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Atlanta Braves Spring Training Preview: Infielders

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Three quarters of Atlanta’s infield is set but a question mark remains at third base.

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The Atlanta Braves will head to Spring Training in 2020 with an infield group that is largely set with the exception of one big question mark at third base. Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson will once again make up three quarters of the team’s infield but Atlanta is searching for a replacement at third base for Josh Donaldson who left to join the Minnesota Twins this offseason. It appears that internal candidates Johan Camargo and Austin Riley will get the first crack but the third base situation could be a storyline that continues into the regular season.

The Starters

Freddie Freeman (2019: 158 G, 692 PA, 38 HR, 12.6 BB%, 18.4 K%, .295/.389/.549, 138 wRC+, 4.0 fWAR)

Some of the best news that the Braves received this offseason is that Freddie Freeman is pain free after elbow surgery. Freeman told reporters at the Chop Fest in January that doctors found the elbow to be in worse shape than was originally thought. He has already resumed baseball activities and should be ready for the start of Spring Training.

While he didn’t want to admit it, the elbow injury hampered Freeman down the stretch and sapped his power, as he hit just .264/.365/.389 with just two home runs over the final 22 games. That sucked a bit of the life out of what was a very good season for Freeman overall.

Another thing to keep an eye on with Freeman is that he is a candidate for an extension, as his current deal will expire following the 2021 season. Atlanta may very well opt to wait until after the 2020 season to discuss an extension, but it is highly unlikely that they would allow Freeman to get close to free agency. Something similar to the five-year, $130 million deal given to Paul Goldschmidt by the Cardinals has been speculated as a good blueprint for what an extension for Freeman might look like.

Divisional Series - Atlanta Braves v St Louis Cardinals - Game Four Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Ozzie Albies (2019: 160 G, 702 PA, 24 HR, 7.7 BB%, 16.0 K%, .295/.352/.500, 117 wRC+, 4.6 fWAR)

Ozzie Albies entered the 2019 season as a question mark after a second-half swoon to close out 2018. He quieted those concerns putting together a 4.6 fWAR season which was third on the team, behind only Ronald Acuña Jr. and Josh Donaldson. Once again Albies feasted on left-handed pitching to the tune of a 180 wRC+ batting right-handed. He hit .267/.333/.444 with 13 of his 24 home runs against right-handed pitchers.

At this point, Albies has positioned himself as one of the best second basemen in the National League. He is signed to a long term team-friendly deal and figures to be a key piece of the Braves for a long time to come.

Dansby Swanson (2019: 127 G, 545 PA, 17 HR, 9.4 BB%, 22.8 K%, .251/.325/.422, 92 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR)

Dansby Swanson looked like he was on his way to a breakout season in 2019 before a second-half heel injury short circuited a good start. Swanson put together an All-Star level first half hitting .270/.330/.493 with a career-best 17 home runs over his first 87 games. He went on the injured list on July 23 and wouldn’t return until August 26. He struggled in his return to the lineup hitting just .194/.307/.245 with 36 strikeouts over the final 27 games. His last home run came on July 4 in a two-homer game against the Phillies. Swanson did rebound somewhat in Atlanta’s Division Series loss to the Cardinals going 7-for-18 with three doubles in the five games.

Fair or not, there are still a few question marks lingering in Swanson’s game. We saw him make some significant adjustments during the first half of 2019, improving his plate coverage while driving the ball to the opposite field. The heel injury, which was much worse than was let on, threw off his timing but he did finish the season on a high note with a good showing in the postseason. His fielding metrics were all over the place as he took a step back in both Defensive Runs Saved and UZR but was still above average in Statcast’s new Outs Above Average metric for infielders. We are four seasons into Swanson’s career and the Braves are still waiting on him to put it all together. There was a lot to like about his first half performance but Atlanta still needs to see him to carry it over for a full season. Not having terrible luck on balls in play, like he did in 2019, should only help matters.

Third Base

Johan Camargo (2019: 98 G, 248 PA, 7 HR, 6.0 BB%, 17.3 K%, .233/.279/.384, 67 wRC+, -0.5 fWAR)

The biggest question mark on the infield is at third base, as the Braves will try to plug the hole left by Josh Donaldson’s departure with a pair of internal candidates in Johan Camargo and Austin Riley. Camargo enjoyed a breakout season in 2018 but was relegated to a utility role after the acquisition of Donaldson. He saw action in a variety of positions but didn’t perform well enough to demand very many opportunities. Camargo was the worst position player on the Braves in 2019 in terms of fWAR finishing at -0.5. Some suggested that the utility role had a negative impact on Camargo, but he wilted when given the opportunity to play every day after the injury to Swanson, going 10-for-61 at the plate between July 24 to August 15. That led the Braves to sign Adeiny Hechavarria and demote Camargo to Gwinnett. He later returned but suffered a fractured shin after fouling a ball off his leg, ending his season.

The early buzz on Camargo is that he spent the offseason getting his body into better shape. I don’t remember that being a storyline during the 2019 season, but a lot of things were clearly different from his previous iteration. Some regression from his breakout season should have been expected, especially given how much he outperformed his peripherals in 2018, but no one was really expecting him to crater the way he did. Whether or not Camargo can reestablish himself as the team’s third baseman remains to be seen.

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Austin Riley (2019: 80 G, 297 PA, 18 HR, 5.4 BB%, 36.4 K%, .226/.279/.471, 86 wRC+, 0.2 fWAR)

Camargo’s competition will come from Austin Riley, who burst onto the season after his debut in 2019 but fizzled so badly down the stretch that he comes to camp with a number of question marks. Riley hit .291/.345/.619 with 12 home runs over his first 34 games while playing left field. He hit just .164/.217/.329 with six homers and 63 strikeouts in just 140 at-bats over his final 46 games. He missed time due to a knee injury suffered in a weightlifting mishap but escaped serious damage. Still, that robbed him of valuable time and never was able to right the ship.

Riley’s performance at Spring Training will be one of the big storylines to follow. He has reportedly focused on getting his swing back on track this offseason. If his struggles persist or the Braves don’t like what they are seeing, then it would probably be best to have him open the season at Gwinnett, where he could play third base on an everyday basis and log consistent plate appearances. Atlanta spoke highly of Riley last offseason as they were unwilling to discuss him in potential trades. He didn’t disappoint with his arrival, but now must show that he can make the necessary adjustments at the highest level. That is something that he has shown during his time advancing through the minors.

Atlanta is one of the teams that looks like a perfect fit for third basemen Kris Bryant or Nolan Arenado, although that seems to be on the backburner at this point. Riley is going to get a chance at some point in 2020 to show that he is the answer. If he isn’t, then Atlanta may be looking to make a significant upgrade at the trade deadline.

Bench

Adeiny Hechavarria (2019: 84 G, 221 PA, 9 HR, 6.3 BB%, 21.7 K%, .241/.299/.443, 93 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR)

The Braves brought back Adeiny Hechavarria on a one-year deal to give them insurance at shortstop behind Swanson. Hechavarria acclimated himself well in Atlanta hitting .328/.400/.639 with four home runs in 24 games in a Braves uniform. While it probably isn’t smart to expect that kind of offensive production given his career track record, he does give the team a veteran middle infield option, and there are fewer concerns with him filling in at shortstop defensively than with the other players on the roster. Also, those bat flips are irreplaceable.

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Charlie Culberson (2019: 108 G, 144 PA, 5 HR, 4.2 BB%, 30.6 K%, .259/.294/.437, 85 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR)

Charlie Culberson’s 2019 season came to a frightening end as he was struck in the face by a pitch on a bunt attempt against the Nationals. Culberson suffered multiple facial fractures and would miss the division series against the Cardinals. The Braves then chose to non-tender him rather than pay the few millions he was likely due in arbitration. Culberson reportedly fielded major league offers from other clubs but chose to return to Atlanta on a minor-league deal and will try to earn a spot on the big league roster during Spring Training.

Culberson has been one of the better stories for the Braves over the last two seasons. He was a spare part in the trade that sent Matt Kemp to the Dodgers in a salary dump. However, he put together a great season at the plate in 2018 and emerged as a valuable bench option for the Braves. However, with the addition of Donaldson and Camargo sliding into a utility role, Culberson saw his chances drop significantly in 2019 where he totaled just 144 plate appearances in 108 games. He got off to a great start hitting .317/.362/.571 through the first 50 games. Unfortunately, he slumped down the stretch hitting just .208/.230/.319 over 41 games in the second half. Perhaps most concerning was a strikeout rate that climbed to 30.6 percent.

Regression was always a possibility for Culberson and we will see if he can put together a solid spring and earn his way back on the 40-man roster. If Riley begins the season at Gwinnett, then there appears to be a path for Culberson to win the final bench spot. Whether or not he will be able to hold onto it for a full season remains to be seen.

Others

Braden Shewmake (2019: Low-A, 51 G, 226 PA, 3 HR, 9.3 BB%, 12.8 K%, .318/.389/.473, 151 wRC+)

The Braves turned heads when they took Braden Shewmake with the 21st pick in the 2019 MLB Draft. Shewmake proceeded to tear up the South Atlantic League posting a 151 wRC+ in 51 games. He was promoted all the way to Double-A late in the season where he went 10-for-46 in a 14-game cameo. Shewmake made people take notice with his bat to ball skills at Rome and could project as a utility player down the road, although he has spent all of his time at shortstop so far. It will be good to get a look at him in big league camp.

Bryce Ball (2019: Rookie, 41 G, 173 PA, 13 HR, 12.7 BB%, 17.3 K%, .324/.410/.676, 177 wRC+)

Bryce Ball put together probably the best offensive debut of any Braves 2019 draft pick. Atlanta grabbed Ball in the 24th round and he obliterated pitching at Danville hitting .324/.410/.676 with 13 home runs in just 41 games. He slugged four more homers at Rome during a 14-game stint to end the season where he hit .337/.367/.547.

Sean Kazmar Jr. (2019: Triple-A, 108 G, 424 PA, 12 HR, 7.5 BB%, 13.2 K%, .270/.333/.430, 94 wRC+)

Sean Kazmar Jr. returns for what will be his eighth consecutive season in the Braves organization. When he is ready to hang up his cleats, Gwinnett should probably consider retiring his jersey. Fun fact: Sean Kazmar actually played in the majors… all the way back in 2008. He has amassed over 4,000 minor league PAs since last appearing in the majors, nearly all of them at the Triple-A level.

Pete Kozma (2019: Triple-A, 88 G, 322 PA, 7 HR, 9.9 BB%, 15.2 K%, .263/.340/.414, 92 wRC+)

Pete Kozma spent all of the 2019 season at Triple-A for Detroit. He has appeared in 341 games at the major league level where he has hit .215/.278/.291. Signed to a minor league deal earlier this offseason, he gives the Braves another defensive infield option should many injuries strike.

Jack Lopez (2019: Triple-A, 96 G, 390 PA, 12 HR, 4.9 BB%, 23.3 K%, .273/.317/.418, 85 wRC+)

Jack Lopez appeared in 96 games for Gwinnett in 2019 and slugged a career-best 12 homers. He is a utility player that spent his offseason playing in the Puerto Rican Winter League. If he returns to Gwinnett following Spring Training, it will be his fourth stint in Triple-A.

Yangervis Solarte (2019: 28 G, 78 PA, 1 HR, 5.1 BB%, 20.5 K%, .205/.247/.315, 44 wRC+, -0.3 fWAR)

Yangervis Solarte gives the Braves another veteran utility option. Solarte appeared in just 28 games with the San Francisco Giants in 2019 before he was released. He latched on with the Marlins Triple-A affiliate but only saw action in 15 games there. He didn’t fare much better in Japan, getting released by the Hanshin Tigers before the NPB baseball season concluded.

Riley Unroe (2019: Double-A, 77 G, 303 PA, 5 HR, 8.6 BB%, 20.1 K%, .285/.350/.400, 119 wRC+)

Riley Unroe began the 2019 season at High-A Florida and ended it with a short stint at Gwinnett. He posted a 155 wRC+ in 38 games for the Fire Frogs before a promotion to Mississippi. Unroe totaled 77 games at Double-A hitting .285/.350/.400 with a 119 wRC+.