The Atlanta Braves enter the 2016 season with low expectations but with an air of confidence of a bright future. Two years into a roster teardown have left the franchise with a rebuilt minor league system that ranks among the best in baseball. While 2017 might include a turning the corner type of moment for the Braves, the 2016 season may prove difficult for a team that still has a lot of holes and is looking to bridge the gap until some of its top prospects arrive.
It was another busy offseason for the Atlanta Braves who continued to turn quality players into future assets. The biggest move on the offseason came in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks that sent Shelby Miller west in exchange for outfielder Ender Inciarte and top prospects Dansby Swanson and Aaron Blair. It was a move that left many baseball pundits scratching their heads and was lauded as a heist for the Braves. Inciarte immediately improves Atlanta's center field position while Swanson and Blair could be on the fast track to the major leagues.
The other big trade of the offseason brought a bit more mixed reaction. Atlanta traded defensive stalwart Andrelton Simmons to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for shortstop Erick Aybar and prospects Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis. Newcomb struggled during his stint with the big club in spring training but could be back soon if he solves the control issues that have plagued him. Aybar will serve as a stop gap until either Swanson or Ozzie Albies is ready to take over. Still it was painful for the fanbase to see Simmons who was a generational talent defensively leave.
Other departures include catcher Christian Bethancourt who finally wore out his welcome in Atlanta and Mike Minor who was non-tendered and later signed with the Kansas City Royals.
The Braves brought back catcher A.J. Pierzynski on a one-year deal and brought in Tyler Flowers to help solidify the position. Gordon Beckham and Kelly Johnson were signed for infield depth while pitcher Bud Norris hopes to be Roger McDowell's latest reclamation project.
The Braves were dead last in runs scored and home runs by a wide margin in 2015 so there is no place to go but up entering this season. The health of Freddie Freeman will be a huge factor for the Braves offense. Freeman appeared in just 118 games in 2015 due to a wrist injury and less than 100 percent for much of the second half. If Freeman returns to form, then the Braves shouldn't have any problems improving on last year's numbers.
Atlanta hopes that the additions of Inciarte and Aybar give them a boost at the top of the order. Nick Markakis is a year removed from neck surgery and spent the offseason regaining his strength. Adonis Garcia was a pleasant surprise at the plate in 2015 and will have the opportunity to show that his offense can outweigh some of his defensive shortcomings. Hector Olivera moves from third to left field and hopes a full spring combined with some refinements to his swing lead to immediate success.
Aybar is serviceable defensively at shortstop but the loss of Simmons will be great. The addition of Inciarte in center will certainly help offset that somewhat. Olivera is still a work in progress in left but has improved as the spring has progressed. He still won't be confused as a Gold Glove candidate. Garcia had all sorts of issues at third and will need to improve if he hopes to stay in the lineup on a regular basis.
|Projected Starting Lineup (2015 Stats)||PA||HR||RBI||SB||AVG||OBP||SLG||WAR|
|CF Ender Inciarte (L)||561||6||45||21||.303||.338||.408||3.3|
|SS Erick Aybar (S)||638||3||44||15||.270||.301||.338||1.0|
|1B Freddie Freeman (L)||481||18||66||3||.276||.370||.471||3.4|
|RF Nick Markakis (L)||686||3||53||2||.296||.370||.376||1.6|
|LF Hector Olivera (R)||87||2||11||0||.253||.310||.405||-0.1|
|3B Adonis Garcia (R)||198||10||26||0||.277||.293||.497||0.9|
|C A.J. Pierzynski (L)||436||9||49||0||.300||.339||.430||2.1|
|2B Jace Peterson (L)||597||6||52||12||.239||.314||.335||1.1|
|C Tyler Flowers (R)||361||9||39||0||.239||.295||.356||0.4|
|2B Gordon Beckham (R)||237||6||20||0||.209||.275||.332||0.3|
|3B Kelly Johnson (L)||335||14||47||2||.265||.314||.435||0.3|
|OF Michael Bourn (L)||482||0||30||17||.238||.310||.282||0.0|
|RF Jeff Francoeur (R)||343||13||45||0||.258||.286||.433||-0.7|
The Braves still have a few roster decisions to be made so the bench could look a bit different from what I projected above. Jeff Francoeur is competing with Emilio Bonifacio and Nick Swisher for the team's final roster spot. Atlanta has been looking to move Swisher but has been thus far unable to find a taker. Bonifacio brings more versatility to the table but it seems as though the job might just be Francoeur's to lose at this point.
One of the biggest question marks involving the Braves in 2016 is the starting rotation. Atlanta needs Julio Teheran to carry over his strong second half to be the ace of the staff. Teheran was lights out at home going 8-2 with a 2.89 ERA. He was just 3-6 on the road with an ERA that ballooned to 5.40. A lot of Teheran's inconsistencies last season can be traced back to his struggles against left-handed pitching. Lefties hit .300 against Teheran last season with 18 home runs. Atlanta needs him to be the stabilizer on a staff with plenty of question marks behind him.
Bud Norris is looking to bounce back from a 2015 season that was essentially a washout. He has had mixed results so far this spring but has shown glimpses of returning to form. Matt Wisler finished 2015 strong but will be entering his first full season in the majors. Like Teheran, lefties gave Wisler trouble and he spent the offseason working on a changeup to try and keep them off balance.
|Projected Starting Rotation (2015 Stats)||W||L||ERA||FIP||IP||K/9||BB/9||WAR|
|RHP Julio Teheran||11||8||4.04||4.40||200.2||7.67||3.27||1.1|
|RHP Bud Norris||3||11||6.72||5.04||83.0||7.70||3.36||0.0|
|RHP Matt Wisler||8||8||4.71||4.93||109.0||5.94||3.30||0.1|
|RHP Jhoulys Chacin||2||1||3.38||4.63||26.2||7.09||3.38||0.1|
|RHP Mike Foltynewicz||4||6||5.71||5.05||86.2||8.00||3.01||-0.1|
The final two spots of Atlanta's rotation are anyone's guess at this point. Jhoulys Chacin has had an up and down spring but it still looks like that he will be able to hold onto a rotation spot. If he can't, then Williams Perez is likely to get the nod.
Atlanta won't need a fifth starter until April 12. Mike Foltynewicz is still working his way back from the blood clot that ended his 2015 season prematurely. He is a bit behind the other pitchers in camp but it appears that he will get the call as the fifth starter barring a setback.
Bullpen woes plagued the Braves for much of the 2015 season. They came to camp with a lot of added depth in hopes of better results this time around. Jason Grilli figures to get the first shot as the team's closer after working his way back from a ruptured Achilles tendon. Arodys Vizcaino gives Fredi Gonzalez some insurance and another option to close games if Grilli falters. Jim Johnson was a solid addition to the Braves' bullpen in 2015 before a midseason trade to the Dodgers.
|Projected Bullpen (2015 Stats)||G||SV||ERA||FIP||IP||K/9||BB/9||WAR|
|RHP Jason Grilli||36||24||2.94||2.12||33.2||12.03||2.67||1.2|
|RHP Arodys Vizcaino||36||9||1.60||2.48||33.2||9.89||3.48||0.8|
|RHP Jim Johnson||72||10||4.46||3.73||66.2||6.75||2.70||0.3|
|LHP Eric O'Flaherty||41||0||8.10||4.60||30.0||6.30||5.40||-0.1|
|RHP Jose Ramirez||8||0||12.91||6.92||7.2||5.87||11.74||-0.1|
|RHP Daniel Winkler||2||0||10.80||18.13||1.2||10.80||5.40||-0.1|
|RHP Carlos Torres||59||0||4.68||3.53||57.2||7.49||2.81||0.4|
The back half of the pen is still a work in progress. Atlanta acquired left-hander Eric O'Flaherty in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday. Jose Ramirez has pitched well this spring and is out of options. Daniel Winkler, Carlos Torres, Alex Torres and Alexi Ogando appear to still be in competition for the final two spots.
Prospects to Know
The 2016 season at the major league level may be a difficult one for the Braves but there will be tons of interest in how many of their top prospects progressing. While Swanson and Albies might be a season away from their debut, guys like Mallex Smith, John Gant and Aaron Blair could find themselves in an Atlanta uniform this season.
Smith impressed early in camp and is a good bet to be in the Braves' outfield at some point this season. He hit .346 this spring with a home run and three triples. Finding a place in what is currently a crowded outfield situation might be the biggest challenge for Smith this season. Blair had an up and down spring but could be an injury away from getting the call. Gant was one of the spring's biggest surprises and remains in the competition for the team's fifth starter spot.
2016 Season Outlook
The Braves enter the 2016 season with low expectations but there are a number of interesting storylines to follow with the team. This will be the team's final season at Turner Field before moving north to Cobb County and Sun Trust Park. The Braves had an unprecedented run of success while playing at the Ted, however, it falls into the out with the old and in with the new feeling of the last couple of seasons.
The biggest storyline to watch in 2016 might be what will this team look like by the end of the year. John Coppolella has shown that he isn't afraid to pull the trigger on trades and there are a number of veteran players that could be on the move before the end of the season. Guys like Michael Bourn, Erick Aybar and Jason Grilli come to mind but even players the stature of Julio Teheran and Freddie Freeman have heard their names come up in rumors.
When a team is rebuilding like the Braves, there is seldom a player that is truly untouchable. The team has maintained that they have no interest in dealing Freeman but it would not be surprising for teams to come calling around the trade deadline.
Atlanta is also positioned well for the 2016 MLB Draft. They hold the No. 3 pick overall and three of the first 50 selections. The Braves are also expected to be major players on the international free agent market in July and may or may not already have a handshake agreement with Kevin Maitan.
The Braves won't be contenders in 2016 but this could be one of the last years before the team finally starts to turn the corner again. The progression of its top prospects in the minors will be key and many could arrive at some point this season and that will certainly be something worth watching this summer.