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Starting Nine: Expectations for rotation’s X-factor; another reason to be in awe of value of Ozzie Albies’ deal

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Plus, the concern with Freddie Freeman’s elbow and a young catcher makes waves at camp

MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at Atlanta Braves
After his Aug. 6 return to the rotation last season, Mike Foltynewicz’s 2.65 ERA ranked 11th in MLB and he was 14th wi a .269 wOBA against. 
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Back in 2013, it was Evan Gattis who became the talk of spring training with his prolific power and made-for-the-big-screen back story. Bryce Ball may not have been a janitor, worked as a ski-lift operator or hitchhiked across the Western United States, but the 6-foot-6, 235-pounder, who was taken in the 24th round of the 2019 draft is making waves with similar feats of strength at the plate.

After putting on shows in batting practice, Ball smashed a moonshot off a knee-high fastball that easily cleared the left-field wall. Positionally-blocked at first base by Freddie Freeman, he’s not likely to reach Atlanta any time soon. But the power is real and its spectacular, and Ball provided one of the best moments as we finish off the first week of Grapefruit League games. And as we know, it’s the moments and not the game that matter in spring training.

With that, it’s time for nine more thoughts for nine positions at spring training. This is the Starting Nine.

1. Are there new baseline expectations for the X-factor in Braves rotation?

The debate over whether Mike Foltynewicz has matured is over — he has, and in conversations with him, being a father to Jett and Lola has played a big part in that — and the early setbacks of 2019 seemed more his trying to rush back from injury to live up to his All-Star 2018. But does his going from a 2.85 ERA and 3.37 FIP in ‘18 to a 4.54 ERA and 4.97 FIP in ‘19 and that all-time kind of disappointing first inning against the Cardinals in Game 5 of the NLDS, change the baseline expectations for the right-hander? When Foltynewicz was right last season, from his Aug. 6 return to the big-league roster through the end of the season, he posted a 2.65 ERA (11th in MLB over that span) and was 14th with a .269 wOBA against, and his slider — that key to his breakout year of ‘18 — resulted in positive runs above average in six of his 10 starts in that window. Even with that late surge, Foltynewicz ended with minus-1.9 wSL compared to a stunning 22.9 the previous season that made it the fourth-best slider in the game. The reality of Foltynewicz may be somewhere in the middle of the erratic 2019 that landed him back in Triple-A and the dominance of ‘18, when was a 3.8 fWAR starter, and there’s the possibility that we have already seen the height of his game. But, if he can deliver a sub-4.00 ERA, FIP under 4.50 and surpass the low 2.0 fWAR projections, Foltynewicz stands to be the X-factor that can stabilize a rotation that is high on elite young talent — represented by Mike Soroka and Max Fried — and has a question lingering in the durability of 36-year-old Cole Hamels.

2. Shea Langeliers’ ridiculous start to camp

Shea Langeliers’ pop time has been among the biggest talking points in Braves camp, and for good reason. The ninth overall pick last season out of Baylor, the catcher was timed at 1.87 on his throw to second base in the eighth inning Saturday vs. the Orioles, a number that was beyond elite. Yes, it was one throw, but Langeliers’ time was better than the average of the PhilliesJ.T. Realmuto, who led the majors with an average of 1.88 last season, and better than the average of any catcher since Statcast began tracking pop time in 2015. The Braves current combination of Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers averaged 1.99 and 2.12, respectively, last season and in the last five years, Atlanta has had just one catcher with a pop time below 2.00 on a minimum of 20 attempts, Anthony Recker at 1.97 in 2016. And while we’re on the subject of Langeliers, he also had the team’s first home run of the spring, so if you had him in your pool, congrats.

3. Concern level with Freddie Freeman low ... for now

A firestorm was set off when Freddie Freeman was scratched from the lineup Tuesday as a precaution with inflammation in his surgically repaired right elbow. With the increase in workload now four months removed from the procedure, general manager Alex Anthopoulos relayed that doctors said it was to be expected and they hope to have the four-time All-Star back in the lineup next week. The key here is that it was precautionary, and Anthopoulos said Freeman doesn’t want any rest, no surprise considering the first baseman told The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz about the lengths he had to go to deal with the pain last season, popping multiple painkillers before every game for six weeks. Nonetheless, that Freeman is already having a setback just days after months of saying he was finally pain-free makes you wonder how much this will continue to be an issue throughout camp and whether it will carry into the season. No one is saying the sky is falling just yet, but it’s worth remembering the depth move of adding Yonder Alonso and positional versatility with the likes of Charlie Culberson, Nick Markakis and Austin Riley.

4. Still in awe of bargain of Ozzie Albies’ contract

Ten months after Ozzie Albies signed an extension — which can max out at $45 million over nine years with two club options — that’s only surpassed by teammate Ronald Acuña Jr. in terms of the steal it represents, let’s continue to build up how mind-numbing this value is for the budding superstar. Albies is projected via FanGraphs as one of 34 position players at 4.0 fWAR or higher, and among those players, just two: The A’s Matt Chapman and NationalsJuan Soto, both of whom are in their pre-arbitration years, are making less Albies’ $1 million salary for 2020. With $/WAR at $8.8 million this season (per this contract estimator tool) that puts the 23-year-old’s value at $35.3 million for the upcoming year. By comparison, two second basemen are ranked above Albies to star the year, with the AstrosJose Altuve forecasted at 4.3 fWAR (and making $26 million) and the DiamondbacksKetel Marte at 4.1 fWAR (and making three million more than Albies). These exercises will be par for the course if Albies continues this level of production, and they’re eye-opening every time.

5. Riley says he can hit the slider. Can he?

Austin Riley has been clear that, after going from a 116 wRC+ and 16 first-half home runs to 22 wRC+ and two homers after the break, his offseason focus was on retooling his swing in his bid to win the third base job. While discussing the adjustments — which included keying in on a more balanced approach — with Mark Bowman, the 22-year-old Riley touched on his trouble against the slider, saying “I can hit them when they’re in the zone. I proved that. I hit a couple of those balls out. It’s recognizing which are strikes and balls and being able to lay off those outside the zone, and then to be able to hit the fastball whenever I get it.” Riley is right. He hit four homers and had two doubles against the pitch, but he also had 28 strikeouts, and the accompanying zone profile from Brooks Baseball shows the real issue: the 43.1 percent whiff rate against the pitch. The result was only eight players saw a higher percentage of sliders than Riley’s 26.5. His progress on recognizing and adjusting to breaking pitches would seem to be the biggest issue in position race between Riley and Camargo and may determine whether he opens the season in the minors. For more on Riley vs. the slider, here’s a worthwhile deep dive from Ivan the Great.

6. A tribute to the God of Bat Flips

Thanking God for removing him from the Mets — a thought that he’s likely not the first to have — is the clear No. 1 on the list of Adeiny Hechavarría’s exploits from his time in a Braves uniform in 2019. The No. 2 spot? That’s where those bat flips after bat flips come in, and @ATLBravesBoy12 came through, making them the stuff of an Indiana Jones-esque trek across the country that took down Bryce Harper, aided Braves icon Tiger Woods and was part of the Astros trash can-beating, sign-stealing scandal. Who knows how much time Hechavarría will see at shortstop this season if Dansby Swanson is healthy, but enjoy this for what it is: a work of art.

7. Nick Markakis and the chase for history

Nick Markakis has yet to make his spring debut, with the biggest noise he’s made at camp — and it was resounding — when he said of the Astros “every single guy over there deserves a beating.” It’s unclear how much playing time the 36-year-old will get in a crowded outfield, and if Snitker is playing matchups, it could be difficult for him to see the field much if he’s not hitting lefties, posting a 71 wRC+ last season. But don’t be misled, this isn’t a Markakis bash session. Instead, let’s focus on the place in baseball history the corner outfielder could find himself. He stands on 499 career doubles and 2,355 hits and when he reaches 500 two-baggers this season, he’ll be the 64th player to do so. If he can crack 2,500 hits, he’d be the 54th player on that list, which includes just five Hall of Fame-eligible players who aren’t in Cooperstown and only three, Garret Anderson, Johnny Damon and Todd Helton, who haven’t been liked to performance-enhancing drugs. Debate for yourself whether Markakis will ever reach Cooperstown, but the man is trending toward joining some all-time kind of names.

8. Andruw Jones, John Schuerholz and a tale of spring training past

Andruw Jones has been in camp working with the Braves’ young outfielders, and his presence brings back a memory of when he made his first appearance as a guest instructor in 2016. That day he and former general manager, team president and current vice chairman, emeritus John Schuerholz were named as that year’s inductees into the franchise’s Hall of Fame (back when it was still a summer ceremony) and during his time with the collected media, Schuerholz said of the honor “To join the quality of people who are already in the Braves Hall of Fame, I’m really honored. I’ve worked with many of them. I had something to do with getting some of them here, one of them this young man (Jones), who, when he was a 16-year-old in Curacao, signed with the Atlanta Braves.” After he had spoke, Jones tried to correct the HOF architect, saying he’d actually signed at 15 (which is, of course, illegal per MLB’s rules on international signings). Schuerholz disagreed and the two went back and forth, until Jones finally relented (or was just done pushing).

9. Vegas expects plenty of home run trots from Acuña

Just once has a Brave led the majors in home runs, back in 2005 when the aforementioned Andruw Jones piled up a franchise-record 51, and Dale Murphy (1984 and ‘85) and Hank Aaron (1966 and ‘67) are the club’s only other teams to lead the NL in that category. The odds are on Ronald Acuña Jr. making a run at adding his name to hat list. Bovada installed The Pheñom, whom ZiPS projects at 39 homers at +1600, eighth overall and third in the circuit behind Pete Alonso (+1000) and Cody Bellinger (+1400). For what it’s worth, in the last nine years seven eventual HR kings entered the year with odds of +1800 or longer and since 2009 the leader averaged 48.6.