Hey you! Yes, you— the person reading this Atlanta Braves preview. Thanks for being here! Don’t take this the wrong way, but why are you reading this? In your Internet wanderings, what caused you to stop here and click on this article? At the risk of generalizing, you probably fit into one of three categories:
- Atlanta Braves fans
- Atlanta Braves haters
- Ambivalent towards the Braves, but avid consumer of baseball content
Regardless of which characterization best describes you, I’m glad you’re here! However, each category is probably looking for something different. The first wants to read how everything will go right for the Braves in 2019. The second wants to see everything fall apart. The third just wants to learn and familiarize themselves with the team.
Unfortunately, the interests of the first and second categories are mutually exclusive. I’d like to appease all of you, but given that your motives differ, that’s going to be nearly impossible with one team preview. Therefore, what follows is something for everyone— a different preview for each category. Just scroll down to the one you want to read and skip the rest. I don’t mind.
The reigning NL East champions arrived ahead of schedule last year. The team was supposed to slowly poke their heads out of their rebuilding hibernation den, with young players taking baby steps. Instead, they hunted down the Nationals and Phillies, taking control of the division. This portends even better for 2019.
It begins with the most exciting young player the franchise has developed since Chipper and Andruw Jones. NL Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuña, Jr. posted a four-win season last year as a 20-year-old despite playing just 111 games. Over a full season, he would have been a six WAR player. It was the best season by a such a young player since Manny Machado and Bryce Harper in 2013, and the fifth highest wRC+ by a Braves left fielder since they moved to Atlanta in 1969.
Highest wRC+ by Atlanta LF (min. 475 PA)
|Ronald Acuña, Jr.||2018||143|
However, the offense is no one-man show. Freddie Freeman is as spectacular as ever, and he’s still just 28 with three more years remaining on his contract. Josh Donaldson is the impact free agent acquisition, who was just too gad to pass up on a one year deal. Setting aside his injury-plagued 2018, he eclipsed 5.0 fWAR each year from 2013-2017. Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo emerged as power threats, while Nick Markakis and Charlie Culberson enjoyed career years. All of these players return for the coming season.
As much as the offense gives you the warm fuzzies, the young pitching staff might be even more exciting. Mike Foltynewicz busted out as a Cy Young candidate, and Sean Newcomb established himself as a solid mid-rotation option. Young lefty Max Fried generated a 31 percent strikeout rate in 33 2⁄3 innings.
Better still, the Braves have five starting pitchers on MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospects: Mike Soroka (#24), Kyle Wright (#30), Ian Anderson (#32), Touki Toussaint (#50), and Bryse Wilson (#82). All except Anderson debuted in the majors last year, so the future has officially arrived in Atlanta. Obviously, they can’t all join the rotation right away; they’re blocked by even better pitchers! Some might become shutdown relievers, while the rest could be traded for other valuable assets.
The future isn’t as bright in Atlanta as it seems. Yes, they won the NL East last year, but it will be difficult for them to repeat their success.
According to Spotrac, the total payroll will drop nearly $31 million from 2018 to 2019. Instead of supplementing their roster, the Braves appear content to roll the dice in an increasingly competitive division. The Mets traded for Robinson Canó and Edwin Diaz. The Phillies signed Bryce Harper. The Nationals snagged Patrick Corbin. The Braves’ big acquisition was Josh Donaldson, a 33-year-old recovering from an injury-riddled 1.3 fWAR season.
Yes, Ronald Acuña, Jr. had a good rookie year, but the value of young players can fluctuate. We don’t know that he’ll ever repeat that level of production. Case in point, Dansby Swanson posted an .801 OPS in 2016, and was a near unanimous prediction to win the Rookie of the Year in 2017. Instead, his wRC+ was a sickly 64.
Even if Acuña continues his early success, the future of this team is built around pitching. That’s almost always a bad idea. Take a look at MLB Pipeline’s top 10 right-handed pitching prospects of 2015. Jose Berríos worked out fine. Archie Bradley is an acceptable reliever. Jon Gray has been a major league starter, but an inconsistent one at best. Alex Reyes and José de León both had Tommy John surgery. The jury’s still out on Tyler Glasnow, but Lucas Giolito, Robert Stephenson, and Carson Fulmer have been awful. Mark Appel is out of baseball altogether.
It appears that only one out of these ten top prospects reached his potential. The Braves are dreaming on nearly the same number of young pitchers. Mike Foltynewicz hit his projection. If the 2015 group is any indication, the rest could all wash out.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. There is a solid offensive core built around two immense pillars: Acuña and Freeman. No one is sure what to expect from Donaldson. He’ll probably surpass his 2018 production, but an MVP-caliber season is unrealistic. We can’t be sure if Albies, Swanson, and Camargo are still baking or if their oven timers have dinged.
Even the best young pitchers are largely a crap shoot. The best way to develop pitching is with quantity more so than quality. If you cover enough numbers on the roulette wheel, you have a better chance of wining.
The Braves have exceptional quantity and quality. Foltynewicz’s number has already been called. Maybe two or three of the others will reach their peak as well. The rest will succumb to injuries or failed expectations. From the perspective of the organization (if not the individual pitchers themselves), that’s perfectly fine. Three controllable, talented starters is more than enough foundation for a perennial contender.
The bottom line is the Braves already won the division and they’re still developing young talent. Even though there are three other NL East teams that will push hard for the playoffs, that’s an enviable position for any franchise.
The “Everything Sucks” preview is wrong about Acuña though. That guy is awesome. The Braves’ fortunes will ebb and flow over the next five to fifteen years, but we are all witnesses to the ascension of a star.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983