Atlanta Braves 2017 season preview: Different, better, but not quite ready yet
The Braves are opening their new ballpark with an improved roster
The Atlanta Braves are set to open their new ballpark. That fact likely spurred a busy winter that saw the Braves add a number of veteran players through trades and free-agent signings. But will SunTrust Park’s maiden voyage include the Braves’ first winning season since 2013?
The 2016 Braves started a pitcher older than 30 just 23 times. The 2017 Braves will enter the season with a middle-of-the-rotation comprising 43-year-old Bartolo Colon, 42-year-old R.A. Dickey, and 30-year-old Jaime Garcia. All three can have their success drilled down to one variable: for Colon, it’s fastball command; for Dickey, it’s his knuckler’s quality; for Garcia, it’s health. It’s possible the Braves see each of them perform as average or better starters -- it’s also possible that none of the three end the season in a rotation due to age- or health-related decline.
General manager John Coppolella had signed Sean Rodriguez to take over at the keystone. Alas, a shoulder injury sustained in a car accident could leave him out for the season. Coppolella responded in kind with a trade for Brandon Phillips. Phillips’ defensive metrics belie his stellar reputation, however, he’s posted an OPS+ in the 90s for five years in a row -- in other words, a more charitable view of his glove results in seeing him as a decent stopgap.
Those additions aside, the most important veteran on the squad is first baseman Freddie Freeman, who would’ve qualified for free agency during the winter had he not signed an extension back in 2014. Freeman is essentially prime Adrian Gonzalez -- an offensive monster who can homer 30-plus times while hitting .300 and reaching base in upwards of 40 percent of the time. Freeman won’t turn 28 until September.
The next-most important veterans will flank center fielder Ender Inciarte, who signed a long-term extension during the winter. If Nick Markakis and Matt Kemp perform as they did down the stretch (Markakis had an .811 second-half OPS; Kemp had an .855 OPS in 56 games with Atlanta), then the Braves could have a potential lineup. Is that outcome likely? Nah. But their production will go a long way in determining the potency of the Braves offense.
The volatility of the Braves’ veterans explains 1. why they were available at their modest costs and 2. why it’s hard to take this team seriously as a legitimate playoff contender. Maybe in a year’s time.
Southern Fried Jeter
With all due respect to Freeman, shortstop Dansby Swanson is likely to become the new face of the Braves.
The no. 1 pick in the 2015 draft and the gem of the Shelby Miller trade, Swanson has and will continue to draw some comparisons to Derek Jeter -- not because he’s likely to have as good of a career as Jeter … who is? -- but because of his inside-out swing and perceived intangibles. He’s one of the top prospects in baseball due to his well-rounded skill set -- MLB.com’s scouting report gives him above-average grades for every tool except power -- and the belief he’ll max out his physical abilities.
Swanson made an impression during his 38-game cameo in 2016, during which he hit .302/.361/.442 while compiling some nifty highlight-reel-worthy defensive plays. Not bad for someone who was a college student just over a year prior. Swanson is your preseason favorite to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
Another Braves youngster likely to garner attention throughout the year is right-handed reliever Mauricio Cabrera, who reached the majors last season as a 22-year-old. Cabrera had stalled as a starter due to injuries and poor command, but found success as a big-league reliever due to his power arsenal -- specifically, his fastball, which averaged 101 mph.
Unfortunately, the velocity-related hype could outkick Cabrera’s effectiveness. His geography remains sloppy -- he walked 19 batters in 38 innings -- and suppressed his strikeout rate -- he struck out just 7.5 batters per nine. If Cabrera can harness his location -- and that’s a big if, given his history -- he could develop into a late-inning fixture. If not, he’ll remain a big tease.
More help is en route
While these Braves should be better than last year’s group,there’s still room to improve. Consider it a good thing, then, that Atlanta has one of the best farm systems. Two of their top prospects -- middle infielder Ozzie Albies, ranked no. 2 by MLB.com, and left-handed starter Sean Newcomb, ranked no. 6 -- could join the club this season. Granted, there are question marks about both -- especially Newcomb, whose easy delivery hasn’t lent itself to strike-throwing -- but the Braves system isn’t going to sink on the lists with Swanson’s graduation.
The Braves signed Jim Johnson to a two-year extension last October, right after he completed a 20-save season. He’s the favorite to begin 2016 as the closer. Arodys Vizcaino had filled the role, but he’s yet to throw more than 40 innings in a big-league season due to injuries and suspension. Mauricio Cabrera and Ian Krol were both impressive last season, and could slot in as setup men. Chaz Roe and Jose Ramirez each miss bats and the zone with regularity.
SportsLine projection: 74-88, fourth place in the National League East
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