The Rain Delay

Hard-Hitting Baseball Analysis

2016 MLB Team Preview: Atlanta Braves

This is the first installment of my 2016 MLB team preview series. I will preview each team before Opening Day, unveiling teams in reverse order according to my power rankings. 

30. Atlanta Braves Atlanta Braves

  • 2015 Record: 67-95, 4th in NL East
  • Key additions: CF Ender Inciarte, SS Erick Aybar, SP Bud Norris, C Tyler Flowers, IF Gordon Beckham, IF/OF Emilio Bonifacio, RP Alexi Ogando, RP Ian Krol
  • Key Losses: SS Andrelton Simmons, SP Shelby Miller, CF Cameron Maybin

After the 2014 season, the Atlanta Braves were at a crossroads. Coming off its first losing season since 2008, Atlanta had to decide whether to supplement its core or exterminate it. With star outfielders Jason Heyward and Justin Upton set to hit free agency after the 2015 season, the cash-strapped Braves really had no in-between option.

The seminal move that shaped the Braves’ future was the hiring of John Hart to President of Baseball Operations on October 23, 2014. Hart acted swiftly and decisively, jettisoning numerous players before Opening Day: Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, and Melvin Upton. In doing so, Hart replenished a farm system that was among the worst in baseball in 2014, lacking both high-impact talent and depth.

After the Braves stumbled to a 67-95 record in 2015, Hart continued his fire sale, flipping two of his most prized assets – defensive maestro Andrelton Simmons and pitcher Shelby Miller – for elite young talent. In a little over one year at the helm, Hart has transformed the Braves from a muddled mess to a team with a very bright future. As it stands now, the Braves’ farm system ranks third in the majors per Baseball America, boasting both depth and top-level talent like shortstop Dansby Swanson and southpaw pitcher Sean Newcomb.

2016 will be a struggle for Atlanta, but Braves fans should feel good knowing what the future holds.

Projected Line-Up (with 2015 Slash Lines)

Last year, the Braves’ offense was impotent, finishing dead last in the league in runs scored and tied for last in wRC+. The Braves were routinely bringing a knife to a gun fight. The bad news is that this appears to be the case again this year.  But, there is good news: the knife appears a little sharper due to the acquisition of lead-off man Ender Inciarte. Inciarte enjoyed a breakout season last year in Arizona, and only got stronger as the year went along, hitting a torrid .319/.358/.443 after the All-Star break. While Inciarte’s 4.6% walk rate is quite low for a lead-off man, he’s proven himself to be a very good hitter, sporting excellent contact skills while hitting to all fields. He’s also a savvy base-runner and a plus defender. Just 25 years old, Inciarte will be a key member of the Braves core moving forward.2016 Atlanta Braves Lineup

Another player who appears poised to help Atlanta is Cuban defector Hector Olivera. After coming to terms on a six-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in March 2015, Olivera experienced visa issues that delayed his signing until May 19th. From there, he battled a nagging hamstring injury and was traded to Atlanta on July 30th. The inauspicious start to his Major League career stunted his development, but his blistering performance so far this spring portends well for his 2016 prospects. Whether Olivera plays 3rd base or left field is yet to be decided, but one thing is clear: there will be ample at-bats this season for Olivera, who has the raw talent to be a force in the middle of Atlanta’s line-up.

Olivera and Inciarte should provide much-needed support for Atlanta’s two dependable hitters, Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis. While I still project Atlanta to finish in the bottom half of the league offensively, Inciarte and Olivera represent two key puzzle pieces as John Hart’s vision for the future begins to manifest.

Projected Rotation (with 2015 Stats)

2016 Atlanta Braves Starting Rotation

The Braves had one of baseball’s worst starting rotations last season, and figure to hemorrhage runs yet again in 2016. Aside from nominal ace Julio Teheran and youngsters Matt Wisler and (maybe) Mike Foltynewicz, there really isn’t much for manager Fredi Gonzalez to work with here. Teheran regressed badly in 2015 in large part due to his inability to keep left-handed hitters at bay. Lefties eviscerated Teheran last season to the tune of a .297/.387/.507 slash line. If Teheran hopes to rediscover his pristine 2014 form, he will have to find a way to induce outs against lefties. Maybe a simple adjustment in pitch mix will be all Teheran needs. Left-handed hitters hit a measly .211 against his fastball last year and just .207 against his slider. Their success came from exploiting his sinker, change-up, and curveball – all of which lefties hit oAtlanta Braves pitcher Julio Teheranver .300 against. So, here’s my suggestion for Teheran: throw even more four-seamers and sliders versus lefties and sprinkle in less of his tertiary pitches.

Matt Wisler, the crown jewel in the Craig Kimbrel trade, had a poor 2015 campaign, but finished on a high note with a cool 2.34 ERA over his last five outings. Wisler is a talented young pitcher, but will have to get consistent results with a pitch besides his slider in order to succeed at the big league level. The Braves hope he can parlay his late-season surge into a season of consistency in his second year in Atlanta.

While he will likely begin the season on the disabled list, Mike Foltynewicz is another arm to keep an eye on for the Braves. Although he lacks reliable off-speed stuff and command at this stage of his career, Foltynewicz wields a rocket arm. He struggled badly in 2015, but could emerge as a valuable piece of the Braves’ puzzle this year in either the starting rotation or bullpen.

Piecing together the remainder of the rotation are the following uninspiring options: Bud Norris, Manny Banuelos, Williams Perez, Jhoulys Chacin, and Kyle Kendrick. Norris was a horror show in 2015 for the Orioles and doesn’t figure to be anything other than replacement-level fodder going forward. Banuelos, once a highly-touted prospect in the Yankees’ farm system, lost his luster as a prospect due to elbow troubles and a drop in velocity. He showed little last year in his first seven career starts to suggest that he will ever live up to his initial potential. Perez offers minimal upside but could develop into a competent 4th or 5th starter. Perez and Banuelos are competing for rotation spots with veteran cast-offs Jhoulys Chacin and Kyle Kendrick.

Regardless of who ultimately nabs the five rotation spots, the rotation will be a major weakness for Atlanta in 2016.

Projected Bullpen (with 2015 Stats)2016 Atlanta Braves Bullpen

Flamethrower Aroyds Vizcaino and veterans Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson are locks to make the Opening Day roster. Aside from these three, predicting the Braves’ bullpen is a futile effort, but I gave it my best shot. Vizcaino emerged as one of baseball’s best relievers last season and hopes to claim a stranglehold on the closer’s role this spring, although wily veteran Jason Grilli will give him a run for his money. Atlanta’s best hope here is that a few of the veterans – whether that’s Johnson, Grilli, Alexi Ogando, Alex Torres, or whomever – have strong starts to the year, and can be flipped for additional young talent. Overall, this is a very lackluster group.

Conclusion

The Braves are going to be bad in 2015, but are set up well for 2017 and beyond. Many prospects – such as Tyrell Jenkins, Sean Newcomb, and Aaron Blair – should be ready to contribute at some point this season, providing a glimpse of what the future holds. With the 3rd pick in the MLB Draft this year and a likely high pick in the 2017 draft, the Braves will continue to infuse premium talent into their farm system. With the club set to move into state-of-the-art SunTrust Park next season, revenue will increase, making Atlanta a viable candidate to land an elite player in the extraordinary 2018 free agency class. Stay patient, Braves fans. Better days are ahead.

Prediction: 5th place, NL East

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