Atlanta Braves 2019 season preview: Reigning NL East champs look to take another step forward

After three consecutive 90-loss seasons, the Atlanta Braves made the jump from rebuilder to contender last season, winning 90 games and their first NL East title since 2013. Their postseason run was brief -- they were bounced by the eventual NL champion Dodgers in four games in the NLDS -- but 2018 looks to be the start of a long run of contention for the Braves.

"Teams are going to continue to get better. That's the nature of the beast that we're in. And we're going to have to continue that, too," said Braves manager and reigning NL Manager of the Year Brian Snitker at the Winter Meetings in December. "The work is just beginning for us. I don't feel we're a finished product at the Major League level. Our players are not finished products yet. We talked about (winning the division) last year, but it was just kind of talk. Now it's kind of like we've experienced it and we know where we want to get and what we want to do."  

Given the current state of the NL East, it would not surprise me to see the Braves run away with the division title or finish in fourth place. It's a tough division, maybe the toughest in baseball, and that means health will decide the race as much as talent and execution. The Braves are loaded with young talent and have as good a chance to repeat as division champs as any 2018 division winner in baseball. Let's preview their 2019 season.

Probable lineup

  1. LF Ronald Acuna Jr.
  2. 3B Josh Donaldson
  3. 1B Freddie Freeman
  4. RF Nick Markakis
  5. 2B Ozzie Albies
  6. CF Ender Inciarte
  7. C Brian McCann
  8. SS Dansby Swanson
  9. Pitcher's Spot

Bench: C Tyler Flowers, IF Charlie Culberson, UTIL Johan Camargo, OF Adam Duvall

McCann and Flowers are expected to platoon rather than fill a traditional starter/backup arrangement. Donaldson gives the club some sorely needed right/left lineup balance -- Swanson led the team in right-handed plate appearances last season and he had an 88 OPS+ -- and Camargo is an overqualified bench player. He could start for many teams and, chances are, injuries will push into everyday duty at some point in 2019. That's just baseball. Players get hurt. Having quality backups like Camargo (and Duvall) is often the difference between a division title and playing golf in October.

Probable rotation

  1. RHP Mike Foltynewicz
  2. RHP Julio Teheran
  3. RHP Kevin Gausman
  4. LHP Sean Newcomb
  5. RHP Touki Toussaint

That's the perfect world "everyone is healthy" rotation. That is not the rotation the Braves will use on Opening Day, however. Foltynewicz has been slowed by elbow trouble this spring and seems likely to start the season on the injured list. The Braves have an enviable collection of young pitching, so they have plenty of candidates to fill Foltynewicz's spot in the interim. We'll get to the rotation depth in a second. Stay tuned.

Probable bullpen

Closer: RHP Arodys Vizcaino
Setup: , RHP Darren O'Day, LHP A.J. Minter
Middle: LHP Jesse Biddle, LHP Sam Freeman, LHP Jonny Venters, RHP Dan Winkler
Long: RHP Luke Jackson

Despite the obvious fit between the Braves and free agent Craig Kimbrel, a reunion never seemed all that likely, and Atlanta will go into the season with Vizcaino penciled into the ninth inning. It's possible they will use a closer by committee, with Minter seeing save chances when the other team's top lefty bats are due to bat in the ninth. O'Day missed much of last season with a hamstring injury and will likely assume a high-leverage role until his performance dictates otherwise. Also, all those young starting pitchers the Braves have figure to factor into the bullpen at times. Some of those power arms could be difference-makers in relief.

What's Acuna going to do for an encore?

MLB: Spring Training-Houston Astros at Atlanta Braves
Can Ronald Acuna Jr. avoid a sophomore slump? Probably! USATSI

At age 20 and around a knee injury, Acuna authored a .293/.366/.552 batting line with 26 doubles, 26 homers, 16 stolen bases, and 4.1 WAR in 111 games en route to being named NL Rookie of the Year last season. He was not only one of the best rookies in baseball, he was one of the best players in baseball period. Here is a complete list of full-time outfielders with at least a 140 OPS+ and 4 WAR in 2018:

  1. Ronald Acuna, Braves
  2. Mookie Betts, Red Sox
  3. Aaron Judge, Yankees
  4. Brandon Nimmo, Mets
  5. Mike Trout, Angels
  6. Christian Yelich, Brewers

That's it. Six outfielders. Only 14 players total had at least a 140 OPS+ and 4 WAR last season. Acuna was the youngest by four years. He went into last season as the top prospect in baseball and more than lived up to the hype. He has a chance to be the National League's Mike Trout. That's probably unfair because Trout is historically great, but Acuna is that talented, and it wouldn't surprise me to see him emerge as the NL's best player in 2019.

With Trout, I foolishly assumed he wouldn't be able to repeat his monster rookie season as a sophomore. That doesn't mean I expected him to be bad. I just didn't think he'd be that good again. Wow was I wrong. I'm not going to make that mistake again. Young players are coming up and having an immediate impact more than ever before -- teams are so good at player development these days -- that Acuna could not only repeat his 2018 season in 2019, he could improve on it. I think there's a .310/.400/.600 hitter with 8 WAR in there and I don't think it's crazy to say we could see it from Acuna this year.

The Donaldson flier

The Braves shed nearly $60 million in payroll over the winter thanks to the expiring contracts of Markakis, Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy. The team was poised for an active offseason. Instead, GM Alex Anthopoulos pumped the brakes early. Here's what he told MLB.com's Mark Bowman about the team's payroll situation in October:

"We're not going to just walk in the store and buy because we have money in our pockets," Anthopoulos said. "If we don't find the right deal with something we like, there's still other opportunities to shop. There could be opportunities next season. If you start signing guys to big, long deals, if you feel good about the deal, you do it now. I wouldn't force a deal right now that would limit you in years from now."  

That probably isn't what Braves fans wanted to hear after all that money came off the books, and after the team opened a beautiful new ballpark two years ago. The Braves re-signed Markakis and signed McCann to low-cost one-year contracts that barely put a dent in their payroll. Their lone significant move was signing Donaldson to a one-year contract worth $23 million. He and Anthopoulos know each other from their Blue Jays days.

The Donaldson signing was one of my favorite moves of the winter. It's a one-year deal, so even if things go south, it won't be a drag on the team's payroll long-term. More than anything though, Donaldson has MVP upside -- he is one season removed from a .270/.385/.559 batting line with 33 homers in 113 games with Toronto -- and I'm guessing he has a chip on his shoulder. After all those injuries last year, Donaldson wants to show everyone he's not done as an impact player at age 33. Motivation won't be a problem.

That all said, shoulder and knee injuries did limit Donaldson to 52 games last season, during which he hit .246/.352/.449. That's obviously quite good, especially for a player dealing with injuries. It is not the Donaldson of old though, and because he's now in the NL, he won't be able to rest his body with DH days. Any rest will have to come with a full day on the bench. I suppose that's not a big deal with Camargo ready to step in at third base, but still. Being able to DH would've been nice.

For what it's worth, ZiPS stills sees Donaldson as an impact player. The system projects him as a .267/.373/.506 hitter with 3.9 WAR in 2019. That would be a tremendous return on a one-year contract, even a pricey one like Donaldson's. My expectation is Donaldson will be a .900 OPS or so player with 30 homers this season, though he may be a 130-140 games guy rather than a 150-160 games guy at this point of his career.

Will this be Swanson's long awaited breakout year?

MLB: Spring Training-Atlanta Braves at New York Yankees
The Braves are still waiting for Dansby Swanson to live up to the hype of being the No. 1 pick in the draft. USATSI

Four years ago the Diamondbacks made Swanson the No. 1 pick in the draft and, a few months later, they traded him to the Braves as the headliner in the Shelby Miller trade. Swanson has been Atlanta's starting shortstop the last two years and the results have not been good. He's hit .235/.308/.359 in nearly 1,100 plate appearances the last two years, though good defense has contributed to 2 WAR total. That's passable. It's not on par with the expectations of a No. 1 pick though.

What is particularly concerning about Swanson is that he simply doesn't hit the ball all that hard. His underlying numbers aren't good at all:

  • Exit velocity: 86.8 mph (23rd percentile)
  • Hard-hit rate: 34.0 percent (35th percentile)

Because of the lack of hard contact, Statcast says Swanson had a .229 expected batting average and a .356 expected slugging percentage last year. That is more or less exactly what he hit. Translation: Swanson is not falling victim to bad luck. He's putting up subpar numbers because the contact he produces tends to create subpar results. That's a problem.

Swanson had offseason wrist surgery and has been brought along slowly in spring training, though the expectation is he will indeed be in the lineup on Opening Day. (If he's not, Camargo is the obvious fill-in.) Swanson turned only 25 last month, so it would be silly to give up on his at this point, especially given his pedigree and position. Good shortstops are hard to find. That all said, it's getting to point where Swanson has to show something to keep his job. A high draft slot buys you a long leash. It doesn't mean you get to keep the job indefinitely.

There's no such thing as too much pitching

As I mentioned earlier, the Braves are loaded with young pitching. They spent all those years as a rebuilder stocking the farm system with high-end arms and many of them either received their first taste of the big leagues last year, or will receive their first taste of the big leagues this year. Atlanta's current rotation depth chart lines up something like this:

  1. RHP Mike Foltynewicz
  2. RHP Julio Teheran
  3. RHP Kevin Gausman
  4. LHP Sean Newcomb
  5. RHP Touki Toussaint
  6. RHP Mike Soroka
  7. LHP Max Fried
  8. LHP Luiz Gohara
  9. RHP Kyle Wright
  10. RHP Bryse Wilson
  11. RHP Kolby Allard

Many teams around the league would love to slot a young lefty like Fried into the rotation. For the Braves, he's only seventh on the depth chart, and maybe even lower than that. The Braves are going to need that rotation depth early in the season too, because Foltynewicz (elbow), Soroka (shoulder), and Gohara (shoulder) have had some arm issues early in camp. Life's not bad when you could plug Fried or Wright (No. 5 pick in 2017) into the rotation as injury replacements.

Here's what Snitker told Nubyjas Wilborn of the Marietta Daily Journal about the team's young starters and the rotation competition last October:

"It's going to be good, yeah. There's going to be some competition," Snitker said. "I think we'll have a pretty good idea going into it, but I think the good thing is we're going to have the depth. We're going to have rotation depth, which is a really good thing because, as we've seen, it takes a lot of guys to get through the year. Especially when we do (the sixth starter to provide extra rest), and we'll have people to fill those spots. And you're always going to have injuries. I thought our depth was better this year, and it'll probably be (even) better next year."  

Injuries are inevitable, and a lot of times the call-up decision depends on timing more than anything (this pitcher is available that day, etc.). I'm more curious to see how -- or if, actually -- the Braves use their starters in relief. There's nothing wrong with using a young starter out of the bullpen. Big league experience is valuable, certainly more so than working over hitters in Triple-A, and that bullpen experience can translate into the rotation in the future. It shouldn't be off the table.

Wright strikes me as someone who could a real force for Atlanta out of the bullpen, assuming he isn't needed in the rotation. Vizcaino, Minter, and O'Day don't stand out as an elite late-inning combination -- to be fair, those guys aren't chopped liver -- but the Braves have enough starters that trying to reinforce the bullpen from within is possible. In what figures to be a tight division race where every win matters, Atlanta's cache of young arms could be the difference in the NL East.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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