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Starting Nine: Cause for concern/reason for optimism at each position

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Travis d’Arnaud and Dansby Swanson trying to follow up small-sample-sized fueled 2020s; Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman as bankable as it gets for Braves

Atlanta Braves v Tampa Bay Rays
Dansby Swanson had a career 2020, hitting .274/.345/.464 with 116 wRC+ and 1.9 fWAR. But was it a byproduct of a small sample size and .350 BABIP?
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

With just a week to go until Opening Day — enter party emoji here — FanGraphs’ positional rankings have offered a respite while waiting for spring training to just get over already.

There have already been some highs for the Braves, ranking first at first base behind Freddie Freeman, first at second, fueled by Ozzie Albies and second in left field with Marcell Ozuna, while they’re floundering third base — where Atlanta comes 25th, likely their worst at any position. It all got The Starting Nine thinking. These are a glimpse into the projection-based forecasts the three-time defending National League East champions, but you can find a cause for concern and a reason for optimism at each position the Braves try to make it a 16th division title since the 1994 realignment.

Herewith, a look at those for reach position as we count down the days unfold next Thursday when the Braves open up against the Phillies.

1. Starters

Cause for Concern: Spoiler alert: Ian Anderson is probably going to regress after historic run, but there are more questions with Drew Smyly. Aside from the fact that with pitchers hitting again, the 31-year-old — who has yet to get a hit in 207 at-bats across seven seasons — came in at $11 million, while the likes of Adam Wainwright, Alex Wood, Jose Quintana, Robbie Ray and Chris Archer got less on one-year deals adds more pressure for a veteran that hasn’t been better than 1.8 fWAR since 2014. The positives with his curveball — it registered a career-high 50 percent whiff rate in 2020 and 0.6 wCB — loomed large in bringing Smyly in, but was it just small-sample-size theater? A year before he was at minus-5.6 wCB with a 38.8 percent whiff rate.

Reason for Optimism: There’s still no timetable on Mike Soroka’s return, and with Wednesday’s optioning of Kyle Wright to the alternate site, Bryse Wilson is going to get the first crack at filling his spot in the rotation until the All-Star right-hander returns, but it’s a positive that it doesn’t appear the staff will be without Soroka long as he recovers from a torn Achilles tendon. He wants to be ready for Opening Day, but it’s likely too aggressive even though there have been no setbacks as Soroka increases his workload. The expectation is he’ll get consistent rotation turns in Gwinnett at the alternate site and be back by late April or early May, but the fact that he’s been so aggressive without any issue bodes well for this rotation to get to full strength.

1A. Relievers

Cause for Concern: Manager Brian Snitker has of late discussed multiple times that options — who has them and who doesn’t — could figure into the makeup of the bullpen, a point driven home when Jacob Webb was sent to the alternate along with Wright. Grant Dayton and Luke Jackson are both out of options, Carl Edwards Jr. and Nate Jones would need to be added to the 40-man by Opening Day or could be snagged by another team. The bullpen the Braves break camp with won’t likely be the optimum version of that relief corps. It’s concerning as managing innings for starters after an abbreviated 2020 are going to mean further taxed bullpens. Playing the roster game may not provide the best security blanket.

Reason for Optimism: Will Smith’s first season in Atlanta after inking a three-year, $40 million deal was abysmal, across the board. The ERA (4.50), FIP (7.38), fWAR (minus-0.6) were all the worst of his career and he gave up seven home runs in just 16 innings. But the left-hander has been sensational this spring, striking out 10 with no walks over five innings with a .063 batting average against. Expected to slide into the primary closer role after Mark Melancon’s exit, Smith looks an easy bet to outperform the projections of a 3.62 ERA and 11.3 K/9 Steamer has for him in 2021.

2. Catcher

Cause for Concern: If Travis d’Arnaud isn’t as productive again at the plate again where’s help coming from? The Braves have painted themselves into a corner after watching d’Arnaud rattle off 144 wRC+ and a .392 wOBA in 184 plate appearances last season, entering Opening Day with a pair of the 32-year-old and either William Contreras or Alex Jackson (the likely picking being the latter). You can look at what d’Arnaud did in 92 games with the Rays in 2019 (16 homers and 108 OPS+) and believe it got him back on track, with his 2020 production in Atlanta being an extension of that success, making the prospect of his catching 75 percent of the games a positive. But he’d never hit at or above league average in any of the previous four seasons before he put on a Braves uniform and without question took advantage of a .411 BABIP in 2020 that offset a 27.2 percent strikeout rate. Averaging 112 games play in a full season, he may hit again, and he may stay healthy, but it will create a major issue if he doesn’t.

Reason for Optimism: Even if the Braves don’t add a veteran safety net and even if d’Arnaud can’t completely live up to the Silver Slugger-winning numbers he put up — becoming the first Braves catcher to win that award since Brian McCann in 2011 — the peripherals are still in his favor. D’Arnaud led all catchers with a 57.8 hard hit rate with a minimum of 100 battled ball events and the third best percentage of barreled balls at 7.1. So even if luck isn’t in his favor in 2021, there’s reason to believe that hitting behind Marcell Ozuna again he can, as projected, flirt with a league average wRC+ and a 2.0-range fWAR for the first time since 2015.

3. First Base

Cause for Concern: After arriving late to camp following the births of his sons, the reigning NL MVP is in the midst of the worst spring training of his career. Freeman is hitting a paltry .154 as of this writing and he has yet to produce an extra-base hit in 26 at-bats with eight strikeouts, three fewer than he had in 2019 in nearly double the ABs and a 24 percent rate that’s higher than he’s ever produced in a regular season. Sitting only a .466 OPS, the only other time Freeman has left the Grapefruit League with a worse run was in his first camp of 2009 when he was at .583. The last five NL MVPs followed up their win with a 135 wRC+, a figure that would be Freeman’s lowest since 2015, when he hit 32 percent above league average. None of this is actually concerning though. What is, per an exclusive Q&A with MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, is that with the reigning MVP entering a contract year “we haven’t been approached yet, my agents or I” about an extension.

Reason for Optimism: Slow spring or not, there has been no safer bet in the Braves lineup these past eight seasons, with Freeman rattling off eight seasons of 137 wRC+ or higher and has averaged 152 wRC+ since 2016 and he claimed the MVP last season after a rough bout with COVID-19. It’s stunning that there has been zero contact with the Freeman camp regarding a new deal, and whether or not it’s because of some unknown with the financials going forward with the ongoing pandemic, that the Braves are allowing Freeman to go into the regular season having to answer contract questions is damning. But he ultimately wants to stay in Atlanta and that should make up for any missteps in the process, and on the field in 2021, forecasting anything other than a monster season would be foolish.

4. Second Base

Cause for Concern: Within his injury-plagued setback 2020, Ozzie Albies, who boasts a career .950 OPS vs. lefties and .753 vs. righties, did major damage against right-handers (.860), while he was at a mere .491 when facing southpaws. This spring he’s continuing to have his struggles against lefties with a .647 OPS and .167 average in going 2-for-12 from the right side, while posting an .806 OPS against righties (4-for-16). Maybe it’s a sign that he’s improving vs. righties, but it speaks to his still trying to find balance as a switch-hitter.

Reason for Optimism: After rattling off 3.8 and 4.6 fWAR seasons in his first two full campaigns, Albies’ overall 2020 of a .271/.306/.466 slash line and six home runs in 124 plate appearances presented a major step-back season. But consider that after his return from the wrist injury, the second baseman hit .338/.372/.581 with five of those HRs in just 18 games, delivering 152 wRC+ in that stretch. The ZiPS projections of 113 wRC+ and 4.1 fWAR would be just under his 2019 production as career highs and every major forecast has him hitting no fewer than 22 home runs.

5. Third Base

Cause for Concern: We’ve seen highs from Austin Riley through his first 131 games, including 16 home runs and 116 wRC+ in the first half of 2019 and a strong August last year (128) before he was derailed by a quad injury, but we’ve not seen the 23-year-old put it together for the duration of the season. Third base is one of the few areas where the Braves are searching for answers, hence bringing in veteran Jake Lamb, who may or may not make the Opening Day roster given his struggles at the plate, hitting just .194 this spring.

Reason for Optimism: The power is real and it’s spectacular. Case(s) in point, was what Riley did Wednesday against the Pirates as he delivered 870 feet worth of homers in going deep twice. But we already know that Riley is capable of hitting the ball a mile. What he showed last year was an improved plate discipline as the strikeout rate dropped from 36.4 percent in 2019 to 23.8, aided by a fastball whiff rate that stood at 21.6 after being at 30.9 in ‘19. He also posted a .397 wOBA against breaking balls last season, up from .265. He’s improving, key entering a season that could be telling as to whether Riley is the long-term solution at third.

6. Shortstop

Cause for Concern: Last season was full of career highs for Dansby Swanson, who made it through the season unscathed after playing in 127 games in 2019 and 136 the year before due to injury and hit .274/.345/.464 with 116 wRC+ and 1.9 fWAR. But much like with the story of d’Arnaud, it came with an elevated BABIP (.350) and the question as to whether he took advantage of a year built on small sample size or if the former No. 1 pick had finally found his offensive groove? Until he can do it for the duration of 162 games, and stay on the field in the process, there has to be some skepticism with Swanson’s breakout.

Reason For Optimism: Granted, the BABIP was high and projections have Swanson dipping to a more normalized .312-.304 for the upcoming season, and while luck was squarely in his corner last season, he was also just making more quality contact. The 40.7 sweet spot percentage was four percent higher than in 2019, he was barreling balls at a 11.4 percent clip (up from 10.1) and he was hammering cutters (41.7 percent hard hit rate, up from 29 percent) and changeups (43.8 percent, up from 18.8 percent). Swanson was also chasing (23.9 percent) at a lower rate than at any point in his career. They also speak to an improved approach at the plate that bore out in his career numbers.

7. Left Field

Cause for Concern: After becoming the first Braves player to lead the NL in home runs and RBI since Andruw Jones, Marcell Ozuna got paid to the tune of a four-year, $65 million deal that could be pushed to five years and $80 million with an option year. It was peak Ozuna as he rolled to 179 wRC+, a .444 wOBA and .298 ISO, and it’s unlikely he’s that otherworldly again, with forecasts pointing to 120-130 wRC+ in a 30-plus home run season. That he’s trying to follow up that kind of season isn’t as much the concern as each season Ozuna has reached a new plateau, he’s taken a step back. He followed 116 wRC+ in 2014 with 92 the next season; hit 43 percent above league average in 2017 and was down to 107 the next year. His defensive prowess is certainly a point of conversation with the designated hitter off the table for the NL in 2021 but showing he can put together back-to-back ultra-productive seasons will be the next feat Ozuna attempts in a Braves uniform.

Reason for Optimism: When Atlanta acquired Ozuna, general manager Alex Anthopoulos was quick to point toward the outfielder’s hard-hit rates as rational that he’d bounce back, and those same metrics have to belay any fears that Ozuna won’t again be the perfect complement to Freeman in this lineup. Last season’s 54.4 percent hard-hit rate was in the top three percent in the league and was the fourth time in six years that Ozuna was in the top eight percent or higher in that department and his 93 mph exit velocity (top four percent) was the fifth time he’s been in MLB’s top 10 percent. The guy is just going to pummel baseballs and even if he doesn’t live up to the MVP-type numbers he posted in 2020, he’s going to run into 30-plus bombs just based on that batted ball profile.

8. Center Field

Cause for Concern: Cristian Pache isn’t helping to relieve any concerns over his offensive readiness, hitting .111 through 27 spring ABs with nine strikeouts and a .194 on-base percentage. Snitker hasn’t let the struggles affect his stance on the 22-year-old, saying “you’ve got to have some patience with him if we’re going to go with him. ... He has the skills to be able to defense himself offensively.” Meanwhile, his competition hasn’t done any better, with Ender Inciarte hitting just .174. This has been an offensively challenged position for this lineup when manned by anyone other than Ronald Acuña Jr., and there figures to be further growing pains with Pache likely winning the job.

Reason for Optimism: The above laser of a throw to nab the Twins’ Jake Cave underscores just how electric Pache can be in center, not that anyone has ever doubted that the glove is ready for everyday MLB play. While he has to make strides at the plate, consider that the first consistent at-bats Pache has received came in the postseason and he held his own, rattling off hits in Games 2-5 of the NL Championship Series vs. the Dodgers, including the Game 3 home run off Julio Urias. Finding a groove on that stage after being thrust into action can’t be seen as anything but a positive should Pache claim the starting role.

9. Right Field

Cause for Concern: Last season’s .250/.406/.581 line, 14 home runs, eight steals and 2.4 fWAR were a letdown only because of the heights of 2019, when Acuña finished three stolen bases shy of joining the 40/40 club. Even then, he was still 11th in wRC+ (158), had the third best fWAR among right fielders and led the position with a .331 ISO. It’s hard to find a legitimate concern with Acuña going into 2021, with the only exception being the wrist that sidelined him twice last season. There was no procedure to fix the ailment that impacted his ability to grip the bat and if it flares up again, Acuña said “I’m feeling hurt or feeling anything, my goal is to be in the lineup every single day.”

Reason for Optimism: After expending plenty of words on Acuña’s MVP credentials for this season last week, here’s another reason to be hyped for what he’ll do in 2021. He has launched the third most home runs of any Braves through age 22, trailing Eddie Mathews’ 112 and Bob Horner’s 90. Going deep every 15.1 at-bats since his arrival in 2018 and projected for as many as 43 (by ZiPS), Acuña figures to trail only Mathews (153) through their age-23 season. In the expansion era, he needs just 22 HRs to pass Alex Rodriguez (103) for the most homers of anyone through age-24.