After the Braves’ organizational decision to trade virtually every legitimate offensive option from their 2014 team not named Freddie Freeman, fantasy owners were closely monitoring who would take over the six available lineup spots in Atlanta for the 2015 season. The puzzling winter signing of free agent Nick Markakis to a four-year pact added clarity to the right field situation after Jason Heyward was sent packing to St. Louis, and Chris Johnson’s three-year extension signed last May figured to give him a leg up on at least a share of the third base job. With the remaining Upton brother’s seemingly immovable contract on the books, the Braves figured to give him at least some time in center.
Spring training was the equivalent of an open tryout for the remaining jobs, with Jonny Gomes, Alberto Callaspo, and A.J. Pierzynski brought in to provide platoon options for Fredi Gonzalez in left field, second/third base, and catcher, respectively, and veterans Kelly Johnson and Eric Young, Jr. were brought in on minor-league deals and made the Opening Day roster. The stunning trade of Craig Kimbrel the day before the Braves played their first game included Melvin Upton, Jr., (and his contract) which opened up center field for the taking.
After the signing of reliever Nick Masset on Monday, the Braves have cycled through 35 players on the big-league roster in their first 37 games, but it looks as though these three young players have an opportunity to make a fantasy impact in various formats:
Jace Peterson, 2B (16-team mixed)
The former first-round pick (58th overall, 2011 draft) came to the Braves as part of the Justin Upton deal from the Padres in December. The 25-year-old Peterson was primarily a shortstop in the Padres system, before being moved around the infield in 2014 and appearing in 14 games at second base and 10 games at third base in the majors. Peterson has been a top-20 option at second base in CBS 6×6 leagues in the early going, despite not officially being named the starter until the last week of April. Manager Fredi Gonzalez moved Peterson and his .350 OBP over the first 34 games up to the leadoff spot last week after hitting him seventh or eighth for the majority of the year, a change that should improve his opportunities to run. Peterson posted seasons of 39, 51, and 42 steals in his first three years in the minors, before stealing 16 in 86 minor-league games across two levels in 2014. With top prospect Jose Peraza waiting in the wings at Triple-A Gwinnett, Peterson may have trouble keeping the second base job long-term, although it’s not out of the question that he could move to third when Peraza is ready. Another option could see Peraza end up in center field, where the Braves had him work in spring training.
PECOTA 90° rest-of-season projection: .278/.353/.375, 3 HR, 20 SB
Todd Cunningham (NL-only)
The Braves took Cunningham with their second-round pick in 2010 out of Jacksonville State, and many expected him to have more than 23 major-league plate appearances on his resume at this point. But with the Braves outfield having been occupied by Jason Heyward and the two Uptons the past two seasons, they preferred to have Cunningham play everyday in the minors instead of rot on the bench at the big-league level. With the recent injury to Kelly Johnson’s oblique that sent him to the DL, the first real opportunity for Cunningham to secure a big-league job has presented itself. The switch-hitting Cunningham has a career .279/.350/.371 line in the minors, stealing 24 bases at Double-A Mississippi in 2012 and a combined 39 bases over the last two seasons at the Triple-A level. Cunningham hasn’t shown a pronounced platoon split in the high minors, but with Jonny Gomes’ well-known troubles with right-handed pitching in his career, Fredi Gonzalez has chosen to give Cunningham the start in left field in each of the Braves last four games since Johnson’s injury, all against righties.
With Cameron Maybin and Gomes under contract until the end of the 2016 season, they will likely figure into playing time, but with Cunningham’s ability to play any of the three outfield spots, he could work his way into a platoon after Johnson returns from injury. A trade of Jonny Gomes to a contender could open up quite a bit of playing time for the 26-year-old.
PECOTA 90° rest-of-season projection: .300/.347/.449, 4 HR, 11 SB
Williams Perez (NL-only)
The struggles of Trevor Cahill and Eric Stults have already relegated them to the bullpen and opened up two spots in the Braves rotation. Fireballing prospect Mike Foltynewicz was recalled from Triple-A Gwinnett to take one of the open slots, but the Braves surprised many by passing over more notable prospects Matt Wisler and Manny Banuelos (both currently at Triple-A) and giving the final open spot to 24-year-old Williams Perez. A relative unknown in the Braves system prior to the 2014 season, Perez made 25 starts at Double-A Mississippi in the Southern League and compiled a 2.91 ERA (3.29 FIP) in 133 innings pitched. Perez’s ratios at Double-A weren’t great (6.4 strikeouts and 2.6 walks per nine) but he has done an exceptional job of keeping the ball on the ground (and in the ballpark) in the minors, allowing just 0.48 HR/9 in his 504 career innings, always a good sign when pitching in front of the majors’ best ground-ball vacuum, Andrelton Simmons. He was given a spot on the 40-man roster over the winter, securing a spot over the likes of Cody Martin and former top-100 prospect J.R. Graham, who was selected by the Twins in the Rule 5 draft, so the Braves obviously see some promise in Perez, and will likely give him a legitimate trial at the big-league level.
PECOTA 90° preseason projection: 3.46 ERA/3.76 FRA/1.16 WHIP/130.3 IP
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