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Starting Nine: Nine thoughts for nine positions at Braves camp

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Why forecasts of a Mike Soroka sophomore slump are wrong, Freddie Freeman’s incredibly low MVP odds and the next step in Ronald Acuña Jr.’s evolution

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves
Per Statcast, just five pitchers had a lower percentage of plate appearances resulting in a batter barreling a ball than Mike Soroka at 3.7.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Byrd, former All-Star pitcher and my colleague at FOX Sports South, likes to tell a story about one of his first spring trainings with the Braves. On report day, Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox sat the pitchers down and broke the news — although it wasn’t much in the way of “news” — that there was just one job up for grabs.

With a rotation that was, of course, anchored by names destined for Cooperstown in Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, and had spots in those days held down by Denny Neagle and Kevin Millwood, there wasn’t much opportunity. Those bullpens were loaded too, behind the likes of Mark Wohlers, Kerry Lightenberg, Dennis Martinez, John Rocker and on and on.

It’s unlikely that Brian Snitker will be giving that dire of a message to his two-time defending National League East champions when he addresses the team in North Port, Fla., but these Braves aren’t littered with openings either ... though Cole Hamels missing three weeks does make for a more compelling rotation race (taking Sean Newcomb and Flex Hernandez there).

For this week’s Starting Nine, here are nine thoughts on nine positions as the Braves have their first full workout of the spring.

1. Pitcher: The projections aren’t feeling Mike Soroka. They’re wrong.

An All-Star and Rookie of the Year runner-up with a 2.68 ERA that was third highest in the NL and the circuit’s lowest home run rate (0.72 per nine), Mike Soroka’s breakout isn’t getting him much love from Steamer. FanGraphs’ projection system has Maple Maddux regressing to the tune of a 4.12 ERA and 1.16 HR/9, along with a 4.08 FIP that’s 0.63 higher than 2019. Basically, they’re banking on Soroka’s luck changing based on a 20.3 strikeout rate that was 43rd among all starters, and the stuff of a 2.0 fWAR arm like the Diamondbacks’ Merrill Kelly. That 51.2 ground ball rate and .280 BABIP could regress based on the amount of balls batters put in play, but per Statcast there were just five pitchers who had a lower percentage of plate appearances resulting in a batter barreling a ball than Soroka at 3.7 (Marcus Stroman, Wade Miley, Noah Syndergaard, Hyun-Jun Ryu and Zack Wheeler). Soroka may have been lucky in 2019, but that hitters struggle so mightily to get quality contact makes a sophomore slump seem unlikely.

2. Catcher: The days of the platoon may be numbered

Since 2017, the Braves are a collective second in catcher fWAR (12.3), trailing only the Dodgers, and are joined in the top five by the Mariners, Marlins and Yankees. With all due respect to Brian McCann in his final season, Atlanta hasn’t succeeded because of elite talent at the position, it’s done it with combinations that, frankly, have just worked. From Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki to Flowers and McCann, now the Braves are hoping to keep it going with the incumbent Flowers and free-agent signee Travis d’Arnaud. Flowers, though, has been on a decline since his peaks of 4.5 fWAR and 118 wRC+ in ‘17 (he hit 12 percent below league average in ‘19 to go with 2.1 fWAR), while d’Arnaud is coming off a torrid run with the Rays. After his arrival June 1, only Mitch Garver (.960) and J.T. Realmuto (.875) had a higher OPS than d’Arnaud’s .840. With the backend of the lineup needing some additional stability, the way d’Arnaud and Flowers ended 2019 could provide an interesting test into how much the Braves need to be concerned with splitting duties behind the plate.

3. First Base: Jump on these Freddie Freeman MVP odds. Immediately.

To be clear, the Starting Nine neither condones nor condemns betting, but the odds on Freddie Freeman winning NL MVP make you rethink what to do with that mortgage/rent check. The first baseman is at +2500 (teammate Ronald Acuña Jr., meanwhile, is second to only new Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts at +600), 13th in the league and equal to Eugenio Suarez, Kris Bryant, Manny Machado and Paul Goldschmidt. Given Freeman’s insistence that this was the first offseason in nine years that he’d been pain-free, and that he’s an extension candidate with his current deal set to expire after the 2021 season, the four-time All-Star is healthy and motivated. That’s a combination that should help Freeman eclipse last year’s 4.0 fWAR, the lowest of any since 2013 in which he played more than 118 games.

4. Second Base: Ozzie Albies trending toward some all-time kind of company

At 23, Ozzie Albies has solidified himself as one of the best switch-hitters in the game, topping them all with 189 hits and 43 doubles last season and showed his durability by becoming just one of nine players in all to crack the 700-plate appearance threshold. With a .806 OPS through his age 22-season, Albies is trending toward joining some illustrious company when it comes to switch hitters. If he comes close to 2019’s .852 OPS, he’ll trail only HOFers Mickey Mantle (.928) and Eddie Murray (.828) in that department through age 23 seasons. He’s already, by the way, ahead of a number of switch-hitters in Cooperstown at this point in their career, with an OPS better than the likes of Tim Raines, Ted Simmons and Roberto Alomar.

5. Third Base: Give Johan Camargo the edge in this race

Every year, there’s a player — and sometimes more than one — that deem they’ve shown up to camp in the best shape of their life. The odds are clearly on Johan Camargo being the Braves’ standard bearer on the Best Shape of Their Life team in 2020, given a drop-off in conditioning last season and the motivation of a position battle with Austin Riley at the hot corner. Two years ago, we saw Camargo deliver on an everyday basis after Jose Bautista was given his walking papers and the switch-hitting, Panamanian responded with the best Defensive Runs Above Average in the NL (8.2) and third best in the game behind Matt Chapman and Kyle Seager. Riley has the better power profile, but unless he quickly proves he’s the version of himself that had 116 wRC+ in the first half behind 16 bombs, it would be unsurprising to see Riley open the season at Triple-A to prove his offseason focus on limiting the free-swinging tendencies that derails his second half (22 wRC+ and two HRs) has a lasting effect.

6. Shortstop: The NLDS was the perfect springboard for Dansby Swanson

So this space has, at times, teetered on being a newsletter for the Dansby Swanson fan club (see his topping the Feast or Famine article from Thanksgiving week or the last entry propping him up as an extension candidate), seeing the potential of Peak Swanson playing itself out across an entire season. But the best source of belief of a breakout year may lie in the shortstop’s performance in the NLDS vs. the Cardinals. He looked like a former No. 1 pick vs. the Cardinals, slashing .389/.421/.556 with seven hits as he, Acuña and Albies combined for 20 of the team’s 38 hits in the series. It was a key performance, given the frustration of his missing a month with a heel injury that didn’t include any structural damage. Swanson has yet to hit above league average in any of his three full major-league seasons (92 wRC+ last season), but if he’s able to stay on the field for north of 150 games for the first time, he’d seem a lock to surpass his 1.8 fWAR estimates.

7. Left Field: No, there’s no pressure at all, Marcell Ozuna

There’s every reason to think Marcell Ozuna is the right-handed bat the lineup needs post-Josh Donaldson. His average exit velocity of 91.8 mph was 18th and his 179 hard-hit balls (95 mph-plus) had him in the class of Christian Yelich and new teammate Albies. Basically, he was one of the unluckiest batters in the game, with a .259 BABIP that was the 11th lowest among qualified hitters. All that being said, Ozuna now has to live up to the 37 homers, 94 RBI, .377 wOBA, 132 wRC+ and 4.9 fWAR that Donaldson brought behind Freeman last season, a level of play he’s been at once in 2017 (5.0 fWAR behind 37 homers and a .388 wOBA). His betting on himself on a one-year deal instead of taking a multi-year contract (like the one the Reds offered) speaks to Ozuna’s confidence in his touching or surpassing that career-best performance, and there may not be a more important player to Atlanta trying to settling in behind the Dodgers as the NL’s second-best offense.

8. Center Field: The defensive lapses have to be a thing of the past for Ronald Acuña Jr.

The offense is spectacular (or more appropriately, Pheñomenal) and there’s little debate that Acuña at 22 is one of the most dynamic and exciting players in the game, with Albies saying his good friend is talking an unprecedented 50-50 season. But with the expectation that he again sees considerable time in center field — he manned the position for 831 innings over 95 games — Acuña’s defense and his progress with the glove becomes a point of interest. Now, he made some ridiculous plays in CF last season — including this run-saving catch against the Mets on Aug. 17 — but then there was the missed robbery of Scott Kingery (which turned into an inside-the-park home run) and this misjudged ball off the bat of Cody Bellinger that could have been another robbery. Acuña’s 0.7 dWAR was 19th among players who spent at least 10 percent of their time in center and had just one defensive run saved (25th). Brian Snitker would gladly take a tradeoff of Acuña’s bat for the occasional miscue with the glove, but given Ender Inciarte’s erratic bat, the optimum version of this lineup will frequently include needing Acuña in center (at least until Cristian Pache arrives), and he’ll need to be a steadier presence.

9. Right Field: Who logs the most inning in this spot by season’s end?

When Inciarte is in the lineup, we’ll see Acuña playing right and, and when it’s Acuña in center, right field is expected to be a platoon of Adam Duvall and Nick Markakis. Of course, the wildcard here is the arrival of one, of both of, arguably the two best outfielders outside anyone’s MLB roster in Pache and Drew Waters, though the depth of the Braves outfield options — barring injury — will keep those heralded prospects at arm’s length. Inciarte, he of the three Gold Gloves, pushing Acuña to right likely gives this team the best defensive look, and the key there is Inciarte avoiding one of his typically down first halves. Over his career, he’s posted a 75 wRC+ in the first half and is 15 percent above league average after the All-Star break. Given the amount of right-handed pitching the Braves see in the NL East, with just two left-handers among the currently projected starters from the other four divisional teams, here’s forecasting that it’s Markakis, the most consistent bat among the options vs. southpaws, that ends up with the most innings in right.