Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be previewing each team by eavesdropping on an extended conversation about them. For the full archive of each 2018 team preview, click here.
Atlanta Braves PECOTA Projections:
Runs Scored: 704
Runs Allowed: 755
AVG/OBP/SLG (TAv): .253/.315/.393 (.249)
Total WARP: 20.1 (5.7 pitching, 14.4 non-pitching)
Russell Carleton: Acuna Matada?
Dave Brown: Thirsty to see him play, but it’s still too soon. Ronald Acuna alone does not a 2018 season preview make (at least until the free agency/Super Two window opens in May or June, however the math there works. Before we get to the bats, let’s check out the arms.
Carleton: Ah, yes, the oodles of pitching (oodles, I tell you!) that has been coming for the past three years. Except that Julio Teheran is still technically the “ace” of this staff. And Teheran isn’t awful. It’s just that somewhere along the line, I think he was supposed to be the Game 2 or Game 3 guy. And that just hasn’t happened yet.
Brown: Some combination of Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, Luiz Gohara, Sean Newcomb, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, Max Fried, Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard, and Lucas Sims (and I still like Aaron Blair) might be able to get people out. The Braves winning 80 games probably depends on how many starts McCarthy and Kazmir can make. Of course, if both are healthy and pitching well in July, neither might be on the roster by August.
Carleton: Well, let’s go back to Folty, Gohara, Newcomb, Fried, Soroka, Allard, Sims, Blair—and only because he signed an autograph for my daughter one time, Matt Wisler. Theoretically, the Braves need four of those “kids” to become serviceable-to-good starters, and ideally, one of them to become a really good starter. So far, the most accomplished is Foltynewicz.
Brown: Foltynewicz seems like a guy with great stuff who’s just bound to put it together sooner or later. Gohara is just 21, and has to improve his off-speed stuff, but can be maybe a no. 2 in the long run. Soroka and Allard probably are better prospects, but also not even 21 yet.
Carleton: But in Atlanta, we’ve been hearing that line about Foltynewicz for the last three years. At some point, you have to either fish or cut bait with him. We get that the raw stuff is there. Where’s the beef? In a weird way, I think that the experience of Foltynewicz has cast a dark shadow over the rebuilding process. Maybe that’s not fair, but if all he is to become is a fifth starter with an ERA of 5.00, is that what the rest of those guys are going to become as well?
And we also need to talk about the bullpen. Or … figure out who any of those guys in the bullpen are. Maybe some of the rejects from the list above go there. But right now, the bullpen is Arodys Vizcaino and … ummm … so we need three or four more guys to excel in a bullpen role as well if we’re ever going to see the Braves back in the playoffs. Suddenly, you start running out of arms, no matter how many you draft.
Brown: Looking over the bullpen, I am (granted) easily impressed and somewhat optimistic. The depth should come in the guys who can’t make the rotation yet, but dudes like Mauricio Cabrera and A.J. Minter have talent, and even Jose Ramirez isn’t bad-bad. If Vizcaino can hold onto the ninth inning, he might have some decent guys setting him up. Sam Freeman’s OK as the one-out lefty. This all sounds like damning with faint praise but I’ve seen worse pens.
So, what if we made this entire conversation about Folty? He’s been compared to John Smoltz before, right? Seems to ring a bell. Remember the Braves rebuild of 30 years ago? Tom Glavine and Steve Avery were kind of the golden boys, but Smoltz was supposed to be the dude with the raw stuff who was probably never going to make it but OHHH if he did? Well then he did! So it obviously will happen with Folty now that I’ve reduced him to a Smoltz clone 30 years on.
Carleton: Smoltz at that point in his developmental process was notching ERAs that were league average. (In 1989—his second year—he was an All-Star. He was probably a pity All-Star on that team, but hey now, he was an All-Star.)
Brown: OK, so my terrible Smoltz comparison is ruined, as it should have been. Thinking back to those days, it just seemed like Smoltz was taking forever to develop. Maybe it was because I was teenager and I wanted everything right now, and now as an adult I’ve just learned that these rebuilds take time.
Carleton: So, back to Acuna. I know I just spent a whole bunch of time worried about whether the pitching prospects have been over-hyped, but now I find myself willing to blindly believe on Acuna. (The same way that I believed on Dansby Swanson last year …)
Brown: Does that mean you think Swanson will still develop as planned, or has a part of you given up on him?
Carleton: It’s weird because I’m not a native Atlantan, nor have I become a die-hard Braves fan, and normally, I’d look at a guy who had Swanson’s pedigree and say, “Meh, first-season jitters, still has some stuff to learn, raw talent is there, relax, he’ll be OK.” And I think the part of me that has “given up” on Swanson is the part of me that still yearns to call into sports talk radio after Swanson has an oh-fer game, and on that basis alone, declare him the second coming of Andres Thomas.
I realize that I’m not being my rational self here. Maybe it’s anxiety because I know my kids are going to grow up as Braves fans and I’d love for them to grow up with a winning team as part of their childhood. My goodness, I’m having Daddy Anxiety about the Atlanta Braves!
Brown: It’s kind of adorable. They have so many youngsters coming up, though, so your anxiety is like the dad on “Eight Is Enough.” So many wonderful little babies. OK, we keep skirting around the Acuna issue, but I want to keep skating for just a second because one more thing about Swanson. Dansby, not Ron. Should he even be playing shortstop instead of Ozhaino Albies (AKA Ozzie)? Because I love that guy and feel like maybe he won’t be a better player than Swanson, but there’s also like less tension that he’s going to make it, because he kind of broke through already as such a young player. Will he be All-Star-caliber before Swanson? Or am I out in space?
Carleton: So, Albies. First off, it’s going to be either Albies at second base and Swanson at shortstop for the long term (at least that’s the plan) or Albies as shortstop and Swanson at second base. I’m not much of a fan of the see-ball, slap-ball, run-run-run-run-run types. It’s not that they can’t be useful major leaguers, but we all saw what happened when Jose Peraza was supposed to be the next big middle infield guy with that skill set. Maybe he becomes a launch-angle superstar or does a Jose Ramirez and develops a bit of power, but I want to see some of that before I stop being nervous.
Brown: OK, we’ve put off Acuna Tostada enough. It’s just a matter of him waiting it out in the minor leagues until he’s contractually ready, yes? Doesn’t he come to the majors ready to be Giancarlo Stanton, basically the perfect man?
Carleton: Or perhaps … Jason Heyward?
OK, maybe that’s not fair because it’s just too easy a crutch to fall back on. By all accounts, he’s got the raw talent, including the bat that never quite developed with Heyward (and the legs that Stanton doesn’t have).
Brown: I can still remember Heyward’s first game on Opening Day against the Cubs in 2010. The big home run. In my mind, it won the game in the ninth inning and ended the Cubs season, but really it came in his first at-bat against Carlos Zambrano. And then Bobby Cox said he hadn’t seen anyone hit the ball like that since Hank Aaron. Heyward could have been done for at that moment, but he actually put together several excellent seasons before becoming whatever it is that he has.
Long story short, putting these huge expectations on players like Acuna, I don’t know if it does anything to them because these major leaguers are sort of special in how they tend to block that stuff out (this is part of what makes them major leaguers), but perhaps it should give us all some pause about our expectations for Acuna and the Braves at large. It’s not all a fait accompli that they’re going to turn into a juggernaut in the next two years.
Carleton: But here’s the thing that I just can’t shake about this team, even in 2018. There’s always the fantasy scenario every fan of all 30 teams has that if only these 15 things all go right, they could win a World Series. But the list of things usually includes “guy who was slightly above average five years ago becomes slightly above average again at age 36” or “guy who has a four-year track record of good-stuff-no-control suddenly learns control.”
For the Braves to become a force to be contended with (if not reckoned with), they need their prospects to essentially do what prospects are supposed to do (and usually do, and what a whole bunch of people have said that they will eventually do). They have enough depth that not all of them have to mature into swans(ons), but some of them do. And no, not all prospects pan out, but it’s not crazy to think that some of them might, and if a few do, then this is a team that at least can play .500 ball. Maybe the fantasy is pretending they can do more than .500, but in a rebuild year, after three straight 90-loss seasons, I’d take it.
Brown: That seems like a great place to end, but we didn’t say a word about Freddie Freeman yet. Unless that counts. Freddie, I kid!
Carleton: Freddie Freeman is my daughter’s favorite player. It had nothing to do with his talent level (she had no clue at the time she was picking him out). He got the nod because she was about to turn five and he wears no. 5.
Brown: That is the second adorable thing you’ve said in this #Braveschat, the first being about how you have Daddy Issues, or (scrolls up) Daddy Anxiety, yes, about the whole Braves family. I like Freeman for two reasons. One, he looks like grown-up Buzz McCallister. Two, he’s not afraid to need Chipper Jones’ help to be rescued on a snowmobile.
My other issue with the Braves (last issue?) is the whole Kurt Suzuki thing. They went and signed him after getting a very good season out of Tyler Flowers, who has turned himself into quite a framer of pitches. Unless you think that’s all witchcraft? Anyway, Suzuki hit 19 home runs last year, which might be the most nonsensical stat I’ve ever seen in my life, launch angles and juiced balls be damned. So, my question, what are the chances that Suzuki finishes this season with one homer? I would love it so much. (No offense, Kurt.)
Carleton: The telling stat about Suzuki was that he hit 19 homers last year, but only 13 doubles. And this is a guy who’s always had a 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 doubles-to-homers ratio. Sometimes, that ratio goes a little off balance within a single season and produces a nice homer number, but it’s not all that sustainable. I’d look for single-digits home runs from Suzuki, but not for him to turn completely back into a pumpkin. And really, he just has to be the backup catcher.