pitch 130 IP with a 3.83 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, and a 2.2 fWAR. Meanwhile, Steamer projections are not very kind to SP Scott Kazmir, as they expect only five starts from him with a 4.40 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, and a 0.3 fWAR (this may be because he missed all of 2017 with a hip injury, however). Steamer expects the team’s #8 prospect, SP Max Fried, to be the team’s sixth starter. This does conflict with Rotochamp, which projects 40 IP from Fried and 75 IP from Kazmir (and 84 IP from SP Lucas Sims, who is a non-factor in Steamer projections).

Offseason Recap:

The Braves offseason can be summarized by one transaction. In mid-December, Atlanta shipped out OF Matt Kemp and acquired 1B Adrian Gonzalez, LHP Scott Kazmir, RHP Brandon McCarthy, SS Charlie Culberson, and cash from the Los Angeles Dodgers in a massive salary dump. This dump brought the Dodgers below the luxury tax threshold and gave the Braves three large expiring contracts. The team immediately released Gonzalez following the trade and will more than likely only use McCarthy on a regular basis throughout 2018.

This deal was one of the most shocking of the offseason when it first occurred (it isn’t often you see that many names switching uniforms at once), but it makes a lot of sense for the Braves. By dealing Kemp, they opened a spot for top prospect OF Ronald Acuna. Meanwhile, Atlanta received two stop-gap pitchers for 2018 as their pitching prospects continue to develop (though, as mentioned, it appears that only McCarthy will see regular playing time) and set themselves up to spend big on the spectacular free agency class next year, as their already-low payroll will nearly cut in half after the 2018 season.

In short, the Braves are clearing out payroll and preparing for their top prospects to arrive in 2019 and 2020 and are patiently waiting in the meantime. Sure, the team acquired OF Preston Tucker from the Astros to shore up the bench. They also signed RP Peter Moylan to shore up the bullpen and acquired 3B Ryan Schimpf from the Rays for infield depth. These are minor deals, however. Expect more from the Braves next offseason.

Season Preview:

Acuna Matata! It’s an exciting year in Atlanta, as the Braves are one year closer to playoff contention. The most exciting thing, of course, has to be the impending arrival of OF Ronald Acuna. He is MLB Pipeline’s #6 overall prospect and is the #1 overall prospect for both ESPN’s Keith Law and Baseball Prospectus’s (though they both exclude Angels phenom OF/SP Shohei Ohtani). Despite Acuna’s arrival, however, Braves fans must be patient for a little while longer. The team has the best farm system in all of baseball, seven of its top 8 prospects being pitchers, and eight of the top 10 are expected to arrive in the majors by 2019. Patience is key when it comes to prospects, though, and it might take another year for the Braves to start winning.

Enough about the prospects for a second. Going into the 2018 season, the Braves best players are 1B Freddie Freeman, OF Ender Inciarte, and 2B Ozzie Albies in the lineup. Freeman and Inciarte are two veterans and team leaders that many fans are familiar with, but Albies, the team’s 2017 #2 prospect, is expected to make a large impact this season. Meanwhile, the team will hope for bounce-back seasons from ace SP Julio Teheran, who had a dismal 2017 campaign with a 1.1 fWAR in 188.1 IP and a 4.96 xFIP (ouch), and SS Dansby Swanson, who was replacement level over his 144 games in 2017 (a 66 wRC+ and a 0.1 fWAR are not what Braves fans expected from the former top prospect). The lineup is projected to hit well for average, but not so much for power, as the Steamer projections suggest, and the starting rotation is pretty rough overall, with no single pitcher projecting to exceed 2 fWAR. Meanwhile, 85% of baseball fans cannot name a single pitcher in the Atlanta bullpen (side note, that stat is completely fabricated but is likely accurate), as RP Arodys Vizcaino will continue to close and RPs Jose Ramirez (not the star infielder), Sam Freeman, and Peter Moylan will also contribute innings. All in all: Yikes.

The Braves are not ready to compete in 2018. They would need to see multiple bounce-back seasons and multiple prospect breakout campaigns to compete even for a wildcard, but hey, the farm is amazing and the team is going to have plenty of payroll space to spare big in 2019. Expect the Braves to perform about as well as they did in 2017 this season. I would not expect them to get 5.2 fWAR of production from their catchers, but Teheran is primed to bounce back, Acuna will have some impact, and playing the Marlins often will help. Therefore, I’m expecting a few wins more than last year. That said, I am expecting a staggering 15 win improvement in 2019.

Predicted Record: 76-86

Player to Watch: Ozzie Albies

At only 21-years-old, Ozzie Albies has already impressed in his time with the Braves. In only 57 games last season, Albies posted a 1.9 fWAR, had an impressive .354 OBP, provided positive defense, hit 6 HR, and swiped eight bases. If he did that for a full season, he’d be a member of the 20/20 club for the Braves, and he’s one of the less talked about pieces of this rebuild! It’ll be interesting to see what Albies does in 2018, especially if he keeps his OBP up (Steamer projects it to fall a decent amount, but we shall see).

Player to Watch: Ronald Acuna

At 20-years-old, Acuna is projected to contribute a modest 0.9 fWAR in his rookie campaign, but is that number low? It’s true that while Steamer projections are usually conservative, they’re usually the most accurate. While it’s true Acuna could break out have a spectacular rookie campaign a la Yankees OF Aaron Judge, he could be more like Red Sox OF Andrew Benintendi. Steamer projected a .777 OPS for Benintendi in 2017 and he finished with a .776 OPS. Acuna, meanwhile, is projected to post a .779 OPS in his rookie campaign while providing slightly worse defense. Benintendi posted a 2.2 fWAR in 2017 in 151 games, and Acuna is expected to see half of that. Factoring the games and the defense in, 0.9 fWAR is a very fair projection for Acuna’s rookie campaign. Tamper your expectations for this year.

Players to Watch: Tyler Flowers & Kurt Suzuki

The Braves catching platoon was quietly a force to be reckoned with in 2017, as the team’s two catchers, Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki, combined for 5.2 fWAR (nearly a full win more than C Buster Posey, the best catcher in the league who posted a 4.3 fWAR for the Giants). The projections are not nearly as friendly to these two in 2018, as Steamer projects the duo to combine for 2 fWAR. Both catchers exceeded this number on their own last year. Will these two regress back to their usual abilities, or will the most improbable dynamic duo in the majors do it again this year? Stay tuned.

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